A short two hour 40-minute flight from Brisbane and I touched down in Mount Isa, some 1880kms from my home on the Gold Coast. It couldn’t be more different than what I am used to. I swapped surfboard carrying, beachgoers in their boardshorts and flip flops for boot wearing, buckle toting cowboys. Sandy beaches were replaced with red dusty roads and someone had sucked all the humidity out of the air, leaving a dry heat where you barely broke a sweat.
Described as an oasis in the Outback, Mount Isa is a thriving hub in the Gulf Country region of Queensland, Australia. Set on the banks of the Leichhardt River and nestled among the ochre-red Selwyn Ranges, this mining town was born of the mining boom back in the early 1900s. The town is divided into what I am told is the town side and the mine side, evident on the drive from the airport as you pass the mine site.
My first impression of the town left me feeling warm, which was not from the weather which had dropped to a chilly 10 degrees in the evening. It came from the colourful sunset that greeted my arrival and the welcoming locals who proudly showed their affection for their hometown.
What to do
I was in awe of the sheer size of Mount Isa and what there was to explore in this historic town. Add to the existing experiences year-round are the crowd-pulling events that the town put on, making the visitor population grow massively. Whether you are passing through for a weekend or staying a little longer, Mount Isa has something for everyone to experience.
Learn about the mining history
Starting with the mining past, I put on my hard hat and descended into a mine via the Alimak Cage on the Hard Times Mine tour. Escorted by a miner who has worked in the mines for most of his life, the tour came with many an entertaining story of the good and hard times in the mines. Trying my hands at the air-leg drill to feel the earth rumble with the firing of the blast face quickly reinforced the fact that a miners life was not for me.
Dig deep into the past
More my style for unearthing treasures, Riversleigh Fossil Discovery Centre showcased the fossils from the Riversleigh World Heritage Area. Here I found one of the most significant fossil deposits in the world and the centre tells a unique story of the evolution of Australia’s wildlife. Interactive displays let the palaeontological experts tell you their stories of Riversleigh, or you can wander through an impressive diorama to see what this ancient world looked like 25 million years ago.
Explore a history from the war
Continuing with the underground theme of exploration, the next stop was the Mount Isa Underground Hospital and Museum. After the bombing of Darwin hospital in 1942, precautions were taken to protect the Mount Isa district hospital in the event of an air raid. The Underground Hospital was carved into the hills near the base of the regional hospital and remains Australia’s first and only underground hospital. I didn’t need a hard hat to explore the four tunnels that are fitted out to resemble the 1942 original layout, but the cup of tea while hearing the stories of the above-ground tent house was a must for the afternoon.
Take a drive on the Heritage Trail
Travelling east of Mount Isa along the Barkly Highway, you will find the Heritage Trail. I am mesmerized by the landscape alone here – spinifex covered terrain and rocky outcrops millions of years in the making. The trail journies past the site of three former townships that boomed in the early 1900s mining industry, and to the waterhole oasis of Fountain Springs. This waterhole sits at the base of a spectacular towering rock face of quartzite with a split through its middle. It is a place of cultural and spiritual significance for the Kalkadoon people, dating back tens of thousands of years. If you think it looks familiar, that is because it starred in the famous Crocodile Dundee movie scene, where the main character Sue Charlton gets surprised by a giant saltwater crocodile as she filled her water bottle.
Discover a deserted town
The next stop was the town of Mary Kathleen on the Old Mary Kathleen Uranium Mine Tour by North West Tours. Mary Kathleen was established in 1958 when the nearby Uranium Mine started production. The uranium in Mary Kathleen mine was exhausted by 1981, and the town and its people soon became abandoned. All that is left today are the concrete slabs where the original buildings stood, remnants of the town’s layout and the mine itself.
Where to stay
The Redearth Hotel is a piece of Mount Isa history, adjoining the now known Isa Hotel which dates back to 1926. The Isa Hotel was built on the corner of Miles and Marian Street, by Samuel Allens and his team of tradesmen in a time when the mining town was booming. The hotel originally boasted coffee and dining rooms, a saloon bar and lounge, and a billiard room on the ground floor, with twenty-three bedrooms with balconies upstairs, plus stables and a garage at the rear. Today, the hotel still keeps its charm with an old-time heritage mixed with a splash of luxury.
Where to eat
You can’t go past the western-themed bar and grill, Rodeo Bar & Grill. Located in the Isa Hotel, this is the watering hole for locals and visitors which fills to its brim, especially when the Rodeo is on in town. Enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner here, seven days a week, with an open style outback steakhouse kitchen.
For more on Mount Isa visit outbackqueensland.com.au/town/mount-isa
Disclosure: The writer explored Mount Isa with assistance from Tourism Events Queensland