Wittenoom (aband)

Today our plan is to go north to the Hammersley Gorge and on from there to Wittenoom and then round the back of the Hammersley Range before going into the Karijini National Park by evening. The whole journey will be approximately 150 miles and most of it on unsealed roads. Before we left Tom Price we went to the visitor centre to get some information and maps. We asked the lady there about Wittenoom and she produced a leaflet about the town from under the counter titled ‘Considering Travelling to Wittenoom -You should know the facts. They could save your life.’ She said she wasn’t allowed to give us any other information.

The story of Wittenoom is thus – in it’s heyday of the 1950’s it was one of the biggest and prosperous mining towns in the region. Between 1937 and 1966 blue asbestos was mined here. This was seen as a remarkable material – strong, heat resistant with excellent flame retardent and insulating properties. There was only one problem. The asbestos dust fibres were making people ill. While this was known as early as the 1920’s when asbestosis was termed a medical condition it wasn’t until workers started dying of mesothelioma that the mines were closed. Since 1979 the WA government have been trying to shut the town down.

We reached the Hammersley Gorge and walked down to the bottom. To get further in the gorge you have to swim. The water was dark brown from all the iron ore in the earth and didn’t look too appealing. A young German guy turned up just as we were contemplating it and said it was OK as he’d done it the day before so we all swam round (about 200 metres) and explored further up the gorge. We mentioned to him that we were going to Wittenoom and he said he’d like to follow us. We were pleased about this as it was a long way and very isolated.

From the gorge all signage pointing to Wittenoom has been removed but it was fairly easy to guess the way from the blank spaces. We pressed on for what seemed like ages and all the time we could see black plumes of smoke in the distance. Obviously bush fires are quite a common occurence in this area but we didn’t expect to see one so close up. The closer we got the smoke thickened and then we could see large flames at the side of the road ahead of us. We stopped and thought about going back but we were now so close and once past the flames we didn’t have to come back that way to get to Karijini.

There is not too much left of Wittenoom and a few people still live there. All the old roads and signposts are there but a lot of the buildings are derelect or missing all together. It had a very sad atmosphere which is a shame as it’s in such a beautiful setting nestling at the bottom of the Hammersley Range. We could just imagine running Doc Holiday’s Diner and Deli with it’s own petrol pumps right on the corner as you came in to town. We then drove just out of town down a gorge and found the perfect place under a shady gum tree to have a spot of lunch.

It’s obviously up to the individual whether they visit this town or not and we did wonder what the long term future would be but surely just trying to wipe it off the map and pretend it never existed because of the effect it may have on tourism doesn’t give due respect to the town’s former workers and residents who have and are still are facing long, slow deaths.

The rest of the drive along the range was very beautiful with the high range to one side of us and the bush as far as the eye could see on the other side. This was driving through Australia as we imagined it would be.

It was late when we arrived at Karajini and found a camping spot at Dales Gorge.

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