Jean wanted to attend the Australian Online Documentation Conference (AODC), which was being held in Darwin this year, so we used that as an excuse to visit some of Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia, driving our own car instead of flying and hiring a car as we usually do when going somewhere more than a day’s drive away.
We’d also never visited northern Australia this early in the year, as it’s still a bit warmer (and, in some areas, more humid) than we prefer. In some places, the roads might not even be open after the wet season, which had lasted longer than in many years. Indeed, as it turned out, the rains were by no means finished in early May.
Townsville to Richmond (Tuesday, 4 May)
We managed to get away by 08:00, taking the new extension to the Overland Way (A6 or perhaps old Flinders Highway 78) west a few kilometres outside Townsville. The railway tracks are alongside the road most of the way west, as are the power transmission lines of the national electricity grid. Before 09:00 just past Woodstock, we were in 110 kph speed limit areas. Crossed the Mingela Range a little after 09:00. We crossed the Macrossan Bridge over the Burdekin River. From past here, the rivers mostly drain inland, down to the distant Lake Eyre in South Australia, thousands of kilometres away. The continent is like a pudding bowl, with most of the rain that crosses the ranges heading inland, away from the coast.
We took a rest stop around 10:00 outside Charters Towers, where an old poppet head was displayed. We noticed some very light showers as we drove along. So soon after an extensive rainy season, the vegetation was green and lush, by Australian standards. In a few areas where there were prominent advertising signs, and the sun out, we noticed horses taking advantage of the shade from the signs.
We stopped at Balfes Creek for a snack. There we met Hugh, an impressive 80-year-old on his 40th day of a ride around Australia (including Tasmania) on a 1500cc Honda Gold Wing motorcycle that must have been 30 years old. He was even hauling a giant trailer. Hugh planned to be home in another 5 days. He had been raising money for prostate cancer. We bought some of his raffle tickets.
We stopped for lunch at Torrens Creek, to check out one of our past favourite caravan park general stores. It has changed owners, and the giant Yowie burger is no longer even known. The person behind the bar seemed totally uninterested in talking with us, but we managed to get a meat pie each.
Next stop was Hughenden, a town of perhaps 1300 people, named after Ernest Henry’s Hughenden Station, which was established in 1863 with about 800 cattle. The town was surveyed in 1877.
Our goal for the night was Richmond. Some time ago, we met some folks from Richmond in one of the Townsville shopping centres. They were promoting an event in Richmond this weekend just gone. We try to avoid tourist events, since we dislike crowds, hence arriving the day after (when you could book a motel room). Richmond is small, perhaps 750 people, and is about two or three blocks wide and seven blocks long. Richmond was founded and surveyed in 1882. The area was explored by William Lansborough while searching for Burke and Wills. One feature is Kronosuarus Korner, a former cinema that is now a fossil museum. It has a large replica dinosaur outside.
The Entriken Pioneer Motel was a bit old, and the rooms were in demountable buildings. However the bed was very comfortable and the pillows OK. We got a good night’s sleep while there. It also had really bright fluorescent lights in the room, unlike most city hotels, so we could actually read comfortably. There seemed to be a fair bit of road noise when trucks turned the corner, but we fell asleep early despite whatever noise there was.
The town of Richmond looked mostly old and tired. In this climate, paint fades quickly, and dust gets everywhere. I guess many tourist attractions were taking a break after their big weekend. The cafe at Kronosaurus Korner directly opposite our motel was not open. The FoodMart seemed to be out of everything we might have bought.
For dinner we went to the pub. We had been told it was worth checking the older pub in town, so we did. However their dining room was not open at the time we arrived (when the sign said it opened). We went back to the more modern Mud Hut pub. Service there was quick. We each had their hamburgers, which were giant. They came with heaps of chips and a salad. Our pots of XXXX Gold beer tasted like the pipes had not been flushed properly. Despite this, we enjoyed the meal.
Richmond to Mt Isa (Wednesday, 5 May)
We were packed and left Richmond by 08:00. The town does have some amusing dinosaur signs, done as cutouts. They say
U Think Theysawus. The electricity lines seemed lighter as they continued along with the railroad track. Luckily the road continued in good condition for nearly 150 kilometres to Julia Creek, with a 110 kph speed limit much of the way. In one spot a crew was working on the road, with an alternate path all done with bitumen. We were somewhat astonished by the size of the radio station antenna for 4JK, about 10 km outside Julia Creek.
Although slightly smaller than Richmond, with about 600 people, Julia Creek looked newly painted and very spruce when we arrived at 09:30. The library offered courses on various arts, as well as internet access. Julia Creek was named Hilton when first settled around 1890. It was renamed Julia Creek after the niece of Duncan McIntyre. We noted the Duncan McIntyre museum on the main road part way through the Julia Creek.
We noticed two crows harassing an eagle a few kilometres short of Cloncurry, near where we first noticed numerous termite mounds. The vegetation was still green and lush, despite our distance inland. Cloncurry was named after Lady Elizabeth Cloncurry, a cousin of Burke. It has two claims to fame. In 1922, it was the destination of the first paying passenger Qantas had. It also holds the record for hottest temperature in Australia, reaching over 53OC.
Eric wanted to stop to see the 10 megawatt solar power station in Cloncurry, for which $7 million funding was provided of the $31 million cost. This 8,000 mirror solar thermal station, announced in 2007, was to use graphite as a heat store. It was intended to produce 30 million kilowatt hours a year. Premier Anna Blight claimed 24 hour operation. It was claimed to have 54 towers each 18 metres tall, with motorised heliostat mirrors. It was due to be operational in 2010.
Unfortunately, we were unable to find any local in Cloncurry who could tell me where the power station was. As far as the locals knew, the Cloncurry solar power plant does not exist.
So we had salad sandwiches at the bakery we remembered, and they were very nice. By 12:30 we were back driving along the Barkly Highway toward Mt Isa. The electricity transmission lines, which had mostly paralleled the road for most of the day, reached Cloncurry, and continued on to Mary Kathleen mine, well to the west of Cloncurry.
Mt Isa is not that far from where the country gets more rugged, with the plains and grassland gone. The soaking rain from the rainy season had brought out a lot of green vegetation on even the most inhospitable rock areas. The mining town has a population of 23,000, and is the largest town we will encounter until we reach Darwin.
We stopped at Outback at Isa to make a booking for an above ground tour of the Mt Isa Mine the next day. The tourist centre is as we remembered it, and is most impressive in size. It is alongside a restored mine site, now the Hard Times underground tourist attraction. Alas, the Mt Isa mine tour starts at 11:00 and takes two hours. The Hard Times mine tour starts at 13:00. Doing both on one day seems difficult even if you can manage to go without lunch.
We settled into the Quality Inn Burke and Wills motel, in a nice corner suite (the only room left when Jean booked). Like many mining areas, the motels tend to be booked out. The dining room needed reservations and we weren’t enthusiastic about a restaurant meal anyway, so we decided to shop for something we could snack on for dinner.
Walking around the business centre was easy, but a bit warm. Only the mostly shaded sidewalks and the low humidity kept the heat bearable. The government centre was on Isa Street, two blocks from the back of our motel. There was a large Woolworths near the government centre.
Jean found a Telstra store, and checked whether her mobile phone data pack (purchased online several days previously) was enabled. It was not, according to the store, so they fixed it up for her. (Some days later Jean got an email from Telstra Online saying they could not action her request for a data pack because her account already had one of the requested size—the one the Mt Isa store had added. She is not impressed with the Telstra online store’s lack of efficiency.)
We found a K Mart and a Coles two blocks east of the motel and got some salads and a half chicken to share for dinner, plus a little more for other days.
Around 17:00 Eric went out to look for wine. The Thirsty Camel bottle shop at the hotel across the road could not sell to walk-in customers; you had to be a club member. We had never encountered such a situation with a franchise liquor store before. We had forgotten to bring our Whitsunday Sailing Club or RSL club membership cards on this trip, so Eric went to a different pub, where he got overpriced but decent quality wine for the next few days of the trip.
Mt Isa (Thursday, 6 May)
Mt Isa is far enough west that dawn comes late. At 06:30 there was not enough daylight to count. Our morning walk took us to the Leichhardt River, looking for places where we could photograph parts of the town. There is a “Rodeo walk” with engravings of rodeo events inset along the footpath.
A bit after 10:00 we walked along the highway past the Hard Times mine to Outback at Isa for our 11:00 bus tour of the surface workings of the Exstrata mine. The Hard Times underground mine had a bunch of ancient million dollar Toros muckers (front end loaders) parked outside. Most were the older models, but one was new enough to be the first that had air conditioning.
Ron was our driver on the mine tour. He seemed to know heaps about the mine operations. We spent a lot of time driving between one giant mine feature and another. Everything was on a massive scale. One private internal road was for the trucks from another mine about 20 kilometres away. These included five-trailer road trains hauling 500 tonnes of ore.
The statistics of the mine are astonishing. It descends to 1900 metres. The original open cut is shallow, only a few hundred metres. They plan another open cut, to go down 850 metres.
The gigantic lead stack chimney that dominates Mt Isa was built by Tileman (Qld) P/L starting in January 1977. The first 1600 cubic metres of concrete for the foundation were poured starting in August 1977. When not interrupted, the pour went up 5 to 6 metres a day. The lead stack is 22 metres in diameter at the base, 12.4 metres at the top, and stands 270 metres tall. It used 17,400 tonnes of concrete, and 5,000 tonnes of crushed ice. It was completed 31 March 1978.
On our way back from the tour, we picked up pizza for lunch. Eric walked around the town some more, and later we both took a walk. For dinner we ate leftovers and finished a bottle of wine.