Day 88 – Saturday, 20 August 2022

Well, we went into Port Hedland and found the Tourist Information Centre and the ladies were lovely. Russ ended up buying a long-sleeved t-shirt in the wick material that has Port Hedland on the sleeves, and a huge train and a huge boat on the front of it.

The place was so quiet for a Saturday morning that I thought I was back in Ouyen on a Sunday. Very little traffic, no people on the streets, it was beyond weird.

The Port is enormous, and we were able to get some photos of some of the ships, and some more of the long ore trains. Not much bird life except for seagulls, and some patches of wildflowers, mainly mulla mullas.

We also went up to Koombana Lookout which was very interesting.

In March 1912 the coastal town of the North-West, together with the Nation, were shocked with the news that the steamship, Koombana, had not arrived at its destination after sailing from Port Hedland during the height of a fierce cyclone.

(I’m now up to my 7th biro for note taking purposes.)

The Koombana, a 3,700-ton vessel was just three years old and the pride of the K-Line fleet for the Adelaide Steamship Company. As she

prepared to sail out of Port Hedland enroute to Broome the small community of Port Hedland were preparing for a cyclone.

At the time another vessel, the Bullara, was also at berth with the Koombana. The captains of both vessels confirmed their intentions of setting sail and riding out the storm, which is customary even today.

The Bullara sailed south while the Koombana sailed north.

The crew and passenger list for the Koombana numbered 147 people. The cargo stocks were low having been partially discharged along the coastal towns. And many locals recalled that as she sailed into the already rough sea, the rudder could be seen rising out of the water.

Also visible was an inherited and permanent lean to one side that was a result of an earlier incident when the vessel ran aground.

Locals stated at the time that the normal period a vessel would remain visible from the shore was 35 minutes. On this occasion the Koombana could be seen for over two hours as she pitched and tossed her way into the heavy seas.

The Bullara enroute south arrived at Cossack (Karratha), her deck cargo having been swept off by the storm though all her crew and passengers had survived their ordeal.

One week after the news of the loss of the Koombana, a stateroom door, believed to have come from the vessel, was picked up by a search vessel – the Una – near Bedout Island, which is 25 miles north-east of Port Hedland. Cushions and straw sleeves used to store bottles were later found, but the resting place for the ship has never been discovered.

The stories and theories of how the Koombana would have sunk in the cyclonic seas were aired in many of the Nation’s newspapers at the time, and often since then, but the real ordeal still remains a mystery, known only to the crew and passengers who share her watery grave somewhere north of Port Hedland.

During 1912 an enquiry was held into her loss, but no positive conclusions were drawn, and the final report reads, “After the Koombana sailed from Port Hedland on 10 March 1912 her fate passes beyond human knowledge and remains a mystery of the sea.”

Those who have looked through the manifests report that the ship was not carrying cargo of any great value. There are reports of one registered package in the mail that had been dispatched from Marble Bar and rumours have grown that this was a large quantity of gold.

However, the story of the Roseate Pearl is the subject of the book “Forty Fathoms Deep” by Australian author, Ion Idriess.

The story goes that a large and beautifully hued pearl had been found in Broome. This pearl, whose history was never disclosed to the boat owner, was considered cursed, as whoever had its possession, was murdered.

The pearl passed from hand to hand and eventually came to Port Hedland with a Broome-based pearl dealer, Mr Davis. The curse held good as Mr Davis booked passage on the Koombana and went down with the ship. Legend says that his ghost haunted the Bishop’s Manse in Broome after the Koombana disappeared.

Whatever, the real truth of the matter, the pearl would not have survived years of immersion and has returned to the sea.

The sinking of the Koombana was the largest civilian shipping tragedy in West Australia waters during the 20th Century. Many have claimed to have found her, but none have been substantiated so she continues to elude us.

After her disappearance a large number of vessels were mobilised and diverted to search for her. Flotsam was reported over a distance of 100 nautical miles (approximately 190 kilometres) of sea, but nothing substantial was found.

The skipper of the Una who discovered her stateroom door and several cushions a week after her disappearance, telegrammed authorities to say that more debris had floated to the surface, and there were a great many sharks present at the location. He concluded that the wreck must lie somewhere in that general area.

During 1985 the Port Hedland Maritime Historical Society searched the Una area north-west of Bedout Island. The search continued around the clock for a period of four days using state of the art equipment in water approximately 100 metres deep. They found nothing.

In the early 1990s and American P3 Orion aircraft searched, during four missions, for the steel hull of the Koombana using magnetic detection equipment usually used for hunting submarines.

They found the task extremely difficult because of the presence of a large undersea iron ore deposit that would have completely obscured the presence of the wreck.

During one mission in another non-magnetic area, their equipment recorded the presence of a steel hull during one particular run but repeat passes over the same location failed to locate the same magnetic signature.

We took a tour of the outskirts of Port Hedland. It sprawls everywhere. We stopped off at the lookout at Redbank Bridge and took some photos of the salt operation where the conveyor belt was pouring salt onto a new stack, and the drying beds located beside them.

We were there when the next BHP Billiton iron-ore train came past – all 2.5 kilometres of it. It is so big that there are slave/breaking engines in the middle of all the fully laden ore trucks to assist with the stopping process.

And a Nankeen Kestrel stayed near us for another phot opportunity. We even caught it hovering the wind was so strong.

Then we went out to Finucane Island and saw how large the mining complex in this region is – really ginormous!

In 1920, William Banger, owner of a pearling fleet, set up headquarters in Port Hedland with his five luggers. He employed Japanese divers and situated his luggers and his hut on Finucane Island.

Finucane Island became the site of the ore crushing, stockpiling and loading into waiting ships. Ore arrived from Mt Goldsworthy, Shay Gap and Sunrise Hill.

By 1966 the railway from Goldsworthy to Finucane Island was completed to take its first shipment of iron ore on the Harvey S Mudd. With the mining of iron ore came the mining of salt.

BHP’s ambitions to export iron ore from Port Hedland began its planning in 1967. The harbour was dredged, and the spoil was placed over the reef.

By 1969 the ore crusher was built, and the first iron ore shipment was loaded and sent to Nelson Point. The Osumi Maru was loaded with 100,000 tonnes of iron ore and was headed to Japan.

By the 1970s the dust over Port Hedland was unbearable for most locals who can recall hanging their washing on the line only to be covered in dust and needing to be washed again.

In 1976 BHP continued to expand its production with a second processing plant at Nelson Point which increased annual production to 40 million tonnes, including the dust.

In 1982 Port Hedland experienced an earthquake, one of the largest ever recorded.

On record, Port Hedland has only ever experienced Category 1 cyclones.

BHP is involved in an Australian – and World – first at Port Hedland involving the about to be constructed wind fences, and the testing of two new automated ship loaders at the port operation.

The automation is aimed at providing significant safety, production and cost benefits, using 3D laser scan technology as part of the project which will fully automate eight ship loaders by 2023.

Some of the ship loaders will be based at Finucane Island and will be responsible for loading 1,500 bulk ore carriers every year. Once the ship loader testing is completed the ship loading operations will be done from the Integrated Remote Operations Centre in Perth.

The wind fences have been designed to reduce dust emissions as part of BHP’s air quality commitment. Constructed for the Pilbara’s unique weather conditions, and rated specifically to withstand cyclones, the fences will include mesh panels designed to reduce wind speeds thus shielding stockpiles and reducing the potential for dust lift-off.

The wind fences will be fabricated and built in WA, involving 3,000 tonnes of structural steel, and will be the first of their kind in Australia. The 30-metre-high fences will span a length of 2 kilometres, and the mesh curtains will open as the wind reaches a certain limit, letting the air flow through the fence.

On the way back from the island we stopped for me to take, hopefully, an artistic shot of the wildflowers, and then we stopped to fuel up at the BP truck stop.

Our ice maker is a little beauty. It is marvellous when it gets quite hot that our drinking water is still cool enough to enjoy.

It got down to six degrees last night. I needed to put a blanket on the bed for me, but the temperature topped out at 31 degrees for the day