Turning holes in the ground into big tourism dollars
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.”
EAST KIMBERLEY ARGYLE DIAMOND MINE
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.”
COOBER PEDY OPAL MINES
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)