It has been described as one of the most dangerous and contaminated places on the planet.
But that notoriety has become a tourist drawcard for the toxic ex-asbestos mining town of Wittenoom, deep in Western Australia’s remote Pilbara region.
About 20,000 people lived there in its heyday throughout the 1930s to 1966, carting around deadly blue asbestos.
More than 2,000 deaths have been linked to the mining activity at Wittenoom and the whole town is a declared contaminated site.
But despite large, imposing signs littered around town warning of a serious hazard to human life, thousands of curious travellers still visit every year.
The local shire said it has been told some WA tourism operators were even offering guided visits.
“We’ve just heard on the Pilbara grapevine that there are groups going out there,” Ashburton Shire CEO, Rob Paull said.
“Maybe they think it’s adventure tourism or along those lines, but we want to make sure everybody is aware there are significant dangers for themselves, their family and their friends if they go to Wittenoom.”
Eerie beauty attracts thrill seekers
It’s an intrigue that lends itself to a form of “extreme tourism” appealing to more thrill-seeking travellers.
Queensland Photographer Jenny Rush visited Wittenoom during a caravan trip around northern Australia and found it to be an exhilarating experience.
“It’s probably one of my favourite places actually, it’s beautiful, it’s spectacular,” she said.
“Nothing really prepared us for the eeriness of it, or the beauty of it, it was bizarre.”
She said she was captivated by ghost towns.
“There’s a fire engine sitting there, there’s a sign from the old shop and there’s an old bus that still has salt and pepper and sauce bottles on the table,” she said.
“It just looked like people walked out and left it.
“There’s raw beauty there — you look at the hills and the layout of the hills and the cliffs — then you’ll see a man-made causeway in amongst it all and know that it was a bustling place, a thriving place at some point.”
Mrs Rush said she was well aware of the risk and was accompanied by a relative who owned an asbestos removal business.
She said she was surprised to hear people were being offered guided tours.
“You’re pretty dumb if you go in there without knowledge,” she said.
“I wouldn’t like to think that thousands of people are going to go in there stomping all over it — I mean, it’s been closed for a reason.”
Deaths of asbestos miners well documented
The suffering of former residents has been well documented.
Lyniece Bolitho lost her grandfathers, her father, three uncles and many friends to mesothelioma and asbestosis.
She said much more needed to be done to discourage people from visiting.
“It’s open field for anyone to go there,” she said.
“If you go there any day of the week, you will see tourist after tourist after tourist going into Wittenoom — babies, people from all over the world.
“This is a tourist hotspot we’re talking about here.”
Ms Bolitho said the warning signs themselves were being defaced and vandalised.
“You think the mines are locked, they put up a couple of silly little things to stop people from going into the mines, but they’re vandalised, taken down,” she said.
“People just go in there hunting trophies.
“The warnings are there for people who read English, but if you can’t read English, who knows.
“This is a bad recipe — you have mountains of asbestos and yet we allow people to go there willy-nilly.”
The WA Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage warned on its website remnants of blue asbestos were still present throughout the area and presented a serious risk to human health.
It strongly advises people not to travel to Wittenoom and offers tourists a list of other destinations to visit in the Pilbara.