Lang Hancock: iron-ore monarch with rich lode of ideas

If ideas came in parcels, lang Hancock could fill the Sydney Opera House. Mr. Hancock is Australia's mining monarch and premier prospector -- a blunt-talking, bulldog of a man who became a household word in Australia years ago for his role in opening up the iron ore-rich Pilbara area.

Since then, he has been stalking grand vision for Australian resources. Consider just a few of his ideas over the years:

* Use nuclear bombs to blow up entire mountains of iron ore and ship it to the world's steelmakers.

* String a 1,200-mile railroad across Australia's arid, desolate midsection, linking the ore mines of Pilbara to coalflush Queensland in the east -- no small task considering that even the Tropic of Capricorn seems to cross the harsh interior with trepidation.

* Harness the whale-high Indian Ocean tides that lap against the jagged coastline of northwestern Australia. By damming just one narrow bay, he believes enough electricity could be generated to supply six times the country's current needs.

Lunacy? Some think so. But then Lang Hancock -- iron- ore magnate, archconservative, developer extraordinairem -- is not given to consensus-building. The son of a rancher, this bull-necked iconoclast has been bucking traditions all his life. He has been called dogmatic, ruthless, a visionary, and a prophet. A biography written about him a couple of years ago was entitled simply "Rogue Bull."

Controversy aside, Mr. Hancock embodies the frontier brashness and cocky self-confidence that marks much of mineral-rich Western Australia, if not the whole country, today as it moves into the heady 1980s.

Generally considered one of Australia's richest men, the septuagenarian is still cutting across the grain. One of his latest plans is to open a new mine at "Marandoo" in the Pilbara. The project involves running a rail line to the coast and building a port at Ronsard Island south of Port Hedland. Because the rail route runs slightly downhill -- he calls it "Newton's railroad" -- it would cut down on freight costs. The port would be big enough to handle the largest ore carriers -- all of which Mr. Hancock thinks would help cement Australia's kingpin role as a world ore supplier.

But visions are for the future. Mr. Hancock is a household word in Australia partly because of his historic past.

In 1952 Mr. Hancock was flying across the Hamersley Ranges in northwestern Australia on a stormy November day in his single-engine Auster. Forced to fly low because of heavy cloud cover, he dipped through a deep gorge and noticed the orcher tint to the canyon. Next April he returned to the spot and confirmed his suspicions: iron ore. Very rich iron ore. Entire mountains of it. The find was significant because the country thought its reserves were small. Iron ore, in fact, was a prohibited export. With a little cunning and a lot of cajolery, he eventually convinced the government and international mining companies to take an interest.

Today the dusty, heat-seared Pilbara reigns as one of the richest ore deposits in the world. Australia is the world's second biggest iron ore producer and the biggest exporter. The royalties Mr. Hancock receives from the ore were estimated several years ago at $34,000 ($30,000 Australian) a day.m He is generally considered Australia's biggest taxpayer.

The raspy-voiced Hancock gets almost evangelical about mining. In a recent address before an international iron ore symposium in Frankfurt, he noted: "Our horn of plenty starts with a hole in the ground. Throughout history civilizations have been shaped by the use of minerals. Mineral supplies have determined the rise and fall of empires, pattern of populations, and the evolution of human enterprise in industry and rising living standards."

In a two-hour interview in his spacious office on the outskirts of Perth, he expanded on this theory. "It [iron ore] is absolutely fundamental to the laws of existence or civilization as we know it," he says, dwarfed in a black leather- skinned chair. "I think you've got to have something basic to build your buildings with. You just can't move without mining."

Clever and outspoken, the mining magnate is a right-wing rebel. He is as zealous in his disdain of government bureaucracy as he is in his love of mining. Over the years he has spearheaded drives to get mineral-rich Western Australia to secede from the rest of the country -- an idea tempting the heart of many frontier-minded westerners.

"Australia is not a democracy," he says emphatically. He leans on his expansive desk, cluttered with maps, papers, and a hematite pen set. "It is controlled first of all by the bureaucracy, secondly by the trade union leaders, thirdly by the media, and fourthly by the big manufacturing lobbies. Underneath them are the so-called elected representatives of the people."

Perhaps the only thing worse than government to Mr. Hancock is environmentalism, which he considers the "scourge of the 20th century." Not surprisingly, he embraces nuclear power with the ardor of a dog bounding after a Frisbee.

In the end, the archenemy, to this consummate capitalist, seems to be anything that thwarts development, particularly mining. For as long as there is expansion, he says, "I don't think there is any limit to the number of men the earth can support."

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