For most of the country the mining boom is a good news story of mining royalties and economic resilience that has carried us - so far - through the turbulence on world financial markets. However, from close-up in the coastal Pilbara, the resources boom has distorted the local economy beyond recognition. Some are making and taking a great deal of money out of the region; others are struggling to survive.
On my recent visit to Karratha, I heard incredible stories from angry and frustrated people. A modest four-bedroom house now sells for more than a million dollars and rents are out of control, stretching from $1,500 to $2,800 a week. People are sleeping in cars, tents and clapped out caravans, with temperatures soaring regularly into the 40s through much of the year. Petrol is nudging $2 per litre and fuelwatch is a joke when the nearest alternative servo is hundreds of kilometres up the road. Women in labour rush to the Karratha hospital only to be told to drive three hours to Port Hedland because there are not enough nurses and doctors.
All conversations here lead back to housing: unless you own your own place or are employed by the mining industry you simply can’t afford to live here any more. Small businesses, government departments and non-government organisations are well past desperate and running out of ways to hold on to staff.
In the absence of robust social or community infrastructure that provides adequate health care, policing, education or cultural activities, there are fewer and fewer incentives for families, particularly those with adolescent children, to stay. In the face of these difficulties, flying workers in and out from Perth or Brisbane makes more sense, which is absurd in an increasingly carbon conscious world.
In April a Senate select committee investigating housing affordability visited the town. They have called for a “high level emergency task force” to make up for years of premeditated inaction on behalf of state and federal governments. But folk up here have had enough of taskforces, reports and recommendations.
Karratha needs 2,000 affordable beds, yesterday, to prevent the complete hollowing out of the community. The situation in Hedland and other Pilbara communities is similarly acute, but the cluster of townships around Karratha seems to be worst hit. These are communities literally collapsing under the weight of the boom.
Why? To find some of the answers, we look to the low range of rust-coloured hills across the bay from Karratha: to Murujuga, the Burrup Peninsula.
Murujuga, virtually unknown to the world until a few years ago, is the world’s oldest and largest work of ceremonial art - an entire landscape given over to unbroken cultural narratives stretching back nearly 30,000 years into the late Pleistocene. Along the main peninsula and across the islands of the Dampier Archipelago, up to a million petroglyphs - rock carvings - are distributed across tens of thousands of sites, amid an enigmatic network of standing stones, boulder terraces, prehistoric campsites and shell middens.
Words can’t quite do justice to this other-worldly landscape of deep red granophyre, steeply incised valleys and shaded rock pools. Along some valleys, nearly every surface is engraved with a riot of archaic faces, birdlife, animal figures, footprints, outstretched hands and wildly abstract geometries.
It is humbling to spend time in this landscape with people who know it well. You quickly realise that we’re almost completely illiterate to the thousands of stories that these rocks have been telling since before the last ice age.
Nowhere else on planet earth do we have a continuous record of human cultural endeavour stretching back this long. Twenty-five thousand years before our ancestors assembled the megaliths at Stonehenge, the first complex archaic faces were being carefully worked into the diamond-hard boulder piles of the Burrup.
In the 1960s, the iron ore port of Dampier was established, erasing unknown thousands of petroglyphs and blowing a town-sized hole through the fabric of the rock art province. In the 1980s, the construction of the Woodside onshore gas plant flattened a square kilometre of the central peninsula, dumping displaced rock art into a lonely fenced compound described by one Elder as a “cemetery” and establishing the Burrup as one of Australia’s most important industrial areas.