What sort of a best friend tells you to pack up your life on the other side of Australia and head to Port Hedland — only to be out of town when you’ve driven thousands of kilometres across the country on their say so?
Claire Sobolewski may have harboured such thoughts when she and partner Dan Goulding arrived in in 2011.
But, in reality, they didn’t get much of chance to think about it. And to be fair, the best friend and family did return to Port Hedland.
“During my partner’s third overseas deployment with the Australian Army, we decided that we needed a change of lifestyle and scenery,” Claire recalled.
“My best friend had recently moved with her husband to this place I’d never heard of called Port Hedland and told us, ‘You’ve got to get your tails over here’. Two months later, we sold our stuff, packed the car in Sydney and drove to Hedland in May 2011.”
And the welcome?
“The first night we arrived, our friends were actually not in town; they were back in Canberra for the birth of their first child,” Claire said.
“They did however call their friends to ensure we had a warm welcome, which was more than we had ever expected.
“Within hours of our arrival we had someone knocking at our door, driving us out to a BBQ at someone’s house (which turned out to be someone’s 30th) and were welcomed like long-lost friends.
“Everyone was so warm and welcoming we were almost alarmed, having adopted the city behaviour of don’t talk to anyone unless necessary. We felt the welcoming embrace of small, country-town living that we had both grown up with and we loved it.”
For Claire, that small country town was in Tasmania. She spent 12 months in Austria on a Rotary Exchange before moving to Sydney and studying Physiotherapy at Sydney University.
Dan is also from Tasmania; the pair went to school together in Devonport, but Claire says they didn’t really meet until they had left school.
Dan was a specialist aircraft engineer, working on Blackhawk Helicopters in Townsville and Sydney with several tours overseas. He now works for Pilbara Ports Authority in the maintenance team.
After graduating, Claire worked in Emergency and Respiratory care at St George Hospital in Sydney, trained in clinical pilates instruction and developed a passion for personalised fitness training.
Now Port Hedland is getting the benefit of her experience.
“After being here for only a few months, I realised the need for individualised and professional fitness training in my new home town,” Claire said.
“I started my own business, Physiological Training Physiotherapy, and developed a passion to help local women achieve and maintain their peak fitness potential, teaching pilates at the Andrew McLaughlin Community Centre and boxing fitness in the local parks.
“Eleven years on, that small business has grown into a physiotherapy practice on one of the main streets of Port Hedland, with (at one stage) two other physios and two masseuses working with us.
“I have worked hard to develop a strong reputation as being an exceptional therapist, while helping people reach their personal health and fitness goals.
“It is so important for me to empower people with education and knowledge, so that they can prevent injuries and pain in the future. It is through basic understanding that people can be empowered to use techniques to manage their own pain, creating for themselves a pain-free life and avoiding the need for dependence on constant health professional intervention.
“We take this promise very seriously, and even now with reduced staff at the practice, I treat every client with care and individual attention that they deserve, ensuring that they get the best care they possibly can.”
Claire continues to be in awe of the community spirit she experienced on that first night in Port Hedland, with people “banding together to support each other”.
“From the outside I can see how people think Hedland is ‘just a mining town’,” she said. “It’s not until you spend time here that you realise the community is pretty great. There are plenty of great local Hedland haunts and activities: beach BBQs, walking Sutherland Street path at sunset, the food van markets on a Friday night, seeing everyone you know at the local markets or gallery opening nights, camping in the most beautiful spots of outback Australia just a couple of hours out of town.
“I also love that we are on the coast. Watching the iron-ore carriers come in and out of the harbour every day never gets old, along with winter camping at our fingertips and the opportunity to camp places where there is no-one for kilometres… the beautiful night sky without light pollution, the ability to work year-round in a t-shirt.”
A perfect weekend is “teaching pilates on a Saturday morning before heading home to pack the car and head off camping with friends”.
“Exploring river beds and bush tracks, taking beautiful sunset photos, making memories. Staying up just late enough to enjoy dinner and watch the stars, and a mandatory hot chocolate before hitting the hay.”
With so much on offer, Claire is confident about the future of Port Hedland but says “we just need to harness our energy to move forward. There are always enough of us to move the town to a better place — just sometimes we feel isolated and lost; ships without a port in a storm”.
“But the something that has been a big learning point for me is the consistency of service. You have to have a service going for months before people trust that it’s going to be there every time they turn up. Create a regular event and people will be there.”
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