this (drilling) life
MIDMORNING, a tiny six-seater leaves the Port Hedland runway and enters a big blue sky. With a lot of noise and shaking, we leave behind the salt flats, the hectares of stockpiles and the monster cranes of Finucane Island. Twelve supertankers are lined up for the port.
We fly over strangely shaped ridges and mine sites with deep pits and steeply benched walls, and land on the bright red runway of a cattle station, somewhere between the Pilbara mineral field and the Great Sandy Desert. It is still an hour from here to the rig.
For nine months I’ve been coming here on little planes. For months I’ve sat on this drill rig, covered in dirt while it spits out rocks and roars, and frequently breaks down. This is one such day, so my three colleagues and I pile into the utes and go off exploring the ruins of an old homestead on the tenement. The people who populated the outback with their corrugated iron and miscellaneous machine parts must have done it tough: dust and spinifex was their lot. They could not get on a series of planes and leave this place every two weeks and conduct two separate lives, each one a rest from the other. And this is not the only kind of history here. We walk on a landscape almost as ancient as the world, formed from one of the first pieces of crust to emerge as our molten planet cooled. It has seen the beginning of life and its end several times over. Sometimes it hurts my head to think we may be the last people to see it in the state that took three billion years to achieve.
As evening falls, we return to our little camp; two caravans and a long drop (some corrugated iron built around a drill hole, with a little solar light for finding your way at night). This evening it is visited by a thousand dragonflies — oversized, like everything in the Pilbara. Their silhouettes flit in and out of the blue dusk with iridescent wings, and micro-bats squeak and click overhead. The stars have begun to come out, but a full moon rises like a rude yellow lamp.
This was a good day. There are bad days too. Our little pseudo-family does not always function happily. We live two-thirds of our lives out here and, as a result, the other one-third (spent in exhausted delirium) tends to fall apart, leaving nothing. Why am I alive, I sometimes ask the landscape, which is very old and therefore must be wise, but it just stares back blank and bright orange. I love my job and I hate it; the breathtaking sunrises, the campfire beers, the support of a great team. At times I hate being stuck out here, and don’t even get me started on being (the only) female. But soon the 12-hour routine kicks in, the days fly past and the shift ends. And just when it seems this may become a routine, the company calls a meeting. Back in the city of grey skies and concrete, I button up my long Grim Reaper coat and pull my scarf tight around my neck.
Our work has delivered a ‘‘resource’’, in grade and tonnage, but the market is not conducive and the price is wrong. There will be no mine site. We will tow away our caravans, dismantle the long drop, and our home will bake silently in the relentless sun for the foreseeable future, it has been decided. I miss it already. Briefly we will enjoy unemployment and reclaim that other one-third of our lives. I miss my longsuffering partner. I owe my living and my lifestyle entirely to this industry, and this small piece of the Pilbara is not unique. The fact I have fallen in love with it and can’t stand to see it destroyed is entirely subjective. But I can’t help smiling.