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Oceania » Australia » Queensland » Mount Isa
August 5th 2011
Published: August 9th 2011
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In the girls' changing roomIn the girls' changing roomIn the girls' changing room

Does my bum look big in this? (and why have I got my helmet on back to front?)
Friday 5th – Today we were going on an underground mine tour so the alarm was set for 7:00am. When we woke up we were both FREEZING cold so we got the little fan heater out and warmed the caravan through! It’s been months since we felt chilly enough to need to do that. Our tour didn’t start until 9:00am and it was still early so I went off and did some washing and hung it out to dry. We were at the Information Centre by 8.40 so had plenty of time to have another look around before the tour started. At 9.00am our Tour Guide, Bill arrived and ushered us along a corridor where we were issued with some orange disposable overalls, a hard safety helmet and a sophisticated belt. We donned the overalls but, disappointingly, in addition to having to remove our shoes, we had to leave cameras in lockers together with our bags and shoes. Then we had to select a pair of wellington boots and put them on. Even though I had picked a small pair marked as my size, they were still slightly big so now, like many others, I was ‘trudging’ along rather awkwardly! Next we were taken into a large room and given ‘head lamps’ that came connected to their own fairly heavy battery packs which we had to fix to the mechanism on our belts while the lamp was secured to our helmets. We were beginning to wonder what we’d let ourselves in for and whether all this gear was really going to be necessary!

The mine had been cleverly developed for tourism purposes and was part of the ‘Outback at Isa’ complex. Before we actually entered the mine we had to endure a “photo shoot”. Everyone had their photo taken and the snaps would be available for purchase at the end of the tour. We smiled at the thought of what we must look like in all our fancy dress – time would tell. The purpose of the tour was to experience what conditions would have been like when the mine was being developed in the early years. Bill, the guide, had worked as a miner in Mount Isa for 34 years performing a variety of difficult duties and his knowledge and experience would prove invaluable in the descriptions of the tasks that had to be performed and of the way the miners coped with their “spare time” in what was commonly called a crib room.

First we had to descend in an Alamac Cage in two groups to reach the level we would be exploring – not a massive drop but far enough to realise that life underground was very uncomfortable. The area we were exploring had been deliberately constructed as realistically as possible to convey a typical working environment. It immediately looked stark and harsh yet Bill assured us that conditions years ago would have been much, much worse. We all climbed aboard the ‘mule’ train which took us through the winding tunnels until we got to the area known as the crib room. On the wall there were metal tags similar to ones used by miners and as we were entering a ‘working environment’ we had to pick a tag and move it from the ‘out’ board to the ‘in’ board, a simple but vitally important procedure. From there, in the dark with only the light from our head lamps, off we trudged down a tunnel. Bill showed us how they used to drill holes in the rock, put explosives in and then at pre-appointed times blow up sections of the rock-face. In the early days this was done four times a day – first thing in the morning, at morning and afternoon tea-break times and last thing at night. Nowadays it’s done only twice a day – at 8am and 8pm. Some of us had a go with an ‘air-leg’ drill and for this we had to wear ear-muffs. It was very noisy and the force of the drill was incredible – every bit of me was shaking! How anyone could stand using it for more than a few seconds I just don’t know! Bill explained that this type of work, because it was so physical, was done by the tougher miners who would also construct vertical “escape” shafts. They were always working above their heads and, the higher the shaft got, the further up they had to carry the very heavy drills using heavy wooden ladders which they themselves had to build as they went along. Bill regarded them as “the toughest people in the world”. Needless to say, life expectancy wasn’t very high in those days and the maximum age achieved averaged 55!!

We walked through quite deep puddles to another tunnel and I got a wet foot because one of my wellies leaked! Bill explained how the walls and ceiling of the tunnels had to be made safe using special bolts and iron mesh. Then he demonstrated how some of the old machinery was used. They were designed to move the crude ore from the rock face and out through the maze of tunnels. Working conditions were dire and safety standards poor so there were many dangers involved. In the early years accidents, even deaths, were common and most involved these huge, cumbersome machines.

Back at the crib room we all moved our tags back to the ‘out’ board – a simple procedure designed to ensure that everyone was accounted for and the rock face was “clear”. Then Bill proceeded to show us how the explosives were ignited at the face of the mine. (Of course at this time all the miners should be safely out of the way – anybody who forgot to move their tag was disciplined). A couple of young lads on the tour helped with the explosions by moving the contact switch to detonate the blast. It was just for demonstration purposes of course but it sounded
Setting the explosivesSetting the explosivesSetting the explosives

while everyone is in the 'crib room'
very realistic. The ads had been very enthusiastic and had taken a keen interest in all of the demonstrations. With that task successfully completed we could all relax and enjoy a cup of tea while Bill told us more stories of the life of a miner. Some of the rituals in the crib room were explained. Bill said that the same four miners sat in the same four seats playing cards during their one hour lunch break for 18 years!! We looked at numerous examples of the different minerals found at the mine including copper, silver, lead and zinc.

Suitably refreshed we got back on the ‘mule’ and trundled back to the lift and before long we were back up in the fresh air. It took a minute to adjust to being in the bright sunshine. We had to hose down our boots, put them back on the racks, take our head lamps off and hang them up and put the batteries on charge, take our belts and hats off and then it was back to the changing rooms to take off our overalls. We had a look at the photo that Bill had taken of us and decided to keep it as it’s a nice memento – it had been a fantastic tour and extremely well thought out and conducted. We both felt tired after our morning down the mine so had a bit of lunch there at the café. Our ticket covered entry to other things too so after we had relaxed a bit we strolled around the impressive art gallery and then we went into the ‘Isa Experience’ – a pictorial and audio history of the development of Mount Isa. It was here that we learnt the story of how in February 1923 a prospector named John Campbell Miles discovered lead ore while travelling through the region. He named the area Mount Isa and in 1924 Mount Isa Mines Ltd was born. Over the years the mine has developed and now it is one of the most productive single mines in the world.

We also learned a little about the local Aboriginal people, the Kalkadoon tribe, who fought to keep their land but, as in many parts of Australia, they suffered terrible losses in the late 1800’s.

At the back of the Information Centre there was a very nice area called an ‘Outback Park’ that we wandered around. It was a very pleasant, relaxing garden with lots of local trees and bushes and a delightful water-fall. From there we intended having a look around the historic underground hospital but when we got there it was closed – it only opens in the mornings – so we drove on up to the lookout. There is a superb 360˚ view of the city which is absolutely dominated by the mine and three chimneys, the tallest of which is huge – over 200 metres high. The signpost told us we were a massive 15724 kms from London and 2008 klms from Melbourne – it felt as though we were much further away than that from Melbourne!

Later on we popped to the ‘Irish Club’ just to see what it was like. Reputedly it’s the biggest Irish Club in the world and is recommended as one of the places ‘everyone should visit during their stay in Mount Isa’. Although it was early and not too busy we got a feel for the atmosphere. It covers a huge area and even had a vintage Melbourne Tram inside that is used as a cafe!! That’s where we had supper and it was pretty good and a reasonable price. We had a look round but resisted playing on the pokie machines – probably their main source of income! We’d had a great day in Mount Isa and looked forward to discovering more tomorrow.




Additional photos below
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William Barton, famous didgeridoo playerWilliam Barton, famous didgeridoo player
William Barton, famous didgeridoo player

who we would have seen in Batchelor but illness intervened and we couldn't go to the concert
John Campbell MilesJohn Campbell Miles
John Campbell Miles

prospector who found lead ore in the area in 1923, staked a claim and called it Mount Isa


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