this (drilling) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Emma Beat­tie

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.

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