An export powerhouse for Australia, Port Hedland in Western Australia’s Pilbara region is one of the largest and busiest harbours in the world.
The main cargo is iron ore, which is mined in mindboggling quantities in the ranges outside the town.
This is then transported to the harbour via trains so long they’ll take several minutes to pass by.
Another big export is salt, produced at endless evaporation ponds close to the town and piled into stacks that look like white mountains.
Many of the activities in Port Hedland involve getting as close as possible to the colossal industry, but there’s rich wildlife away from the harbour at beaches with nesting flatback sea turtles and intertidal areas flocked by thousands of shorebirds.
1. Port Hedland Harbour Tour
There are several lookouts in Port Hedland where you can survey the harbour’s vast operations.
But to really get a handle on things you can pay a visit to the Port Hedland Seafarers Centre in Port Hedland’s West End.
This mission provides a daily launch service for the crew of those hulking iron ore carriers, bringing them ashore to the centre which has a licensed bar, high-speed Wi-Fi, private chapel, currency exchange and a recreation room and outdoor space.
A tour will begin with a presentation about the mission and its functions, before you head out into the harbour on a Seafarers Launch Service boat, picking up crew members on the way.
A well-informed member of staff will be there to give you a commentary and will answer any questions.
2. Salt Eco Tour
Salt production takes place on a massive scale in and around Port Hedland.
The company in charge is Dampier Salt, 68.4% of which is owned by the Rio Tinto Group.
There’s a 78-square-kilometre evaporation pond complex on Port Hedland’s outskirts, which is contained by the Port Hedland Saltworks Important Bird Area, made up of the ponds, a seawater intake zone and intertidal mudflats.
This is a magnet for wading birds, including a large slice of the worldwide populations of sharp-tailed sandpipers and red-necked stints.
From Port Hedland you can go on a three-hour bus tour of the complex, observing birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish, while also finding out about the Dreamtime stories of the Ngarla traditional owners.
You’ll then enjoy a spot of morning or afternoon tea before returning to the towering salt stacks just outside the town where you can touch the salt in its rawest form.
3. Fortescue Tour
As well as a boat tour of the harbour, the Port Hedland Seafarers Centre can also take you behind the scenes at the Fortescue Metal Group’s port site.
You’ll witness tonnes of iron ore being shifted from giant piles via the colossal stackers, re-claimers and conveyors.
The tour then skirts the wharf as the immense ships are loaded up.
Almost all of the tour takes place in the comfort of a coach and an experienced guide will talk you through every stage of the complex loading process.
4. Pretty Pool Park
If you’d like to relax by the coast in Port Hedland, but want to see less of the industrial infrastructure, your best bet is Pretty Pool Park.
This inlet is on the east side of Port Hedland, at the mouth of a tidal river and edged by dunes and mangroves.
The difference between high and low tide is dramatic in the Pilbara, and at times the ocean flows briskly through the inlet.
The pool is at its fullest at high tide, but even when the ocean is out there’s lots of trapped shallow water to wade in.
It is worth wearing some kind of footwear as stonefish and snakes aren’t uncommon.
For local families Pretty Pool Park is a scenic place for a picnic, beachcombing and for children to play in the water on a hot day.
5. Cemetery Beach Park
One of Port Hedland’s favourite parks hugs the Indian Ocean coast for just under two kilometres.
Cemetery Beach Park is well looked-after, and features a fenced children’s playground, barbecues, swaying palms, works of public art, shelters, toilets and ample grassy space.
The beach is less suited for typical seaside activities, not least because, from October to March, it’s a nesting site for flatback sea turtles (more info below). Come late in the day and you’ll be greeted by a lovely sunset, as the shore is angled north-west.
6. Koombana Lookout
The water tower standing high behind Cemetery Beach is a landmark for Port Hedland, and is illuminated in changing colours at night.
Near the tower’s base there’s a lookout where you can see the iron ore ships waiting to dock offshore, watch the sun go down and observe turtles (with a good pair of binoculars). The lookout is named after the Edwardian-era passenger and cargo ship, SS Koombana, which sank off Port Hedland in 1912 at a cost of 150 lives.
There’s an information board about the disaster close to the viewing platform.
7. Port Hedland Courthouse Gallery + Studio
Somewhere to go for a dose of culture, this dynamic community gallery is in Port Hedland’s mid-century Justice Complex.
There’s a lot going on here all year round, be it curated exhibitions for local and regional artists or activity-packed art and craft programming.
The main gallery is in the original courthouse building, and has a bright, floor-to-ceiling exhibition space.
This is supplemented by the Studio, combining an artist/maker space, darkroom and tech lab.
For a special handmade something, check out the Store+Stockroom.
Four times a year the complex also hosts the arts and crafts-oriented West End Markets.
8. Cooke Point Viewing Platform
The large tidal range causes a natural phenomenon that can’t be seen outside of this corner of Western Australia.
Staircase to the Moon happens when a full moon (or nearly full) rises over the exposed tidal flats.
The moon is reflected in the standing water rippling sands, creating a continuous band of light that looks like a staircase.
This spectacle only occurs in Port Hedland between March and October, and the best place to see it is from the east-facing Cooke Point Viewing Platform.
Staircase to the Moon happens once a month on three consecutive nights, and a calendar is available from the Port Hedland Visitor Centre.
9. Marapikurrinya Park
Somewhere to take in the harbour’s comings and goings, Marapikurrinya Park is by the water in Port Hedland’s historic West End.
You’ll have a front row view across the channel to Finucane Island to see the humongous iron ore ships being loaded up and escorted in and out of the harbour by tugs.
The park faces west so the view is especially striking at sunset.
On the second or third Friday of the month, this is also the venue for Port Hedland’s Sunset Food Markets.
Normally there’s live music, dance performances, children’s activities and a lineup of food trucks for anything from pizza to kebab, Thai, Malaysian, barbecue, pizza, gourmet coffee or shaved ice.
10. Dalgety House Museum
A good 70 years before the birth of the mining industry that dominates life in Port Hedland, the town was a distant harbour outpost that made its living from waterborne trade.
One of the big players in that era was Dalgety and Company, an agricultural and shipping conglomerate with a transcontinental reach.
Dating to 1901, the company manager’s residence for the Port Hedland branch has been preserved and holds an interactive museum explaining the town’s story.
Central to this is the impact of European settlement on the Pilbara’s Kariyarra Aboriginal people.
There’s a wide collection of artefacts and documents to pore over, and displays delve into topics like Port Hedland in WWII, camel racing and the SS Koombana.
11. Redbank Bridge Lookout
Without signing up for a tour, this location on the south side of the town is as good a place as any to gauge the awesome scale of Port Hedland’s industry.
The lookout is on the north-western corner of those massive evaporation ponds and has a clear view of the white mountains of salt piled up.
But you’ll also be next to the railway tracks, and the length of the iron trains that service Port Hedland need to be seen to be believed.
It can take five minutes or more for one of these vehicles to pass through! The lookout is on a serpentine path, with a series of information panels about the ecosystems and natural history of the coast and surrounding regions.
12. Turtle Viewing
The flatback sea turtle, which famously only nests on Australian beaches, is a summer visitor to Port Hedland’s sandy coastline.
This species comes ashore between October and March, and from December to March its younglings hatch and scramble down to the ocean.
Although not endangered in Australia, the flatback sea turtle is threatened locally, and its conservation is managed by “Care for Hedland”. You can contact this organisation for a guided evening tours for deeper insight about the turtles and their behaviour.
13. Cape Keraudren Coastal Reserve
Leave the town behind for a road trip east along the Great Northern Highway to this secluded reserve on the Indian Ocean.
Cape Keraudren is at the west end of Eighty Mile Beach, officially the longest uninterrupted beach in Australia, at 220 kilometres.
The vast sands of Eighty Mile Beach open up as you travel north-east, but at the Cape Keraudren Coastal Reserve are narrower sandy beaches, tidal creeks, rocky outcrops, seagrass meadows and patches of mangrove.
This is all a haven for a wealth of wildlife on land and in the water, but especially wading birds like pied oystercatchers, beach stone curlews, striated herons, eastern reef egrets and migratory waders from plovers to whimbrels.
You can enter the reserve for a small fee, and have access to campsites, toilets and other low-key facilities.
If you do stay overnight you’ll be wowed by a glorious sunset, followed by one of the brightest night skies you’ve ever witnessed.
14. Port Hedland Boulevard
Now, Port Hedland may be remote, but that doesn’t stop it having a shopping centre, located a couple of streets in from Cemetery Beach Park, opposite the Town Oval.
In fact the majority of the town’s shops, and many of its dining options, can be found here.
The big anchor is a Woolworths supermarket, and there are two branches of Harvey Norman (electrical and computing), a BWS and the town’s community library.
Food-wise you’ve got a cluster of cafes, a bakery, a branch of Chicken Treat (WA barbecue chicken chain) and a noodle stand.
15. Port Hedland Visitor Centre
As guided tours are the best way to experience Port Hedland and its industrial activity, the town’s visitor centre is a handy amenity for bookings and extra information.
If you want to go it alone, the staff are clued up about the harbour’s arrivals and departures, and can tell you when to go to see the iron ore ships at anchor or sailing past.
The centre also has a handy live map of the harbour, as well as mineral samples to show you Port Hedland’s lifeblood up close.
Tales of Hedland is an enlightening program of talks by local residents, taking place once a week, while the regular Wedge Street Footpath Markets have stalls for plants, jewellery, books and arts and crafts.