Turn­ing holes in the ground into big tourism dol­lars

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EARTH-MOV­ING ma­chines big­ger than a block of flats, a Su­per Pit that you can see from space and an es­ti­mated $17 bil­lion in min­eral and en­ergy ex­ports a month – the scale of Aus­tralia’s min­ing in­dus­try is so hard to wrap your head around, it’s of­ten re­duced to vague sim­i­les and huge num­bers.

Now, thanks to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties look­ing to broaden their eco­nomic base and min­ing com­pa­nies want­ing to en­gage with the wider com­mu­nity, it’s eas­ier than ever to get first­hand in­sight into this en­gine room of the econ­omy.

Turn­ing min­ing op­er­a­tions into tourism op­por­tu­ni­ties has al­ready paid a div­i­dend for many out­back towns. “There are def­i­nitely wins for any min­ing com­mu­nity that can en­cour­age vis­i­tors,” says Dun­can McLaren, tourism of­fi­cer at the Dis­trict Coun­cil of Coober Pedy. He cites his own town’s bur­geon­ing tourism in­dus­try, which ser­vices up to 100,000 vis­i­tors a year, and says the draw­card is ob­vi­ous: “They’re com­ing be­cause of the min­ing.”

Here are six min­ing cen­tres that are play­ing it both ways.

PILBARA IRON ORE MINES Aus­tralia mines about 30 per cent of the world’s iron ore but with most of the ac­tion hap­pen­ing in the sparsely pop­u­lated north-west of West­ern Aus­tralia, few peo­ple have a sense of what the process looks like.

“The enor­mous size and scale of min­ing in the Pilbara makes it un­like any other place in the world,” says Terry Hill, CEO of the Pilbara De­vel­op­ment Com­mis­sion. In 2016, Rio Tinto’s net­work of 15 iron ore mines in the Pilbara pro­duced 329.5 mil­lion tonnes of iron ore.

Go be­hind the scenes with Lestok Tours (lestok­tours.com.au), which shows tourists around the min­ing gi­ant’s Mount Tom Price mine. “Most of the peo­ple we take are grey no­mads and it’s pretty high on their Pilbara itin­er­ary,” says Bob Stump, who runs the com­pany with his wife, Sue. “I think what drives peo­ple to go and see it is a lack of knowl­edge about the type of oper­a­tion that it is. We go to the look­out, where you can see a bloody big hole, then we drive in and through the process area and see the train load-out [where car­riages are filled with ore].”

It’s an op­por­tu­nity to see “a pretty huge oper­a­tion close at hand”, he adds. “And when they see the size of the trucks com­pared with the size of the tour bus, it’s just mind-blow­ing for peo­ple.”


On the tra­di­tional coun­try of the Gija, Mir­i­uwung, Mal­gnin and Wu­larr peo­ples, this an­cient land has yielded more nat­u­ral coloured di­a­monds than any­where else in the world. Rio Tinto’s Ar­gyle mine in north-east West­ern Aus­tralia has pro­duced more than 800 mil­lion carats of rough di­a­monds since 1983. To­day, min­ing is con­ducted in ac­cor­dance with the 2004 Ar­gyle Par­tic­i­pa­tion Agree­ment, which seeks to en­sure the tra­di­tional own­ers ben­e­fit di­rectly from the mine’s op­er­a­tions, now and into the fu­ture.

As a re­sult, Rio Tinto has made a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the East Kim­ber­ley re­gion and lo­cal In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in terms of em­ploy­ment, in­fra­struc­ture and pro­mot­ing tourism.

Ted Hall, a Mir­i­uwung man and owner of Luridgii Tours (luridgi­i­tours.com.au), says the agree­ment has been suc­cess­ful be­cause it’s rooted in mu­tual re­spect.

Hall takes some 4000 peo­ple a year through the Ar­gyle di­a­mond mine.

As well as show­ing them the cut­tingedge tech­nol­ogy (it has one of the most ef­fi­cient pro­cess­ing plants in the world, which runs non­stop and can process up to 11 mil­lion tonnes of ore per an­num), he shares the sto­ries of his peo­ple and the land. Vis­i­tors learn about Jali­wang (Bar­ra­mundi) Dream­ing and how the Bar­ra­mundi trav­elled across the coun­try and laid her eggs at the site of the mine.

For Hall, the Dream­ing sto­ries and present day sit hap­pily side by side.

“I look at to­day where there is now a rich, bustling di­a­mond mine but I imag­ine what it would have been like as my Elders walked through the coun­try,” he says. “I still live that to­day. As soon as I wake up in the morn­ing, I can feel their pres­ence there. I feel more at home there than any­where else – it’s just that con­nec­tion.”

BRO­KEN HILL, THE SIL­VER CITY The fas­ci­nat­ing story of min­ing in Aus­tralia is writ large in Bro­ken Hill, in out­back NSW. In 2015, the birth­place of BHP be­came the first city added to the Na­tional Her­itage List. The in­scrip­tion came on the back of a 10-year cam­paign by lo­cals, un­der­taken with an eye to boost­ing tourism.

When BHP Bil­li­ton CEO Andrew Macken­zie vis­ited in Jan­uary last year – the first an­niver­sary of Bro­ken Hill’s in­clu­sion on the list – he an­nounced a do­na­tion of $5.7 mil­lion from the BHP Bil­li­ton Foun­da­tion to sup­port a coun­cil ini­tia­tive to re­vi­talise the city. “Bro­ken Hill has a won­der­ful story to tell,” he said in a speech dur­ing the visit. “By tap­ping into the city’s bold and en­er­getic artis­tic flair, its rich and colour­ful his­tory, it will be pre­served for gen­er­a­tions to come.”

To­day, min­ing still plays an in­te­gral role in the city’s life, con­tribut­ing just short of $300 mil­lion a year to the econ­omy, while the tourism and hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor is in­creas­ingly im­por­tant, adding al­most $50 mil­lion an­nu­ally.

There are no tours of Bro­ken Hill’s op­er­at­ing mines but the town­scape is dom­i­nated by the Line of Lode, an im­pos­ing 7.5-kilo­me­tre-long moun­tain of waste from mines worked since the 1880s. “Sym­bol­i­cally, to me, it rep­re­sents the sac­ri­fices made by our pi­o­neers,” says lo­cal his­to­rian and coun­cil­lor Chris­tine Adams. “They went through ter­ri­ble hard­ship to de­velop a min­ing town into a great city.”

In nearby Silverton, get a taste of the min­ing in­dus­try in its in­fancy on an un­der­ground tour of the his­toric Day Dream Mine (day­dream­mine.com.au). “It’s quite in­cred­i­ble,” says Adams. “Sit­ting there with the lanterns that the min­ers used, it’s quite eerie and an emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence to un­der­stand that peo­ple worked that way for their fam­i­lies.”


A visit to the opal-min­ing town of Coober Pedy, more than 800 kilo­me­tres north of Ade­laide, of­fers some­thing you won’t find on a tour of an iron ore mine: the chance to strike it rich. Vis­i­tors can fos­sick, or “noo­dle”, for pre­cious opals among min­ing rub­ble. “In the past three years, we’ve had four ma­jor dis­cov­er­ies in our pub­lic noodling area,” says tourism of­fi­cer Dun­can McLaren. “The most valu­able one was worth $5000, found by a Ger­man back­packer. Not every­body finds some­thing but if it’s go­ing to hap­pen, it can hap­pen here.”

As well as the pub­lic noodling area at the cor­ner of Umoona and Jew­ellers Shop roads, you can search through mul­lock heaps – piles of min­ing rub­ble – at Old Timers Mine (old­timersmine.com). The mu­seum, with demon­stra­tions of min­ing equip­ment and a self-guided un­der­ground mine tour, of­fers a sense of what life was like for the town’s pi­o­neers in decades past.

Back in the 1960s, Coober Pedy would have strug­gled to ac­com­mo­date more than a few coach-loads of tourists. “To­day, with more than 10 ho­tels and about 20 B&Bs, we have some 1500 beds in the town,” says McLaren. “And with four car­a­van parks, we can ac­com­mo­date thou­sands of tourists.”

McLaren at­tributes the town’s suc­cess as a tourism cen­tre to proud, pas­sion­ate lo­cals: peo­ple who rein­vested the wealth they made from opals back into Coober Pedy’s ho­tels and tourist at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing Old Timers Mine, a dream that founder Ron Gough was strug­gling to re­alise un­til he made an opal dis­cov­ery worth $50,000.

(From top) Lestok Tours takes vis­i­tors to an open-cut mine in the Pilbara; mon­ster ma­chines ex­ca­vate the re­gion’s iron ore

Try your luck at “noodling” for opals in Coober Pedy, South Aus­tralia (above)

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