Mount Isa or ‘The Isa' as it is known colloquially is a unique place that resides in the back of Australian consciousness with a special affection. It is a town that is distinctly and proudly Australian, distinctly and proudly of Queensland, but fiercely independent of both.
At only 200km from the border of the Northern Territory and over 1800km to the Queensland capital of Brisbane it would be understandable if Mount Isa were to suffer from an identity crisis. Alice Springs is only 877km from The Isa and is the source of much of the electronic media and advertising that reach the town. So while you are sitting in Mount Isa enjoying a Queensland beer it is quite probable that the television station you are watching will be advertising a Northern Territory beverage.
I'll Huff and I'll Puff and I'll...
On entering Mount Isa you are greeted by the sight of the 3 tall smoke stacks that dominate the landscape and remind visitors that the reason the place exists at all is because of the vast reserves of lead, zinc, copper and silver that are drawn from the earth beneath the town.
Mount Isa’s existence depends on the fortunes of the mine that rests like an appendage on the west side of town. Or is it that the town is an appendage to the mine? The prosperity and population of Mount Isa rises and falls in line with the mineral prices of the day and one must wonder in what capacity the town would survive without the existence of the mine.
Unlike most Australian mining towns, The Isa is relatively young. Instead of beginnings that stretch back to the gold rushes of the early 1800’s, Mt Isa’s history begins around 1923 and the discovery of a rich lead and silver deposit.
Consequently the town lacks the grand stone and brick colonial architecture of most mining towns and settles for a modest, unimposing, art-deco inspired facade.
Tourism is heartily promoted and no town in Australia makes a louder claim to ownership of the title Outback Town than The Isa. A great tourism attraction has been established in the “Outback at Isa – Hard Times Mine” and exhibitions, underground tours and a visitor centre all round out a memorable place to visit. However the real ‘Outback” is here.
Mount Isa lies on the Barkly Highway and is an essential stop for those travelling across the top end from the Northern Territory in to Queensland and vice versa. A constant stream of caravans, touring buses, camper trailers and mobile tourists pass through the town or stop for a few days inspection at one of the many caravan parks, or when occupancy is 100%, in the grounds of the local RSL club.
The nearby Lake Moodarra or the surrounding rugged landscape provide a recreational retreat for fishing, watersports and camping.
Living With Lead
Any town that lives beneath the billowing chimney of a lead smelter must suffer from a mild internal paranoia about the effects of toxins on the inhabitants, and Mount Isa is no exception, the difference being it is not really spoken about.
Tanks that collect rain water are banned in Mt Isa and the Queensland Health Department and various other bodies including Xstrata Mt Isa Mines have formed the “Living with Lead Alliance” to encourage blood testing in children and to promote the prevention of lead poisoning.
The feeling is that lead poisoning is the price to be paid for a slightly better than average weekly wage.
It is reminiscent of the story in the Midnight Oil song, Blue Sky Mine, about the effects of asbestos on the workers at CSR Limited –
“But if I work all day on the blue sky mine
(There’ll be food on the table tonight)
Still I walk up and down on the blue sky mine
(There’ll be pay in your pocket tonight)”
And yet Mount Isa manages to maintain a sense of place and purpose and carry on with a positive, normal existence common to towns all over Australia. The people are friendly, the social and sporting calendars full and the place clean and likeable.
Mt Isa Rodeo
The highlight of the social calendar is the annual Mount Isa Rodeo, the largest in Australia, bringing participants and spectators from all over the country.
And it is the cowboy theme that Mt Isa identifies with the strongest. A town created because of the mineral deposits discovered in the 1920’s and planted firmly on the stock highway, has assumed the mantle of ‘King of Cowboy Culture’ and it does so with gusto, enthusiasm and professionalism.
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