Mining Wealth Brings A Strange Poverty


I meet Hassan on a scorching Saturday morning in the car park of Centro Karratha. The tarmac shimmers in the Pilbara’s October sun, and shoppers rush from their 4WDs into the bustling, air conditioned mall at the edge of the sweltering desert.

"No I don’t really like it here," Hassan replies to my initial prompting about the town. "I only come here for work, to save money. I have a friend, he calls me, tells me about this place, Karratha, and then I come here."

Hassan works for the Karratha branches of Coles and Woolworths, gathering trolleys and steering them back to the mall across the loose asphalt and broken glass. He entered Australia as a refugee from Sudan four years ago, and as the only one of his family to obtain a visa, has spent these years moving around the country, travelling and looking for work.

Like most people living here, Hassan ended up in Karratha because he heard it was a good place to make money. Today he keeps a base in Perth, and catches the two-hour shuttle flight north to Karratha every couple of months. While he’s in town, he lives at the local hostel and works long shifts at the shopping centre, sometimes laboring back-to-back between Coles and Woolworths. He then returns to Perth a month or two later for a short break, before starting the cycle again.

While Hassan isn’t a miner, his transitory lifestyle is typical of Karratha’s resource sector-oriented workforce. The town is one of the relatively new mining enclaves that have sprung up across the Pilbara desert in northwest WA to extract iron ore and gas, and it’s renowned as a site of transience rather than settlement. With its raw mining fervor, lofty incomes and fly-in fly-out culture, it’s a place infamous for people filling their bank accounts and moving on.

Old timers in the Pilbara’s mining industry like Jeremy know this Karratha lifestyle intimately. I had met Jeremy outside Eagle Boys Pizza shop one evening, as he waited for his Smoke House Steak and Bacon order on a Cheap Tuesday. He had the bulky frame of a long-term miner, but was much more softly spoken and introspective than this macho exterior suggested.

"I originally came here for the work, back in the 90s — we all did; we all came for the good money, you know. But you can’t just live here the whole time, you end up feeling pretty bad, you gotta have a life too, and the drinking here isn’t good. I live in Perth now, and I come up here to work every coupla weeks. The pay’s still good."

And he’s right. In the sweltering asphalt of Centro Karratha, the extravagant incomes of the town’s mining employees are made explicit. The car park is as big as a small football oval, and this morning it’s bursting with the biggest 4WDs on the market. They spill over the kerbing and out into the street, shimmering in comparison with the cracked and run-down buildings of Karratha’s shopping centre.

Hassan takes a short break from work, and we move towards the concrete benches at the entrance of the mall to find a clean space to sit between the seagull shit and smashed beer bottles. The old Chinese Garden Restaurant across the courtyard has just opened for lunch, and with its golden kitsch décor and pink plastic seat covers, it looks like a parody of a rural Australian Chinese diner from 40 years ago.

This restaurant is part of the old Karratha, and it stands as an archaic remnant in a town relatively devoid of history. Residents of today’s Karratha tend to go elsewhere, queuing up outside the range of drive-through fast-food outlets around the mall, which comprise the bulk of the town’s eateries. Other community priorities are made clear by the long queues in Liquorland, the thriving brothel network, and the new sex shop that’s just sprung up around the corner from my highway suburb, where I’ve been living on and off myself for the past 15 months.

All this is starkly divergent from the Karratha that apparently existed here a few decades ago. The town was built in the late 1960s, as a venture between Hamersley Iron and the Western Australian government, and older residents go soft when they recall their childhood in this early, seaside community. However over the years, as resource boom times have come and gone, "fly-in fly-out" miners in search of better prospects and higher incomes have increased along with the accelerated extraction of natural resources. Today this tiny country town on the coast is a booming place of approximately 12,000 largely floating inhabitants.

In the time that I have spent here working for a local community organisation, I’ve come across a sense of depression at the town’s changes. A typical example was an exchange I’d had at a dinner party the previous week. I’d been talking to Sue, an early Karratha resident, about both these transformations and the direction that she thought the town was headed.

"Those fly-in fly outs have wrecked our town!" Sue had almost spat the words out, and her face became abruptly serious as she looked me in the eye. "No one gives a shit about this place anymore and we’re all leaving because of it."

These damages that older residents like Sue refer to are the usual scars of remote Australian mining towns that survive on the boom and bust paroxysms of the resource industry: poor social infrastructure, long working hours, a preference for outsourcing, the giddy juxtaposition of rich and poor, and a rapid progression of unsustainable, industrial development.

Karratha’s resource extraction produces a sizeable chunk of the country’s exports, and this driving industrial energy sits at the edge of a landscape of surreal beauty and apparent emptiness. It’s bordered by turquoise salt mines and iron ore on one side, with sparse desert ranges of spinifex and low lying hills on the other. Train tracks carrying dusty iron ore shunt past the edges of town, and this river of steel-to-be meets the sea on its way to China and South Korea. Rio Tinto alone has 11 mines across the Pilbara, and the company has just celebrated its three billionth tonne of exported iron ore.

It’s this bizarre mix of consumption, decay and extraordinary beauty that have come to characterise landscapes like that of the West Pilbara. These spaces disrupt the classic urban nostalgia of a rural Australia, as towns like Karratha update that other Australian nostalgia for mining and goldrushes into the present with confronting force. Apocalyptic, brazen, archaic and future-driven all at once, Karratha is as much about the desires of those seeking prospects and purpose here as it is about the vast, beautiful, and irrevocably damaged landscapes that surround it.

Sitting with Hassan in the mall’s concrete courtyard, groups of raucous fly-in fly-outs shuffle back and forth carrying plastic bags of groceries and slabs of beer. Young parents push noisy children towards the air-conditioning inside, and Woolworths checkout workers take a smoking break on the kerbside. Nearby, teenagers with sharp haircuts hang around looking excessively urban and thoroughly bored, and 4WDs continue to roar past the courtyard, scanning for a parking space next to the entrance of the mall.

I ask Hassan about living in Karratha’s local hostel. "It is ok" he murmurs. "It is full of people all here to work and then they go again. When I come to Karratha I think I just want to leave again. I don’t know people here, just my friend, and he has also left now."

This theme of exodus is a central part of life in Karratha. I’d been talking to people around the mall the previous weekend, the majority of whom were housewives of miners and construction workers, and the anticipated moment of departure was always a dependable point on the graph. Many were disgruntled over the lack of community, facilities, infrastructure and decent housing here, and leaving town was thrown into the conversation as a way of getting even with it all.

Judy was one such resident. She’d been sitting on a bench outside K-Mart, sipping a Wendy’s milkshake as she waited for her teenage daughter to emerge from Wet ‘n’ Wicked. Her husband was completing an 18-month contract in the Pilbara, and she was particularly bitter about the conditions in Karratha.

"For the amount of people they got living here, it’s crap. There’s no public transport here, so you drive yourself or you don’t go anywhere. And if you have any problems, the health system here is shit and you gotta go to Perth. We’re leaving in two months, I can’t wait to get away."

Judy wasn’t alone in her reproach of Karratha. There’s a widely-felt antipathy of Karratha’s social negligence across a diverse spectrum of residents here. Just as visible is the shared desire for greater community ethos and responsibility, and for the kind of financial and emotional investment considered essential for a prosperous town.

However Judy’s resentment was also suggestive of deeper, more complex paradoxes at play in this remote mining region, ones which many people here have expressed to me, if inadvertently. Towns like Karratha are a product of a much wider cultural attitude to resource management across the country. It’s one that perceives landscapes like the Pilbara as places of unlimited extraction and consumption, rather than sensible investment and conservation, and it’s well known that very often this outlook fails to transform non-renewable resources into sustainable social and financial assets.

On the ground level, residents in towns like Karratha are clearly grappling to reconcile this overarching attitude to resource consumption with their own, closely-lived dependencies on the mining sector. The innate ethos of this industry directly undermines the very kinds of prosperity, sustainability, community and social cohesion that people in Karratha are striving towards. It’s a fundamental paradox in the lives of people like Judy, Sue and Jeremy whose worlds are closely intertwined with this enterprise, and in lieu of a way out of this contradiction, it results in a dynamic of frustration and resentment towards the town itself.

Back outside Centro Karratha, Hassan politely tells me that he should get back to work. Before he returns to the trolleys, I ask him a final question about how long he thinks he’ll keep coming back here.

"I’m leaving on Wednesday for the last time. I have enough money now. I’m going to Sydney and then I’m going to Europe." It’s clearly a satisfying answer, and he doesn’t look at all upset to be leaving Karratha and never coming back.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.