GAS & IRON DIGGING FOR DOLLARS DOWN UNDER; Tom Price: a mining town in the hard-scrabble frontier

Out in the heart of a dust-choked iron mine, Donald Sillirs hoists himself two stories up into the cab of a Wabco 120 dump truck. The stocky Scotsman backs the massive rig up near a pile of ore, where a shovel dumps some 100 tons. "The isolation is the biggest thing," he yells above the growl of the engine, describing conditions here. "Anywhere you want to go, you're talking about spending hundreds of dollars to get there."

Life in the Pilbara, one of the more desolate and inhospitable areas on earth , is lonely indeed. More than anything else, this ochertinted slab of outback reflects the vastness and harshness of Australia -- a country the size of the United States (minus Alaska) but with only 14.7 million people.

A sense of isolation permeates much of the national character and is mirrored in everything from its defense policies to its art. But perhaps nowhere is the feeling stronger than in remote areas of Western Australia -- an area bigger than Alaska, Texas, and New Mexico combined, with 1.3 million people.

From Tom Price it is 400 miles to the nearest city, Perth. It takes four to five hours to drive to Port Hedland on the coast -- all the way over rough dirt roads. When making the journey, many residents carry three spare tires. "We live in a cocoon here," says Roger Nancarrow, incoming head of the local Lions Club. "It's a long way from reality."

It is frontier-style living with draglines and dump trucks instead of cattle and covered wagons. The people are part of a brawny breed of workers, usually in soiled shirts and steel-toed boots, who help make Australia the world's largest exporter of iron one.

Tom Price, a snug little community covered with a veneer of red dust, is one of a handful of mining towns in the rugged Pilbara which draws laborers from all over the world. Some come for the adventure of the outback, others for the pay. Mr. Sillirs moved here two years ago from a comfortable Melbourne suburb just to "try something different."

An average worker might pull down $17,000 (Australian) to $20,000 a year. At noon in the cavernous mess hall near the Mt. Tom Price mine, Geoff Houghton plays a few hands of euchre before returning to work."You couldn't really call it a pioneering existence here," says the shovel operator, with a two-day beard and mutton-chop sideburns. "But you have to have a little of the pioneering spirit to make it."

One reason is the heat. Couched near the Tropic of Capricorn, Tom Price frequently simmers in 110 degree F. temperatures. On certain days some say the rocks become so hot that you can blister your feet right through shoes.

Yet, amid all the sweat and toil there is a touch of civility. Tom Price has a library, recreation club, three schools, and several sports fields, not to mention a gravel golf course. Some 28 gardeners nurse the clusters of purple bougainvillea and orange chrysanthemums scattered around town.

For the shopper, there is a food market, bank, airline office, and chemist (drugstore). Other merchants include the Clip 'n Curl, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the Hard Rock Cafe. Bill Warden sells "life and all insurances."

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