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Mt. Isa

In the far northwest of Queensland, we survived a chilly Mt Isa night and set off for a day of discovery. Arriving at the lookout, the 360 degree view is dominated by the towers emitting smoke, and the density of high-viz clothing and 4WDs leaves you in no doubt that this is a mining town.

The original inhabitants of the area, the Kalkadoon, had fought to keep the area but were defeated by larger numbers and the fortifications. We found it hard to get any information about their culture and practices.In the 1920s a lone prospector found mineral-rich ore and thus began one of the most productive mines in the world, producing lead, silver, copper and zinc.

My husband posing in the display

There was a series of murals on the water tank at the lookout that are worth including , by artist David Houghton and two others.

Heading to Outback Experience at the Information Centre, we watched an informative 1970s film about the area. We did the self-guided tour which included the museum of artifacts and minerals, another film which was quite good and slightly more recent, then entry to the garden area.

The latter contained a small man-made waterfall, some attractive trees and benches to sit on for a moment of peace or to catch sight of the elusive birdlife. Overall it was overpriced.

The film upstairs did show us the underground hospital, created for the expected invasion in WWII, so we saw no need to go there, as planned. I liked seeing the experience of migrants to the area, as my father arrived in Australia after WWII and did labouring, alongside other European migrants. Mt Isa’s people believe they were multicultural before the word was being used, and when they started soccer teams in the 1950s, there were teams from many countries, but not Australia. A large contingent of Fins settled here, were called Huckleberries (as in Huckleberry Finn) and were known to be hard workers.

approaching the open cut
You can see two people on the bank, a quarter of the way down from centre

In the afternoon we made our way 53km to the Mary Kathleen mine, a disused uranium mine that opened in 1954 and closed in the 1980s, leaving a town of 1000 people with no work. The town is dismantled and some foundations remain but it is extraordinary to think of what we are capable. The mine is very impressive with colours and layers and a large pool of water at the base which also shines a rich turquoise hue. The road out is a bit rough and I wouldn’t try it with a 2WD (you can get a tour from Mt Isa). Many people brought their vans out and were staying the night in the site that was once the town, as it is free camping. You get a split in the road for each destination.

The history of Mary Kathleen, the town, erected in the old town square

Finally, we headed back to the lookout for sunset, missing the red reflection on the hills, but catching the calm shadows of the range against the colourful sky and the lights of the mine, like Christmas decorations.

It was very mild when we were there but Mt Isa can get extremely hot so take your hat and your water. There is a variety of water sports, due to the man-made lake, and the town is buzzing with activity. Most of the caravan parks were booked out and usually (non- COVID-19) mid-August is rodeo season, so you’d be advised to book ahead.

Safe travels.

Explorer’s and Barkly Highways

There are very long stretches of road in Australia, that in parts of the world would get you to another country or the other side of a country. But here, you can still be in the same State, in the middle of nowhere and have seen few towns.

Some of these stretches have variation and others do not. Notorious for the latter is the Hay plains, the Explorer’s Highway between Alice Springs and Tennant Creek and the Barkly Highway between Tennant Creek and Cloncurry. Luckily, it was not long after rain, so there was a variety of vegetation and we amused ourselves with spotting unusual cloud patterns to pass the 7 hours it took to get from Alice to Tennant Creek.

The explorer highway goes from Darwin to Adelaide and was mapped out by John Stuart. In fact, it’s correct name is Stuart Highway but, as it’s an iconic Australian drive, it got a nickname (of course). Although Tennant Creek is still on this, it’s also the start of the other highway.

Once we hit Tennant Creek we found somewhere safe for the evening, as it can be a bit wild there. We discovered later that there are 2 free camps about 20 minutes further on, that have good wiki camp reviews.

The Outback caravan park had some interesting artwork in the trees.

Torres straight islander, Aboriginal and Northern Territory flags
Main street, Tennant Creek

Leaving Tennant Creek the following morning, we had an 8 hour drive to Mt Isa. Again, the scenery only offers minor changes, but a pleasant distraction at one point was a cloud of small birds (finches?) swarming toward us, followed by another and more. I think they ‘attacked’ us for a stretch of 200km and hopefully the video will let you share the experience. You’ll get a few looks at my husband’s legs – sorry, we’re amateur.

If not, in the picture, what looks like leaves is actually the little birds, stopping to rest and chatter.

Barkley homestead is an oasis on the journey and you can stay there. They have an interesting display of old steam engines out the front, with which to amuse yourself as you have lunch.

As we neared Mt Isa we passed some places worth returning to, such as Gregory Creek and Lawn Hill, but those dirt roads would be major diversions.

There are plenty of frequent toilet spots that are usually kept very clean and can provide an emergency stop if you can handle the highway traffic.

Soon the chimney stack appeared and we made last minute arrangements for a caravan park.

I’ll do a separate post on Mt Isa as it is a large mining town, warranting some discussion.

Safe travels. Always, always carry lots of water and a roll of toilet paper!

A few days in Alice

It isn’t far from the border to Alice Springs, so we arrived before midday and had time to set up and explore the caravan park, with it’s many facilities, then plan our first day of venturing further.

We began in the town, which has plenty of shops and facilities, and although it was, uncharacteristically, almost empty of people, we read about the first hospital in central Australia and peeked through the windows to where small gatherings sometimes occur.

A bigger day followed and we started at Redbank Gorge, some 150km from Alice Springs along the Larapinta and Namatjira Drives. It is a beautiful gorge, with easy access, although it is mostly on sand, so definitely not for wheelchairs or those with dodgy ankles. It was tranquil and displayed such a huge range of colours, both pastel and bold.

A short drive from here, heading back, to the Mt Sonder lookout gave us fabulous views of the mountain and surrounding ranges.

Ormiston Gorge was about 15km away and you have a choice of walks. We took the loop, from the carpark, up the hill to the lookout over the gorge, then along the hill and returning by the river bed. This is definitely the direction to take if you do the loop, as the uphill is steep but short and aided by stone steps which never go beyond 20 without a break. Again, this part isn’t suitable for wheelchairs, but the short carpark to pond walkway is and should be done. The colours and textures of this gorge are, again, stunning. If you go around a lagoon one way, look back to see the aspect on the other side, because sometimes it is so very different, it’s like being in another location. Parts of the gorge were a seabed, 800 million years ago and geologists believe something extraordinary happened in the area 300-400 million years ago to cause the seabed to rise and turn on its side. You can easily see the layers.

We decided that, as most of Australia was in a cold snap, we’d capitalise on the 27C and heated pools and headed back for some poolside traveler tips (with slide show).

Our final day we kept light, with a trip to Anzac Hill and then out to Emily and Jessie Gaps. The first provides 360 degree views of Alice Springs township and memorial information.

Emily and Jessie Gaps were disappointing, as they are very small and it was pretty blustery, so an ideal enclosure for sand blasting. The walk takes less than a minute each time and there are very unusual rock paintings of caterpillars, which the original owners ate here, and completed by women. You are asked not to photograph them as they are sacred to the people. The towering red rock faces are beautiful, and it’s a short drive out of town to the east, but I’d see Stanley Chasm or Simpson’s Gap in preference.

On our return we came across a huge flock of red tailed black cockatoos, which are considered rare, so I was very happy to get some photos of them.

Even when it’s cool, take plenty of water and a hat with you.

Quirky Kulgera

Having arrived at the South Australia/Northern Territory border, we handed over our paperwork (COVID-19 arrangements) and were free to go through, but not stay at this beautiful, free campsite. The officer suggested Kulgera, down the road about 20km.

We had been here before for fuel, but had not experienced its hospitality. There is a reasonable store on site, an art gallery that showcased local work and a pub.

Famous (?) for the big 4X can, it also had its own travellers ‘artwork’/ collection – of sandshoes in this case.

Good, clean amenities and plenty of room, with drive-through sites.

Take Hart

With a parcel of long service leave, a yearning for warmer weather and two State borders open to us, we hitched up the van and headed off. Our ultimate goal is the top of the tip – the northernmost point of Australia and the top of Cape York, but the Corona virus is seeing borders closing and opening with little notice, so we have to be flexible.

For those of you who are locked at home, or who might be missing us, you can travel with us as we go. Make sure you let me know if you want more or less information as we go and there may be a delay from time to time, as WiFi is hard to come by in the middle of nowhere.

Day 1 brought us to Lake Hart, a free campsite not far from a large salt lake. We had passed a lookout over another one, just out of Pimba and apparently there are many larger, but it was salt and the illusion of water, as far as the eye could see.

Evidence of an enclosure or jetty or some kind of structure using wooden posts, unlikely due to the original owners of the land, the Kokatha, as it is very European in design.

The rifts and lumps of salt made for good photos, as did the sunset, still oozing orange over the lagoon about an hour later.

The Ghan railway passes between the lagoon and the campsite and can be crossed by a pipe/tunnel or over the top. At 7pm the train went past, almost silently, and all campers came out to watch the dark shadow seeming to run on water.

Take plenty of water and choose free campsites near others, for safety.