Voyager of the Sea heads out to the ocean with Port Hedland in the background. Picture: Niall McIlroy

Rust-red Pilbara town Port Hedland enjoyed thousands of extra visitors this summer. But they didn't arrive as you'd expect, funnelling in from the south by road.

Instead they came from the ocean on cruise ships, just as I have, disembarking from Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas along with 3000 others.

It's March and we're the fourth shipload of Royal Caribbean International passengers to have visited over the summer season. Radiance of the Seas has been twice and Celebrity Solstice once - passengers eager to get off and stretch their legs before the days at sea on the way to Asia. Port Hedland is on the itinerary for those same ships next summer.

Just metres from the ship, there is a fleet of coaches waiting for those booked on a BHP tour and others making the short trip into town. I join those going to the BHP Billiton Nelson Point facility. The iron-ore industry is the reason Port Hedland is the busiest port in Australia by tonnage and one of the busiest in the world. Empty bulk carriers loom in on low tide and disappear over the horizon, weighing hundreds of thousands of tonnes during high tide. On one record-breaking day last November, nearly 1.1 million tones of ore left between tides.

We pass under mazes of conveyor belts, puddles of water at the feet of pylons, remnants of liquid used to keep the dust down. One area where the belts are particularly snaky is nicknamed spaghetti junction, the conveyors coated in dust the colour of bolognaise sauce. Strings of rail cars slink past. Each day, 22 full trains roll in from the mine at Newman, 430km away. The trains have two locomotives and 248 cars, each laden with 129 tonnes of ore. They carry lump, gravelly rocks, and fines, smaller granules of ore, and the cars are lifted, track and all, ore tipped on to belts before it's either stockpiled or siphoned on to the ships. It's a remarkable process to watch, with Voyager of the Seas a bright, white contrast.

But this is a place about people, not numbers, and I'm greeted in town by enthusiastic mayor Kelly Howlett, in her blue volunteer's hat and high-vis jacket. There are 20 such volunteers here to assist the hundreds of passengers who've come to the markets, held four times a year during the dry season.

"People are really proud to show off their town, especially when the ships come in," Cr Howlett says. "A lot of West Australians might have been up here in the 70s and 80s when Port Hedland was a bit of a harsh environment and they think they know the place. But this town is much softer, with public art, parks and new facilities."

Under the auspices of not-for- profit organisation FORM, working in collaboration with BHP Billiton, the town has a beautifully revamped visitor centre, the Courthouse Gallery, the West End Markets and the new Spinifex Hill Studio in South Hedland.

FORM executive director Lynda Dorrington has been the driving force behind much of it and she's clearly proud as visitors wander the gallery, which opened in 2008. Lynda says the mix of locals and engineers and geologists who have come here for work means there are plenty of creative minds in town and FORM has helped give them an outlet.

"We're all about finding the unusual and forming it into something exciting, and at the heart of that is this community," she says. "If you don't bring the community with you, forget it."

I can see this exciting creativity on the walls of the Courthouse Gallery, which showcases local and regional works including, during my visit, acrylic paintings of stylised WA wildflowers by Geraldton artist Helen Ansell. Colleague Peta Riley, with whom she's established Mulla Mulla Designs, has translated these to textiles, which are also on display. This will be followed by the work of the indigenous Martumili artists from the Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson deserts.

Outside, another initiative of the gallery, the West End Markets, is a hit with the visitors. A few years ago, FORM held a series of workshops to introduce Pilbara residents to handicrafts and many now sell their wares at the markets. The number of stalls has risen from about 18 in 2011 to 50 today, including milliners, candle makers, clothes stalls and community initiatives such as the Green Design Challenge.

The brainchild of market manager Amy Plant was conceived when she decided to hold a competition to see what could be made of a load of wooden pallets left over from the refurbishment of the visitor centre. Winner Elizabeth David made them into a clock adorned with plants and visitors are able to help it grow by planting a seedling.

Passengers are giving good custom to a Singapore noodles and an Indian curry stall as well as one run by Sophie Budd of Highgate- based school and caterers Taste Budds Cooking Studio. She's worked in kitchens ownded by the likes of Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver but has brought her skills here in the form of more Australian tastes. I'm enjoying Sophie's kangaroo with wattle seed, pepper berry and pepper leaf (it tastes like lovely tender pepper steak) and top it off with wattle- seed tiramisu. She's also prepared lamb with lemon myrtle and saltbush.

Nearby at South Hedland is the Spinifex Hill Studio, where 40 artists are producing work. There's also a 3-D workshop - this year's theme is jewellery and there'll be four jewellers in residence. FORM has renowned artists visiting the region, sharing knowledge.

The work of Melbourne-born Reko Rennie has adorned his home city as well as Paris and Washington and he has a strong presence in this region. He collaborated with indigenous kids in South Hedland to paint a vibrant multicoloured mural which has pride of place at one of the town's new parks. And he's been joined in the Pilbara by US physician turned photographer and artist James "Chip" Thomas, whose work on a Navajo Indian reservation translates well in the North West.

A very bright future then but there's also work going on to preserve Port Hedland's past.

Dating back to 1903, the oldest building still in use was once the headquarters of Dalgety, long since merged with Wesfarmers. It served as a general store and supply warehouse to the thriving inland pastoral industry at a time when Port Hedland was growing as a port for sheep and wool. Shipping was arranged through these offices and loans of money, infrastructure and equipment were made to the farmers, offset by the wool and livestock produced.

But by the 60s, the pastoral industry had mostly gone and the derelict building came close to demolition. In 1999 it was rescued by the Port Hedland Historical Society and, at Dalgety House Museum, Arnold and Fran Carter explain how it's been restored close to its original condition. "The only thing we changed was to put in air-conditioning," Fran laughs, before I sit with Arnold in the manager's office with its oil lamps, old typewriter and loan stamps.

The couple have lived in Port Hedland for 52 years and love to tell how the town, now so associated with mining, was established on the sheep's back. Arnold first arrived to conduct a feasibility study on iron ore mining but he met Fran and they never left.

Out the back is something of a shrine to one of WA's greatest maritime mysteries. The SS Koombana left Port Hedland on March 20, 1912 for Broome with 157 passengers and crew. But it never arrived and is thought to have been wrecked by a cyclone near Bedout Island, about 100km off Port Hedland. Despite many searches only a wooden panel from the luxurious ship's bar has ever been found. "I'm fairly sure she got hit by a very big wave and went under," Arnold says. "There were no survivors, not even a hat, just that panel."

I end a busy day with a view like no other; taking to the skies with George Warner in a 172 Cessna with Polar Aviation. "My boss has a sense of humour," George laughs when I ask him about the name.

From 1000ft, it's the intensity of the colour that is most striking. Serpentine creeks flow towards the coast. We're up over the cake-icing- white Rio Tinto salt lakes, over bushy mangroves dipped in tea- coloured tidal waters, past the red- roofed town, surrounded by redder earth where the ore stockpiles at FMG and Nelson Point are shaped like bricks drying in the sun. Long flat bulk carriers are just toys - the 142,000 tonne giant Voyager of the Seas is helped out to the ocean by tiny red tugs.

On the short drive back to town from the airport, it's clear there's plenty to enjoy up here, whether as a quick stop on a cruise itinerary or a longer break of a few days, perhaps on the drive up to Broome or on from Karijini National Park. And there'll be even more reason to visit from August 22-24 when the Pilbara's premier music event, the North West Festival, will be held in Port Hedland. Performers will include Missy Higgins, the Pigram Brothers, the Dandy Warhols and Wolfmother. If you do drive up, there is the 108-room Esplanade Hotel, with its comfortable and spacious deluxe spa rooms. I devour a big chicken parmigiana dinner with mozzarella, gruyere, chips and salad ($34) in the gold-plate finalist Restaurant 1904. And in the morning, there's the view from the big balcony that wraps around the facade of the beautiful old building which has stood for more than a century but has been completely renovated over the last few years. It is backed by gardens which general manager Andrew Ziems says make the Esplanade Hotel feel like a bit of an oasis. After a short but comfortable stay, I can only agree.

FACT FILE

Port Hedland Visitor Centre is at 13 Wedge Street. Go to visitporthedland.com or phone 9173 1711. BHP Billiton Iron Ore Tours are run each Tuesday and Thursday at 1pm. They cost $45 per person and can be booked through the visitor centre. They'll also give more information on Dalgety House Museum.

The Courthouse Gallery is at 16 Edgar Street and is open 9am-4.30pm Monday to Friday and 9am-2pm on weekends. The next West End Markets are on today. For more and to find out about Spinifex Hill Studio, see courthousegallery.com.au. There's more on FORM at form.net.au.

Taste Budds Cooking Studio is at tastebudds.com.au.

Polar Aviation conducts scenic flights over Port Hedland for up to 13 people. Rates for two adults cost $400 per hour but it's possible to fly for a shorter period. polaraviation.com.au.

The North West Festival is on from August 22-24. A ticket for the Friday is $69, $139 for the Saturday, $180 for a two-day ticket and $30 for the Sunday Sundowner acoustic set. A Golden Ticket covering every event costs $195. Booking fees apply. moshtix.com.au or 1300 438 849.

Room rates at the Esplanade Hotel vary, visit theesplanadeporthedland.com.au for the latest.

Niall McIlroy visited Port Hedland courtesy of Royal Caribbean, the Town of Port Hedland and Australia's North West tourism.

The West Australian

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