Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cloncurry, uranium and Mt Isa

But there you are. A straight red line on a map marking hundreds of kilometres doesn’t excite the imagination, but if you get the paperwork as you move along there are some marvellous things to see. Half way between Julia Creek and Mount Isa is Cloncurry - another iconic outback town that used to be the heart of activity in the region before ore was discovered at Mt Isa in 1923. Cloncurry recorded the highest temperature of 53.9C in 1889, and Ernest Henry discovered copper ore there in 1867 just six years after Robert O’Hara Burke passed through with Mr Wills on their way to the Gulf. The idea for a regular flight between Winton and Cloncurry was floated there and that was the start of Qantas. The Royal Flying Doctor Service also started there in 1928. So Cloncurry is a proud sort of place with a powerful history. If you visit the Mary Kathleen Museum there you will find buildings and records of the first Australian uranium mine. Helen explored the cemetery to find Afghan graves and fell across Dame Mary Gilmore and her son born in Paraguay during thier idealistic experiment. We struck up a friendship with a Tvan owning couple, and departed to the pub for an ale or three, dinner, and to watch Queensland thrash NSW in the State of Origin match.

Mary Kathleen, some few kilometres west of Cloncurry, was once a township of 1000 and thrived between 1954 and 1963 as it completed a contract to supply enriched uranium ore to the UK Atomic Energy Authority. It was then mothballed until 1976 when it was re-opened to fulfill a new contact. It was closed down and auctioned off in 1984 and all that can be seen there now is the deep open cut, some concrete infrastructure and the town road system. A strange place and a significant history, reminding Helen she had driven there with her mate Louise in its mothball days, on their way to Cooktown in a tiny Mitsubishi Colt.

The way between Cloncurry and Mt Isa has been noted for aboriginal rock art. Sad to say, it is now deliberately hard to find. We had heard one story of elders back at Cania Gorge who, after much persuasion by the local council to make the location of a ceremonial site known so that tourists could see the art there, found it graffitied and defaced only 48 hours later. Makes the blood boil. The land east of the Leichhardt River, some 40kms in from Mt Isa, as the Selwyn Ranges, becomes lumpy and gnarled and beautifully red with white trunked Snappy Gums. This is Kalkadoon tribal country. The Kalkadoon were amongst the most fierce and warlike of the tribes to resist the encroaching cattle men. There are tales of battles and much grief. There is a large stone memorial that carries a proud image of a Kalkadoon man, that stands as a gateway to their land. Large calibre bullet holes pepper the image. Beneath are the words

………bounds the kangaroo they stalk
Cattle graze where the wild men walked

And their camps have been.
Silent bush where they laughed
And their slate’s wiped clean.

Spear can never conquer gun
Man no more the horse outrun
By the gunblast tossed
Still in death lies everyone
And the battle’s lost

You who pass by
Are now entering the ancient
Tribal lands of the Kilkadoon
Dispossessed by the Europeans
honour their name
be brother and sister to
their descendants.

There is a nearly new building in Mt Isa, the Kalkadoon Tribal Centre. Helen and I were very interested to go there. It was 10am. A sleeping figure blocked the entry way. At the Information Centre next door a guide explained quietly that sadly, the centre was now permanently closed as there were no longer any people to run it. We did manage to back track to find a beautiful and sacred waterhole (though polluted by ever-present cattle) and art at Sunrock (struck by rock missiles).

We had a couple of nights in Mt Isa and had time to have the car serviced while doing a surface tour of the mine which was very interesting, plus chat to the scientist in the Riversleigh Fossil laboratory, and see Robin Hood at the cinema. A good rollicking story in true Russell Crowe tradition, well balanced by Kate Blanchett as gorgeous as ever. It was raining when we returned to a line of wet washing, but other kind campers had packed up our chairs and things. Mt Isa is of course a hive of activity and would be a great place to set aside some capital, especially if you don’t mind working underground. Jobs are to be had there for the asking, and very well paid. Our caravan neighbours had been delivering goods in the region, using his own light truck, and was paid $2000 a week. Xstrata pays the young ladies to drive the large over- the-surface trucks well over $100K a year and has saved 25% of its repair and maintenance bill thanks to their gentle hands! The writing’s on the wall guys!

Mt Isans recreate at a large dam called Moondarra where they have dammed the Leichhardt. We lunched there before heading west and north now, further along the Flinders Highway and headed for Gregory Downs and Lawn Hill NP, for a spell riverside.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Ian and Helen,
    Hi There, I have just read your first and last entries. Too much other text to go through in one sitting. We have had wettest May on record - about 78mls. mind you records don't go back very far. Anyways all the roads were closed, but a week later, the Dry has begun properly and everything's open again. weather beautiful and cool. 15 at night 30 in the daytime. We went to the Bungles about a month ago and had a lovely time. So if you make it over that would be great! Brian