A Stroll Through the Pilbara

Also at a recent meeting of our Probus Club of Toondah, our guest speaker, John Florence, took us on a stroll through the Pilbara, an area we have all heard of but know little about.

Western Australia’s Pilbara Region

The Pilbara occupies an area twice the size as the State of Victoria, but with a permanent population of just 66,000 which is considerably boosted by ‘fly in fly out’ mine workers. Most of the permanent population lives in the towns on the coast with the mining towns inland.

The Pilbara is noted for its Aboriginal people who have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years and for their ancient rock carvings. 

The Pilbara has some of the largest and richest deposits of iron ore in the world, which are the lifeblood of the region. 50% of the world’s sea borne iron ore exports come from the Pilbara and in 2019/20 $101.7 billion was returned from the export of iron ore from the Pilbara – a very significant contributor to the economy of Australia.

Railways and Mines of the Pilbara

There are four companies involved:

  • Rio Tinto rail line connects its 16 iron ore mines to the seaports at Dampier and Cape Lampert (green line)
  • BHP connects its 6 mines at Mount Newman to Port Hedland (red line)
  • Twiggy Forrest’s Fortescue Metal Group connects his 3 mines to Port Hedland (blue Line)
  • Gina Rinehart’s Hancock’s Prospecting connects the Roy Hill Mine to Port Hedland. The Roy hill mine is the largest in the Pilbara (pink line)

TWO types of ore are mined in the Pilbara: Hematite has an iron ore content of 69-70% and magnetite 72-73% which means that in a small volume you have a very heavy weight so that the haul trucks have to be huge. The standard iron ore trains are about 2.4 km long with 240 ore cars pulled by 2 or 3 diesel electric locomotives. But the longest train there was BHP’s 7.29 km long with 682 ore cars and it carried 82,000 tonnes of iron ore and was powered by 8 GE diesel locomotives.

John also mentioned salt mining, the National Parks, migratory birds, the Wittenoom asbestos mine, the heat of Marble Bar, Red Dog, the Burrup Peninsula, and Aboriginal rock paintings. 

Working at Dunwich (Noel Brown)

My father, Mark Brown

My grandfather, George Brown, was a descendant of Fernandez Gonzales, a ‘Manila man’ who Tom Welsby once described as ‘the Patriarch of Moreton Bay’. George married Granny Mubue, an Aborigine from the mainland, and their children included my father, Markwell “Mark” George Brown, and my five aunts Daisy Campbell, Tilly Martin, Ethel Close, Vera Perry, and Mabel Brown (she remained unmarried). Our family lived at the Two Mile, which as the name implies was a community situated two miles north of Dunwich. Mark Brown, my father, worked at the old people’s institution at Dunwich as an engineer. He looked after the gas and steam engines there.

Apart from fishing and oystering, the old people’s Institution was the only source of employment for the people of Stradbroke Island. So, when it closed down in about 1947, my father worked at the Lazaret (leprosarium) on Peel Island just across the water from Dunwich. He remained working there until the sand mining started up on Stradbroke Island. At this stage our family moved from the Two Mile to Dunwich. My father worked for the mining in the carpenters’ shop until he retired and went to live at Southport.

Noel Brown

I went to school in Dunwich and when I left, I worked with Bonty Dickson, one of the personalities of Stradbroke and who later became its first Councillor. I worked with him on his oyster leases, then started boat building with him. One of the things I remember about Bonty was that he rode a three-wheeled bike.

Bonty Dickson’s store at Dunwich (photo courtesy Ray Cowie)

When the sand mines started up, I worked on the dredge on Main Beach. The dredge was used to pump the sand mix into the separating towers where the heavy mineral sands were separated from ordinary sand by centrifugal force. Then I helped put through the ropeway from Main Beach to Dunwich, via the Blue Lake and the 18 Mile Swamp. This ropeway (wire) was to transport the mineral sand in buckets across Stradbroke Island to Dunwich from where it was taken by barge to Brisbane and thence overseas.

The company mining the mineral sands then was called Tazi, which was located at Tazitown on the 18-mile swamp. This is now called Con Rutile. Now (1996) there are two sand companies, one at Dunwich (Con [Consolidated] Rutile) and the other at Amity Point.

 (Editor: Consolidated Rutile was a fixed mining operation on North Stradbroke Island with a workforce of up to 150 men housed in accommodation centered at Dunwich. The mineral concentrates were barged to Meeandah near Brisbane airport for separation into heavy mineral components.)

D9 Bulldozers hitched up to move a section of the plant on N.Stradbroke c.1976 (Photo courtesy Felix Fries)

Noel Brown, Southport, 1996

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)

(Editor: Sand mining ceased on Stradbroke Island in 2019).

30 Things (There is more to mining than just coal)

At a recent meeting of our Probus Club of Toondah, our guest speaker was Gavin Becker, a retired metallurgist, who spoke on ‘The Minerals Council of Australia’s 30 Things’. You can download the PDF slide show of his presentation by clicking here:


It’s worth downloading this presentation and reviewing each use of minerals. I like the extra information presented in small print. For example: Australia gave the world WiFi:

WiFi was developed in the radiophysics lab at CSIRO in the 1990s. The technology was a revolution in mobile computing and is today estimated to be in more than five billion electronic devices. For its efforts, CSIRO has earned more than $430 million through licensing agreements with tech companies since 1996.

Gavin still works in the mineral processing area, specializing in base and precious metals. He is keen to offer the other side of mining to that which the media are currently exploiting with the Extinction Rebellion crusades. He abhors politicians short term thinking that plans only for one election. When sand mining stops on Stradbroke Island, it is estimated that there will be $130 million loss to my local area in the Redlands. 

30 Things

Everything we consume is either grown or mined.

More recently, there were demonstrations in Melbourne outside an international conference on mining. Personally, I think it’s a mistake to lump coal mining in in the same category as that of base and precious metals, when it’s really just coal mining that we need to be cutting back on. As Gavin’s talk demonstrated, there’s much more to mining than just coal.