Following the Big Wet - 2011 Trip – Part 15: Exploring around Mt Isa.

Monday, Nov 14, 2011 at 18:58


It was hot as we left Mt Isa on the good gravel road that goes south to Duchess. There were interesting rugged hills and the occasional tempting side track. One of these led a short distance to the Rifle Creek dam – or would have but for the locked gate, so we didn’t actually see the dam.

For much of the way to Duchess the road runs roughly parallel to the railway track, but at a point north of the town where road and railway parted company we spied an interesting looking track that just begged to be explored. Oziexplorer showed several old mines in the vicinity, including Nil Desperandum which rang a bell from our reading. We very soon found ourselves, via the little used vehicle track, on an old railway track complete with spikes so we stopped for a look around. There were lots of sharp old spikes, and in the old railway cuttings there were interesting looking rocks, suggesting that mineralised zones were not far away. But it was hot and the old mines marked on the map were far enough away to discourage further exploration on foot.

From this old track we then ran along a newer maintenance track beside the current railway. Some other tracks tempted us and again we branched off towards more old mines, and this time we did at least see some mullock heaps. By now it was becoming apparent that the tracks on the ground bore little relationship to those on the map so we continued down the railway road that soon took us in to Duchess. There may have been a bustling town there once but little is left today – a small pub and some dongas seemed to be all there was. And two crossings of the current railway line – watch out for ore trains.

By now it was growing late and time to look for somewhere to stop for the night. A bit beyond Duchess we found a spot that road maintenance crews had used as a camp. It was far enough off the road for us, and the spinifex had been cleared away by a grader leaving a large level area. It was census night – where were we? We used the GPS coordinates!

Just on dusk after a red sky sunset 3 or 4 road trains came through trailing huge clouds of dust, and we heard trains a couple of times during the night. Doing a bit of exploring the next morning we did find some old relics – dozens of old dunny cans dumped in a gully! Thankfully they were old enough to have been rendered innocuous by the passage of many wet seasons. What stories could they tell?

We were scarcely back on the road next day when we encountered lots of Variety Bash vehicles coming towards us travelling fast, spraying dust and stones all over the place. We had the UHF on but had a little warning of their approach. Despite trying to get off the road and out of the way we will need to replace our windscreen before rego time. Thankfully it didn’t shatter. We requested over their UHF channel that they slow down for oncomings (polite, if a little terse!) but got no response. We subsequently did hear one or two drivers calling that they were “slowing for oncoming” so maybe they learned something. This was an unfenced public road, with loose gravel shoulders and bends and hills limiting forward visibility. And there were cattle about – we wondered what the collateral damage, the cost of these rallies to third parties (eg dead or maimed cattle, broken windscreens etc) would really be. Rallies might raise funds and awareness of particular causes but surely participants also need to respect other road users while they are out having their good time. They’ll never have our support, any more than other hoons do.

Thankfully we were soon at an intersection and turning on to a sealed road. It was time for a cuppa to let the adrenalin levels come back to normal. We found a spot to pull off and as often happens when we make a random stop, there was something of interest to wonder about – this time it was a hole in the ground with big water pipes entering and leaving it.

The sealed road took us south towards Phosphate Hill, but first we thought we would have a look at The Monument a little to the west. We had glimpses of a rock pillar that we thought might have been it. So we turned west past a small airfield and turned at a sign pointing in the right direction. Then we encountered the first of many signs that we were to see in the next couple of days – stern warnings suggesting dire consequences for uninvited visitors. So a quick stop for a photo at full zoom of the rock pillar then a U turn and it was as if we had never been there.

Phosphate Hill was more interesting in that we could get a closer view of the huge white mounds of phosphate rock and industrial buildings in the distance along a sign-encrusted road. Incitec Pivot operates the mine and manufactures ammonium phosphate fertilisers there.

There was only one way past the mine so we crossed the railway line and headed east, then south towards Chatsworth Station. There was a hot, strong westerly blowing as we crossed over big open plains reminiscent of the channel country. This is cattle country, although we did not see many stock - they were probably sheltering from the heat among the trees along the watercourses.

The creeks, now dry, boasted some graceful white barked gum trees, and there were occasional small patches of wildflowers and spinifex everywhere. Past Chatsworth we saw a lonely grave, while further north we came across a carefully fenced off Aboriginal stone arrangement. A bronze plaque informed us that the stone arrangement was “… used by the Jalanga and Kalkadoon people of NW Queensland for ceremonies with these and other tribes. It was once more extensive than the stones which remain now.”

We were looking for somewhere to have lunch, preferably out of the wind and with some shade. Eventually we found a suitable spot when we stumbled upon the abandoned Answer Mine some distance north of Chatsworth. The mine and its mullock heaps covered a sizeable area and plenty of bright blue ore fragments told us that copper had been mined there. There was quite a lot of rusty old machinery and ore processing plant lying around. Some of the mining was close to the surface but there were also open shafts, one with a rusted ladder descending directly into a deep dark hole – and no fence! Hang on to your kids or dogs if you visit there. We saw some camel tracks and that set us wondering how many animals had fallen down this and other holes in the area.

One thing that we saw had us intrigued – a big pile of shredded tin cans, thoroughly rusted. Subsequent reading suggests these may have been used as a source of tin to experiment with different refining methods. The ores here were notoriously difficult to refine and there was much trial and error with various techniques before satisfactory yields of metal could be obtained.

After a satisfying fossick around we backtracked the short distance to the last intersection with signposts and followed the sign supposedly pointing to Selwyn. Now Selwyn does not show on the Natmap maps that we were using, but Mt Elliot does. Only if you know the history of the area you will know that Selwyn was close by. So after travelling a short distance we thought we were heading in the wrong direction. Back to the intersection and this time we followed the sign to Cloncurry – along a track that did eventually take us to Selwyn.

By now we needed to find somewhere to spend the night but once again we found ourselves in the land of “Keep Out” signs. There were some newish roads, especially near the apparently now operating Mt. Elliott Mine, but all were well guarded by signs warning of dire consequences for those who ventured off the public road.

Eventually we found a sign-free side road where we found a pleasant spot out of the wind where we could spend the night. Scouting around we discovered (but left undisturbed) a number of metal objects- an old clock, miners water jugs, bottles, kitchen utensils, water tanks, not to mention more dunny cans. We thought that we must be close to where the old town of Selwyn used to be. Tomorrow we will see if we can find it.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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