GAS & IRON DIGGING FOR DOLLARS DOWN UNDER; Western Australians: tall on Texas-style confidence

Western Australians are beginning to talk with Texas-style confidence as a huge natural-gas project shakes the "awakening giant." The emerging bonanza spirit spreads the length of the region. Some residents envision comfortable, palm-fringed Perth becoming the "Houston of Southeast Asia." But strong gusts of newfound wealth are also blowing across isolated Karratha -- dusty, windswept community couched at the base of the Barrup Peninsula.

The town, which typifies the boom in many West Australia communities, sprouted up from the spinifex plains about 12 years ago as a result of the increasing flow of iron ore from the Pilbara. Since then it has grown in spurts , each one measurable by the height of the trees around people's homes, themselves planted to blunt the edge of a tropical sun.

More trees are going in. To accommodate the tide of construction workers for the northwest shelf project, some 400 cyclone-proof homes will be built over the next couple of years. At the project site itself, construction workers from all around the region toil 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Their tasks: laying water lines, clearing ground for the treatment plant, and erecting a construction camp and onshore supply depot. Some 700 workers are clustered here now. During peak construction in 1983-84, the roster will swell to more than 4, 000. That will later boil down to about 800 permanent jobs.

Living quarters on the peninsula are refrigerator-box dwellings lined up like church pews in a valley surrounded by mounds of burnt sienna rock. After toiling in parboiling conditions, the workers trudge home to 9-by- 12-foot cubicles. They share toilet facilities.

The existence here is long on work and short on social life. On a heat-blistering day in the whitewashed mess hall, Vincent Jones, a diesel mechanic, spears another slab of steak for lunch. "We got a heap of work up here and not enough blokes to do it," says the red- bearded, blue-smocked worker , who earns over $ US34,000 (A$30,000) a year.

Philip Claude, a walrus-mustached New Zealander, was packing for a shoestring trip around Europe when he heard of the job openings on the project. He is now a member of the pipeline gang and pulls down US$600 (A$510) a week. Boasts Claude: "This is just a sort of place to come and get a little cash in y our hand."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.