The town they took off the map

A few years ago whilst travelling in Western Australia we got talking to a local in Karratha who told us about this town called Wittenoom. The more we spoke, the more intrigued we were about this remote town in the Pilbara region of WA and we wanted to find out more. We were given directions and decided to visit after leaving our camp in the Millstream National Park.

img_7291

For those that don’t know of Wittenoom’s history, it was where they used to mine the deadly blue asbestos from the 1930’s to mid 1960’s. Wittenoom was a town that literally lived and breathed blue asbestos.  A huge portion of those who worked in the area have subsequently died from asbestos related illnesses.  A town was built near the mine to house and service workers and their families and by the mid 1950’s it was the largest town in the Pilbara.  At the time no one knew of the hazards of asbestos, miners would return home covered in the deadly dust and the asbestos tailings were even being used in construction of gardens and roads all around the town.

Prior to mining beginning around Wittenoom in the 1930’s, the area was predominantly pastoral.  Mining in Wittenoom Gorge commenced in the mid 1940’s.  From 1950 until the early 1960s Wittenoom was Australia’s only supplier of asbestos. The mine closed in 1966.

After leaving Milstream National Park we were on our way to stay in the mining town of Tom Price and had already decided to drive the Rio Tinto rail access road, which required us to sit through an induction video, complete a short training module and acquire our driving permits. This is a privately owned road that runs parallel to the train network throughout the Pilbara, providing maintenance access to the railway.

Rio Tinto do allow the public to drive on the rail access roads as long as all drivers hold a valid permit.

img_7311

This road is an unsealed road, but as we have generally found, most roads owned by mining companies are pretty well maintained and in good condition for a dirt road. It was actually quite a pretty drive, but very secluded, we saw very few cars all day.

img_7284

Generally the only car we passed was a mining vehicle, but for the majority of the day it was just us and our surroundings…… and lots of dust!

img_7294

Eventually we arrived at the town that used to be called Wittenoom. We say used to be called because in 2007 the State Government wiped this town from the map, the town was degazetted, their electricity and postal services were taken away and all reference to the town has been deleted (as shown on the photo below), it simply doesn’t exist anymore.

img_7306

All road signs and maps have had all reference of the town removed and access to the area has been limited, it’s now like the town never existed.

img_7303

It is a shame that this town has such a tragic history as it is situated in an absolutely beautiful location. The backdrop of the town is stunning and such a contrast to the town itself. The signs that greet you as you reach the town tell of a not so beautiful story, a stark reminder of how not everything is as it seems on face value.

img_7310

img_7305

It’s hard to imagine now that this was once a big thriving town with shops and schools and many houses. It’s now like you are walking into a real life ghost town. Doc Holidays Cafe is boarded up, houses are abandoned and the whole town lays in a derelict state.

As you drive around you really feel like you are in another world …. one you should be in. It’s a very strange and eerie feeling being there. It’s hard to explain, I’m not sure if it’s that you know you are somewhere you probably shouldn’t be, or that you feel like you are encroaching on someone’s space, or that you can feel the bad spirits of a town with such a tragic past …. whatever it is, it’s hard to explain and even thinking about it now it’s taking me back to that day we were there.

img_7307

Although the town is no longer and all services have been stripped away, apparently there are 3 or 4 people who remain living in the town. Such a shame as it’s in such a beautiful location.

img_7293

img_7309

Many of you would know Midnight Oil’s song ‘Blue Sky Mine‘, but did you know that this song was inspired by the experiences of workers at the Wittenoom mine. If you listen to the words in the song, the “blue” refers to blue asbestos, and the “sugar refining company” refers to the Colonial Sugar Refining Company Ltd (CSR), the owner of the mines.

img_7283

Asbestos fibres and dust are said to still be all around the town and the gorge itself still contains piles of the mine tailings.

Now we aren’t going to tell everyone to go and visit as the signs are pretty direct as to the health risks ….. but we were so intrigued we wanted to have a closer look. Were we concerned? … of course we were, those signs do make you think!

But we didn’t stay long, although we do regret that a little now and would love to go back and explore a little further. Although filled with asbestos mine tailings, from photos we have seen, the Wittenoom Gorge is absolutely stunning. It’s such a tragic, yet interesting story of yet another stunning area of Australia.

img_7304

Advertisements

El Questro

IMG_6575At just over 700,000 acres in size and just over 100km from the nearest town, El Questro is one of Australia’s unique little treasures.  It’s located in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and is accessible from the Gibb River Road.

After turning off the Gibb River Road it’s a short drive until you reach Emma Gorge Resort, the first of the properties of El Questro, and home to the spectacular Emma Gorge. 

A further drive along a dirt road and a few river crossings later you will reach The Station, which is the main hub of El Questro.  IMG_6576IMG_6577El Questro offers accommodation suitable for everyone and every budget, ranging from the luxury 5 star Homestead, to bungalows and powered and unpowered camping at The Station to the safari style tented cabins at the Emma Gorge Resort.  We chose to stay at The Station on a powered camping site.  It was convenient and close to the amenities, the shop, the bar and the swimming hole.  It was very busy, like your typical caravan park, but everyone was so friendly and excited to tell you about their holiday and where they had explored that it didn’t really bother us too much!  If you really do want to get away from the other travellers though, they do offer private secluded campsites along the river.IMG_6593IMG_6598It really is worthwhile spending a few days at El Questro and exploring the property.  We absolutely loved our stay.  It wasn’t cheap and it’s very busy, so not to everyone’s liking, but we highly recommend it.  They really have done a great job with this property, the amenities were great (you see a lot of bathrooms and toilets whilst camping and for a campground in the middle of nowhere, these are 5 star!).  The outdoor ‘Swinging Arm Bar’ has a great atmosphere and we spent a night there sitting by the campfire listening to live music.  They also have a restaurant which overlooks the river, offering great views with your meal.  IMG_6578 As most of the waters in this part of Australia tend to be filled with crocodiles, it’s never a good idea to duck in for a swim!  Although the Pentecost River runs through the property, they have a couple of fairly shallow rocky sections where they advise that it’s safe to swim.  IMG_6592IMG_6579This area is so diverse and after taking your time to explore you will see the landscape change from rugged sandstone ranges to rainforest areas and permanent waterfalls, as well as numerous beautiful gorges, it really is a magical place with so much to see. IMG_6581IMG_6586We spent quite a bit of time exploring the 4WD tracks around the property and the signage on these tracks was perfect.  So often you are left wondering where the track goes or if you should have turned somewhere, but not at El Questro.  The tracks are well maintained and there is just the right amount of clear signage that you were never left wondering where to turn next.IMG_6591IMG_6599IMG_6582Now yes this is a very popular place and during the peak tourist season it is full to the brim with excited tourists undertaking the iconic Gibb River Road!  But whilst in the ‘township’ you are always surrounded by people, noise and activities, the property is so large that there are times whilst out exploring that you feel like you are the only people on earth.  To stand on the edge of a cliff overlooking the remote rugged landscape below it is an amazing feeling, you feel so small in the middle of this enormous wilderness park.  IMG_6583During your stay you will never be bored, there is so much to do.  Whether you are driving a 4WD track, trekking to one of the gorges, taking in one of the organised activities (for a cost) like barramundi fishing, horse ridding or exploring the remote areas by helicopter, or just catching up with fellow travellers at the bar, there is always something to keep you occupied. IMG_6587IMG_6589I would have to say that my favourite place at El Questro was Zebedee Springs, absolutely loved it.  IMG_6600IMG_6602This is one of the most popular places to visit and is always very busy so you need to get there early.  It’s only open to the public from 7am to 12pm daily, as after that it’s available for private tours or homestead guests only, so you can understand how popular this is.  IMG_6604Zebedee Springs is a permanent thermal spring which is fed via a fault line from a permanent supply of water from deep within the earth.  The water temperature is between 28-32 degrees Celsius all year round.  The surrounding cliff faces are up to 1800 million years old and are known as ‘King Leopold Sandstone’.IMG_6606We left camp to drive out there just before 7am to ensure that we’d get in!  From the car park it’s a walk of approximately 750m to the Zebedee Springs, via a beautiful trail lined with Livistona and Pandanus Palms until you reach the thermal pools.  Here you can sit in the warm spring waters in a series of rock pools and waterfalls that cascade down from the forest.  This is an incredibly beautiful site and take one visit here and you can see why it’s so popular.  We spent an hour or so here just taking in the beautiful surroundings and chatting with other tourists.  George didn’t go into the springs, but Shelly enjoyed a relaxing soak in the natural warm spring water.IMG_6608As for the history of El Questro – back in 1903 a lease called “Spurling’s Pocket” was taken up on the land, but due to the rugged and rocky land, it wasn’t successful as a cattle station and ownership subsequently changed hands numerous times.  In the late ’50’s it was first called El Questro.  As well as cattle, the new owners grew and sold vegetables to the up and coming Kununurra township.  After this it changed hands a few more times, finally having El Questro Wilderness Park open to the public in 1992.IMG_6610After a couple more changes in ownership, El Questro was sold in March 2010 to the current owners, Delaware North Parks and Resorts, who are a member of Delaware North Companies, a nearly 100-year-old organisation whose family owned companies are innovators in hospitality, entertainment, food service and retail.  Apparently this company has upgraded many of the facilities and continue to do so, so whilst it may not be Australian owned, they do seem to be spending the money and looking after the property and you can’t ask for more than that.IMG_6611IMG_6617The views around this property are truly breathtaking and there are so many different places to see.  It is a stunning place to visit, you will be surprised at what you experience in this little oasis in remote outback Australia.  We definitely recommend a visit to El Questro.IMG_6622