Mt Whaleback, largest open-cut iron ore mine in the world

A tour of an iron ore mine has been on our list for some time now. Being stuck in Newman waiting for new tyres to be freighted up seemed like a perfect opportunity.

First, a look at two of the Haul Trucks on display in the town.

The superseded model:

The truck on display at the visitor’s centre was one of only 30 such trucks produced. BHP purchased 22 of the trucks for Newman’s Mt Whaleback mine in 1973 at a cost of $2.5million dollars each. Each truck could carry a weight of 200 tonnes, and when fully loaded the trucks weighed 75 tonnes more than the take-off weight of a 747 jumbo jet. In 1992 BHP sold one of the trucks to the visitor’s centre for the princely some of $1.00.

Superseded Haul truck on display outside Newman’s visitor’s centre

The newer model truck:

The second truck on display in the town is located near the south bound exit to the Great Northern Highway.

Currently there are 40 – 50 of these 240 tonne trucks in the mine’s fleet. The left hand drive monsters are produced in Ameria. They have 6 forward gears, reverse, and of course, power steering.

The air conditioned cabs are fitted with a 2 way radio, dust suppression kits, and a CD player. There’s also a monitor fitted that views the drivers face looking for signs of fatigue. This is linked back to an office in Perth, approximately 1200 kilometres away.

Length – 13.2 metres

Width – 7.4 metres

The newer model

Goodness me, if it ran over me and I was in the right place underneath, all I’d have to do is duck and it’d miss me altogether.

‘Duck’ and it could run me over without mishap
Those wheels would do some damage though

About the tyres:

Tyre weight – 3.6 tonne each

Tyre diamètre – 3.5 metres

Tyre weight with the rim inserted – 5 tonnes

Expected life-span – 100,000kms (average 1 year)

The on-site tyre store can hold $2million worth of tyres

Them’s big tyres!

The mine tours are run from the visitor’s centre. There’s clothing requirements for anyone going onto the premises, and we all had to wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt, and closed in shoes. The visitor’s centre then supplied us with the other compulsory items, the hard hat, hi-viz vest, and safety goggles.

Paul displaying his safety gear inside a loader scoop

Most of the tour comprised of being driven around the various areas in an air conditioned bus. Our tour guide, Michelle, pointed out the various working areas, provided statistics, and generally gave us a good insight into the workings of the mine. There were a lot of statistics, far to many to remember. Fortunately, Michelle gave us a print out at the tour’s conclusion.

Open-cut Iron Ore mine

Pit statistics

Mt Whaleback was originally 805 metres above sea level. They are currently mining down to 135 metres.

Each step on the sides of the pit are called benches, each bench is 12 – 15 metres high.

The water table starts on bench 18, they are currently mining on bench 30.

They pump 46 million litres of water out of the pit each week. The water is used in the water trucks used to keep the dust under control, and used to assist with other production processes.

The trains

Once the ore is mined, it goes through a number or processes before being loaded onto trains and transported to the Port (Port Hedland) for shipping overseas.

The average length of each train is 2.7kms.

Each train consists of 4 locomotives, 268 Ore cars, and only one driver. Two locos are at the front of the train, the other two are in the middle. The driver in the front loco operates the other three locos remotely.

Each car holds approximately 130 – 138 tonnes of ore.

Loaded trains pull a payload of approximately 33,000 tonnes.

When fully loaded the trains can reach up to 65kms per hour, with a braking distance of 3kms.

The conclusion of the tour

The tour lasts around 1 1/2 hours. We learnt much more than I have included here, but if you want to know more, I’d recommend doing a similar tour. It was extremely interesting, and definitely not just ‘a man’s tour’.

The tour concluded with coffee, scones and jam back at the visitor’s centre (included in the price of the tour).

But that’s not all

The following day our tyres arrived and were fitted by 10.30am, enabling us to get on our way again by 11am. We were heading south towards Cue when an oncoming support vehicle for a massively oversized vehicle approached us driving down the our side of the road. The driver of the support vehicle was a few kilometres in front of the oversized loads he was escorting, so we knew it was going to be a big one.

Next came a second support vehicle with all lights flashing immediately in front of, not one, but two trucks, each loaded with a massive piece of machinery on it’s back. Clearly we hadn’t seen the last of the mining machinery, as these two massive babies would have undoubtedly been on route to one of the mines. They took up the full road, so all traffic travelling south had to pull right off the road to allow them to pass, easy enough for us. Not so easy for any road trains though, and there were two in front of us. 

A mining vehicle being transported up Gt Northern Highway

A third support vehicle followed behind, also travelling down the wrong side of the road to prevent any following vehicles from attempting to overtake.

Rear support vehicle preventing any attempts to overtake

A lot of tourists won’t use the Great Northern Highway because it’s well used by big trucks and road trains. For those of you unfamiliar with road trains, they’re a big road truck pulling 3 or 4 carriages behind them. They’re long, and can get a bit of sway on the carriages, but the drivers are pretty good at controlling them. We always give them space when they’re passing, and we find by conversing with the drivers on our two way, they’re always really considerate.

Because the Great Northern Highway is used by such heavy vehicles, and often has oversized mining equipment being transported along it, it’s kept in tip top shape. Even though a lot of the traffic is big and heavy, there’s still a lot less traffic than on the coastal highway. We personally prefer this route when travelling up and down Western Australia. Mind you, we’ve never been stuck behind any convoys such as we saw today for any length of time. For us, the reduced traffic, the considerate truck drivers, and the prime condition of the road has always made travelling this route a pleasure!



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