Port Hedland (W.A.)
Port Hedland is the highest tonnage port in Australia and largest town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, with a population of approximately 14,000, including the satellite town of South Hedland, 18 km away.
Port Hedland is a natural deep anchorage port which, as well as being the main fuel and container receival point for the region, was seen as perfect for shipment of the iron ore being mined in the ranges located inland from the town. The ore is moved by railway lines from four major iron ore deposits to the east and south of Port Hedland area. In August 2010 the port exported 13.6 million tonnes of iron ore.
Other major resource activities supported include the offshore natural gas fields, salt, manganese, and livestock. Grazing of cattle and sheep was formerly a major revenue earner for the region but this has slowly declined. Port Hedland was formerly the terminus for the WAGR Marble Bar Railway which serviced the gold mining area of Marble Bar.
Port Hedland is known by the Indigenous Kariyarra and Nyamal people as Marapikurrinya, which either means “place of good water” (as told by a Nyamal language speaker) and makes reference to the three reliable fresh water soaks that can still be seen in and around the town, or as the town council’s website says “refers to the hand like formation of the tidal creeks coming off the harbour (marra – hand, pikurri – pointing straight and nya – a place name marker)”. According to Dreamtime legend there was a huge blind water snake living in the landlocked area of water known as Jalkawarrinya.
This landlocked area is now the turning basin for the ships that enter the port and as the story goes, “the coming of the big ships meant it was unable to stay”.
Though the coastline in the area had been explored in the 18th century, Captain Peter Hedland was one of the first Europeans to explore the harbour for the purpose of developing an export port. Peter Hedland arrived in the area in April 1863 onboard his boat, Mystery that he had built himself at Point Walter on the banks of the Swan River. He named the harbour Mangrove Harbour and reported that it would make a good landing site with a well protected harbour and that there was also fresh water available.
What Hedland failed to point out was that the harbour was difficult to enter because of a huge sandbar that sealed the entrance meaning it was only accessible at high tide and that it was difficult to enter in bad weather because of the narrow entrance.
In 1866, the resident Magistrate of Roebourne, Treverton Sholl, commissioned Charles Wedge to investigate alternative town sites to Roebourne. Wedge’s reports were pessimistic about the suitability of Port Hedland. In 1891, exploration of the area by Tom Traine, John Wedge and Syd Hedley identified two landings and described the harbour as “pretty as well as safe”.
In September 1895, Cossack residents requested the District Surveyor to survey the headland at Port Hedland and requested the Government to build a jetty.
Goldsworthy Mining developed an iron ore mine approximately 100 kilometres east of Port Hedland in the early 1960s and built the towns of Goldsworthy and later Shay Gap as mine sites. A rail line was then built to Port Hedland where dredging was undertaken to deepen and widen the port’s channel and a wharf was built opposite the township of Port Hedland on Finucane Island. Shipment of ore began on 27 May 1966 when the Harvey S Mudd sailed from Port Hedland to Japan with 24,900 tonnes of ore.
In 1967 iron ore was discovered at Mount Whaleback and a mining venture was undertaken that included the establishment of a new town, Newman, 426 km of rail from the mine to the port and the development of processing equipment at both Newman and Port Hedland. In 1986, at a cost of $87 million, the existing channel was dredged to allow the port to increase the tonnage of those ships able to enter the port. Prior to dredging the port was only able to load vessels less than 2,000 tonnes but today it is able to accommodate ships over 250,000 tonnes.
Geography and climate
The climate of Port Hedland is warm to hot, with mean maximum temperatures of 36.4 °C (97.5 °F) in January and 27.1 °C (80.8 °F) in July. Maximum temperatures in summer are usually moderated by a warm but humid sea breeze. Annual rainfall (falling almost exclusively between December and June) averages 311.5 mm (12.26 in) but because of erratic cyclones is subject to some of the largest variations in the world.
As an illustration, in 1942 1,040 mm (41 in) fell, but in 1944 only 32 mm (1.3 in) fell and the town went for over 300 days with no rain. The high summer temperatures experienced in Port Hedland mean that most tourists to the area choose to visit in the cooler months between May and September.
Port Hedland’s harbour is managed by the Port Hedland Port Authority, a state government instrumentality. The Port Authority’s headquarters, control tower and heliport are at Mangrove Point, just to the west of The Esplanade at the western end of Port Hedland. The tugboat pen, customs office and public jetty are at nearby Laurentius Point. The harbour’s wharves are located on both sides of the harbour – Finucane Island to the west and Port Hedland to the east. Access by oceangoing vessels into and out of the harbour is via a narrow curved channel.