Dennis Minogue, “Lang Hancock: giant of the western iron age,”
The Age, September 20, 1975, pp. 11-12.
And what sort of flowers are these? I asked. I dunno, he said, but they don’t grow iron ore so it doesn’t matter what they’re called, does it? And he continued chipping and fussing with the ground, all the while barking out a commentary on how these are really God’s little acres, billions of them, the Eldorado.
Lang Hancock, small for a giant stomping around his country, wears his uniform of white safari jacket, slacks, kangaroo skin boots. Not his Sydney boots or his Melbourne boots which are shiny black leather, zip-up and fancy, but tough thick brown bush boots that make the pebbled ore crackle as he walks.
It is early morning and already the hot winter sun has ignited fire red earth. In places, where the tissue topsoil has been scratched to show the wealth for Japanese company tourists, there are paintbrush flicks of wildflowers among the spinifex, buttercup yellows, the purples and blues of dusk and night. There is a numbing silence over the country, the sense of isolation, 2500 miles to Melbourne, 1000 road miles to Perth, the ultimate back of the final beyond.
I suppose, he says, it’s a kind of wattle, or something, a sort of wattle. He is constantly bending and hammering, fossicking, crushing the rocks with his prospector’s pick. Friends say he changes when he comes up here, sheds the Perth personality, releases in the Pilbara.
It must rival the worst country on earth, as heartless a the Gulf country, different to the Nullarbor only by being bumpy, God’s forgotten acres perhaps.
He throws out figures, spews them out really, big enough to trip over — 1000 million tons her, 10,000 million there. Back at “The Settlement” that night he said: “The Government knows nothing about 38,000 million tons down here”. And he made a few multi-multi-million dollar jabs at a map on his wall.
His commentary — and a few days in the Pilbara with Lang Hancock is like plugging into Goebbels propaganda test tapes — is punctuated by theories, or rather assertions. Not piddling little theories clothed in rhetoric, but fired from the hip blasts, cannon-like. Their proof is that they exist, their logic is in the force of the delivery volley.
The next morning (early again because Hancock rises around 4.30 a.m. and makes concessions to visitors only until 6.30), we are flying in a Shrike Air Commander, Hancock at the controls, over his country, along the Sherlock Corridor, the Mungaroona Range, on to the granite then mud then salt flats to the coast, to Ronsard Island, the route in fact of another Hancock grand scheme.
When his Murandoo iron mine comes into production, he wants to move the ore to the coast along this route, on a 150-mile downhill railway line, all surveyed.
It is as if all the Hancock thoughts should be reported in CAPITAL LETTERS to show how big they are.
Around 7000 ft., passing Deer Hill, with Whim Creek behind, Hancock urges the Shrike into a dive, a closer look at the last 10 or 15 miles of Australia before the vacuum of the Indian Ocean. The look becomes closer and closer. At 100 feet, still diving, Hancock chatting or firing out schemes like a pilot zeroing on target, still diving, still chatting. Around 30 feet the plane levels although that might be the measure of a frightened imagination and for mile after mile we skim tree-top level then out over the ocean green and turning blue to the string of islands Ronsard-Sable-Depuch.
At this level, terror to the listener, Hancock explains his plan to dam 3000 square miles of the Indian Ocean and produce power from the area’s 20 foot tide. The man is himself a curiosity, a finicky man over detail if the detail is irrelevant and a proposer of concepts bigger than his endless country. Those between areas, the steady building blocks of argument, seem to have no interest to him.
The previous day among the flowers and the crunching iron ore, the same puzzle had appeared but at least a partial answer was posed.
Hancock, squat on a slab of pure iron ore, holding a fill-colour illustration (which just happened to be in the Landrover) in his left hand, chipping at the bench with the pick in his right: “Dr Teller sat right here, right over where the firecracker would go off, and said what a great scheme it was.”
The firecracker is a hydrogen bomb Hancock wants to set off to granulate the Wittenoom deposits for easy mining. Dr Teller, who developed the “clean” hydrogen-bomb, said the scheme was practical and safe. And actually getting the hydrogen bomb? “Look”, said Hancock, “The Americans will sell them to industry. It’s just like buying a packet of tea, only $3 million. You see the hill down there … well, we were thinking we would set seats on it so the curious could watch the fun, make a few bob that way.”
It seemed, while he sat on his iron ore pulpit, that his schemes are not those of a capitalist, although he is a most successful capitalist, nor of a rigorous reactionary, although he is that too, nor of a power-fixated autocrat, although he is an autocrat, but of a missionary. And not one of your let’s-put-bras-on-the-natives missionaries, but a flint-hard hellfire and brimstone, fear the Lord gospel revivalist.
All else seems nonsense. If he was chasing wealth then he lost the race years ago, the money seeming so fleet of foot in pursuing him. Tales of his annual income meander through eight digits. A quest of power? Perhaps, but to many people Lang Hancock seems just a little too mad for that, the sower of incredible causes and reaper of ridicule. The power-hungry tend to be careful [to adopt] popular causes. Hancock has in his office a sign reading: “Conservationists. Let the bastards freeze in the dark”.
But he has a vision for his country, a dream too big for his era really and so dogmatically presented that it discourages rational analysis.
He is a Johnny Appleseed uprooting the wealth rather than planting. He suffers, above all, a national distrust of very wealthy men.
VH-BSJ is about the sexiest thing that can exist without flesh, slim and sleek, white, exciting even at rest, perfection. In action, throbbing higher and faster than anything Mr Ansett owns, she is power itself, teasing the clouds, toying with time and distance, the Earth, and air.
The iron country came up with the Learjet. Thai silk panels, leather upholstery, at 41,000 ft., 600 mph ground speed over Meekartha, dust hills in a hazy distance. If Lang Hancock plays games — and it sometimes seems that his casual talk of building towns and railways, ports and dams is akin to a modeller’s paper mache layouts — then the Learjet is the million-dollar toy, the business tool that is the excess of this non-smoker, non-drinker. A better toy is in the toy factory now, for Hancock is considering the Learjet’s $2 million replacement.
On the descent, the country shows itself, crumpled and buckled under the heat and pressure. At 500 feet, less, sometimes 100 feet perhaps with the Learjet bucking and tensing, we review the Hancock Discoveries, Newman, Rhodes Ridge, McCamey’s Monster, the Angelas named for the daughter of Hancock’s partner, Peter Wright and stolen from them in the great claim robbery.
Hancock is vicious, but it seems correct, in saying that Western Australia’s Premier Sir Charles Court acted in at least suspect manner in taking rights from Hanwright for ore they had discovered. Court and Hancock have a relationship that is beyond dislike, perhaps even hate. In essence it seems that each has a conflicting vision for the area and each believe he holds the patent on dreams.
McCamey’s Monster is a happier story, the discovery of Ken McCamey, Hancock’s long-time friend and exploration chief, or simply the biggest chunk of iron ore ever seen. He described it to Hancock as monstrous and Hancock gave it the name.
McCamey’s Monster gives that lie to tales that Hancock was lucky, that any one could have found the iron. Geologists, scouring the area for other minerals, used to drive by and through McCamey’s Monster, twice a week, going to the nearest pub to pick-up beer.
They missed an iron ore body 16 miles long, a mile wide, at least 500 feet deep and they missed it for years. Hancock loves telling the story and with glee, he shows you the spot of the Great Wittenoom ore body, where CSR geologists actually shifted by hand great hunks of iron ore so they could clear a drill site for an asbestos search.
You’ve got to understand geologists, because they are trained to analyse, not to discover. The big companies expect them to do everything, but all the big finds have been made by individuals, not geologists.
We slice low through the air, the model tree-lined, swimming pool studded town of Mt Newman, below, and then the Whaleback mine like a mischievously messed up later chocolate cake. On the tiers, like an Aztec temple, there are lines of ore trucks worth $500,000, each idle because someone insulted a shop steward and $500 million of development is at a stand still.
We fly on, scores of miles on iron ore that Hancock found or caused to be found. We land at Rhodes Ridge on an air strip chiselled out of iron ore scree, the ore particles that have been washed to 100 feet think over billions of years, and drive for hours on roads of pure iron ore that nobody knew about.
“I’m not a geologist,” says Hancock. “I know nothing about geology, I don’t know much about anything.”
That night at “The Settlement” — after a day buzzing Tom Price and Paraburdoo, Robe, Dampier, Port Headland, the Fortesque River where Hancock wants another bomb dropped to build a dam — he talked of the things he does know, or thinks he knows, or simply wants known.
“The Settlement” is an encampment of farm-style houses in the Wittenoom Gorge, the former management headquarters for CSR’s losing asbestos mining operation. Hancock lives there about a third of the time isolated by winnowy gums and sprinkled grass in a big but modest white house, the sort any farmer with a fair superphosphate bounty could afford. His office would do a junior clerk proud.
“The Settlement” is five miles or so from the town of Wittenoom, sleepy and dusty with an airport, a tough bush pub, a once-year racetrack, a few more asbestos-sheet houses, an outdoor cinema. The town existed for CSR’s mine. In 1967 the mine closed and the town started folding.
Lang Hancock and Peter Wright quite simply bought it — the pub, the powerhouse, the lingering dust, for about $1.25 million. Hancock and Wright are big names around Wittenoom, the fiefdom.
“The Pilbara will be Australia’s salvation. Without mining, Australia is nothing,” he says, “that is our defence.” Lang Hancock gets warm, perhaps fiery white hot, on defence. The entire Australian armed services could defend 12 miles of our coastline, he says, and continues the theory that Australia’s only real defence is for us to become indispensable supplier of raw materials to the major Western nations.
It doesn’t matter who develops this country or where the money comes from.
Australians, they talk about who should own this and that but tell me one bloke, one Australian, who will get off his backside and put one shilling into it.
He’ll play on the racehorse he’ll be on the one-armed bandits but he won’t risk one-bob on this country.
Over $2000 million of foreign capital has been poured in here. For every man employed, the company must provide $230,000 in infrastructure — schools, hospitals, post offices, housing, everything.
Governments, State or Federal, provide little, although they receive about 80 per cent of the gross value of mining through royalties and taxes. Hancock, quite naturally, is for unrestricted free enterprise with no Government regulation on capital inflow or mineral exports, particularly of iron ore but also of uranium, copper, bauxite.
You can’t let some tinpot nincompoop in Government who has never built anything more than a septic tank have any say in whether this stuff should be exported or where railroads should be built, or ports. It is just fantastic that when people say Government they all seem to go to jelly and believe that there is somebody sitting in Canberra with a crystal ball. Where in hell would the Government man get the supposed knowledge, he’s never done anything in his life.
The Hancock experience of Government includes one episode in which he approached the AIDC, the body specifically set up to preserve Australian ownership, for money to operate a mine. The AIDC answer was that they would help finance the operation only if Hanwright took in a Japanese shareholding.
A Liberal Government would change nothing in the Hancock view. In fact, no government would change much and the only answer is to have no Government. Lang Hancock becomes quite emotional talking about Government — and about defence (atomic bombs for the F-111), big companies and institutional lenders (afraid to invest in their own country), Australia’s future (dismal unless we get off our backsides).
The conversation rambles. Lang Hancock gesturing quite dramatically, firing blasts at conservationists, eco-nuts, public servants, the world at large.
Flying to Sydney, the Learjet at 41,000 feet, Lang Hancock announcing: “As we fly over Canberra you can see to the right all the enormous expansion of public servants”. It would not surprise if Mr Hancock’s new jet, probably a Falcon 20, lost some cargo, say one of the $3 million American packets of tea, on a run over Canberra one day, or Perth, or anywhere with more than two public servants.
Then the conversation settles on Marandoo, the most immediate of the Hancock dreams. Marandoo is another giant Hanwright find, south of Wittenoom, east of Tom Price, about the easiest mining in the world, a 12 miles stretch of almost surface ore in the spinifex plain beside Mount Bruce, the west’s tallest mountain at 4055 feet.
It has been the centre of one of the great battles of the iron country, with Hanwright fighting the State Government to have its temporary reserve status (which gives rights to explore but not mine) changed to leases which allow mining. That battle is now over but Marandoo must now fight for overseas capital, about $500 million, to develop the find and for export licences from Canberra.
To raise the money the Marandoo consortium (Hanwright and Texasgulf are equal partners but hope to bring in a 20 per cent Japanese holding if only to ensure the mine’s future market) needs a long-term contract with steel mills and the first stage in that process is a letter of intent from the mill to buy. Lang Hancock claims he already has this document.
Another problem is that Australia has already found much more iron ore that the world needs for a hundred or a thousand years and discoveries are queuing for development. Again Hancock believes he has the inside running although his opposition includes BHP and all of the existing mining companies in the Pilbara.
Hancock believes export licences should be abolished and use as proof the accelerating growth in iron consumption. At the turn of the century the world used 25 million tons of iron ore a year. It now uses 800 million tons and that figure doubles each 12 years. Although Australia has 47 per cent of the Japanese market, it holds only 8 per cent of the world market. “Unless we develop now we will not increase our share of the next 800 million tons consumption, or the 1500 million tons after that.”
It is in this area, talk of world situations, that some of Hancock’s ideas take on a certain logic, although their support is always negative.
For example, the idea of nuclear mining: Those cost of mining iron ore by traditional methods varies from a dollar to three dollars a ton. Under the Teller-Hancock hydrogen bomb scheme mining would cost just 1.8 cents a ton. The fear, as Hancock emphasises, is that if Brazil tries nuclear mining first, that country will gain world mining dominance and sweep away Australia’s markets in Japan.
In Lang Hancock’s office at the settlement, or enjoying a barbecue under those shady gums, the ideas assume overwhelming logic. Perhaps it is the stillness, the isolation, that emphasises the vulnerability of Australia. The Pilbara is great country for a gathering of hawks.
Yet another of those dreadfully healthy dawns, bright yellow light on red mountains, awareness that the city body does not live to the standards of outback vitality. It was the only time that Lang Hancock, for seconds at a time, shed that granite business-obsessed exterior and showed flesh.
He is a difficult man to understand, broad and rough in the traditionally puritanical bush way. He does not swear much but his language is basic, even coarse Australian, the image. Yet there are glimpses of other things, of extraordinarily wide reading, voracious almost, and occasionally words and phrases are dropped that belie the exterior and attest public school education, a relatively affluent upbringing.
In the Shrike, Hancock offering staccato descriptions as we climb from Wittenoom and high to soft blue skies. Almost casually, a change from the machine-gun delivery, he points out Mulga Down station, a terrible expanse of dry river beds, tortured trees, red and harsh purple earth, Hancock spent his boyhood there, and adolescence and young adulthood, as jackeroo on his father’s sheep station, then overseer, then manager. And to the left, he says, that’s Hamersley station, where you see the Mitchell grass, pale yellow-white, the biggest patch of Mitchell grass in Western Australia.
He us quiet for a few minutes after that. From these stations, the Hancock properties, he explored the Pilbara on horseback 40, 50 years ago, learned every gully and gorge.
“I always thought of myself as more a miner, a prospector, than a pastoralist,” he says and that is another end of conversation.
Twenty minutes later we approached some neatly folded hills, gentle lines broken by craggy gorges and weird red out-crops Nunyerry mine. Hancock lived there with his wife Hope, a local girl, in the absolute desolation for 15 years, mining asbestos and having the ore shipped out by packhorses.
You didn’t think it was lonely unless you sat down and thought about how lonely it was. We didn’t do that much.
It was from this gorge in the Chichester ranges, with the Sherlock River dry in the early summer, that Lang and Hope Hancock took a most momentous flight in 1952. He took off in his old Auster and flew into a storm that forced him to fly along the gullies and hills and Hancock found the iron, the first deposit that proved up to 1000 million tons. At the time Australia’s known reserves of iron ore was just 368 million tons. He is still looking.
Well, why stop. What do you want me to do, sit on a pile of money and count it? Most people would, I suppose.
I want to do something constructive and, well, my family is coming on after me. I’d just like to leave them some security, a safe place. I think there are so many dangers coming up for Australia that if I can do something to make it a little more secure then that’s what I damn well should do.
And why Marandoo — why own a mine when simply royalties achieve that massive income, when other people can develop? And at last a clue, however fleeting.
I don’t particularly want to own a mine; I just want to make sure that things get off on the right foot, the ports located in the right place, so you get a cohesive project, so that no other country can produce iron ore cheaper than Australia. We can be in business forever.
And, well, yes, this is very nice for Georgina (Hancock’s only child) to come into, things all set up and no worries. You know.
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