Blue Ghost

Tuesday Tomlins

CW: mentions death 

 

Tucked away in Western Australia’s Pilbara region is an abandoned town called Wittenoom. The government has long since struck it from every map and signpost. Its cars and buildings are part-swallowed by the earth, the rest protruding into the harsh sun. A disastrous substance litters the ground, floats in the air and wallows in the gorges. Warning signs scream ‘DANGER, GO BACK’.  

 

In 1976, well before Wittenoom was dubbed Australia’s Chernobyl, my mother’s family camped there. Her dad was a geography teacher and keen to take his wife and kids to the old mines and cave systems around the gorge. Mum recalls the details to me, reaching back into memories that have stood the test of time. The creeks had receded beneath a winter sun, crossing stones standing tall amid shallow pools. Blue dust cut across the rocks in vein-like patterns. Old cart tracks curved into the dark throat of the mine. The three kids skipped stones in the river and raced over the rocks, their parents near the creek, snapping photos. Meanwhile, deadly asbestos fibres contaminated the land they walked on, the water they played in, and the air they breathed.  

 

The mine had shut down in the 60s, when profit plummeted and public health concerns had pumped their way out into the community and stunted the town’s population. The miners and their families were the first to escape Wittenoom. But before they left, they disposed of Australia’s most profitable fibrous stone of the twentieth century. Three billion tonnes of blue asbestos were dumped into the gorge, where the mountains still sit eroding into the air and water systems. Blue asbestos is the most dangerous of asbestos types. Ben Wyatt, a former Minister for Lands and Aboriginal Affairs stated in a 2019 interview that exposure to a single fibre of the asbestos tailings ‘could prove fatal’.  

 

‘We didn’t know. We didn’t know how dangerous it was,’ Mum says now. ‘The mine had closed. But the town was still an operating town. We stayed there for four days at least… maybe a week.’ 

 

A week is a worryingly long time, but for those who built their lives in and around Wittenoom, the weeks turned into months, turned into years. Past the closing of the school, tourist accommodations and even the local pub, a handful of Wittenoom residents soldiered on into the early 2000s. One day, these leftover residents received a message: please leave, now. By mid-morning, men swathed in protective gear were cutting the lines, kicking Wittenoom swiftly off the power grid.  

 

Despite all the warnings, Wittenoom still attracts extreme tourism. The old café and petrol station are photographed over and over by travel bloggers, showing the same shed in a sea of yellow grass with a rusted-out fuel pump. Faded letters read ‘DOC HOLIDAYS CAFÉ’. In the 70s the shed was a healthy cream colour, and the scripture was rich and black. I imagine there were bright, cheesy patterns and the smell of frying bacon and coffee grounds.  

             

A few years ago, a journalist ventured into what is left of Doc Holiday’s Café. Crouched in the dirt in his hazmat suit, it took moments to spot asbestos on the ground, only metres from the entrance. Inside, it was clear that things were left in a hurry. The ovens were caked in dirt, and bundles of paper bags were scattered across the floor along with takeaway containers proclaiming: ‘Hot Chips Tasty’. A warning sign outside reads ‘DANGER, ZOMBIES IN THIS AREA’. And to give some credit to the vandaliser, Doc Holiday’s Café looks like it’s pulled straight from the screen of a zombie horror film.  

 

* 

 

The night before my mum’s family were going to explore the mines, she lay cocooned in her sleeping bag, deeply asleep. She describes a torchlight waking her, and how she sat up in confusion. The light was so blinding, it took a moment to see the hulking shadow behind it. A man was in her tent, the light pouring forth from his forehead. The first time she told me this story, my imagination took over. I could see unnaturally long fingers, reaching towards a little girl in the night. The bright light was a miner’s headtorch and a point of darkness was a contracting, stuttering mouth; cold lips trying to form words of warning. I imagined an ear-splitting, little-girl scream rending the night air. My mum doesn’t appreciate this assumption.   

 

‘I wasn’t that kind of kid. I didn’t scream, I shouted at the figure. Go away!’ 

 

Her shouts woke up the rest of the family, but by the time her dad reached her, the figure had disappeared.  

 

‘A man was inside, trying to talk to me,’ she told her dad. ‘He shone a light on my face.’ 

 

My granddad was steadfast and unwaveringly rational, the sort of adult my mother grew up to be. ‘No one has unzipped the tent door,’ he told her. To him this was confirmation that she’d just had a bad dream. To my mum it meant the figure could pass through tent walls.  

 

She tells me now, ‘I’ve seen many ghosts through my teens and early adulthood. I believe this ghost was trying to communicate with me. And this ghost is one of the rare ones that scared me. Most seem benign and non-threatening. This one was very threatening. But to this day I simply wonder, was he trying to warn me?’ 

 

I put aside my scepticism when talking to Mum about her ghost encounters. I have a ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ motto, no matter how open I try to be. To Mum the sky is above us and ghosts are real. To me, if ghosts are real then the sky is the ground, and the stars are the moon and tulips can tap dance and sing. Despite this, I soak up every ghost story she has, and the ghost of Wittenoom is the one I find the most chilling, and the most convincing. 

 

‘When I get a chest infection it’s difficult to dislodge. I wonder, is there a tiny fibre of asbestos in my lungs that could cause illness?’ Mum tells me, her voice distant. ‘I can’t help but think the ghost was bringing a premonition of my death.’ 

 

I had wrung every detail of her family’s visit and the ghost encounter from her, typing as she spoke, and it’s this last hair-raising line that she leaves me with. Thousands of former Wittenoom residents have been directly killed by the blue asbestos, contracting vicious forms of lung cancer and asbestosis. The amount of fatal exposure levels varies from person to person, but a study found that exposure in childhood is particularly hazardous.  

In Wittenoom’s early days, hundreds of men filtered into the depths of the mines, working long hours without a stitch of protective gear. Asbestos was crushed for transport, and its fibres clouded the air and lungs of anyone nearby. Women toiled in production lines, manufacturing masks made from asbestos. The material was used for clothing, houses, electric power stations, anything, everything. It was called the miracle fibre. Indeed, it brought a miraculous amount of money in for the company founders. But it brought death to the people of Wittenoom. Do their troubled souls linger on, issuing out warnings to little girls who don’t know they breathe poisoned air? But if you don’t believe in warnings from beyond the grave, take it from me; beware of Wittenoom.  

 

Tuesday Tomlins is an emerging Meanjin-based (Brisbane) writer. She finds endless inspiration in the history and landscape of Australia, channelling this into her memoir, horror, poetry, and fiction. 

 

Art by Tremayne Stocks @tremaynestocks_art