Wittenoom has vanished


Cathie's dad Wilf Dibdin worked at the CSR Asbestos Mine in Wittenoom in 1958. Wilf died of an asbestos related lung cancer in 1974 when Cathie was seven and her younger brother David was five.

Wilf's brother Bob, Cathie's uncle, also worked briefly at the Wittenoom asbestos mine. He died four years ago of mesothelioma contracted at Wittenoom.
So, the town of Wittenoom, the company CSR, and the subject of asbestos related cancer have been big issues in Cathie's family.
Before I met Cathie in 1988 I came on a bus trip from Darwin down to Perth with my family. We called in at Wittenoom on the bus trip. At the time it was a ghost town. The problem of asbestos cancer had led the WA government to close the town. It wasn't illegal to go there but people were discouraged.
20 years later Wittenoom has been removed from most of the WA maps and there are no road signs to let one know where it is.
From the start of this trip it has been important for Cathie to go there. To see the place that her dad worked. To see the place that killed her father.
And today was the day. Emotions were running hot (not a good day to drop the campervan!)
I asked the lady at Port Hedland's tourist information center and she said 'Obviously we are to discourage you from visiting and to recommend that if you do go there that you don't stop and don't get out of the car and don't walk around and kick up the dust and don't breath deeply.'
It's 300km from Port Headland to Wittenoom on the way to Tom Price.
Heading along the highway south we got to the turn off to Tom Price and the road sign said 'Tom Price (unsealed)' and then there was a sign saying 'Tom Price (sealed)' If you took the unsealed road to Tom Price then you went through Wittenoom. If you took the sealed road you missed it. At the turnoff there was a roadhouse. I asked the girl if we could leave the campervan as the road we were going on was unsealed (she said yes!) and for directions to Wittenoom (she wasn't sure!).
There was a sign along the unsealed road warning of blue asbestos dust so we put on the dust masks that Cathie had purchased in Sydney.
We got to the place that the NAVMAN indicated Wittenoom was. The signs pointing towards it have been removed from the street signs. There clearly is a street grid. There are perhaps 20 houses. Some are lived in. I guess squatters are choosing to risk the asbestos cancer. It doesn't look like there is electricity or law and order.
Cathie got out of the car to lay a wreath near a tree by the petrol station. The kids and I stayed in the car.
We prayed thanking God for the life of her father, for his provision for Janet, Cathie and David. And thanking God he is safe in Jesus' care and that Cathie will see him in heaven.
There was no sign of the cinema or any other public buildings that I remembered from 20 years ago. They must have been demolished. It appears the only buildings standing are the ones that are currently lived in and claimed by either owners or squatters. I imagine that as each building becomes vacant the government demolishes it.
I think in another 20 years there will be no reference to Wittenoom on any current map and the area will actually have been flattened.
It will be as if this sordid chapter in Australia's corporate and mining history never happened. Except of course that little girls and boys grew up without dads and wretched companies like CSR and James Hardie tried for years to get out of meeting their responsibilities.
We left Wittenoom sober and drove another 300km to Tom Price.