Following the Big Wet - 2011 Trip – Part 16: Exploring historic mining areas.

Wednesday, Nov 16, 2011 at 16:05


Fresh camel tracks showed up clearly beside Troopy next morning, but we had not heard any unusual sounds during the night. We didn’t see any camels in this area but they were obviously around, and there are plenty of places for them to hide away in the daytime.

Back on the main road we set out to see what we could find of the old town of Selwyn. There were lots of tracks, signs of ground disturbance and interesting views to be had from small rocky knolls, although the ever-present spinifex made walking rather uncomfortable. We were constantly reminded of just how hard this country was and to sense the difficulties experienced by those early settlers, but so far we had not found their old town.

Our maps showed another track about a kilometre to the north. There was a large cleared area beside the road and after a few minutes casting around the edges of the clearing we found a track that corresponded to that shown on the map. We followed it through some thick scrub and when the country opened out, stopped again to explore on foot. An old pole with insulators and a cutting through the side of a hill suggested that we were on another old railway track. We seemed to be getting close so we started searching for signs of buildings and cemeteries, but we still came up empty-handed.

The track continued and as we rounded a corner we began to see old equipment as well as the current hardware of a cattle property – tanks, piping and pumps. We followed the track for another kilometre or two, drawn on by the sight of the Mt. Elliot brick chimney stack. But then another threatening sign encouraged us to turn around so we worked our way back, exploring on foot at likely looking spots. We did find the scant remains of a few buildings, mostly just wooden stumps in the ground, but on the ground were the remains of brick paving and guttering and assorted bits of metal. Beside another railway cutting where the remains of old sleepers could be seen, we found evidence of smelting. And a few cactus plants possibly still surviving from cottage gardens.

There was a flat area with multiple railway tracks and a branch line running on an embankment. There was a dry pool - perhaps to supply water for the engines?, with culverts built using differing construction techniques. John disturbed a snake so we walked very cautiously after that.

We still could not find the cemetery and were on the point of giving up and started to retrace our steps. Then we noticed another rough Troopy track heading away from the “town”, so we followed that for about a kilometre, until there it was, the Selwyn cemetery, in a beautiful setting among the hills and really not far from the town. The site is fenced off, and long ungrazed grass has grown, over and around the many graves. We gingerly picked our way among the graves hoping that there were no snakes. Many graves were not marked but there were some lovely headstones dating from about 1910 until about 1925. One headstone for a returned WWI digger was particularly impressive. Mine accidents accounted for some of those buried there, but harsh living conditions probably contributed to many deaths.

By now we felt well satisfied with our exploration, so we left this small piece of history and continued on our way. Since our visit we have learned that the Mount Elliott Mining Complex, south of Cloncurry, has quite recently been entered in the Queensland Heritage Register as an archaeological place. It was one of the major copper smelting sites in north Queensland during the early 20th century, but has been abandoned for many years.

The registered site includes remnants of the Mount Elliott Mine, the smelter, a range of associated infrastructure, scattered archaeological artefacts, the abandoned town of Selwyn and its cemetery. At its peak in 1918, some 1500 people lived in the township of Selwyn and the site has the potential to answer questions about how they lived and worked in this complex historic mining landscape.

With today’s technology it’s easy to overlay our track on a Google Earth image and see the streets of Selwyn showing as ghostly lines overlain on the red earth and spinifex. We can see the railway cuttings and the cemetery and try to imagine the life of those pioneer miners. Again, thanks to Rockape, our ExplorOz friend who advised us on the interesting places in this area and recommended lines of research and reading before visiting. Without his assistance our visit would have been very shallow. How wonderful it would be to have access to Google Earth and other powerful research tools too while actually there on the road in these fascinating and historically important areas.

The road north from Selwyn made its way across open flats and between rocky hills. One of these was spectacular enough to bring us to a stop for yet another photo session to capture the colours and textures of the rocks.

Twenty five kilometres north of Selwyn we came to Kuridala. Here there were two main mines, the Hampden-Cloncurry and the Hampden Consols, worked to depths of 180 and 140 metres respectively. Copper was first found at Kuridala in l884 but mining did not commence until 1897. The mines had a chequered history as the price of copper fluctuated and fires broke out in the mines. Cyclones did damage to above ground structures, and a typhoid epidemic in 1911 added to the difficulties of life in this remote corner of outback Queensland. Copper prices surged between 1914 and 1916 and during this period Kuridala was a lively town of perhaps 2000 people. At the height of the boom the town boasted 6 hotels, stores, three dance halls, a picture theatre, and Chinese market gardens. There were 4 churches, a police station, banks, a school with up to 280 pupils and a modern hospital, but with the rise of Mount Isa in 1923, the bakehouse, hospital, iceworks, the Courthouse and picture theatre moved there. An interesting article regarding the history of Kuridala may be found here.

Today not much remains to be seen of the town, but the cemetery is still there, as are a couple of impressive chimneys, big heaps of slag and spoil and sundry pieces of abandoned mining equipment.

The cemetery is bigger than the one at Selwyn but just as overgrown with grass and shrubs. At the entrance we were impressed to find a visitor’s book and a folder giving detailed information about many of the people buried there. Many of the deaths were of relatively young men who died in mine accidents – there were some graphic descriptions taken from coroner’s reports of injuries sustained– as well as cirrhosis and typhoid fever. The overall picture to be had from reading through these lists was of a very hard life lived in difficult conditions. Full marks to those responsible for creating this informative record and making it available to visitors.

In the heat of the afternoon we had a quick look around the mine site, though thousands of kilometres later, at home with unlimited internet, Google Earth suggests that we barely went beyond the southern perimeter of the site. Oh to have the benefit of such tools while there on the ground! Clearly we need to make a return visit to have a more leisurely and thorough look.

While at Kuridala we became aware that there was an amethyst fossicking site in the area. Once again curiosity took hold and we just had to have a look, and in any case we had to find somewhere to spend the night. So after a couple of wrong turns while trying to find the right track, and having only a hazy notion of what an amethyst might be or look like, we set off for our next adventure.

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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