There is nothing quite like the Pilbara. It’s Australia’s high-viz FIFO Mecca; a broad expense of red country dotted with mine sites, thundering road trains and sprawling pastoral stations, all sitting – sometimes uncomfortably – against a backdrop of spectacular gorges, glorious beaches and ancient traditions carved into iron-rich rock faces. I was very fortunate to travel there recently, to a little town of Cossack. It’s a fascinating place, full of stories – although you have to listen closely, for those who tell them are all long dead.
Today, Cossack is a tourist ghost town; it is home to crumbling ruins, a few restored buildings, and a smattering of weathered graves. Yet, this is the place where Pilbara as we know it started.
The town sits at the mouth of the Harding River, surrounded by muddy salt marshes and low, rocky hills covered by a carpet of spiky spinifex. Most importantly, Cossack boasts a small beach that is clear of mangroves, upon which, in the 1860s, entrepreneurial men with white, freckled faces, could unload both their stock and their hopes for wool, cotton, and other riches. Once there, some of these men did, indeed, find their fortune. But it’s an unforgiving country, so the rest had to be content with the more common fodder of pioneering conquest: blood, sweat, and sunburn.
For my part, I arrived in Cossack at the end of the day, when the sun’s final rays set the dirt on fire and made shadows long. A man stood on the wharf, waving to me excitedly with one arm and pointing with the other towards the water, phone camera in hand.
“They are there!” he yelled. “But I can’t get them. I can’t see them!”
His enthusiasm was due to dolphins, I soon learned. Three of them. We watched together for a while, he hopping form foot to foot in excitement, I a bit more restrained, since the said creatures never re-appeared. What I did see, however, was a mass of circular ripples upon the water which more than hinted at the menagerie that must lie below.
After a while the man gave up and flipped his phone shut, shrugged at me happily, and left. I found myself alone. I turned around, grabbed the luggage from the back of my hire car and walked up the road in search of the town’s caretaker. I found her locking up for the night, and she led me into her stiflingly hot office.
“So you found us all right then?”
I nodded, a little guiltily. It wasn’t particularly easy to get lost along the only road going in and out of the settlement, but I made good effort at it, getting side-tracked into an overgrown dead-end lane near the boarded up school house.
Once the paperwork was done, I followed the caretaker to my accommodation, which was inside the town’s former police quarters. My room was basic, but clean, and mercifully air-conditioned. Being the tail end of the summer, the tourist season hasn’t started yet and I was the only guest. I had spent the morning researching Cossack at the local library, and now, with no one else to talk to, I settled down and started reading what I started earlier: a pile of notes about the history of the town.
The essence of that history is ugly, heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure, for the extent of suffering and hardship faced by many who passed through here is matched step by step with remarkable human resilience. Starting with the countless indigenous generations who have lived here since before forever, I cannot help but admire the local people who survived in this harsh country, with its brackish water, its furious cyclones, its crawling midges and flies and blearing heat – and later, with its onslaught of foreign settlers.
The Ngarluma people, on whose land Cossack was founded, were less warlike than their neighbours, a characteristic that the new arrivals perhaps took advantage of. For these incoming settlers, there was much to. They were used to a much different way of life, and their privations were many. It wasn’t long before the local Aboriginal population was compelled to assist the foreigners in any which way possible. At first the work was linked to the land – and the back breaking work of clearing it, fencing it, and taming it – but when some sharp-eyed settlers noticed Aboriginal people wading out at low tide and coming back with glistening pearl shell, a whole new wave of fortune seekers arrived, and a whole new form of torment dawned.
Soon, Cossack became a booming port town. In its heyday in the late 1800s, up to 80 pearl luggers crowded within the inlet, and aboard each stood men desperate for what was the most precious commodity in the northwest: labour. Crews of them went further and further inland, alternatively cajoling, conning and kidnapping Aboriginal men, women and children into servitude. The poor recruits got paid with tobacco, alcohol and foreign germs, plus food and white man’s clothes that until then they had never needed. Then, at the end of the season, they got dumped wherever convenient, often away from country that was theirs. And so started the endless cycle of dispossession and deprivation that still haunts many indigenous communities today.
As rules relating to the use of Aboriginal labour were introduced, new recruits arrived, this time hailing from across the ocean: from Malaya, Timor, Philippines, Japan. Along with their arrival a new sort of diving apparatus was welcomed with much excitement, allowing the divers to go deeper and deeper still, each taking more risk than the other. These Asian divers were important, but far from socially equal, and they, too, suffered from racism, discrimination and white condescension. Still, some did well, and returned home better off than they started. Others are buried in the Asian part of the cemetery in Cossack, but many more were lost at sea, with not even a marker to remember them.
Eventually, the Cossack pearl beds were raped clean and the pearling industry moved north to Broome. Discovery of gold brought an influx of Chinese and other migrants, but that also soon came to pass. Cyclones regularly ravaged the town, the inlet was silting up and a new port nearby took over the bulk of the shipping traffic. Cossack was dying. Two more valiant, if somewhat quirky, efforts were made to keep the town going: one was the introduction of a turtle soup factory and the other the establishment of a leper colony, but neither initiative lasted long. Finally, in the 1950s, having done its job as the founding port for the northwest, Cossack was abandoned and left to watch as the rest of Pilbara took off.
Now, the old wooden and corrugated iron buildings have turned to rust and dust, but the few stone buildings have since been lovingly restored. They stick out, incongruously, amid the red earth, mangroves and spinifex. One of the buildings is the said police barracks, in which I spent the night. Others include a beautiful old post office, a store, a lockup and a bakery. The old customs house now serves as functions venue and the courthouse is a museum.
During my stay, I woke up at dawn. A steady buzz of insects drove the birds into a sing song crazy, and a couple of fishermen were already at the wharf, discussing barramundi. The town was draped in fresh glow of morning light. I grabbed my camera and went for a walk, and wherever I went, I kept hearing voices from the past. My own freshness didn’t last long, as by 8 o’clock I was already dripping with sweat.
“It was like that for us too,” the voices told me. (“Except there was no deodorant,” they added, in giggly embarrassment.)
I stopped off near the overgrown patch of land that marked the former Chinese gardens, and kicked the stony ground. “It was back breaking to dig in that, but we were desperate for fresh food of home,” the voices said.
In the museum, I caught a glance of a piece of jewellery. “Aye, it was hard to be a lady out here, back then” I heard.
And so it went, on and on.
In the middle of the day, I drove out to get a coffee and lunch at nearby Roebourne, and then retreated back to the bliss of my air-conditioned room, emerging out again after night fell. My footsteps crunched along the ground and competed with the high strung chirp of crickets. Above me, a few stars peaked though yeasty, white-grey clouds and the town ruins were nothing but faint silhouettes.
I was still the only one in Cossack, and I felt little in this vast country. But, small and alone does not mean lonely. It was those chatty ghosts, you see. They told me how they, too, once stood under the same moonlight at night, and how they watched the rich Pilbara colours moult into a palette of grey. And it struck me then, as it had already a few times before, that it’s really no surprise that our first people were storytellers, or that so many yarns are spun from the bush – for this amazing country, now, as it was then, is made for nothing if not storytelling.