The asbestos mine in Wittenoom is one of Australia’s greatest tragedies, one that is often compared to the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. Although the area has been closed since the 1970s, more and more thrill-seeking tourists are visiting what has since been transformed into a deadly ghost town. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.
Warning signs adorn every access road to Wittenoom. Like large white barriers, they stick out of the red earth in the Outback, standing tall between barren bushes and dessert grass. “Warning,” read the signs. “Asbestos fibres and dust are present and may be airborne in and around Wittenoom.”
From regional city to ghost town
The sign gives you an idea of what the town, which is located some 1,100 kilometres north of Perth, has been through. It was originally built to support the local asbestos mine, which was Australia’s sole asbestos supplier from the 1950s to the early 1960s.
Some 20,000 people lived and worked in Wittenoom during this time, oblivious to the fact that their hometown was slowly but surely killing them: the asbestos fibres inhaled by the town’s residents caused cancer, and at least 10 per cent – men, women and children – died as a result.
Wittenoom was the largest city in the Pilbara region of northwestern Australia in the 1950s. But after the tragedy came to light, the city was closed in the 1970s, its name removed from all traffic signs. And yet not all residents left: a few people still live in Wittenoom to this day, although the place has since been transformed into a ghost town.
The houses left standing are lonely: at the café, paint peels off the walls, an old petrol pump rises up like a memorial from the dusty earth. And yet it’s precisely this morbid loneliness that fascinates visitors today, who are now coming in droves to the town.
“It’s probably one of my favourite places actually, it’s beautiful, it’s spectacular,” photographer Jenny Rush told the local station ABC.
She visited Wittenoom during a caravan trip around northern Australia, describing it as an exhilarating experience: “It just looked like people walked out and left it.”
Nothing had prepared her for the eeriness or the beauty of it, though she was quick to point out that she was well aware of the risk and had been accompanied by an asbestos expert.
Wrong kind of ‘adventure tourism’
But not all tourists are cautious. Rob Paul from the nearby town of Ashburton said he was even aware of tourism operators offering guided visits to Wittenoom.
“Maybe they think it’s adventure tourism or along those lines, but we want to make sure everybody is aware there are significant dangers for themselves, their family and their friends if they go to Wittenoom,” said Paul.
‘Forbidden’ tourism not only concerns the authorities, but also the relatives of the former residents who had inhaled the carcinogenic asbestos fibres and later died. They have little understanding for the thrill-seeking tourists.
“Perhaps they should know what it was like to be told your 36 yr old fit & healthy father was dying all because he was a child of Wittenoom,” wrote Relle Noble on the Lost Wittenoom page on Facebook. Noble went on to tell that her father died only six months after his diagnosis.
Her family, like so many others, were unaware at the time of just how deadly asbestos is. This is in stark contrast to today’s visitors: “They do know and they still choose to do it!” Noble exclaimed.