I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND what the Pilbara was. I didn’t even know how to spell Karratha properly. I didn’t care about shell middens and Aboriginal petroglyphs and preservation; I just wanted money.
‘Welcome to K-Town, Lil,’ my uncle releases me from a stiff high-vis grip. ‘You’re in for a bit of a shock.’ We both laugh and look out to the garden as if to reassure ourselves we’re in the middle of nowhere. The garden is balding, patches of red soil push over the foreign greenery and the black dog is dead-still under the shade of my cousin’s trampoline. ‘We’ll take you to the pub tonight, now that will be your real shock.’
‘Like, heaps of guys?’
‘Yeah Lil, heaps.’ He walks into the kitchen laughing.
THE FIRST TWO weeks we drink and explore. My aunty is a residential ‘miner’s wife’ relocated from Perth by the company and my aunty is bored. We drive out to see the ancient rock art. My arm aches after five minutes of swatting about my face and it’s stupid hot, but then I see them. Faint, five thousand-year-old kangaroos and emus etched on the flat sides of terracotta rock, the strange white man with the hat on. I grasp in some way the vastness, the infinitesimal scrape of my pink Adidas trainers on these brick-ish boulders, my silly mark on a meaningful landscape and the flies don’t piss me off anymore.
I didn’t know the earth could be so red, like ground cinnamon and it clusters under my unpainted nails.
The land is flat but for the boulder clusters and faint brown hills in the distance. Not long after knockoff, the sky boasts scattered pink and rusty sunsets you only see pictures of in Perth’s high-rise offices. The rawness is unexpected and doesn’t always seem real. I talk to my aunty and uncle about it later, the surreal feeling of the place: the big money, the big drinking and the thousands of fluoro vests flying into this small red town every week. My uncle leans forward,
‘This isn’t real life, you have to remember that.’
WE ALL LOOK the same. We hear the reverse bleep of utes whilst we brush our teeth in the bathroom light and burn our tongues on coffee hastily made before the horn outside. We half clamber in untied steel-caps down the driveway to the backseat. An engineer and contracts manager pick me up before 4.30 am and I can smell their sleep and breath from the backseat, like a teenage boy’s bedroom in the morning. The closeness of men is becoming normal.
The dead straight causeway to the gas plant is a fifteen kilometre queue of flagpoles glowing orange in headlights; those that aren’t driving, sleep, or grin and tell another passenger they’ve only got three or four days until they can, ‘fly the fuck out of this shithole’. Drivers peek through smears of condensation on windscreens, its nearly 30 degrees outside and the time display on the dash hasn’t cracked 5 am. They avoid speed limits, stay on the safe side, they don’t want to ‘get the window seat’ home. They don’t stay slow for the fauna. They don’t remember the locals and what Karratha means; sacred earth, God’s country.
KPI’s and Take-5’s and JHA’s and Excel spreadsheets; there isn’t much room for creativity. There’s time to work hard and count the hours until we pool back to town in the utes, sparking cigarettes the moment we get through the site gates because of the smoking regulations.
We buy roadies from a bottle shop in Dampier; I learn the phonetic alphabet and how to crack my beer open with a lighter. There’s time to get to the Tambrey and find a table in the shade with the boys from work. You’re usually one of two girls at the table but mostly you’re the only one. ‘Cunt’ doesn’t offend you anymore and you learn quickly not to mention the heat because you sit in an air-conditioned office all day and you, ‘don’t fucking know what real heat is’. There’s time to drink five or six pints at $12.50 a pop and you’re in on the rounds without question, there’s no time to be a Pilbara Princess.
It takes a few weeks to realise how many beers you can have after work before you blow numbers in the morning. Alcohol readings must be 0.00. Older blokes tell you their tricks for urine tests; how they keep fake piss in their jocks to keep it warm if they’re randomly selected for testing. What doesn’t take long is for me to realise I like it here, a lot.
ONE OF OUR supervisors throws an after-party at a company house; he’s one of the few that doesn’t live in camp. The Tambrey kicks us out at 12 am and groups of us stagger, run and laugh across the main road to his house. We filter out around 3 am to a bus our superintendent organised with a designated driver. I’m one of the last to walk down the side of the house to the gate, but Lee pushes me up against the wall and kisses me hard. We both reek of too many Stellas and fags but the wetness of his tongue excites me. It’s not until the morning and the fizz of Berocca that I remember he’s married.
I scold him the next day as we walk around the office dongers on site pretending to talk about a member of his crew on a 457-visa from the UK that has heat stress and misses home. I tell him I’m not that person and remind him of his three kids. Two nights later we collapse, slick with sweat on the sofa in his house provided by the company.
We fall into a routine; I head to his house after work and sit out the back while he phones his wife inside. Then we drink a six-pack each and fuck in his single bed. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to his wife’s voice.
‘Are you having a fucking affair?’
‘Don’t be so fucking stupid,’ he hisses. ‘I go to work, I come home, talk to you, eat dinner and go to bed, how do I have time to have a fucking affair?’
I slide out of bed and sit on the toilet naked, until he finishes.
THE BOYS AT the pub tell me about the camp-bicycle Renee and I feel sorry for her. One of the safety supervisors speaks up.
‘Come on boys, what about the rape of that chick at camp? Renee needs to be careful.’
‘Naww, Lizzy love, you don’t want to know.’
‘FIFO bloke, out of Brisbane apparently, pretty much kept this lass captive in his donger and blokes came and paid him…to fuck her.’
‘Rape her,’ I correct him.
‘Yeah sorry, rape her.’
Our rowdy table is the quietest I’ve ever heard it and I get Lee to walk me home.
It’s the start of the cyclone season and a ‘Toolbox Meeting’ is held on site by the safety advisors.
‘Listen boys, locals are making complaints after every RDO weekend regarding the behaviour of site-workers in town. Two people from another company got a window seat last weekend for fighting in the tavern. We have to remember that this is their town and we have to respect that.’
One of the men mumbles something and those around him snigger. Safety-advisor Ed cocks his head.
‘Something you wanna share, Dave?’
‘Yeah, actually mate, I said they shouldn’t be complaining. They’d have fuck all if it wasn’t for us working here and spending money in their town.’
THE COMPANY’S CONTRACT on the project finishes and demobilisation starts. I cry every time someone leaves, we’re family now and I’m a greenie. A ‘peggy’ (cleaner) gives me a hug and tells me she was exactly the same on her first project but now she’s used to it. Then Lee gets his ticket and I drive him to the airport. He grabs my knee in the car.
‘I’d never get a girl like you back home, it’s just not real life up here – gonna try my fuckin’ hardest to get back up though, don’t worry.’
I write him a letter and go to Bali on a cheap plane full of FIFO’s to get over it.
Flying back, I almost yearn for the red soil and it feels something like home when I walk down the stairs from the plane and the humidity smacks my face and prickles my scalp.