Adventures in the Vast Nothingness of Western Australia
If the state of Western Australia were a country of its own, it would make the top 10 of the world’s biggest countries. Penny Lewis is the Metrohm Territory Manager for Western Australia. Along with just three other colleagues, she provides sales and service for the vast area. Starting at the Perth office, where they are based, Penny and I traveled through Western Australia. I got to see some of the beautiful, remote places of the state, but I also got an idea what it means to be covering such a vast area.
Before heading off to Port Hedland in the north of Western Australia, I met with Penny, her partner Shannon, and her son Riley at Metrohm’s Perth office. They wanted to take me to the house of Shannon’s parents to meet Josephine, the family pet. Josephine is not a cat or a dog or a goldfish. She’s a kangaroo. This may sound very typically Australian but, even here, kangaroos aren’t usually kept as pets.
«Shannon’s mother is a teacher», Penny explains. «One day, some of her students appeared at her door with the young kangaroo! Some of the families go hunting. They shot the mother and found the joey in her pouch.» The family adopted the orphaned kangaroo and named it Josephine. When Josephine was younger, she used to go into everything pouch-like. «She used to sleep in a sleeping bag.» Now she spends her days skipping around with the family’s two dogs.
Going a Long Way to See Lots of Nothing
After meeting Josephine and the family, we headed to the airport to fly out to Port Hedland. There’s not a lot to see in the small mining town on the Indian Ocean coast—except for wide, open space. When we asked the concierge at our hotel where we could get some food, her answer was: «There’s a McDonald’s and a fuel station. Or I can give you some fruit.» We decided to take her up on the latter and to go to sleep early—we knew we had a long day ahead of us anyway. Our plan was to visit a local customer in the morning, a producer of industrial salt, and then drive to Broome, a holiday resort about 600 kilometers northeast of Port Hedland.
Dampier Salt in Port Hedland produces salt from sea water. Quality assurance manager Nabil showed us their quality control laboratory and explained to us the stages of salt refining. The sea water passes through a number of pools called evaporators, gradually increasing its salt content by evaporation. Finally, the brine reaches a crystallizer where the salt will be harvested once the water content is low enough. When a crystallizer is ready to harvest, it looks like and icy snow field. It’s surreal to walk on it in the burning Port Hedland sun.
The strong sun and high temperatures that Port Hedland gets all year round are perfect conditions for salt production. But it’s not easy to live in a place like this. Nabil is originally from Egypt. He’s been in Australia for a while, working for quality assurance labs. He moved to Port Hedland for the job at Dampier Salt about six and a half years ago. «It took some getting used to. As you can surely imagine, this is very different from Cairo!»
For Penny and her colleagues, having customers in remote locations means traveling a lot for work. Dampier Salt in Port Hedland is far away, but fairly easy to reach. But there are a lot of customers from the mining industry that require driving hundreds of kilometers through the outback to reach them. And I was about to get a taste of what that can feel like later that day.
A Road Trip With Thrill Factor
After saying our goodbyes to Nabil, we hit the Great Northern Highway, which connects Port Hedland with Broome. Six hundred kilometers of straight road passing through never changing bush landscape lay ahead of us. There are no towns on the way, just two road houses, which provide the only change from the wasteland and the only chance for food and bathroom breaks along the way. We had long left those behind us and still had about one and a half hours to go when all of a sudden the car notified us with a beep that the tank was almost empty.
We turned the car around to follow signs to a fuel station off the highway. With each kilometer on the unfrequented, dusty road, I felt a little bit less sure that there was actually a fuel station. Our phones didn’t pick up any reception anymore. I wasn’t quite sure whether I was sweating because we’d turned off the air conditioning to save fuel or because I was dreading the prospect of having to walk some 15 kilometers back to the highway in the merciless sun in case we couldn’t reach the fuel station in time. Then we saw a car coming our way. The ladies assured us that it was only another nine kilometers to go and that we should be able to make it—and we did. Our little detour cost us about an hour, but our relief when we finally found the fuel station made us appreciate our arrival in Broome despite the delay.