So tell me the truth Red Dog. How far did you wander beyond the Pilbara?
Dave in Dampier got into a bit of strife because he gave Red Dog a few lifts when he was doing the crib run. John at Port Sampson said Red Dog used to go with him on runs for service call-outs from the mine workshop.
Michele in the Roebourne Visitors Information said she had been in Dampier since 1965 but had never actually seen the legendary kelpie. She did, however, work for the vet Rick Fenny who treated the Pilbara Wanderer who featured in the Aussie film. “They said he was a bit of a mangy thing. He wasn’t very friendly.”
I love that film. Daughter Tasmin gave me the movie CD and I have happily sobbed my way through it a dozen times, usually with another teary female.
Red Dog’s statue is in Dampier. It was a beacon for me. I wanted to talk to locals and sort fact from fiction in the story about the kelpie who cadged rides on buses, ore trains and trailers, in utes and trucks, roaming the Pilbara and beyond for eight years.
True: Red Dog was born in Paraburdoo in 1971 and always had a wanderlust. He moved to Dampier with owner Col Cummings when he was 18 months old and took up his wandering ways, turning up in the mining towns around the North-West, hitching rides, scrounging feeds and issuing deadly farts.
True: In 1972 Red Dog formed his closest bond with Hamersley Iron driver John Stazzonelli, shadowing him everywhere until he was killed on his motorcycle in 1975 at an intersection less than 200m from where Red Dog’s statue stands today.
True: Red Dog’s vet fees were paid mainly by various miners, especially Ron, who made him a member of the sports club and opened a bank account for the dog. He was shot at least twice. Three miners ended up in trouble for going on a bender after taking Red Dog to the Port Hedland vet (before a clinic opened in Roebourne). Red Dog was made a member of the union so taking him to the vet would be a legitimate excuse not to be at work.
True: Not everyone liked Red Dog. He was poisoned in 1979. “Killed by the hand of man” grimly states the bronze plaque at the base of his statue.
False: John was an American who courted a girl called Nancy, became engaged and was buried at Dampier after he died. John Stazzonelli was actually a fairly mysterious Eastern European guy who courted ……ummmmm …. well….
We parked Isabel for the night in the backyard of Dave and Stephanie Culling within a stone’s throw of the famous statue (which now has a mysterious new padlock on the left foreleg).
Dave, a train driver for Rio Tinto, has been in Dampier for about 35 years. He said Red Dog was a character, a local identity, turning up here and there, scrounging food and cadging rides.
“If he wanted a ride he would just walk in front of a ute and when you stopped he would walk around to the passenger door to be let in. He got to know which vehicles would stop.
“He was a bit scruffy. Now and again someone would take him home and give him a bit of a scrub up.”
Dave’s work at that time involved taking crib meals around to mine sites. Red Dog took to accompanying him and then scrambling through to sit on top of the box holding the food packs.
“Someone spotted him and starting yelling to ‘get that mangy thing away from our food’. There was a bit of a fuss with the union so I just had to refuse to let the dog into the vehicle. He seemed to understand and wandered off again.”
Stories of Red Dog’s wanderings blend myth and reality. “Truckies used to pick him up a lot. He went to Perth a couple of times and possibly Darwin. There was that rumour that he went on a trip to Japan and back on one of the ore boats but….” Dave rolled his eyes.
“He did seem to be looking for something though.”
As in the film, Red Dog took up his wanderings in earnest after John was killed. Other episodes in the movie have their fact in the book Red Dog by Nancy Gillespie but serious romantic latitude has been taken in the later book and film about the legend.
John Stazzonelli, it seems, was a bit of a legend in his own right. At Point Sampson we parked Isabel in the driveway of John and Debbie Potten, identities in the Pilbara since the early 1970s. They reminisced about the legend over a beer.
“About 50 women – mainly married woman – in the area were weeping when John was killed,” said Debbie Potten. “I know of at least two married women who sobbed all the way to his funeral in Perth.”
No one was sure if Stazzonelli was Polish, Hungarian or Yugoslav. “He was definitely East European and quite a nice looker,” said Debbie. “Short and dark. I obviously didn’t know him as well as some women did.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” said her husband John, who was a service manager in the good old days of Hamersley Iron (pre-Rio Tinto). Red Dog would turn up at the workshop now and again.
“He would let you know if he wanted a drink or anything and then he would hop in the ute and come for rides wherever I went. After about three weeks he would disappear again.
“He seemed to be looking for something but he was a wanderer long before John arrived.”
Debbie said the Red Dog film had been popular in the Pilbara, even though parts were fictionalised. “They did the role of the vet Rick Fenny very well. I could have sworn it was him.”
Debbie and John love the history and character of the Pilbara towns. They have run their own businesses, are semi-retired and heavily involved in the community. John was president of the chamber of commerce and is busy as master of the Freemasons lodge.
We dined in their elegantly restored 1930s home at Point Sampson, decorated inside and out with fascinating antiques and memorabilia assembled from throughout Australia. Around the interlinked towns of Tom Price-Dampier-Karratha-Roebourne-Wickham-Cossack, the old interlaces with the new.
Just down the road from Debbie and John’s home, Cape Lambert is on the brink of becoming the biggest port in Australia, pushing more than a million tonnes of iron ore through every day, 40 trains, one passing through every 40 minjutes. It’s a chaotic economy of ups and downs as frenetic building projects evolve into operational phases, then new projects surface.
Roebourne, with its picturesque port of Cossack, is the north’s oldest town, says Michele Heymans who volunteers on weekends at the quaint visitors' centre built from the town’s historic old jail. She used to babysit for Rick Fenny, who still owns the vet clinic in Karratha after moving south.
Rick put Red Dog down after he was baited, left demented and in pain. He buried him somewhere in the bush around Roebourne. “I never actually saw the dog but loved the film. So many people are now coming here wanting anything to do with Red Dog.”
She sells them T-shirts, caps, mugs, stubby holders, CDs, books …… Red Dog post mortem is good for the tourism business here.
Michele’s been in the Pilbara since 1965. Her husband was a railway contractor, moving from Mt Isa and Townsville to build the Perth-Kalgoorlie line and then north to the Dampier-Tom Price railway.
“We were in Dampier before it was Dampier,” she said. “It used to be King Bay then. Ding Bay we called it.”
The port was opening up. She lived out on the construction site by the water, separated from the “Yankee village where all the bosses’ wives lived”.
“We got to know how to get food if you went to the side of the mess and waited in line for ages. The Yankee women always got served first. There were some massive steaks in those stores.”
Michele, with (now-ex) husband Peter and her small children lived in the railway camps as the Tom Price line was built. She loved the atmosphere of the old days. They moved to Kununurra for the Argyle Dam project. That was before the famous pink diamonds were discovered.
“When they drained the river we used to pick out all the brightly coloured agates from gravel. We used to throw away lumps of smoky looking stuff. We now realise they were probably diamonds.”
Great people and colorful stories are part of the wealth of the Pilbara.