Port Hedland winter holiday

With my annual visit to family in the UK trip being earlier this year, a space was left for a short winter break. Seeking somewhere warm, I decided on Port Hedland. Half my Australian friends looked blank when I told them of my plans: “where?”; a few in the know responded with “why would you want to go there? The only things to see are ships and trains”. Quite so, and that’s why I went there! In August the temperature gets up to about 30C, falling to the mid-teens overnight. The record summer high is 49C!

Winning Universe ore carrier

Winning Universe ore carrier

Port Hedland is up on the north coast of Western Australia, almost as far from Melbourne as you can go on the Australian mainland – about 2,000mi/3,200km as the crow flies. To get there took me a four-hour flight to Perth, then a further two-hour flight to Port Hedland. Port Hedland is the port from which most of Australia’s iron ore is exported, currently around 1.5m tonnes a day.

On day one (Sunday) I was made very welcome at St Matthew’s Church, then spent the rest of the day getting my bearings. I stayed at the Hospitality Inn motel, just across the road from the beach where I enjoyed peaceful early morning and evening strolls.

Mariners waiting for the launch

Waiting for the Mission’s launch

Day two was taken up with the first two of four tours. If you’re visiting Port Hedland do take these tours or you’ll miss out on a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise see.

In morning I joined the Mission to Seafarers harbour tour. After a talk on the port and the work of the mission we all went aboard the Mission’s launch for its trip round the harbour collecting seafarers who had been given shore leave – in most cases their berths don’t allow landside access. Back at the Seafarers Centre they have access to food, recreational activities, a shuttle bus to the local shops and, most prized of all, free wi-fi.

Port Hedland salt stacks

Port Hedland salt stacks

After lunch I was back on another minibus for the Eco Salt tour – the giant salt stacks on the outskirts of Port Hedland are the final stage of the salt production process. It starts with seawater being drawn into the first of eight concentration ponds, 7800ha in total. As the water evaporates under the hot sun, the remaining water is moved from pond to pond as it gets saltier and saltier.

For day three, realising that I wasn’t going to see much without a car, I went back to the airport to hire one. In contrast to some of the ‘phantom damage’ car hire ripoffs seen in UK, Avis’s policy shows a refreshing appreciation of driving in the Pilbara:
Please note our Fair Wear and Tear Guidelines are below. If there is damage to the vehicle that falls within these guidelines, we do not consider this chargeable damage.
– Stone Chips 25mm diameter without denting
– Scratches less than 25mm that have not penetrated the paint
– Dents less than 25mm in diameter and 2mm deep without paint cracking or flaking
– Wheel scuffs without cracking or gouging
– Minor scruffs that can be polished out
– Scuff/scrape marks under lower bumper

Day four, Wednesday, was largely filled with my last two tours. The first, run by the Seafarers Centre took us into Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) facility. Kudos to FMG for allowing the Centre to operate this tour as a way of raising funds. It was a enthralling experience to drive past the massive trains, loaders, conveyors and then along the quayside next to a ship about to be loaded.

Sunset

Sunset from Finucane Island

After lunch, taken in a 1930s US stainless steel dining railway carriage, my last tour: the Twilight Industry tour. This tour looked in on all the mining company sites from public roads finishing up with a drink watching the sun go down – which it does very quickly in the tropics. This and the Eco Salt tour only started this year, so I chose the right time to visit.

My trip to Port Hedland was all but over. I wish I’d stayed a little longer, but I went not knowing what to expect. Perhaps at some point I’ll go back, but there’s a lot of Australia I’ve yet to visit once.

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