4x4 Adventure: Mount Isa and beyond

You don’t need a pick axe and shovel to enjoy the hidden delights of Mount Isa and its surrounds

Mount Isa and beyond

Mount Isa in outback Queensland is widely regarded as a big, boring mining town, where travellers get supplies and pass through. Well, that’s what we were expecting as we headed towards this outback centre on our travels towards the Gulf.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Mount Isa is a huge mining-orientated city and the main mine has been in operation right in the heart of town since the early 1920s, extracting copper, lead, zinc and silver for the world’s markets. It’s regarded as one of the most cost-efficient mines in the world.

Mount Isa even lays claim to being the largest city in the world, as it covers a whopping 43,200 square kilometres; however, there’s no population in most of this area. In fact, just over 40 per cent of the town’s population works within the mining industry.

In town at the Isa Experience centre, there’s a mine tour, the Riversleigh Fossil Centre, and the standard coffee and gift shops. Just up the road in Camooweal Street you can visit the Underground Hospital and Museum, where back in 1942 this area was built just in case there was a threat from the Japanese.

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To the north of town, the Leichhardt River was dammed in 1958 to provide a guaranteed water source for the town, forming Lake Moondarra where you can picnic, do a bit of birdwatching, slip a boat into the water, or simply rest under the shady trees around the shoreline. The lake has been stocked with barra and is a go-to place for locals trying to hook a big one. Finish the day with at the sunset lookout area, which provides views across the city.

Gathering info from locals in town, we headed east for 65km towards Cloncurry along the Barkly Highway. Look for a dodgy roadside sign, where there’s beautiful free camping beside Corella Dam, which was built in 1959 for a nearby Uranium mine that’s now been decommissioned. Camping around the dam offers stunning waterfront views within the harsh outback environment which this area is known for. The road is in pretty good shape and leads to the dam’s boat ramp – where most campers seem to congregate – but we found with a little exploring there are even better spots if you follow the trails around the dam.

During the cooler months the dam gets packed with southerners escaping the cold winter to chase the redclaw crayfish that breed here. Redclaws are basically freshwater yabbies on steroids – they’re huge. However, you’ll need to read up on the regulations as there are bag and size limits on these mini-lobsters. We tried for days to catch some using meat, before learning they’re vegetarians and love over-ripe fruit and veggies.

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"The road is marked as ‘extreme 4WD’ due to the narrow cuttings, rough terrain and sheer drops along the way, but if you’re game it’s totally worth the effort"

The dam isn’t used for commercial water storage anymore, so life around and in the dam is pretty good for the local birdlife and freshwater crocs. Apparently it’s a go-to place for many bird-lovers that roam the country looking for different species. We found the crocs prefer to stay away from the masses, and they’re best spotted at dawn or dusk in the more remote parts of the dam. It makes it easier if you have a tinny to explore, but there are plenty of 4WD tracks around the dam you can follow.

Surrounded by the stunning and rugged Selwyn Ranges, it’s hard to imagine this dam was once the lifeblood of a bustling town in the middle of nowhere. Just six kilometres away, the now abandoned township and mine area of Mary Kathleen has to be seen to be believed. Back in 1954, uranium was discovered by accident and, over the coming years, massive amounts of materials were excavated from the area and sent overseas. Reports say a staggering 9,000,000 tonnes of ore was processed through the plant.

After years of trying to stay afloat – and a few dodgy trade deals – the mine closed down in 1982. Despite rehab work, corners were cut and dangerous materials leached out of claimed safe areas. Today, it has all been fixed properly, and exploring the open-cut mine and processing areas is amazing. The buildings are gone but the infrastructure areas can still be seen, where huge concrete pads that once supported massive buildings and tanks remain. It’s the open-cut mine that takes your breath away, though, as staggering amounts of rock have been removed and the old roads that once circled the mine are still in place.

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Over the years the mine has filled with water and the rich, mineral-based ground has turned it a stunning-yet-eerie iridescent crystal blue. The water is alive with small fish darting around trees that look like they have coralised in the water, where you can see down some 20 to 40 feet. Despite its beauty, you’d be a fool to jump in – just in case the impurities make you grow another arm or lose your hair.

A town was established nearby to support the mine, where more than 1000 people made a new life, and it wasn’t long before a school, post office, hospital, halls, shops and a movie cinema were built, giving life to Mary Kathleen. Life was good until the mine closed and the town subsequently died; despite efforts to reopen the mine in the early 1980s.

When the mine rehab work was in place the town also had to go; but instead of bulldozing the whole area into a big pit, the town’s buildings were auctioned off and taken away. Today, the only remnants are the concrete slabs, streets with curbs and gutters, and several monuments giving homage to those who once lived here. The good news is that it’s another area where free camping is allowed.

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Digging a little deeper we soon discovered other mining interests pre-dated Mary Kathleen – in fact, there’s a mining trail nearby called the Ballara Heritage Trail. Starting midway back to Corella Dam and signposted right from the start, it’s a pretty cool trail to explore. The road in is pretty easy and stunning, with the Argylla Ranges towering over you as you wind your way along. Keep an eye out for the information boards on the way, where they’ll reveal POIs. After 20km you’ll arrive at where the old town of Ballara once stood. A walking trail through the ‘town’ leads down to a rail platform, where a narrow gauge line ran from Ballara to the mines almost 40km away.

Ore was found in the area in 1904 and another rush was on to stake a claim and hopefully become rich. With this came miners, families and infrastructure. At the peak of the boom, nearly 1500 miners battled the elements here and endured hot summers, the lack of water and cool winters.

Leaving the old town of Ballara, the road swings west as it follows the old tramway line. The going gets a little rough heading this way, but it’s well worth the effort as the road turns to 4WD country. On this drive keep an eye out for hand-stacked stone bridges, the old ore transfer stage, twisted pieces of steel and rough concrete pylons.

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A lone grave on the side of the track pays respect to a miner who worked in the area; and made us reflect on how tough life would have been here. Not far down the track we came across the old settlement of Hightville. Again, there’s not much left, but a POI sign shows a picture of where there were houses, the local school, a hotel and several mines. Also highlighted on the information sign is a 100-metre-long hand-cut tunnel in the hills. The road is marked as ‘extreme 4WD’ due to the narrow cuttings, rough terrain and sheer drops along the way, but if you’re game it’s totally worth the effort to find the tunnel.

The tunnel was built by a gang of nine men, hired on a flat contract rate (plus dynamite costs). A small rockfall at the entrance doesn’t allow 4WDs to drive through anymore, but it’s pretty cool to walk through and gaze at this amazing piece of engineering. Inside you’ll find pick marks, blasting holes, communication wire and a few resident sheath-tailed bats. Thankfully, there is a heritage listing on the tunnel to preserve its history.

Out the other side is the huge Wee MacGregor Mine, where it looks like half the hill was moved to extract copper. The road down to the mine is classed as ‘extreme 4WD’, especially after storms pass through. Rehab works took place in 1975, but there’s still plenty to marvel at and ponder how they got the gear into this severe terrain. Several of the deep (nearly 100 metres) mines have had safety grates welded over the top, and looking down into them almost gave us vertigo.

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It was a tough few years in the area: the tramway line took most of 1914 to complete; mine work was suspended in 1916 due to lack of water; and in 1917 the area was hit with extremely heavy rainfall, causing flooding and damaging the line. Sadly, in late-1917, the mine was closed due to diminishing mineral finds. The gear was sold off and the men paid out. Over the next few years the line was pulled up and the Wee MacGregor loco ended up on a cane farm.

Between Mount Isa and Cloncurry, across the stunning and often harsh ranges, there are a host of mines and related history dating back before the Mount Isa deposit was found. Random and isolated lone graves, open mine pits and tunnels, and relics from days gone by; it’s all part of our pioneering history that thankfully is being protected for years to come.


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Kev Smith

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