Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Isa

Another road trip, this time about 2700km worth.

Over the past few weeks it'd rained every few days, and work had been postponed or canceled. It's impossible to move drill rigs in mud and unsafe to work in, so I'd been stuck in the company house in Moranbah working on the computer, with a dose of flu thrown in. By the time the hitch was over I wanted to escape, even though the weather forecast for the coming week was for more of the same, everywhere.

On Saturday I headed south to Emerald and then turned inland. The shortcut I wanted to take between Clermont and Alpha was closed due to mud - true of most unsealed roads in Queensland. I stayed in a cabin at the Sapphire Motor Camp, as it was cold and looked like rain.

Sunday - on to Longreach via Alpha and Barcaldine. After Alpha the road's pretty much flat and straight, with no hills, nothing for the eye to rest on apart from the vanishing point of the road many kilometres ahead. That flatness was constant for the next couple of days. Driving's simply a matter of keeping it straight, watching the speed and the kilometres tick down on the GPS, and listening to the iPod. No radio stations out there, just static and the roar of the tyres. In the various towns along the way, scattered along the road every couple of hundred kilometres, all the tree-lined side streets end with a view into the far distance. Often there's no reason why a town's here and not someplace else, they just grew up in the middle of an enormous flat plain.

I camped in Longreach on the second night. It started raining at some point and carried on for two days, but my tent's waterproof so it wasn't unpleasant. The town's famous for the Qantas Air Museum, with their first 747 open for inspection. I spent half a day there looking through the modern museum, jumbo and an old hangar with old aircraft, aero engines, and the constant roar of rain on the roof. After Longreach I drove to Winton on a very wet and occasionally flooded road, found a dry motel and spent the rest of the day looking at the local tourist attractions - dinosaurs!

A lot of inland Queensland is an old seabed. During the Cretaceous the shallow Eromanga Sea cut Australia in half, extending from the Gulf of Carpenteria to the Great Australian Bight. The shallow marine and fresh water sediments contain numerous dinosaur and marine reptile fossils, and these are now tourist attractions - perfect for a roving geologist! Winton has the nearby Lark Quarry with thousands of preserved dinosaur footprints (unfortunately the road out there was closed - bugger, but I'll be back!). Mt Isa has a display of fossils found north at Riversleigh station, Richmond has Kronosaurus Korner (excellent, the best display of the lot), and Hughenden has its own fossil centre. Yes they're milking it for all they're worth, but these towns take pride in their area and history, and the hordes of tourists are interested too.

Next stop was Mt Isa. I'd always wondered about this town, the last and hottest on the weather reports (53C at nearby Cloncurry), right out near the Northern Territory border. And surprise, it's big - 23,000 people, with supermarkets, McD's and a large info centre. I stayed two (cold) nights in the tent, and went on a tour of the Mt Isa copper-lead-zinc-silver mine. The town's in a hilly area so no more thousand-mile stare - finally a place with geography! By this time, and after talking to other campers I wanted to keep driving into the Northern Territory, and then on to WA... But it was time to turn around, otherwise the expedition would have turned into a massive expedition across Australia. 900km west of Townsville and I was still in Queensland - this is what a continent is. More and more and then still more land to see, road to drive, towns to stop in. With enough money for fuel and food you could keep driving for years , and some do.

On the way out of Mt Isa I stopped at Mary Kathleen, where copper and uranium were mined until 1986. When the mine closed the town was removed, leaving suburban streets amongst grass and trees. Nature's reclaimed it all, a whole town vanished, nothing but the sound of wind in the trees. The old mine pit is spectacular, but not signposted, probably to avoid tourists falling over the edge. The water's an intense blue due to copper leachate - not uranium!

The next couple of days, heading east, were more of the same. A single flat, straight road connecting towns like a daisy chain. Cloncurry, Richmond, Hughenden, Charters Towers, and then turn right and head south until the turnoff to Moranbah, only 160km of dirt and mud.


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