First published in The Big Issue
Sometimes city people must leave town to turn their fortunes around, especially as the economy sags. But in Roxby Downs in remote South Australia, Michael Green discovers that mining isn’t the answer for everyone.
As the sun rises on yet another flawless blue sky, Nick Sageman prepares for work. He swings into his 4WD for the 10-minute drive, at 110 kilometres an hour, through the desert to Olympic Dam, BHP Billiton’s massive copper, uranium, gold and silver mine south of Lake Eyre.
A little more than a year ago, the sandy-haired 32-year-old and his partner lived in inner-city Melbourne; now they live in remote northern South Australia, in Roxby Downs. “We couldn’t see any way of being able to build anything unless we could earn heaps more money – which sounds really selfish and it’s not just about money – but for us, we just got tired of living like uni students,” he says. “We’d done it for too long.”
They joined a modern-day gold rush. These days it isn’t about striking it lucky on your own, but rather, about banking a high salary from a minerals corporation. Australians, renowned for living in the east and facing the sea, have begun to turn inwards to get ahead.
In May, the peak mining body, the Minerals Council of Australia, released research predicting a 90,000-strong increase in employment in the industry by 2020. Two months earlier, the Minister for Defence, Joel Fitzgibbon claimed mining companies were stealing the nation’s submariners, following a newspaper report that the navy could only properly crew three of its six Collins-class subs. Since then, however, the global financial crisis has changed many things – not least attitudes to work. It has been suggested that careers in the defence forces now have more appeal to many people. And even if we are recession-bound, a mining job remains a lavish prospect for a worker.
Besides, the canaries are still singing. “There’s good money and plenty of work around so no one thinks much about it,” says Tom Beever, the local Family and Youth Officer in Roxby Downs. “People would know about [the financial crisis] from what they read but there’s no real concern.”
Amid sand dunes five barren hours north of Adelaide, Roxby Downs is full of people from somewhere else. The town recently celebrated its 20th birthday. It was officially opened on 5 November 1988, created by Western Mining Corporation to service the then-new Olympic Dam mine.
Despite its arid setting, Roxby is the land of plenty. With neat streets, perma-blue skies and one boss for all, the town feels like a desert echo of the 1998 Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show. According to the local council, its winding suburban streets and modest weatherboard homes shape the most affluent postcode in the state. In 2006, the median individual weekly income was $1103, more than double the national average.
During the day, the small shopping strip fills with young women pushing their prams. The town boasts a young population and one of the highest birth rates in the nation. Of the 4500 residents, only 150 are aged over 55. Yet, the strangest fact of all is that Roxby is the only town in South Australia without water restrictions. Its sports fields grow lush and green courtesy of the free-flow pumped from the Great Artesian Basin, via a desalination plant at the mine.
For Scott Sauerwald, the desert has been a rich pasture, despite the initial shock. The 42-year-old arrived in town from Adelaide in 1999. “I’d been [working] in an office, in collar and tie, and went to working in a smelter,” he says. “It was a molten metal environment, hot work. After a week I thought, ‘Oh my god what have I done. I wonder if my boss will take me back?’”
Gradually, however, he became accustomed to the physical exertion. Within two months, his wife, Lisa, and two primary school-age children joined him. Part of the attraction was a quieter, safer lifestyle for his kids. “That,” he says, “and chasing money. The wages were definitely better here.” His income leapt overnight by $17 000. Now, adults working full time in the mining industry earn over $100 000, on average.
These days, Sauerwald works in occupational health and safety at the site. Lisa has worked on and off at the mine too. He says couples can “make mini-fortunes” and become financially secure 10 years earlier than they would in the city. He’s seen the benefits on his own bank balance. “If we’d stayed in Adelaide it would have been a grind, a week-to-week existence, whereas here, you don’t worry about the bills that are coming in. Every few years, people can upgrade cars and that material side of things. There’s always that buffer.”
But Sauerwald acknowledges that not everything is perfect. “The big issue here is accommodation.” With high wages, few houses and new fortune seekers arriving everyday, real estate and rental prices are spiralling. BHP Billiton, the mine’s owner since 2005, is planning a huge expansion of operations and a more than doubling of the operational workforce to over 8000. While it’s good news for job seekers, the development will strain local housing and services. “If you can get accommodation here you are laughing, if you can’t, it’s that extra struggle,” Sauerwald says.
Accommodation is not the only problem. The transient nature of the population has some unusual consequences. Although the town has a cemetery, nobody is buried there. “That talks about Roxby, you know,” says Beever. “Not only does no one come from Roxby, but no one identifies themselves with Roxby. They come to chase the big dream of working outback making big money, but there’s been a lot of people leave here shattered because it just didn’t work out.”
As the community counsellor, Beever is exposed to the sadder side of residents’ dreams. “It’s not an easy place to work. Sure, people make a lot of money here, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t earn what they get. They are a long way from where they come from,” he says.
For many people, a bigger wage just means more spending money, not more savings. Muscle cars and expensive 4WDs cruise the quiet streets at 50 kilometres an hour. One former resident comments on Roxby’s high level of drinking and gambling. Beever agrees: “Even though we’re the highest income in the state, we’ve got one of the highest [rates of] credit card abuse in the state as well. Some people are here because they have to be, because they’re up to the neck in debt.”
For Sageman and his partner, so far, the move is paying off. His wage has surpassed their expectations. “I was looking in the Australian the other day and there were jobs going as a lecturer or a zoologist with postgraduate qualifications. I’m a storeman out there and I’m on about 90 grand. It’s just insane, and that’s totally unqualified.”
The couple are determined not to fall into the spending trap. “I’ve made all those mistakes before,” Sageman says. They plan to return to the city in a few years. “We won’t leave here without some form of security, whether that’s a house, or a block of land,” he says. “We know it won’t always be like this. When we do go back to the city, I’m not going to be able to earn anywhere near as much money. But at least we’ll be able to buy into the market.”
Sometimes, they miss the city life. “Our interests aren’t really the interests of your average person here, I guess, in that we’re not into cars and motorbikes and shooting and things like that,” Sageman says. “We still feel a bit of an odd couple out but there’s more people like us moving up here everyday.”
When they get the chance, they drive out beyond the mine, along the dirt road that leads to the famous Oodnadatta track where the old Ghan railway follows one side and Lake Eyre, the other. Coming over a low rise, the land opens up wide, flat and red to the horizon. It’s the sort of landscape where you can see what’s coming at you, and make plans for the future. From here, it’s Wall Street that seems remote.
The job seeker
Andrea Morris lost her job in Adelaide real estate, and six days later, arrived in Roxby Downs looking for work in the mine. “I just decided, ‘Right if I’m going to do it, lets do it.’” The 50-year-old has just moved in with her daughter and her daughter’s partner, who were already living in the local caravan park. “I could be doing cleaning or something for six months before I get a job at the mines. You just take your chances.”
The ex-mine worker
Engineer Rachael Wauchope left Brisbane for Roxby Downs, and stayed five years. Her career bloomed. She liked living in a close-knit community and being surrounded by the beauty of the desert. “Emus walked through town. One even stuck its head through our front door and had a look around our lounge room,” she says. “I loved my job and had some good friends there. The money was great… but eventually the isolation and the lack of cultural activities got to me.”
“My sister was up here and she said it was a good place to make money,” says Brian McKay, a landscape gardener in his early twenties. But things didn’t work out as expected for the Melbourne man; the dollars have come and gone. “I was bored out of my brain so I went out and bought a motorbike. Alcohol also drains his budget. Time to move on again.