Page 11

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 same thing! 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.

Road Train

On the narrow sections the road train had only a metre of bitumen on either side . . .
Photo: Mrs Bucket (through our windscreen)

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).

Road Train 2

Time and again we passed other traffic huddled on the verge as we sped past in the road train's wake.
Photo: Mrs Bucket (through our windscreen)

Mount isa

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.

Mt Isa - Day and Night

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 and maintenance.

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 allowed 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, barbecues etc.

Lake Moondarra

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.

Charters Towers.

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 a 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 the Gold 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 of it?

Charters Towers

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 town.

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.

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

Sugar cane against a mountainous background with low cloud drifting past which frequently threatened rain.

The height of the Rail Crossing sign gives an indication of the cane height, remembering that the highway is substantially raised above the cane field.

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.

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