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

Tom Price

Yesterday we left Millstream National Park early for the drive to Tom Price. The route we took was very pretty and very secluded, we saw very few cars all day.IMG_7293Generally the only car was passed was a mining vehicle, but for the majority of the day it was just us and our surroundings…… and lots of dust!IMG_7294Oh and the odd traffic jam that held us up! IMG_7302Our journey took us via a 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_7306For those that don’t know Wittenoom’s history, it was where they used to mine the deadly blue asbestos from the 1930’s to mid 1960’s. Many people have subsequently died from this.

The town is now basically a ghost town, a former vision of a once thriving town of 20,000 people. Apparently there are still a few people who remain living in the town. Such a shame as its in such a beautiful location. 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.From Wittenoom we continued on towards Tom Price. This involved driving on the Rio Tinto Rail Access Road (the one we applied for our permits for). IMG_7311This is a dirt road that runs alongside the Rio Tinto rail line.  The trains are huge and you don’t want to get stuck at a railway crossing waiting for one to pass as they are 2km long!IMG_7313IMG_7315When Tom Price was first established it was a lot different to now, although now still predominantly a mining town, initially you couldn’t live in the town unless you worked in the mines. It was described to us as being a town full of rather colourful characters, and as “a drinking town with a mining problem!”

The town is now a lot different, a lot larger than it started out, a lot more facilities and full of families. At 747 meters above sea level, Tom price is the highest town in Western Australia.

Tom Price is set in quite a pretty location, nestled within the Hamersley Ranges and at the base of Mt Nameless (Jarndunmunha).We drove to the top of Mt Namesless and were rewarded with a great overview of the Tom Price township, the mines and the surrounding areas.  We also found that we were at the highest vehicle access point in Western Australia.

IMG_7320

Playing with the big boys!