Peta Murray digs the dirt on the place with the richest deposit of iron ore in the country – and sees what’s at the core of Australia’s economic boom.
Nestled in the Hamersley Ranges in north-western WA, Tom Price is home to a pub, a hospital and a Chinese restaurant. The town isn’t too dissimilar to other small country towns – except that Tom Price happens to also be home to the largest open-cut iron ore mines in the world.
Hamersley Iron, a subsidiary of mining giant Rio Tinto, began open-cut mining on Mount Tom Price in 1966, attracting miners from all over Australia. A “wild west” mentality prevailed in the early years, with Tom Price fondly recalled by locals as “a drinking town with a mining problem”.
These days safety is the biggest problem and, after a recent spate of deaths on the sites of mining rival BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto is taking no chances. Our group of 27 is kitted out with safety glasses and hard hats before boarding an air-conditioned coach, where bus driver-cum-tour-guide Baz warns us to “belt up”. Failure to comply will land the offending passenger a $25,000 fine with a $50,000 slap on the wrist for Baz. We’re under mine site jurisdiction now.
The ten-minute drive out to the mine takes us past Mount Nameless, the highest 4WD-accessible mountain in Western Australia at 1128 metres.
The red hills of the open-cut mine soon rise from the plain below, stark against the postcard-blue sky. Five-and-a-half kilometres long, 1.5km wide and approximately 500 metres deep, the Tom Price site contains 80 percent of all identified iron-ore reserves in Australia, making it one of the richest ore deposits on the planet.
Given the nod by security, we drive through the main gates and into mine world where our bus is instantly dwarfed by other vehicles. If dinosaurs had wheels, this would be Jurassic Park. A loader trundles past, its tyres taller than our bus and, at $100,000 a pop, worth a whole lot more. And the figures just get crazier. Loaders have a 4000-litre fuel capacity and chew up a petrol-pump-nightmarish 20 litres of juice per kilometre.
After radioing ahead for permission, we drive slowly up the wide, graded entry road to the site lookout where we get a closer view of gargantuan loaders carting tonnes of ore from the pit to the processing plant.
As we stand taking in the scene like wide-eyed kids, one of these monsters appears like a threat over the hill. The female driver slows down to give us a photo op and a friendly wave. These trucks may be referred to as “boys’ toys” but it’s more often the girls who get to drive them due to their reputation for being easier on the machinery. “Easier on the eye, as well,” quips Baz.
Baz is a wealth of information when it comes to all things ore and fills any gaps in commentary with more jaw-dropping statistics. I’m surprised to learn that Rio Tinto Pilbara produces almost 13 percent of the world’s annual ore supply and I’m frankly amazed that the average Australian uses 50 tonnes of iron ore in a lifetime.
We aren’t allowed off the bus again during the tour, which disappoints some but considering the red dust and 40-plus temperatures outside, I’m more than happy to stay in air-conditioned comfort.
Our tour winds up at the processing plant, where a giant conveyor spits high-grade iron ore onto a towering pile. From here the rock is crushed into fine particles and loaded onto rail cars for the journey to Parker Port in Dampier.
Each car has a 100-tonne capacity, with trains pulling around 230 cars and stretching up to 2.4 kilometres in length. Baz tells us that at iron ore’s price peak – $200 per tonne in 2008 – each train leaving Tom Price was carrying a load worth an estimated $1.5 million.
Back in town, the sun has set and the Tom Price Hotel is filling with miners. Coins are down on the pool table, someone’s calling a shout at the bar and “Flame Trees” is playing on the juke box. It may not be quite the “wild west” of old but this is still the real-deal Outback Australia.
THE AT Verdict
Peta Murray, who paid her own way and visited anonymously, says:
Love or loathe the mining industry, the Tom Price tour is a must-do if you find yourself in the Pilbara. Informative, entertaining and definitely eye-opening, this is an opportunity to get the low-down on one of Australia’s richest resources while making like an extra in Land of the Giants…
Where: Operator Lestok Tours depart daily for the Rio Tinto Iron Ore Mine from Tom Price Visitor Centre, Central Road, Tom Price WA.
Notes: Duration: The 1.5 hour tour costs
$25 for adults and $15 for children under 14. Includes entrance fee and info booklet.
Safety gear supplied, but make sure to wear closed-in footwear.
Contact // (08) 9189 2032 // www.lestoktours.com.au