Karratha is located in a very hot area of the state with temperatures that peak in the high 40s. Over 260 days per year are over the 30C mark.
It was established as a satellite town for the port of Dampier when Dampier ran out of room for expansion. The name
is derived from an Aboriginal word meaning good country. Other names suggested for the town include; Tanga-tanga, Hearson, Dixon and Nickol.
The area was first settled in 1866 by Dr Bayton and Mr. Whittal-Venn but the town was established much later in 1968.
Karratha Station was, for many years, the focal point of the area. Life on the station before development came to the Pilbara is described by
Tish Lees in her book 'Lonely for my land'.
It is a major centre for iron ore workers and excellent modern shopping facilities are available, but it is a long way from anywhere. The current
townsite was excised (government speak for stolen) from Karratha Station.
The main highway bypasses the town and it is necessary to make a 7 kilometre detour to see the town centre.
Karratha is a good place to spend some time. The nearby towns of
Cossack, Wickham, Point Samson and
Roebourne make Karratha the ideal base
from which to explore. The large mining companies in the area run tours of their facilities, notably Robe River Iron provides the best tour that
includes Cape Lambert and Cossack.
Karratha is the only town in the area with a major industrial area (known as the LIA - Light Industrial Area) and has the largest shopping complex
in the whole of the north west.
The iron ore industry
Dampier, Karratha and Wickham are just the shipping end of a vast conveyor belt of iron ore that reaches the coast from the mining towns inland.
The iron ore shipped each year exceeds 150 million tonnes and brings in revenue of around 8 billion dollars. With the growth of the Chinese economy
this is set to double and triple over the coming years.
The fortunes of the area are closely linked to comodity prices and any slump in these prices has an immediate flow-on effect to the area's econnomy.
This has been dramatically demonstrated by a slump in 2014-15. For almost five years from 2009, Karratha boomed. New estates were built, new high-rise
buildings constructed and the smaller towns of Wickham and Roebourne also saw major new construction. This all came to a grinding halt as the ore price slumped
and at the time of writing this article, many workers have been made redundant and the area is experiencing a sharp ecconomic decline.
Not just an 'iron town'
The iron ore industry often overshadows other industrial development in the north west but the region supplies much more than just ore.
Off shore oil exploration started in the 1960s and a small company named Woodside (after a small town in Gippsland) started looking at the prospect of
finding rich new oil fields along the north west shelf.
Well after well was drilled with scarcely a sign of oil but there was plenty of gas. At the time gas was hardly a sought after commodity. There were some
industrial uses and a small market for energy and lighting but the main difficulty was in transporting gas.
LNG (or liquid natural gas) was produced as early as 1877 but technology at the time was not sufficient to allow the gas to be stored or transported. Once
the gas is cooled to -161C it becomes liquid and at this temperature it's volume is reduced by 600%. In the 1940s some attempts were made to produce LNG
but a large industrial accident saw the idea fall into disfavour.
After it became evident that the north west shelf was going to reveal little else but gas there was a great deal of effort put in to working out how to
make it payable. At the time there were no LPG powered cars on Australian roads and no ready market to sell to.
The oil crisis of the 1980s changed all this as oil prices soared. Gas was now seen as a cheap viable alternative to crude oil based fuel but there were
some enormous hurdles to overcome to get the gas to shore, transport it and then market it.
The gas field lies some 135 kilometres north west of the town of Dampier and is 3500 metres below the sea bed. All the joint venturers now needed were
immense gas platforms built out at sea in an area renowned for its fierce cyclones, an undersea pipeline, a fleet of specifically manufactured tankers,
and LNG processing plant, a pipeline to Perth (crossing 24 rivers, 383 roads and 13 rail lines) and all the associated infrastructure needed to keep the project going.
An estimated 10 billion dollars later they would then need a market to sell the gas to.
The first gas came ashore in July 1st 1984 and LNG became one of Australia's major export dollar earners. As of 2007 the North West Shelf is responsible
for over 40% of all Australia's oil and gas production and annual sales are estimated at around 10.5 billion dollars. Current platforms are Goodwyn, North
Rankin and Cossack Pioneer and there may be as many as 315 personnel spread among these platforms at any one time. The LNG is exported via 9 purpose built ships.
Another major industry in the area is Dampier Salt. The solar salt fields can be seen on a drive between Karratha and Dampier. Sea water is let in to a
series of shallow ponds that are then left to progressively dry out. The salt is then collected and stock piled. The first salt was shipped from this facility
in April 1972. Only 20% of the over 4 million tons produced annually, is used for human consumption with the rest being used by various industries.
Unfortunately the mining boom has brought with it a massive rise in the cost of rental and house prices. This means that many people on low wages (like shop
workers) are finding it harder and harder to stay in the town. If the trend of profiteering is allowed to continue the town will suffer a shortage of essential
services as only the highly paid mine company workers will be able to afford to live there.
For those who would like to find out more about what this region was like prior to the mining boom we would recommend reading Tish Lees book 'Lonely For My Land'.
Request a copy from your local library or visit Tish's website.
Hearson’s Cove, now a popular daytime destination for tourists and locals alike, was named after Hearson, the 2nd Mate of the Dolphin who was wounded by the
accidental discharge of a musket that Abraham James had forgotten to make safe as a landing party was bringing in horses from the ship to the shore. Hearson
The members of that exploratory expedition (led by
F.T. Gregory) were to give their names to a
number of local landmarks. Among those on board were James Harding,
Maitland Brown, Pemberton Walcott, James Turner,
James McCourt, Abraham James,
William Shakespeare Hall,
Edward Brockman and Captain Dixon who commanded the Dolphin.
Prior to Gregory’s expedition,
Phillip Parker King had visited the area and named
Nichol Bay (presumably after John Nichol Drummand) but this name was changed to Nickol or Nicol Bay on many maps and the incorrect spelling still persists to
this day. (We have recently read about a sailor who was lost overboard in the area and it is suggested that the name was given to the bay by
J.S. Roe not P.P King but this is yet to be confirmed.)
Flying foam massacre
Like the battle of Pinjarra, this was yet another controversial clash between European and Aboriginal cultures during the early settlement
of Western Australia. It took place in February 1868 on the Burrup Peninsula near Hearson's Cove.
After the spearing to death of Constable Griffiths, George Breem and a native known as Peter at Nichol Bay on February 8th, a punitive raid led by Alex McRae is said
to have massacred 15 Aborigines in retaliation.
A highly emotive and somewhat fanciful account of this clash titled 'Flying Foam Massacre - A grey period in the history of the Burrup Peninsula' written by M. R. Dyson
is a demonstration of how history should not be written. The tone of this book is such that one would be led to expect that the author is ready to give up his house and
land to the Aborigines for al the wrongs they suffered and expects the rest of the population to do likewise.
No matter what our morals and ethics today, they do not apply to the early history of Australia, and making judgements about incidents like this is not at all helpful to those trying to uncover what the real events were.
This is simply another instance where the Aboriginal people in an attempt to defend their own territory ran afoul of European fire power and the determination of the settlers to put down any sort of resistance emanating from the natives.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that societies that lack technology are almost always at the mercy of those with the means to take what they want. It is pointless for arm-chair historians to moralise about what was right or wrong over 150 years ago.
As with the battle of Pinjarra, this clash has been wildly exaggerated with claims that 40 or more Aborigines were killed.
TALL TALES AND TRUE
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Hearson's Cove, Dampier Peninsula, 40 Mile, Cleaverville.
BUILDINGS OF NOTE
State : North West
Federal : Durack
Postcode : 6713
Local Government : City of Karratha
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