Mount Isa, An Outback Oasis

Wildly bucking horses lunge from chutes on one side of the arena. Cowboys — some work on stations, others are miners — compete at riding bucking broncos, wrestling steers and performing rope tricks.

In a jarring juxtaposition, just a few hours later, I’m ensconced in a vast multi-bar establishment called the Mount Isa Irish Club, where local businessmen’s tongues loosen as they recall their pasts: naughty boys who lowered themselves by rope down the derelict WWII-era Mount Isa Underground Hospital’s ventilation shaft into a fustiness that became their secret cubby house.

At the town’s edge stand three smokestacks. The tallest is from the lead mine. The next, candy-striped, carries copper-mine emissions. The shortest pinpoints sulphuric-acid production for a phosphate mine.

What Mount Isa is best known for — and the reason it thrives — is mining. Prospector John Campbell Miles, en route to the Northern Territory in 1923 to find gold, camped on a rock-strewn expanse where this young Queensland town now stands. Examining a stone, he determined it had a high mineral content. He’d discovered one of Earth’s richest lead, copper, silver and zinc-ore bodies. Xstrata Mount Isa Mine, now owned by an Anglo-Swiss multinational, remains one of the country’s largest producers of copper and lead with further expansion imminent.

Reminders of mining’s importance are everywhere. Mine-equipped 4WDs cruise through town. A vehicle-rental-company executive tells me the hire of such vehicles — with added bull bars, roof-mounted flashing lights, reflective flags atop tall aerials and other paraphernalia — is the fastest growing niche in his business.

Going Underground

Tours of the Hard Times Mine are the number-one tourist diversion and give an insight into this economically important industry. Kitted out in reflective overalls, a hard hat and boots, I join tourists on an underground trudge along a small section of Mount Isa’s 1200-kilometre subterranean tunnels (the deepest is 1900 metres). We eyeball mining gear and giant vehicles with enormous tyres. There’s even time to try rock-drilling. Well-paid it may be but it’s murder on puny city-slicker arms.

Guide Shane Tulloch, 27, notes that mining increasingly attracts women. Two fields, in particular, draw them: driving mining trucks (“supervisors say women are superior drivers and take better care of vehicles”) and geology (‘rock doctors’, in miners’ parlance). Nonetheless, it remains mainly a man’s world underground.

Lights on our hard hats pierce the tunnels’ darkness, until Tulloch suggests we all turn them off for a few moments. Even after our eyes adjust, we can’t detect a finger in front of our faces. “It’s dark with a capital D,” says Tulloch from somewhere in the blackness. “It’s what miners experience when batteries go flat.”

Our surrounds are oppressively hot and dusty. “It’s much hotter at lower levels. You really sweat down there.” Tulloch reveals. A visitor splays his arms and legs, complaining about the heat, just before we reach a tunnel junction where a powerful air-conditioner blasts cool air. We smell wet earth in our nostrils as we make our way to the “crib room” where miners relax and eat. According to Tulloch, the name comes from the card game cribbage played by old-time miners. A tourist shrieks as she steps into a puddle, sending a splash of water high into the air. “That’s why we all wear gumboots,” explains Tulloch. “Water often seeps through the tunnels.”

Up in the Air

Helicopter joy flights over vast open-pit excavations give you a bird’s-eye view of the mines as well as of their scenic surrounds. Dorr advises taking to the air either at the beginning of a visit (“for orientation”) or at the end (“to consolidate memories”).

He suggests this as we cross the mining area and the town itself on our way to a true oddity in these parts: the artificially created Lake Moondarra, 17 kilometres north of Mount Isa. It provides water to the city, and is a site for kayaking, water-skiing, picnicking, swimming and fishing. Shy freshwater crocodiles stay away from areas frequented by people and aren’t known to have attacked anyone.

The lake is stocked with barramundi and is the scene of the annual Lake Moondarra Fishing Classic, a fast-growing visitor attraction, second only to Mount Isa’s famous rodeo.

Saddle Up

The Xstrata Mount Isa Rotary Rodeo attracts about 50,000 people. A carnival atmosphere envelops the CBD: down at Buchanan Park, sideshows include Fred Brophy’s famed boxing tent and a fun fair. Entertainers this year are led by Nashville-based Australian country music singer Shea Fisher, but it’s the rodeo itself that is the main event.

Wildly bucking horses lunge from chutes on one side of the arena. Cowboys — some work on stations, others are miners — compete at riding bucking broncos, wrestling steers and performing rope tricks. Rodeo crowd-pleasers also include events featuring bulls. David Kennedy, winner for the past two years running, is again in the line-up. “Bulls are tough and determined,” the 27-year-old shed builder concedes. “I’ve been fascinated by them since I was a kid.”

When Kennedy is in the dirt arena, surrounded by a rectangle of stands, the crowd’s excitement is palpable.

In bull-riding, humans attempt to stay mounted while snorting beasts do their best to throw them off. Clowns are critical — and some are no joke. Rodeo organiser Patricia Esdaile explains: “Rodeos have two types of clowns. One sort, typically in circus-type outfits, entertains spectators. The other is tasked with the serious business of protecting riders. Some of these wear clown outfits but most prefer protective gear. They’re also called bullfighters. When a bull throws a rider off, its next action is usually to try to gore. Bullfighters, working in teams of three or four, try to prevent this. They distract the bulls, while riders are moved to safety.”

Bullfighter Darryl Chong, a 27-year-old who operates mine machinery for a living but takes part in many local rodeos in his spare time, agrees: “You’re positioning yourself to be in a good place to help. You block out the scary parts. We definitely put our bodies on the line.”

Bright Lights

On a stroll with former miner Bill Bawden, who was drawn to Mount Isa as a footballer but is still calling it home 44 years later, I’m immediately made aware of an unexpected cosmopolitanism. I learn that Filipinos form half the Catholic church’s regulars. I meet waitresses with strong French and Irish accents (and waiters at the All Seasons Mt Isa Verona Hotel, though gossiping in English, are French and Spanish backpackers). The aptly named Red Earth Restaurant’s Indian curry nights are immensely popular. A delicatessen prides itself on its South African fare. Ethiopians run an in-vogue eatery. British miners hoist Guinness pints at the Irish Club.

Home to only 23,000 people, Mount Isa — with an urban sprawl covering 43,310 square kilometres — is Australia’s second-biggest city after Kalgoorlie-Boulder when measured in land-area terms. What’s more, it’s a sports-crazy town. “Remember, Greg Norman and Pat Rafter were both born here,” Bawden reminds me.

Rodeo action seems a world away as I sit on a hilltop overlooking placid Lake Moondarra at sunset. I have it almost to myself, bar the kangaroos hopping in the distance. Tranquillity comes as a total surprise in a town where machine-driven industrial bustle is the norm.

In less than a week, I’ve hovered above Mount Isa’s mine-oriented activities and trod beneath the outback’s red earth. Lake Moondarra’s silence is a striking contrast, a reminder of the encompassing desert that surrounds this lively lone outpost. 

Words by Chris Pritchard - Published in Voyeur August 2012
Quick Facts 
Population 22549
Area 43 310 square kilometres
Time Zone GMT + 10
Languages English (official)
Currency Australian dollar (AUD)
Electricity 220 – 240v 50Hz
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