Queensland - mount isa, charters towers and the road to cairns.
A long drive and extortionate fuel Prices
From Mataranka in the Northern Territory to Mount Isa
in Queensland is 1,200 l-o-n-g kilometres. We broke the journey with two
overnight stops in free roadside rest areas. Both were very good with
'waterless' toilets and a supply of 'not for drinking' tank water.
We joined about fifteen other caravans and motor homes at each rest area
and there was a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. At night it was pitch black
and totally silent, there being no habitation for hundreds of kilometres.
During a period when oil prices were rising daily we were used to fuel
price shocks. However, when we filled up at Renner Springs Roadhouse in
the Northern Territory the price of diesel was an astronomical $1.60 per
litre. Two days later we refueled again in Mount Isa in Queensland where
the price was $1.11. We purchased 110 litres each time and the difference
(to save you reaching for a calculator) was $53.90. For exactly the
Don't tell me transport costs account for that; they
have you by the short and curlies and they know it.
Before we left Mataranka we had been warned several times about a very
bad stretch of the Barkly Highway between Camooweal and Mount Isa. We
received more warnings along the way. On that 190 kilometre stretch of
road the bitumen is frequently only wide enough to accommodate a truck.
Anything going the other way has to move onto the gravel verge and either
slow right down or stop. Road trains don't give way to caravans
- or anything else, for that matter - and if they are forced to run their
left wheels along the verge, they kick up such a dense cloud of dust and
gravel that it's far better just to give them the whole road. The
Barkly Highway, I might add, is designated 'National Highway A2'.
More like National Goat Track! It is being upgraded . . . just thirty
years too late.
And so it was that we approached that section of road with much trepidation.
However, just as we set off from Camooweal, a giant road train roared
past going in the same direction so we chased after it and tucked in behind.
It was going much faster than we normally travel and its slipstream was
sucking us along. On the narrow sections the road train had only a metre
of bitumen on either side.
On the narrow sections the road train had only a
metre of bitumen on either side . . .
Photo: Mrs Bucket (through
Time and again we passed other traffic, including many caravans,
huddled on the verge as we sped past in the road train's wake. We
waved a cheeky 'thank you' to the drivers and imagined them
grinding their teeth. And in that way we got to Mount Isa quite quickly.
Despite our higher speed, we probably used less fuel. Thanks for the lift,
North Queensland Express (NQX).
Time and again we passed other traffic huddled on
the verge as we sped past in the road train's wake.
Bucket (through our windscreen)
Mount Isa was named after Mount Ida
in Western Australia.
(Don't ask, I don't know! The origin of these place names can be very obscure.)
We were not only in a different time zone, but almost a different world
from the wilderness and unspoiled beauty of the Northern Territory. Being
a mining town, Mount Isa's skyline was dominated by smelter chimneys.
We found the people of this small town very friendly with the exception
of the woman in the news agency who really
needed a good slap.
Behind the news agency she ran the only internet café in town which
accommodated laptop computers but her system refused to update this website.
And talk about rude and unpleasant! I hope she gets haemorrhoids. Probably
already has them, judging by her demeanour. We were committed to stay in
'The Isa', as the town is known locally, for ten days as our
faithful Pajero was due for a major service and that was the best date the
garage could offer.
Above: Not the prettiest of towns by day, Mount Isa looked
marginally better as darkness fell and the mine and town lit up.
The vehicle on the right is known as a 'mucker'.
A mucker spends its life underground, including all necessary repairs
Mount Isa Mining (MIM) employs one third of the town's total population
of twenty one thousand. The underground mine is presently the largest
in the southern hemisphere. It is, in fact, two mines, one beneath the
other. Lead, silver and zinc are taken from the upper levels while copper
is recovered from as far down as eighteen hundred metres beneath the ground.
There are an astonishing five hundred
kilometres of road down
there and the tunnels must be pretty big judging by the size of the muckers
that use them. Now retired, the one shown is on display at the 'Hard
Times Tourist Mine'.
The normal rock temperature at the lowest level is 65° Celsius - almost
hot enough to cook on - and a special refrigeration plant is used to reduce
cooling water to 1° above freezing before is is pumped down. The rock
surface is cooled to 25°. Lead and copper are refined at the Mount
Isa mine site. Zinc - 300,000 tonnes per year - is sent to Townsville
for treatment. The silver is shipped to London where MIM has a plant to
process it. It is interesting to note that 80% of the sulphur fumes that
would otherwise be expelled from the smelter chimney is recovered and
given - yes, given
- to BHP Billiton for conversion to 3,000
tonnes of sulphuric acid per day which BHP uses in the manufacture of
phosphate fertiliser in a nearby plant.
'The Isa' is a one-industry town; without the mine the satellite
industries would close and the town would die. Although the underground
mine's days are numbered, the future is bright. Work has already
begun on converting it to what will be the Black Star Open Cut Mine, a
'super pit' which will dwarf even the existing Kalgoorlie
gold mine to become the largest open cut mine in the world. The pit will
be three kilometres wide, six kilometres long and eight hundred metres
deep. These facts were quoted to us by the tour guide who showed us around
the mine surface; we were not allowed underground. I pass them on to you,
dear reader, in good faith.
Surprisingly, Mount Isa is a very clean town, unlike, for example, the
mining town of Mount Newman in Western Australia where everything is permanently
covered in red dust and buildings, roads and vehicles are all the same
colour. The Mount Isa mine takes great care to keep the dust dampened
down and all vehicles leaving the mine pass over a pressure wash to remove
dirt from underneath. Also, the prevailing winds seem to blow the smoke
and sulphur fumes from the stacks westward, away from the town. As the
tour guide said, this results in a clean town but a lot of coughing kangaroos
in the desert.
Signs banning everything. Loved the top right sign.
Also the text:
It is a breach of by-laws to behave in a manner
which is likely to . . . annoy any person in such a reserved area.
People like campers, dog owners, cyclists and skaters, perhaps?
We used our prolonged stay in 'The Isa' to give both car
and caravan a thorough clean after the dust we'd collected at Mataranka
and on the Barkly Highway. I was particularly anxious to wash the caravan's
roof which had never previously been cleaned. This was the first caravan
park that we'd visited that had decent water pressure and
the use of a hose to wash caravans. They even lent me a ladder to access
the roof and a new friend in a neighbouring caravan lent me a special
brush designed to wash trucks. In return I was able to do some electrical
repairs for him. Then we shouted each other a few beers to say thank you.
As you do.
The Leichhardt River flows through the centre of Isa. Well, it would if
it wasn't bone dry. Doubtless it will flow again when 'the wet'
returns in a few months. Further upstream the river has been dammed to
create a very large and beautiful lake which provides the town with both
a water supply and a recreation area for swimming, water skiing, fishing,
Lake Moondarra was created in 1957 by damming the Leichhardt River.
It holds 107,000 megalitres of water for Mount Isa.
Finally we had the Pajero serviced and next morning departed
on the 800 kilometre journey to Charters Towers. Again we broke the journey
with an overnight stop at a roadside rest area. We would particularly
like to thank the driver of the refrigerated truck who arrived about midnight
and treated us to the racket of his refrigeration plant running all night.
With thousands of miles of open road and innumerable empty truck rest
areas, he chose to snuggle up to us! I hope he has luck tracing his father.
While crossing the Great Dividing Range we ran into torrential rain. See
what happens when you wash the car and caravan? It was so long since we'd
needed the windscreen wipers that I'd forgotten how the switch worked.
It's one of those things on a stalk that goes up and down, in and
out, backwards and forwards and rotates as well.
An interesting name. As always, nobody seems certain of its origin. According
to the Tourist Centre the name was originally Charters Tors but 'Tors'
became corrupted to 'Towers'.
So why Charters Tors? Well, Mr Charters was an early magistrate (he's
a late magistrate now) and a tor, says the Macquarie Dictionary, is
rocky eminence, a hill
. But we knew that, didn't we? The local
newspaper, however, thinks that Charters Towers was the original name
and Charles Charters was the Gold Commissioner at the time that gold was
discovered. Possibly Charlie was both a magistrate and
Commissioner. This source claims the 'Towers' part of the
name was due to 'the cone-shaped hills in the area'
Sounds implausible, especially after seeing those meagre hills. Towers
they are not! So let's settle for the first version, shall we?
Anyhow, the story of gold discovery tells how a twelve year old Aboriginal
boy called Jupiter Mosman was employed to look after the horses of three
gold prospectors. The horses scattered during a thunderstorm so Jupiter
went to look for them. He not only found the horses, but at the foot of
a 'rocky eminence' now called Towers Hill, he also found a
gold reef. (Reefs are large veins of gold in quartz rock.) During the
next few days the group found a further ten reefs. This was in December
of 1871 - quite a Christmas present. I wonder what young Jupiter got out
Left: The Pyrites Works
(gold smelter) on Towers Hill in 1888 with Charters Towers township in the
background. The chimney was blown up during WW II as the American military
pilots had a tendency to fly into it. They were also afraid it might signify
to the Japanese bombers the presence of a worthwhile target.
Right: Viewed from Towers Hill today, the Charters Towers Post Office (with clock
tower) is in the commercial centre of the town. It almost looks like a model
with all the pastel shades.
The group registered their find which started a gold rush.
A certain amount of exaggeration in a newspaper article added to the fever
and before long there were fights and deaths as miners protected their claims
against claim jumpers. Soon Charters Towers became the second largest town
in Queensland with a population of 26,500. A rail link to Townsville was
built and Charters Towers boasted sixty five hotels (read 'pubs')
and its very own stock exchange.
Forty five years and 200 tonnes of gold later it all seemed over - the gold
was running out and extracting what remained was no longer economically
viable as the shafts had to penetrate ever deeper. Moreover, World War I
was in full swing and many miners had gone to fight.
Charters Towers, however, was far from finished. Some sixty years later
technology had improved and the price of gold had risen to the point where
it once again became viable to rework the tailings from the old mines. Exploration
for new finds also took on a fresh impetus. Gold production now exceeds
that of the old gold rush days and Charters Towers is again a thriving little
Leaving Charters Towers we proceeded in a north easterly direction, as Constable
Plod would say, towards Townsville where we had been told there is a lot
to do and see. However, that was for another day. We turned north at Townsville
and travelled up the coast to Cairns, leaving Townsville to be explored
on the return journey. The distance from Charters Towers to Cairns was five
hundred kilometres so we decided to 'overnight' at a free campsite
at a little place called Rollingstone about which he'd heard very good reports.
We were not disappointed. The Bushy Parker Park was excellent. Bushy Parker
had been a World War Two hero and a son of Rollingstone. He had joined the
R.A.F. as a fighter pilot and scored a lot of victories. He was eventually
shot down and incarcerated in Colditz Castle where he made a thorough nuisance
of himself to the enemy, assisting others to escape. After the war he became
a flying instructor and was eventually killed in a Tempest crash. The park,
which commemorates his achievements, was quite as good as some 'official'
caravan parks and it contained almost as many caravans. Thanks Rollingstone,
we left the park as we found it, pristine.
Rolling on up the Bruce Highway we were soon passing mountains, their peaks
frequently lost in cloud. The highway was bordered by sugar cane plantations
which continued all the way to Cairns. We had never seen sugar cane before;
it stood about three metres (10 feet) high. The harvested crop is transported
from the fields by cane trains on a network of narrow gauge railways running
through the crop. The little train lines criss-crossed the highway at least
fifty times though we only saw one cane train.
A cane train taking the harvested sugar crop for processing.
Pulled by a small diesel loco, it consisted of a dozen or
so flatbed trucks with wire mesh side panels to retain the load. It was
the school holidays and on the radio we heard a warning to parents to keep
their kids well away from the cane trains. Yes, stay in front of the telly
where you're safe, kids. That sort of fun was for your grandparents' generation.
Later Note: Oops! Within a few weeks
of writing that last remark, an adult, possibly the worse for drink, was
jumping on and off a moving cane train. He fell under the wheels. The driver
was not aware of the accident and kept going. The last bulletin we heard
reported that the victim was fighting for his life. So yes, DO stay away
from those cane trains, kids.
Sugar cane against a mountainous background with
low cloud drifting past which frequently threatened rain.
The height of the
sign gives an indication of the cane
height, remembering that the highway is substantially raised above the cane
Interspersed at intervals with the cane were fields of bananas,
every bunch wrapped in a plastic bag. Protection from birds? Does it prevent
them ripening too soon? We didn't know.
And so to Cairns. Please click below
to continue on Page 12.
Footnote: This re-working of Page 11 was completed on 14 March 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.