52 years between visits: BHP Mt Whaleback Tour at Newman, Western Australia

I visited the Mt Whaleback iron ore mine in September 1969 which was the year that its ore was first shipped overseas.  

Along with 23 girls and guys in our early twenties we chartered a bus to take us on a tour of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, sleeping under the stars on camp stretchers and cooking meals over camp fires.  Fast forward to last September, 52 years later and I am visiting the Pilbara region for the second time.  This time in the comfort of a luxury caravan with Maureen, my wife of 50 years.

In 1969 Mt Whaleback was 805 metres above sea level.  Now, the viewing area at the highest point is about 650 metres above sea level but you look down into what is the largest single open-cut iron ore mine in the world.  It is currently 5.5km long and 2km wide, twice the size of the Kalgoorlie gold Super Pit.  

From the viewing platform the ore trucks, which carry in excess of 200 tonnes of ore, the mechanical shovels which load them and the excavators look like match box toys.  The bottom of the pit is well below the water table and each week 46 million litres of water is pumped out.  The water is used in the treatment processes, machinery and dust suppression.

There are two types of ore mined here – the blue/grey coloured Brockman Hematite which at 68.8% iron is one of the highest grades in the world; the other is ochre (yellow) coloured Goethite Limonite which is 61% iron.  

The chunks of ore loaded into the trucks are up to 1.5m in size and are dropped into a crusher which smashes them into pieces the size of a rock melon.  A second crusher then smashed those rock melon size pieces into pieces the size of a grapefruit.  

The trains which carry the ore 426km to Port Hedland for shipping overseas, consist of 4 locomotives with just one driver and 268 ore cars (in excess of 130 tonnes of ore in each), and on average are 2.9km long.  The world’s longest train record was broken here in 2001 when 8 locomotives with one driver and 682 ore cars was assembled.  It was 7.3km long.  I pity any road drivers who had to wait for it to pass through a crossing.

Tours of the mining operation are conducted by staff from the Newman Visitor Centre.  We were fortunate in that our tour guide, Michelle actually worked for a number of years for BHP Billiton in the administration at Newman. She was able to relate some interesting and humorous tales, which made the tour more enjoyable than others we have been on.  

It is a requirement that all visitors must wear long sleeved shirts, long pants and enclosed shoes.  We definitely recommend that visitors to Newman take part in a tour.

The Newman Visitor Centre is not supported by the local Shire, it is self-funded.  Travellers in self-contained caravans and motorhomes can currently park overnight in the Centre’s carpark for $10.  There is a dump point, and water is available for a gold coin donation.  The Centre also has 6 chalets for rent.

You can also stay at the new Caravan Park at Newman.

Find these camps and caravan parks in the CAMPS guide booksnew CAMPS Pendium boxed set and CAMPS AUSTRALIA WIDE App.

On the Great Northern Highway between Cue and Mt Magnet WA - image Michael and Maureen Lennon.jpg
On the Great Northern Highway between Cue and Mt Magnet WA - image Michael and Maureen Lennon.jpg

The photos put into perspective how big the ore trucks and their parts are in comparison to the width of the highways along which they are transported to the mine sites.

The drivers of the escorting pilot vehicles sometimes don’t travel far enough ahead of the prime movers in order to give sufficient warning of the size of the following loads to the oncoming traffic.  This causes a frantic scramble to find somewhere suitable to pull one’s caravan completely off the road.  

We had one case where the pilot vehicle advised that a 8.5 metre wide load was following and to quickly get completely off the road.  In this case the gravel at the side of the road fell away sharply and was too dangerous to move onto it.  Maureen quickly got onto the 2-way radio and told them that we would comply when it was safe to do so.

North West Coastal Highway WA - image Michael and Maureen Lennon
North West Coastal Highway WA - image Michael and Maureen Lennon

Images by Michael and Maureen Lennon 

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