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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Newman

Rats! Rain! Mine tours at Mt. Whaleback cancelled today. Time for a make-do: just poking around Newman, the adjacent company town. Ex-company town, since BHP in 1981 sold the place to the government for $1.

The town's name comes from Aubrey Newman, a surveyor who died here of typhoid in 1896. Three generations later, a prospector named Stan Hilditch came by. Australia at the time prohibited iron ore export. Reason: the country seemed to have barely enough domestic ore to sustain its own steel industry, which was far away at Port Kembla and Newcastle, on the east coast. With major ore bodies discovered in West Australia, the prohibition was lifted in 1960. Hilditch then had to find someone with money. BHP wasn't interested; it was busy feeding its mills at Newcastle and Port Kembla. Eventually, Hilditch found a willing American mining company, AMAX, but more money was needed. Ignoring its own name, the Colonial Sugar Refinery took nearly a half interest in the newly formed Mt. Newman Iron Ore Company. The government signed a mineral lease to the property in 1964 (it expires with a right of renewal in 2031). Eight Japanese companies contracted to buy five million tons of ore annually for 22 years, and Bechtel Pacific was hired as Construction Administrator. Production began in 1969. That's speedy, Sam, especially when you include the 250 miles of private railway built to carry ore to the coast at Port Hedland.

Things change. Hilditch died, rich but modest, in 1992. AMAX was gone by then, and BHP was in charge. In 2017 the mine was in its fiftieth year of operation; the year before, it had shipped 43 million tons of ore. That works out to 118,000 tons daily, or about a dozen trains, each pulling a hundred gondolas, and each gondola carrying 100 tons of ore.

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Australia: Newman picture 1

OK: it's too flat for a Western but not bad for prospectors and burros--or even prospectors and a beat-up old truck. Which is more or less what happened when, in 1957, Stan Hilditch came this way looking for manganese. He didn't find it. Years later, someone found his old, abandoned truck, which has been prettied up a bit and put on display in the town museum.

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There's only 10 inches of rain annually, but it's not an absolute desert: come at the right time and creeks get wet. Welcome to Coondiner Creek, a tributary of the Fortescue River, which, when wet, ends up in Fortescue Marsh.

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Perth is 733 miles to the right. You're looking at NH 95, Australia's longest road.

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After Newman it continues north to to Port Hedland, then bears easterly to Wyndham. Two thousand miles end to end: keep your eyes open.

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Not just for wildlife; triple-trailer trucks haul.

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Local residents still figure they'd better be prepared, which is why this dealership sells everything except cars.

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Busy people have an alternative, with a terminal built in 2008.

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Almost all the flights come from and return to Perth, and most of the passengers are fly-in, fly-out mine workers. Jobs here aren't as secure as they seemed before ore prices crashed in 2011; prices will recover, but job growth will be inhibited by the development of remotely controlled or robotically driven machinery.

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Your choice. I have zero preference.

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We knew you were coming, so we baked some rocks.

We're in the Shire of East Pilbara, one of the nine regions, plus Perth, into which the Regional Development Commissions Act of 1993 divided Western Australia. When BHP in 1981 decided to sell the town, East Pilbara was the buyer, though the company-owned houses were separately and gradually sold to their occupants.

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Here's a sample of what everyone's here for: it's a 35-ton chunk of banded proterozoic iron ore, about 70 percent iron. It's hard enough not to crumble or turn to dust, which is handy when you're shipping by rail to the coast and from there to Asian markets.

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Like it when I talk techie? Here goes: this is a Bucyrus-Erie drill that makes 38 centimeter blast holes loaded with a mix of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, plus anzomex boosters. Blasts are set off in a sequence "liberating" a million tons at a time. Note: "liberating" in this context has nothing to do with radical politics.

For a serious review of the mine's developemnt, see I. K. MacGregor in the

Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, v. 197B, Nov 1983. The author was Ian MacGregor, at one time head of British Steel, then of the UK's National Coal Board. Earlier, however, he was head of AMAX, which means that he was very likely the guy who bought what Stan Hilditch had been struggling to sell, namely the development of Mt. Whaleback.

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Here, parked for all time at the Newman visitor center, is one of the early shovels. Guess the capacity of the bucket. In cubic yards, please.

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How big did you guess? One yard? Two?

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It's right there on the bucket. Ten cubic yards.

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I knew you would't believe me, so here's more proof.

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The tires need some air, but otherwise it's ready to roll. (I'm practicing for my new job as a used-car salesman.)

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You want something bigger. Don't we all? Here's a 189-ton WABCO model 3200. I have to talk to the sales manager before I can quote you a price.

What laymen are tempted to call the "dump" is properly called the "tray." Very civilized, I must say. Crumpet, anyone?

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Perhaps it was Bechtel Asia that chose a steel frame into which two prefab steel boxes could be slid. Apropos, no?

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Later observers, struggling for objectivity, write that the "dormitory esthetic and a proliferation of a repetitive housing type... do not attract buyers or renters..." Little harsh, don't you think?

See the Pilbara Vernacular Handbook, Part 3-7 at https://www.landcorp.com.au/Documents/Corporate/Pilbara%20Vernacular/Part-3-NEWMAN.pdf

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A variant: four boxes in the frame.

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The mine operates 24x7, which means that many houses have black-out shades for night-shift workers. Aluminum foil works nicely, too.

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Car parks are shaded perhaps so the paint on cars doesn't fade in the desert sun. Perhaps also so bare kiddy feet don't get wickedly burned.

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Steel fencing is a nice touch.

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Landscaping can be very basic.

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A new house, with Colorbond steel all round and little money wasted on water. The realtor will call it ecologically sensitive and very sustainable.

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As the years go by, the builders have gotten more daring.

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A newish development: sardines in a can.

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Why not two stories?

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More. Cladding hides the steel frame, or perhaps these are a variation on shipping containers, with load-bearing boxes.

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Shade on the brain.

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Selling houses to their occupants means that over time the houses evolve to suit personal tastes. Do you think the neighbors approve of this? Much as I like it, I bet they don't.

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Now we're talking: mowing the lawn is a breeze, though the fencing gets in the way. It gets in the way of any breeze, too, which actually is a bit of problem.

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You don't see a lot of people enjoying their yards.

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What you do see is lots of houses for sale. It's a sad story, because when iron-ore prices cratered after 2010, so did house values. The median house price in 2010 was A$630,000; by 2017 it was about A$200,000. You can update yourself: try https://www.domain.com.au/ Yes, you're right: no steel frame. South Newman is made of houses with tilt-up walls of precast concrete.

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The realtor doesn't seem too worried about curb appeal.

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Buyers buy anyway.

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Something new and tidy for sale.

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You can start from scratch, too.

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Just visiting? You can stay at the Seasons Hotel, built in the 1970s as single men's quarters. I'm not sure how many stars it has: I haven't checked Michelin.

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There are rooms in trailers, too.

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No mention of view.

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The sign announces that a new hospital is to be begun late in 2017.

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Handy when you need one.

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Let's go shopping. The pharmacy is named of course for Stan Hilditch, the founding father. The shopping center has been around since the 1970s, if not earlier, but the vacancy rate is a tipoff to the general slump.

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Once the town had a bakery.

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ANZ has given up, though Bankwest still holds on.

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A roo stands guard.

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The town isn't as commercially dead as these photos suggest. Across the street there's another center.

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The town planners aren't happy: "This shopping centre is internalised, effectively turning its back on the street... surrounded by large areas of hot, unsheltered car parking."

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What's that down at the end?

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It's my favorite Australian supermarket.

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Modern logistics are a thing of wonder.

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Look who's here.

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My weakness. (Wrong flavor, but make allowances.)

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The Woolworths has just been spruced up because the town's about to get a new shopping center, which might otherwise crush the old one. Whether the town can support two is a nice question; this one, ordered up by BHP, was hatched before the iron-ore sky fell. Work has been slow-steaming for several years.

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It's a holiday weekend, and the center is pretty empty, save for a few Aboriginals, whose tenure goes back into the incomprehensibly distant past.

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The shade sails on the town's public swimming pool are expensive to buy and expensive to maintain, but trees would have their own downsides--and the naked sun would be intolerable. There's nobody here because... well, it's a holiday, and people here take holidays seriously. They've left town, though it's a long way to anywhere.

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The departures lounge, with a certain ambience.


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