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Top 7 Reasons Not to Miss Mount Isa

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by Gayle Beveridge-Marien (subscribe)
Gayle Beveridge is a past winner of the Boroondara Literary Awards and her work has appeared in Award Winning Australian Writing. Gayle is passionate about family, writing, photography, and with Victoriaís beautiful Bass Coast which she now calls home.
Published September 20th 2021
This is Why We Travel, To See What is Different

We drove up to Mount Isa from Cloncurry, only one and a half hours. The road and the landscape are unlike any we encountered since leaving Melbourne, a winding road rimmed with rocky hills. There are frequent dips. The colour of the rocks is varied; some black, some rich red, and others tinged green.

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The rocky landscape approaching Mount Isa - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

Copper, lead and zinc are mined at Mount Isa. We wonder how it came to be that somebody discovered these minerals here so early in the twentieth century so far from anywhere. Mount Isa is 1,827 kms from Brisbane, 2,392 kms from Sydney, 1,603 kms from Darwin and 2,671 kms from Melbourne.

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A mining road train near Mount Isa - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

Mining road trains are a common sight and we pass interesting road signs, which we had learned are a feature in the outback. I snapped a photo of one showing a cow and car colliding; it definitely gets the message across.

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The outback road signs are many and varied and present a clear message - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

This is why we travel, to see what is different, to take in what we could not have imagined, and Mount Isa has that in spades. There are many things to see and experience here, many reasons to come. Here are my top seven.

A Mining Landscape

As we approached Mount Isa, we were confronted with a mining landscape; giant chimneys for the smelters rose about the city, one spewing black smoke. To the west, giant slag heaps shadowed the city.

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The mining landscape looms large as we approach Mount Isa - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

In public places, posters were advising the locals on how to best avoid lead poisoning in children. Apparently, the lead dust settles upon everything. People are advised to ensure their benches and sinks are wiped down, that their floors are washed, that children wash their hands throughout the day and that all children's playing areas are mulched, as bare dirt is of particular risk.

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A view on Mount Isa Mines from the town side. - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

Mount Isa is divided in two, the mine side and the town side. There is no public access to the mine side, but we drove to streets on the edge of the town side to see what we could of the Mount Isa Mines smelter operation. The streetscape of this industrial complex stretches around a kilometre.

Outback at Isa Museum
Our first stop as tourists was the Outback at Isa Museum. The museum has samples of ore and minerals from the area. The weight of these rocks was surprising. They were so much heavier than their size would suggest. We watched a short documentary about the discovery of copper and lead and the beginning of Mount Isa.

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Just a few of the rock samples on show in outback at Isa - Photos copyright Gayle Beveridge

Another section, Isa Experience Heritage Display and Rodeo Hall of Fame, is what you would expect of a more traditional museum. We wandered through, taking in information and looking at artefacts that told the story of Mount Isa's mining and rodeo history.

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Inside the Isa Experience Heritage Display - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

There is a botanical walk outside where information boards identify many Australian trees and shrubs. A pond in the centre of the gardens is crossed by a bridge, and a tiered waterfall cascades over rocks at one end.

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The gardens at Outback at Isa - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

Outback at Isa, which is also the Visitor Information Centre, is at 19 Marian St, Mount Isa. They can be contacted on (07) 4749 1555 or click here to visit their website.

Riversleigh Fossil Discovery Centre

This area is also fossil-rich, and we were keen to go through the Riversleigh Fossil Discovery Centre. Riversleigh is one of the richest fossil fields in the world and the most significant for mammal fossils. A short movie, introduced by David Attenborough, told of the area and showed techniques used on the fossil digs. Explosives are used to break up the rocks and we wonder how many fossils are damaged this way. Windows allow us to view the fossil laboratory but as it was the weekend when we visited, nobody was working. Displays showed fossilized bones that have been fully recovered and others still embedded in the surrounding rocks.

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20-million-year-old fossilised remains of a large flightless bird - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

We chose to wander through at our leisure, but guided tours are available. On the tour, your guide will take you through the sorting, cleaning and extracting of fossils from limestone. Bookings can be made online through the website.

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20-million-year-old fossilised turtle shell - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

The Riversleigh Fossil Discovery Centre is also housed at the Outback at Isa and Visitor Information Centre at 19 Marian St, Mount Isa. They can be contacted on (07) 4749 1555 or click here to visit their website.

Hard Times Underground Mine Tour

We lunched at Outback at Isa cafť and my husband headed back to the caravan park while I went on the Hard Times Underground Mine Tour. We were kitted out in disposable orange onesie overalls, (which I still have), knee-high gumboots and a hard hat with a lamp. There were seventeen of us. Cameras are not permitted, but our photos were taken before we rapidly descend in a cage to the mine below.

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Me all kitted up for the Mount Isa Hard Time Underground Mine Tour - Photo by Tour Operator

This mine is a replica of the real ones where Occupational Health and Safety rules forbid tour groups. Our guide was a working miner of many year's experience. He was, as the tour hype claimed, 'a true blue, dinky di, dirt-covered kicking, hard of hearing, tough as nails, Mount Isa Miner. '

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Looking across to the colours of mining from the town side - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

The tour progressed through demonstrations of mining methods over the last 30 to 40 years. We felt firsthand the vibration of the manual drill, heard the noise, although buffered by earmuffs, and watched the dust rise up and float in the beam of our lights. We felt the weight of a rise drill, used to drill ventilation holes in the mine ceiling and could only wonder at the strength of the miners who not only climbed ladders with this heavy equipment but drilled into the roof above their heads while balanced on wooden platforms. Our guide operated the more modern equipment; the low-rise machinery with oversized tyres.

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Some of the workings at the mine viewed from the town side - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

We trod through 1.2kms of tunnels about 4 metres high and 4 metres wide, the size required to drive through a 50-tonne mucking unit, the vehicle that removes the ore. Our guide paid special attention to the children and personalised the tour by asking each of us our name and using it in his examples. We all turned off our lights and experienced the jet black of the underground. The children sat inside a safety pod which can provide oxygen for eight men for 28 hours. It was hot down there and we gratefully gulped water. Then we paddled through a couple of inches of water that had seeped into the mine since it was pumped that morning.

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An interesting part of the mine viewed from the town side - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

We finally reached the crib room, the miners' lunchroom, and also the gathering point before explosives are set off. Here ore samples were passed around and were heavier than their size suggests. We sipped coffee and tea from enamel mugs while our guide explained the miner's tagboard and safety procedures. He then set off a simulated blast and the rumbling sound of explosives rolled through. What followed then, were stories of pranks the miners played upon each other and we all had a laugh before returning to the surface.

The Hard Times Underground Mine Tour is also located at the Outback at Isa and Visitor Information Centre at 19 Marian St, Mount Isa. They can be contacted on (07) 4749 1555 or click here to visit their website, check the pricing and where you can also make bookings for the tour.

The Secret Underground Hospital

During WWII Mount Isa concentrated on mining lead for the war effort. In 1942, following the bombing of Darwin, there was a fear Mount Isa would be a potential target should the Japanese push inland. A secret underground hospital was built by tunnelling into the side of a hill. It was a precautionary measure and although supplied and ready, it never saw a patient. When no longer required, the tunnels were sealed and so secret were they that they were not discovered until the 1970s when part of the hill started to subside. In bad condition, they were resealed until the 1990s when a restoration took place.

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A ward in the secret 1942 underground hospital in Mount Isa - rediscovered in the 1970s - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

We entered the underground hospital through a museum of medical equipment, including a real skeleton which was used for training doctors. It was a bit gruesome. The museum is housed in a small building that was at one time the town's cottage hospital. Our guide was, we guessed, in her early eighties and did a fine job of explaining the history of the underground hospital, its contents and the restoration.

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As it was found in the underground hospital - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

The hospital has a maternity ward, or really a corner, a small operating area, a ward with bunk beds and more. One of the tunnels has been left as it was discovered in the seventies to show the extent of the deterioration. In a cabinet, ampules and bottles of unidentified substances and a bottle of chloroform remains although that liquid has since turned black. Volunteers restored the hospital from photos and those are also displayed here.

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Inside the secret underground hospital - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

Beside the museum and underground hospital, we viewed a tent house. These were quick, easily located houses for the miners and had canvas walls and a tin roof.

The Underground Hospital and Museum is at 63 Deighton Street, Mount Isa, behind the Mount Isa Hospital. They can be contacted on (07) 4749 3087 or click here to visit their website.

Lake Moondarra and Leichhardt Dam

On a warm afternoon, we drove 17kms out of town, crossing a bridge over the dry Leichhardt River and on to Lake Moondarra and the Leichhardt Dam. The extensive lake was made in the 1950s. We parked near a neat, grassed picnic area along the bank.

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A Black Kite at lake Moondarra - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

Black kites soared overhead and one was perched on a nearby tree. These magnificent birds belong to the same family as falcons and eagles. My husband managed to snap a clear photo of one in flight. Pelicans were swimming nearby and peacocks were strutting about.

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Lake Moondarra looking back to the picnic area - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

We walked along the bank before returning to the car and driving to the dam. It is permissible to walk atop the dam wall but it is accessed by a long and steep staircase, so we gave it a miss. It was a little too hot for strenuous exercise. A lookout provided sweeping views over the lake and the countryside behind, an amazing sight.

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At Lake Moondarra in Mount Isa - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

Lake Moodarra is 17 kms north of Mount Isa on Moondarra Drive, which is a sealed road. Click here to visit their website.

Birdlife
We were staying at the Argylla Caravan Park, where I hoped to spot some birds in the adjoining bushland. I was not disappointed. Apart from zebra finches, I quickly saw some diamond doves for the first time.

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A rainbow bee-eater - Photo copyright by Gayle Beveridge

Another first sighting for me was the spectacular rainbow bee-eater, a small bird combining delicate pastels and bright hues, with an orange crown and a yellow-green body tapering to blue at the tail. It was the orange underside of its wings, I noticed first as it swooped me twice.

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A zebra finch - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

The Park backs onto a large rocky hill and I looked up to see a wallaby slowly making its way down the incline, keeping an eye on me as it moved.

Getting There, Accommodation and Visitor Information

Mount Isa is in north-west outback Queensland, 1,827 kms from Brisbane, 2,392 kms from Sydney, 1,603 kms from Darwin and 2,671 kms from Melbourne. We went by road from Melbourne but there are flights from Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville and rail services from Townsville. For full details and useful links click here to visit the Getting to Mount Isa page on the Discover Mount Isa website.

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Mount Isa Mines viewed from across the street - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge..

We stayed at the caravan and holiday park, Argylla, which is huge. There seemed to be a significant number of permanents there. The cabin was spacey enough but there was no couch so we pulled out our foldup canvas chairs. Click here to visit their website. There is no shortage of places to stay in Mount Isa. Click here to visit the accommodation page on the Discover Mount Isa website.

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A tent house (near the underground hospital) - Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge

The Mount Isa Visitor Information Centre, also Outback at Isa, is at 19 Marian St, Mount Isa. They can be contacted on (07) 4749 1555 or click here to visit their website.
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Why? Mount Isa is an iconic destination, Iíve ticked it off my bucket list, will you tick it off yours.
When: Whenever you can
Phone: (07) 4749 1555
Where: Mount Isa is in north-west outback Queensland, 1,827 kms from Brisbane, 2,392 kms from Sydney, 1,603 kms from Darwin and 2,671 kms from Melbourne.
Your Comment
Not sure a mining landscape is something to celebrate, or enormous road trains-landscape destruction by mining isnít an enticement to travel, yet itís listed as the top thing to see in Mt Isa!
by chuxt (score: 0|5) 617 days ago
It is interesting to learn how, in the 19th century, mining products are found so far from what was then civilisation areas. These places have become great places for us to visit now.
by Roger (score: 2|861) 620 days ago
I was surprised at the greenery in your photos, I had always imagined Mount Isa to be a completely dry and arid place.
by betty (score: 2|730) 620 days ago
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