You thought Mount Isa was all about mining and the rodeo? Dig deeper and you will find a whole lot more.
I’m walking through a dimly-lit tunnel with hospital beds on either side of me. There’s an old-fashioned doll with those real-looking bulbous roll-around eyes in a dusty dress and lacy jacket propped up in a baby’s hospital cot. Glass cabinets from the 1930s are stocked with all sorts of medicinal concoctions that look as though they were left behind when the nurses had to make a run for it.
‘What happened to the patients?’ I silently wonder.
Valerie, one of the few women who regularly volunteer at the Mount Isa Underground Hospital and Museum has no doubt been asked this question many times before, and seeing the curiosity plastered across my face, she looks up from where she is smoothing down some bedsheets.
“It wasn’t ever actually used as a hospital,” she says. “It was built here on the same grounds as the Mount Isa District Hospital by off-duty miners in 1942, in case the Japanese attacked us.”
Ahah, I think, the same year that Darwin was bombed.
“Luckily there was no need to use it in that sense,” she goes on, “But it was well used by the staff at the hospital on their work breaks, as it is a lovely, cool place to sleep when the temperatures get up to around 50 degrees!” She laughs. I’m not so sure I would use the word lovely, but it’s definitely cool. Today it’s 45 degrees outside and I am still sweating after my little walk down here.
Above-ground, visitors can enjoy the impressive collection of antiques and paraphernalia in the museum, which includes some utterly baffling medical equipment — until you read the well-detailed descriptions provided by volunteers. There’s a meticulously handwritten First Aid Manual, large posters of the human anatomy, a real skeleton that was used for educational purposes, old kid’s toys, World War II items, and a range of geological exhibits that lend some clues as to what drew so many people to this wild place so far West, 100 years ago. Everything has been donated by locals, many of them with families still living in Mount Isa.
History of Mount Isa
As with many Outback towns and cities of Australia, mining is what attracted men in their droves. Mount Isa was established when lone prospector John Campbell Miles stumbled upon one of the world’s richest deposits of copper, silver and zinc during his 1923 expedition into the Northern Territory. It’s well known that Indigenous Australians occupied this land before Miles arrived, however what many people don’t know is that it was a young Indigenous man named Kabalulumana who led Miles to the deposits. An Indigenous hostel in Mount Isa is named after Kabalulumana.
I continue my exploration by checking out an original tent house on the hospital grounds. Once word of Mount Isa’s abundance of copper, lead and silver spread, men descended upon the wild western town, often bringing their families with them. The tent houses were built so that occupants could withstand the extremely hot outback temperatures and generally unforgiving conditions. They consist of a narrow timber framed building with canvas walls and roof. Above the roof and separate to it, was an iron roof supported by a light weight timber frame. Solid boards or iron sheeting were often used around the base of the house as a means of handling the endless red dust from entering a home.
Before Miles and the many people who arrived in his wake, the fiercely territorial Kalkadoon people (also known as the Kalkatungu) lived in the region for possibly up to 60,000 years, and they were renowned as one of the strongest tribes in all of Queensland. In fact, their forefather tribe has been called ‘the elite of the Aboriginal warriors of Queensland’.
The Kalkatungu are also believed to be Australia’s first miners, and one Kalkadoon mining quarry is estimated at being over 6,000 years old. These early miners had an extremely well organised factory-like system where everyone had specific roles.
The mines produced hard, black basalt which made excellent spearheads and axes, and these were not just used by the Kalkatungu — they had extensive trade systems spanning hundreds of kilometres around their territory and they were prized by other tribes. Some axes and spearhead created around Mount Isa have been found as far away as Southern and Western Australia.
Tragically, in 1884 many of the Kalkatungu were massacred at Battle Mountain by settlers and police. The war was thought to have been triggered six years before when a group of settlers were killed at a watering hole, and this led to an all-out battle against native Indigenous tribes.
Top things to do in Mount Isa
The hospital is not the only way to get an underground fix in ‘Isa’, as the locals call her. Down the road at Outback at Isa, you’ll find the Mount Isa Visitor Information Centre, Hard Times Mine Underground Tour, Isa Experience and Outback Park, the Mount Isa Regional Art Gallery, Riversleigh Fossil Centre, Mount Isa Fish Hatchery Project and the Outback Cafe.
The mine tour is a highlight for many who visit Mount Isa, as not only is it incredibly interactive, here you can gain a grasp on how miners once worked and lived, as the tours are run by guys who have been miners most of their lives. Everyone dons high-vis bright orange mining overalls and sturdy cap-lamps, and then they descend in a cage to where it all happens.
The guides share riveting stories of their time spent working in the mines as they lead everyone deep into the tunnels, explaining how they were dug out and shaped with machinery such as boom drills. There are moments in the pitch-black darkness, the earth around rumbling like a giant’s belly, where you really do feel as though you’re in a working mine.
Exploring outback Queensland
Back up on the top of the Earth, there’s so much to see in Mount Isa, and to get a great understanding of what the city was and now is, spend a few hours in Outback at Isa. For those who want to step 30 million years back in time, to when megafauna was developing, The Riversleigh Fossil Centre has arranged its globally celebrated finds in dioramas that depict long-extinct enormous creatures in their former prehistoric habitats. If you want to get more hands-on, fossil enthusiast Alan takes guests on tours through the laboratory, showing how specimens are sorted, cleaned and the fossils extracted.
Outback Queensland is famous for its long stretches of red dirt with bright blue, endless skies above, however it’s also the billabongs, lakes, dams and unique waterways that make places like Mount Isa so special. And if you like a spot of fishing or camping, don’t leave town without visiting beautiful, manmade Lake Moondarra.
Originally called Leichardt Dam, Lake Moondarra was completed in 1958 for Mount Isa Mines, and at the time, it was the largest water scheme in Australia financed by private enterprise. It now has many picturesque picnic areas, pontoons, a ski jump, and water sports facilities. It’s a major drawcard for birdwatchers, sailors and anglers.
If you’re in the region in October, The Lake Moondarra Fishing Classic is held in late October. The event is hosted by the not-for-profit Mount Isa Fish Stocking Group, which raises money for more barramundi and sooty grunter fingerlings to be stocked in the lake.
Rising before sunrise one day, I made my way out to Lake Moondarra in the dark. Driving through the quiet, wide streets of Mount Isa, and then driving through acres of wild bushland thriving on mineral-filled red dirt, I could only hear birds. I parked in a picnic area and then walked, barefoot, down to the lake’s edge. As the sun came up and spilt its warmth across the waters and the vast land, the bird song rose in tempo until it reached a happy, cawing, cackling, chirruping, bonkers crescendo. They had a lot to talk about. I sat and listened, quietly in awe of how much life there is and was, above and beneath Mount Isa.
Where to stay in Mount Isa
ibis Styles Mount Isa Verona is a great pick for a comfortable stay. Here, you’ll experience the trademark hospitality of the ibis hotel group. For a more unique stay, opt for Redearth Boutique Hotel or the well-known Overlander Hotel.
If you’re visiting Mount Isa as part of a road trip, you might want to set up camp at the Discovery Parks property in town. Powered and non-powered sites, cabins and great facilities will keep travellers refreshed and ready to hot the road when it’s time to move on.
Travel to Mount Isa
You can travel to Mount Isa with Rex Airlines. Book your flight here.
For more to explore, check out our podcast on Mount Isa.