The Pilbara - The Magnificent Hamersley Ranges and Wittenoom (Hamersley, Wittenoom & Bee Gorges)

Sunday, Jul 04, 2010 at 00:00


Sunday 4th July, 2010
Bee Gorge, Hamersley Ranges WA

We emerged into a gloomy morning. While it was heavily overcast with heavy pregnant clouds, the rain had largely held off during the night and the weather was showing some signs of clearing off on the horizon. Our first destination of the day was Hamersley Gorge a few kilometres along the Nanutarra Road.

Our early start saw us the first to arrive for the day so we wasted no time in wandering down into the gorge (all the better for photographic opportunities). The tortured, twisted folds of rock that make up the gorge walls bear testament to some pretty impressive upheavals early on in our geological history. After exploring the main pools and falls area, we decided to push south along the gorge in an attempt to find “the grotto” or Fern Grotto as it is also known. There is no actual path to the Grotto that is easily discernable, rather a series of footprints here and there. We ended up climbing down some of the steep sided faces of the gorge and then picking our way through the jumble of deep red boulders trying to keep our feet dry. Scott (aka Grizzly Adams) was moving well ahead out front to such an extent that we slower bods down the back could no longer see or hear him. Thankfully we found him at the narrow cleft that conceals fern pool, a clear deep pool of water surrounded by sheer walls and overhung by ferns and trailing root systems from the trees way above. A beautiful location and well worth the walk. It was a pity it wasn’t a bit hotter or I’d have been in there exploring. A mission for another time perhaps.

After extricating ourselves from the Hamersley Gorge, it was out along the dusty Nanutarra and Munjina Roads, firstly down through the narrow and winding Rio Tinto Gorge and it’s spectacular vistas and then onto the Munjina and east along the Hamersley’s towards the Auski Roadhouse and Wittenoom. Both Dirt roads were in excellent condition although you had to watch the dips and creek crossings and wandering cattle on the Munjina. The layered ramparts of Mount King and the Hamersley Ranges are split by Mount King Gorge, Range Gorge and then Bee Gorge. Each rocky terrace is a dark, almost black colour and there’s a certain gloom about the area, despite it being spectacular in it’s own right. Personally I think it’s because this road travels the razor sharp boundary between the magnificent Hamersley’s on the south, and the flat, cattle lands to the north. Of course this wasn’t helped by the overcast day but that was the feeling I got while traversing the area. It was only a short 50 kilometre hop from Hamersley Gorge to the ruins of Wittenoom.

The remains of Wittenoom sit at the mouth of Wittenoom Gorge. Crocidolite (blue asbestos) was mined in Wittenoom from 1938 to 1966 when the mine was closed. Originally owned by Lang Hancock, the discoverer of iron ore in the Pilbara, at one stage the mine was Australia’s only asbestos supplier, mining around 160,000 tonnes. Up to 20,000 people lived and worked in Wittenoom until research into lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma was linked to the blue fibrous dust produced at the mine. It has been suggested that mining in Wittenoom ceased due to commercial viability rather than health concerns, not impossible to believe back in 1966.

Turning to Wiki; “Belonging to the amphibole family, Crocidolite fibers are finely textured and hair-like, occurring in naturally formed bundles, and are long and straight, like amosite. These straight, needle-like fibers are easy to inhale and will remain in the lungs indefinitely. Indeed, Crocidolite is the most hazardous of the amphibole asbestos family. Scientists have noted that about 18% of those who have mined this form of asbestos have died of mesothelioma. Traditionally mined in South Africa, Bolivia, and Western Australia, studies have also shown that individuals living in the area of the former mines are inclined to suffer ill effects of asbestos inhalation as well.”

Today most of the original buildings have been removed. The main street is barren but can just be identified by road markings and signs. A few dilapidated houses line the avenue entering the town and an interesting rock and gem shop opens by appointment. The town was de-gazetted in 2006 and is officially no more. Road signs showing the distance and direction to Wittenoom have been blackened out and the name has allegedly been removed from official maps although we had no problems finding it on the 2008 versions of both Hema Maps and Natmaps. The WA state government no longer supplies power to the town and a Telstra supplied (but non-operational) solar phone booth at the towns entrance is the only physical link with the outside world.

Our drive into Wittenoom Gorge followed Bolitho Road, a now crumbling single lane road that wound into the gorge for about 6 kilometres. You won’t find any literature or tour guides encouraging you to visit the area or pointing out the sites along the way (see last lines of the Wiki paragraph!). The power of the water rushing out of the gorge is apparent in the manner in which many of the concrete slabs laid as causeways across the creek have been ripped up and washed downstream. Majestic gums line the creek as you push into the range. We passed several large waterholes along the way which looked to have remained popular camp sites.

The tailings from the mine are visible as you pass and asbestos can be found if you simply look at the rocks about your feet. Many display the blue fibrous banding of crocidolite right through the rock. Fibres are easily teased from these specimens and I must confess that one of our number looked decidedly uncomfortable being in here (harden the hell up Scotty. You’ve got to die of something man!) At one point we passed a colourful line of Bee Eaters sitting snugly together on a low branch in almost perfect symmetry.

The road ends at the old mine managers house which is virtually only a rock retaining wall and slab these days. The road used to continue on to the main mine area and then into Karijini but has been deliberately made impassable. We had a good wander around this area and down into the creek bed before returning and attempting to locate one of the old tracks that wound out of the gorge to the west and into the neighbouring gorges to the west. Our track followed the course of a wide stony creek gradually getting more confined as our height above the valley floor increased. I was fortunate enough to have stopped to check out another catwalk track from the comfort of the trailer drawbar so was a good way back in friendly country when the others called that they could proceed no further. Wisely they turned about and retraced their tracks down to where I had set up for lunch.

Lunch concluded we decided to try and locate a track in to Bee gorge with a view to setting up camp for the day. Back through Wittenoom we drove on the remaining strips of tarmac that were once the avenues of a well laid out town. Some old signs remained forlornly naming a street where kids once played in the bright West Australian sun enjoying the halcyon days of the 60’s. A ghost town now for sure. For us it was backtracking to a point 7 km to the west where we found a rough track heading in towards the ranges. This skirted the range for a few kilometres to the broad opening of Bee Gorge. Again , Bee Gorge appeared very similar to Wittenoom Gorge as we pushed in a few kilometres and under the shade of some gums, located a high bank to set up camp. It was a very confined spit of land to camp on but with the afternoon still overcast and rain threatening, being above the creek floor was an important safety consideration. The late afternoon was spent unloading and preparing the quads. A magnificent fire was prepared in the creek bed where we enjoyed a meal and planning session with a jar or two before retiring.

''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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