Tag Archives: Pilbara

Cossack, W.A.

I have always been interested in the effect of water on survival—not just that of plants, animals, and humans, but on cities and even civilizations. A river changes course, and a city disappears. That’s less true these days, as we now pipe water into all sorts of inhospitable places that were never really meant to support life, at least not much life (Las Vegas and Los Angeles come to mind). But historically, it has been an issue.

I can remember being amazed as I walked the streets of Ostia Antica, once the great port of Ancient Rome, to note that there was no sign of the great harbor that once made this spot so important. The silting up of the harbor doomed the great city, which sank into oblivion (though the city is one of the all-time great places to visit Roman ruins, as so much is still intact).

In Western Australia, Cossack was once a bustling port, too. Not like Ostia, of course, but impressive for a remote location in the Australian outback. Things started to bustle a little less as the pearl oyster beds diminished and people moved to Broome. But it was the silting up of the harbor that ended Cossack’s glory days.

Cossack, which was our next stop as we crossed the Pilbara, is now a ghost town, but a few imposing stone buildings, some of them restored by those who love the region’s history, suggest a time when the town was busier.

In addition to being the first port in the northwest to service the region’s growing pastoral industry (by 1869, there were more than 39,000 sheep in the Pilbara), it was also the gateway for thousands of people seeking their fortunes in the Pilbara gold rush in the 1880s. And for a while, it was a cornerstone of Australia’s booming pearling industry.

The town had several names before it became Cossack. The name that finally stuck came from a ship that brought the governor of Western Australia, Sir Frederick Weld, to the site. So it has been Cossack since 1871. By 1887, there was a horse drawn tramway connecting Cossack with the nearby town of Roebourne.

But Cossack was soon in decline. By 1900, pearlers were moving on. By 1910, the harbor had silted up and shipping had been relocated. A few people continued to live in the town until after World War II, but by 1950, the town had been abandoned.

It was not abandoned for good, however. Those history buffs keep restoring buildings, interested in saving a piece of history. And Cossack has become a big tourist draw for this little corner of the northwest.

The site is actually quite lovely. The harbor may no longer be useful, but there is still water nearby, and it makes a remarkably vivid backdrop to the little ghost town.

The images below are of an abandoned house and of the restored Cossack Courthouse.

Abandoned building, Cossack, W.A.

Abandoned building, Cossack, W.A.

Restored Cossack courthouse.

Restored Cossack courthouse.

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Chichester Range

Millstream Park is actually part of the combined Millstream-Chichester National Park. It’s all one region, but Millstream is an aberration—an oasis in the midst of general aridity. The Chichester Range contrasts sharply with the lushness of Millstream. It presents a rocky, rugged face that borders on looking like a different planet. As formidable as it is, camel trains once crossed this terrain, to reach the coast. It is, for most, a place of transit, the part you have to get past to get where you want to be. It is geologically ancient and fascinating, but it is not a place to linger—at least not unless you’ve brought plenty of water.

As did the camel trains of old, so too we were just crossing over the Chichester Range. But, having just left Millstream, it was astonishing to be reminded what a difference a little water makes.

Crossing the Chichester Range.

Crossing the Chichester Range.

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Millstream Park

Millstream National Park is a wonderful oasis in the midst of the arid Pilbara. Between the Hamersleys and Millstream, we’d spent a night on the outskirts of the iron ore-mining town of Mt. Tom Price, which was pleasant enough, but we were delighted to get back to wilderness—especially this wilderness. It was a real change from the dry, ruggedness to which we’d become accustomed. The Fortescue River cuts through the park, and was flowing, deep and cold, when we visited. The forest of paperbarks that borders the river offered us a glorious setting for our bush camp, as well as delightful opportunities to hike and enjoy the flora and fauna, and the proximity of the river made it possible for us to go swimming every time the day seemed a bit too warm.

The pictures below show our tents pitched among the paperbarks and the red cliffs that rose on the far side of the river, about a mile from our camp. Splendid place.

Millstream Camp

Millstream Camp

Fortescue River

Fortescue River

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Spinifex Pigeons

Despite the fact that much of the Pilbara is dry to the point of crispness, there is a surprising amount of flora and fauna, particularly close to places, such as the gorges, where water is available much of the year. Wildflowers, eucalypts, acacias, and spinifex dot the landscape and offer homes to birds, bugs, lizards, and small mammals.

Among the birds that make this arid region home is the spinifex pigeon, or Geophaps plumifera. (Geophaps means “earth pigeon,” an appropriate moniker for these attractive little ground-dwellers.) Spinfex pigeons nest near clumps of spinifex or small shrubs, simply scratching a slight depression in the stony soil and lining it with wisps of dry grass. They generally dine on the seeds of the spinifex and other dry grasses and plants—but that doesn’t keep them from accepting handouts, when tourists drop by. When we reemerged from Weano Gorge at lunchtime, we found that a group of spinifex pigeons had come around in the hope that we’d toss them our crumbs—which we were only too happy to do.

These pigeons are usually found in pairs or small groups. They are wanderers, following the receding water supply as the dry season progresses. They lay their eggs when rain brings renewed growth and fresh seeds to the grasses. They lay two eggs, which both male and female of a pair incubate. Both also tend the chicks, which are fledged in about eight days. As you can see in the photo, their coloration is ideal for blending into their surroundings.

Spinifex pigeons

Spinifex pigeons

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Weano Gorge

The way water has carved through the rocks in the Hamersley Range has created an interesting variety of gorges. Some, such as Wittenoom Gorge and Yampire Gorge, are wide and have broken out of the side of the great land mass, making them accessible by road. Most, however, have carved down through the rock in such a way that you can only reach them by driving on top of the range and climbing down into the gorge from the top—though of course you can simply admire them from the ledge, if you don’t fancy climbing. This was true of Dales Gorge, which we’d seen previously, and of Weano Gorge, which we reached next.

Weano Gorge is a relatively easy gorge to climb into. There are places where the walls are steep and slick, but there are also wider areas where the walls are rough, with good hand-holds, and a narrow sort of path that the many visitors have worn in one rock wall at one point. It was at this point that we scrambled down into the gorge.

While the wider section of the gorge look more impressive from above, the narrower parts of the gorge are far more wonderful when you’re at the bottom. The narrowest part seemed magically secretive, like a hidden entrance to a lost kingdom. And it does lead to something that might be considered a treasure in this arid land—water.

The first photo was taken within the narrowest part; the second picture shows where the gorge widens again and the path drops off into a pool. There are people sitting on the large rock at the far side of the pool, to give you something by which to gauge size.

Weano Gorge

Weano Gorge

Weano Pool

Weano Pool

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Wittenoom

Wittenoom was named for one of the locals—Frank Wittenoom. It was given this name by Frank’s partner at a nearby station, Lang Hancock, for whom Hancock Gorge is named. Today, only a handful of people remain in Wittenoom, though it was close to being a ghost town even when we visited it. The nearby asbestos mine has been closed, but the abundance of asbestos nearby is thought to make the whole place a health hazard. But the setting is beautiful, and not everyone has been able to tear themselves away.

As I noted in the book, the wilderness pretty much starts across the street from the little town. The leading edge of the Hamersley Range rises in the very near distance. The area is known for the abundance of minerals, including many gem stones, and we had walked to the edge of town to visit a local rock shop. The mineral samples were spectacular, but far too large to be lugging around in one’s suitcase for several months, so I escaped without succumbing to that temptation.

When we left the shop, the changing light playing across the land caught my attention. I stood on the curb and watched twilight begin to creep across the desert. Soon, it was too dark to take pictures, but the light continued to paint sky and earth in changing pastel hues. I was delighted. The photo below is of the view from that curb in Wittenoom, at the beginning of the twilight light show.

The View from Wittenoom

The View from Wittenoom

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Hamersley Gorge

If you know anything about plate tectonics, you know that the surface of the planet is not static. It is, rather, in constant, if slow, motion, with continents moving, seas opening and closing—and earthquakes and volcanoes along the edges where the plates meet. Over the ages, land has been repositioned, created, destroyed, pushed under, and pushed up. For example, the Indian subcontinent is on a different tectonic plate than the rest of Asia, and it is the crashing of the Indian plate into the Asian plate that has pushed, and continues to push, the Himalayas skyward.

The forces at work in plate tectonics are immense. And it was these forces that created some of what we were seeing in the Hamersley Range. The range itself is actually a plateau that was pushed up millions of years ago, and has since then been formed by erosion. But signs of the tremendous pressure involved in that pushing are still evident—most dramatically at Hamersley Gorge, where one can see massive, layered bands of ancient rock that have been bent like ribbons of soft clay. The same forces that create earthquakes in Japan, volcanic eruptions in the Andes, and the growth of the Rocky Mountains created the waves and bends in the walls of Hamersley Gorge.

I picked the image below, not because it showed the largest or tallest bending and bowing of the rocks, but because it shows it so clearly.

Hamersley Gorge

Hamersley Gorge

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Dales Gorge

The region through which we were now traveling is called the Pilbara. The Pilbara is a large (197,000 square miles), rugged, and remote region of northwestern Western Australia where both the Hamersley and Chichester Ranges are located. It is arid and can be on the warm side. In fact, Marble Bar, a town in the Pilbara, is famous as one of Australia’s hottest spots, with daytime temperatures from October to May often exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Most of the settlement in the Pilbara revolves around mining (minerals found in the area include gold, tin, copper, talc, iron, manganese, magnesium, silver, beryllium, columbite, asbestos, and tantalite). However, the remarkable geology, ecology, remoteness, and beauty of the place draw a fair number of tourists to the region, as well.

We were there to enjoy the area’s geological and scenic delights—and the Pilbara did not disappoint. The Hamersley Range is thought to have been the first part of the earth’s crust to cool. It is wildly colorful, thanks to the wide range of minerals, but red is the color that predominates. It is the many gorges that cut through the range that are the biggest attraction for adventurers and photographers, though I found the surrounding spinifex-dotted landscape to be mighty pleasing as well.

Dales Gorge was the second gorge we visited, and the first where one had to climb down into the gorge. We started at the end of the gorge were Fortescue Falls cascades down a series of stone “steps” into clear pools on the gorge floor. This waterfall is remarkable for this region because it flows year-round.

I loved the sight of the waterfall (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have a great fondness for falling water), but at this spot, I was even more captivated by the rocks. The colors were remarkable, but so were the shapes. I loved the way the stone walls looked in places as if they had been carefully cut, rather than simply worn and broken. The photo below, taken when I was about half way down the gorge wall, shows both a portion of the lovely falls and some of the surprising rock shapes that delighted me.

Fortescue Falls in Dales Gorge

Fortescue Falls in Dales Gorge

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