The Pilbara is one of the nine administrative regions of Western Australia, with a population of almost 62,000 in 2018. These people are concentrated in a handful of mining towns and ports, leaving the region's 505,000 sq km (195,000 sq mi) very thinly populated. The name may drive from bilybara, meaning "dry", which the Pilbara certainly is except when scourged by cyclone rains. It's in the north of the state, bounded by the Indian Ocean northwest, Kimberley region north, Northern Territory east and by Goldfields, Mid West and Gascoyne regions to the south. The name of the region is pronounce "PILL-buh-ra", with first first syllable stressed and the second syllable shortened.
The Pilbara is remote – it covers an area of 507,896 km2 (196,100 sq mi), which is larger than California, but yet just shy of 62,000 inhabitants. To give another comparison on just how remote the region is, just the Shire of East Pilbara covers an area about the size of Japan, but only has 11,000 inhabitants. Today, the region's biggest industry and draw is mining.
The earth's original crust of 4+ billion years ago fractured and was re-absorbed deep within the planet through the forces of plate tectonics. But several primeval "cratons" persisted, one being Pilbara, with mineral-rich rocks around 3.5 billion years old. Australia became a separate continent 30 million years ago and was inhabited from 40-50,000 years ago, by which time the climate was already hot and arid. So it was only a blink of an eye ago that the first Europeans arrived in Pilbara, from 1861.
These settlers were hampered by lack of natural harbours along a shallow, mangrove-choked and cyclone-battered coast, but they established sheep farms and later pearl-fishing. Their numbers remained small, though large enough to be disastrous for the Aboriginal population. There was a brief gold rush in the 1880s, but what transformed the region was the discovery in the 1960s of huge reserves of iron ore. Mining towns such as Newman sprang up inland, a network of railways was built to the coast, and Port Hedland and Karratha-Dampier burgeoned into big dusty ports shipping out the ore. And then Pilbara's industrial importance was magnified by the discovery in the 1980s of offshore oil and gas fields.
This means that large tracts of Pilbara are despoiled and ugly. Don't avert your eyes - it's worth seeing and understanding the industrial processes if opportunity arises, though of course company sites are off-limits as hazardous workplaces. But in such an extensive region, you can easily pick your way past all this to the many remarkable natural wonders, Aboriginal artefacts and poignant historical mementoes.
- 1 Port Hedland is a large industrial port, shipping out iron ore, yet turtles nest on its beaches.
- 2 Karratha and its port of Dampier is industrial, but is next to Murujuga National Park.
- 3 Onslow is a small port. Offshore lie the Mackerel Islands for diving and fishing.
- 4 Marble Bar may be the world's hottest town: summer temperatures routinely exceed 45°C. Doolena Gorge is scenic.
- 5 Tom Price is little more than dormitories for mine workers.
- 6 Newman is a mining company town and stop-off on the Great Northern Highway.
- 1 Karijini National Park is this region's top attraction, with deep red canyons and magnificent trekking.
- 2 Millstream Chichester National Park is a former sheep range, a relatively lush oasis.
- Murujuga National Park north side of Karratha has a dense collection of rock art.
- Islands: the Dampier archipelago is easily reached from Dampier near Karratha. The Mackerel Islands are reached from Onslow: Thevenard has accommodation. Further out, Barrow Island is large but with oil and gas installations and no public access.
- 3 Jigalong was created in 1907 to build the "rabbit-proof fence" across Australia, and home to Molly Craig (1918-2004), twice abducted by the government to "de-Aboriginalise" her but escaping 1000 km home along the route of the fence.
- 4 Karlamilyi National Park (aka Rudall River) is remote even by Pilbara standards, in the eastern tract that underlies the Kimberley coast like a foundation slab. Reach it via Marble Bar and Telfer, or from Newman via the Talawana track. You need 4WD and complete self-sufficiency.
The economy of Pilbara depends on FIFO workers, who fly-in, fly-out for shifts of a couple of weeks duration. This means daily flights from Perth (two hours non-stop) to the mining towns of Port Hedland, Karratha and Newman, and to Onslow 2 or 3 times a week. Qantas and Virgin Australia are the operators, and Rex Airlines don't fly here. Fares are demand-priced but in 2022 you might pay $600 return, similar to the bus fare.
Aviair are the regional airline, linking Port Hedland, Karratha and Newman with Broome and Derby in Kimberley. They don't fly to Onslow.
There are two highways from Perth and both have bus services by Integrity Coaches. The buses take 24-36 hours with shifts of drivers; self-driving tourists would do well to allow three days plus sight-seeing along the way. The North West Coastal Highway is via Dongara, Geraldton, Carnarvon and Exmouth to Onslow turn-off, Karratha and Port Hedland, 1770 km, and continuing to Broome. The Great Northern Highway is via Mount Magnet and Newman to Port Hedland, 1650 km. Both roads are well-maintained but pounding with road-trains day and night. Note that Onslow turn-off is 80 km out of town, so bus passengers must pre-book their onward transport.
See above for regional flights by Aviair, and routes along the NW Coastal and Great Northern Highways. You need your own vehicle, as the towns sprawl, and many sights are several km away under a merciless sun, no pleasure to cycle. The main towns have car hire: 2WD is fine for almost anywhere you're likely to go, but see town and park pages for dirt tracks requiring 4WD.
Pilbara has a remarkable railway network, but it's all company freight trains, 3 km long, trundling ore to the ports.
- Karijini canyon scenery is a must-see.
- Petroglyphs - Aboriginal rock art - are best viewed in Murujuga National Park near Karratha.
- Marine life: turtles (especially the flatback) nest on the beaches, eg at Port Hedland. Dugongs and dolphins inhabit the shallow coastal waters.
- Staircase to the moon is a natural effect seen on the Pilbara coast March-Oct on the full moon spring tides. Water caught between the sand ripples at low tide creates a staircase effect towards the rising moon.
- Industrial tours are far from scenic, but these industries are crucial to the story of Pilbara, and touring their facilities gives a fascinating insight into how Australia works. Sites include the docks at Port Hedland and Dampier, and the oil and gas plants near Karratha and Onslow, see individual towns. Tours are only on select dates, to be arranged through the local visitor centre or company website, you can't just pitch up at the gate. And you'll need sturdy footwear plus ID.
- Diving and fishing: Onslow and Dampier are the main places for boat trips.
Eat and drink
Be grateful for whatever you can find, you don't come here for fine cuisine. Water should always be your first choice of drink, as the sun ruthlessly extracts body moisture. The legal driving limit for alcohol is near zero, so trying to re-hydrate with beer might leave you still over the limit next morning.
Karratha and Port Hedland are large enough to have free-standing restaurants and bars. Elsewhere, the best option will be your accommodation.
Pilbara produces cattle, sheep and fish, but anything on your plate has been shipped to Perth for processing before trucking back, and the price reflects that.
Pilbara has lots of accommodation but much is contracted to FIFO workers. They may have availability for others but it's fairly basic, with noise in the early hours as shifts change over. Visitor accommodation is often in caravan sites and motels, is expensive for what you get, and is often in short supply.
Offsite camping and parking may be tolerated but never stay overnight in a dried-up watercourse, even in dry season. A cloudburst hundreds of miles away may transform it into a torrent.
- It's hot, damned hot Nov to March, so always carry plenty of fluids. Think carefully about venturing onto poor tracks. If your vehicle gets bogged down, the heat could finish you off long before help comes.
- Cyclones occur Dec to April. Keep an eye on the forecast and distance to the nearest shelter. Don't be caught in the back country if a cyclone is looming - the rainfall makes even sealed roads impassable, even if your vehicle hasn't been rolled on its side by the winds. In the aftermath, bridges may be out and sinkholes appear in the road.
- Road trains are not as long as railway trains, but have similar speed and manoevrability. You need a long clear stretch of road to overtake them. More likely they'll overtake you: draw to the side and decelerate to help them pass.
- The NW Coastal Highway takes you east to Broome in Kimberley region, or west to Exmouth and Coral Bay in Gascoyne region.
- The Great Northern Highway takes you south inland via Newman to Mount Magnet (with a turn-off to Geraldton) and Perth.
- There is no inland route, not even dirt track, east through the Pilbara desert into Northern Territory. You'd need a full-on expedition with camel train, and ponder who will eat who once supplies run low.