Bush Legends: How Dampier keeps finding a way to prosper
The rough waves caused by the brutal boom-and-bust cycle of life in WA’s north-west mining towns are difficult even for a Mermaid to navigate.
Just as quickly as the frothies can flow at the Dampier Mermaid Hotel, which is as famous in the town as its most prominent product — West Coast great Dean Cox — tough times can turn off the taps when workers are forced to flock out of their temporary Pilbara home.
“When the boom starts to pick up, your business changes dramatically in a short period of time and it’s just frenetic,” said publican Nick Bond, whose family has run the Mermaid for nearly two decades.
“It’s busy day and night, you’re constantly training and replacing staff and you’re just struggling to keep up. It’s great and I wish we were there again. Now we’ve just ridden out about five years of bust cycle so it’s been really, really tough.
“It’s horrible . . . you watch your bank account start to go backwards, you start cost-cutting everywhere while you’re going through your business from top to bottom and letting staff go. You’re adding more hours to your own workload — up to 90-hour weeks for months on end — because you’re struggling to pay bills, and it’s a really scary time for a lot of people.
“Hundreds and hundreds went broke in the Karratha and Port Hedland area in the last one and had to leave town. But I think we’re heading for a nice period again now, so that will be good for everyone.
“It’s hard work and it’s stressful at times. You can win big and you can lose big, that’s the way it is up here.”
To add simple perspective, the Mermaid would sell up to 80 kegs of beer a week in the flying times, while in the bust period that number dropped to just 15. Pricing for the same accommodation rooms also fluctuated from $300 a night down to just $100.
The Bonds, former publicans in the northern Wheatbelt town of Wubin, had been running a Port Hedland roadhouse when they turned their attention in 2002 to an advertisement for Dampier’s favourite Mermaid. Mr Bond’s parents Keith and Sandra spent many weekends staying in Dampier to scout the town and after putting in a successful offer to the Mercure Inn chain, they started operating the pub the following year.
They had previously run hotels in WA towns including Wubin, Ravensthorpe, Mullewa, Kellerberrin and Highbury.
Originally known as the Mermaid Motor Hotel, it was opened in 1967 as one of the town’s first buildings, just two years after the port was built by Hamersley Iron. Aside from its financial resilience, it has also survived significant cyclone damage in 2006 and again the following year.
Mr Bond, who was 17 when the family moved to Dampier, said that during the harder times it was difficult to get many of the things people in the city often took for granted. Simple things such as staff, fresh produce and even the mail, while general business running costs and wages were also inflated.
But the town, which has about 1100 residents, has become a happy home from the moment his mother fell in love with its ocean-front.
“We love it here and the way of life is fantastic,” Mr Bond said.
“We’ve got the 42 islands of the archipelago on our doorstep and we’re lucky enough to live only 16km from one of the greatest regional hubs (Karratha) in WA. We all love our fishing, diving, camping and boating and the people really make it.
“They’re relaxed, laid-back and they appreciate their time off, so it’s a great place to live and a great place to raise a family.”
On the way into Dampier, it is impossible to miss the tribute to one of the great legends of the north, Red Dog. And Mr Bond said the spirit of the kelpie-cattle dog cross lived on at the Mermaid.
“He frequented the Mermaid in the main bar and has always been a real positive for the area,” he said.
Towns such as Dampier are almost always dotted with community doers — people like adopted town champion Gillian Furlong and football club heartbeat Russell Turner.
After nearly 15 years in Dampier, Ms Furlong, who is from the Irish country of Cork and whose husband Conor O’Brien is a planner at Rio Tinto, considers herself nearly half-local, “even with the funny accent”. She said there was a thriving feeling of connection in the town.
“We loved it straight away . . . the sense of community in Dampier is phenomenal,” said Ms Furlong, who is president of the Dampier Community Association and also a City of Karratha councillor.
“I think because a lot of us are orphans up here, we have to establish our own families and the community does that wonderfully well. They reach out so it’s very easy to make life-long friendships in a very short length of time and I think that’s what makes Dampier really unique and special.
“And because we’re such a small community, everybody wears lots of different hats so organisations survive in this environment. In my heart, I am Dampier through and through, but we are part of a big picture.”
Mr Turner is universally known as Emu (which Bush Legends will opt to call him from here), a name given to him by a former footy teammate known as “Flannel Ears” for his enjoyment of running.
Emu played his early football in Mt Barker, playing juniors against legendary brothers Jim and Phil Krakouer. His journey then took him through Leinster and Paraburdoo before lobbing in Dampier in 1996.
“I was like, ‘This is different, there are a lot of rocks here’,” Emu recalled of his first impressions of the town.
And it was not long before Emu became embedded within the Dampier Sharks Football Club, which has been the nurturing ground for players including Cox and current West Coast Eagle, Zac Langdon. He had been invited there by his former Paraburdoo club president Damien Peachey, who had gone on to the same position with the Sharks.
Soon after, Emu assumed the position he has now held for the past 23 years at the picturesque and aptly-named Windy Ridge headquarters where six-goal breezes are regular. It was difficult to measure what that goal count advantage was when Cyclone Damien ran its damaging path in 2020.
“At times, it’s a howling gale,” Emu said with a smirk. “It’s best if you’ve got it in the last quarter for the last crack at it. You want to be in front by at least seven points when the final siren blows because if someone gets a free kick they can win from nearly anywhere by kicking a goal.”
The Sharks, currently coached by former Fremantle Dockers defender Steven Dodd, are always threatened by the town’s inevitable population decline in the never-ending search for their next champion centre-half-back. But they had a crowning glory last year with premierships for the league and reserves, sparking celebration mayhem on the ground.
Emu was disappointed he did not have a drone up to record the “mosh pit in the middle”, scenes he described as similar to the SCG when Lance Franklin booted his 1000th career goal.
An art piece at the salt flats on the road leading into Dampier has several shark fins surrounding a cowering cat to symbolise the victory over the Karratha Kats.
Despite the rollercoaster in both the town and the footy club, Emu said the Sharks remained a constant in uniting the local people.
“We’ve had some huge losses down here, but eventually you just put it behind you, get on with it and see how you go for the next season,” he said. “It’s important for the town . . . it’s an identity and gives people a focus. As long as we don’t act like rascals, they’ll support you.”
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