Rocks and Crocs. NT tour.

No blog for ages sorry.

[To see larger clickable versions of the photos, see the gallery at the bottom]

Thought we would write a few lines about a recent trip around the Northern Territory.

Mount Isa is only about 200km (2hr) drive from the Northern Territory border. In fact although we are in Queensland, we treat quite a lot of patients from towns and stations on the other side of the border. We’d been meaning to do a road trip in NT for a while, and had to squash a hell of a lot of driving into 16 days in order to see all the stuff we had planned.

In total we drove about 6,000Km

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We overheard a fellow campsite dweller near Kings Canyon say “yeah basically you stand on a rock and look at another rock.” A remark that whilst glib,  does rather succinctly describe the tourist experience of ‘the red centre’, the southern part of NT that includes Uluru (Ayer’s rock) and Kings Canyon. But WHAT ROCKS THEY WERE!

The pull at the ‘top end’ of NT are lush tropical areas like Kakadu national park, with the famous saltwater crocs.

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Initially we went west out of Mount Isa until we hit the road that runs north/south through NT. We headed south for central Australia and camped at Karlu Karlu/Devil’s Marbles. They are interesting large granite boulders which look they have been placed or suspended.  The night sky is spectacular in central Australia.  The milky way is very clearly visible and there are stars right down to the horizon.  The ‘twinkling’ effect of bright stars I am rarely able to appreciate but it was so clear here.

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From here we drove down to Alice Springs. We both like ‘A Town Like Alice’ and it’s actually Sinead’s favourite book, but far from the picture painted in the novel it actually pissed it down the majority of the time we were there!

From Alice we took the ‘Mireenie Loop’ through the West McDonald ranges. My favourite stop was Gosses Bluff crater, a large meteor impact site, 5km in diameter. The rim of the rocky ridge is easily visible in the distance as it arises from the otherwise flat landscape, and you can take a 4wd into the centre. I understand there is a fairly unique ecosystem within the crater, and as you could imagine it has a special significance for aboriginal people who have lived around it for millennia.

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A little further round the loop was King’s Canyon. Like Gosses Bluff it rises impressively from the otherwise pretty flat landscape, and channels which have eroded through it over time have created canyons with streams and water holes, with lush plant life. It’s very much a classical oasis in the desert, and has been life saving to European folk who were tramping about central Australia working out the best route from Adelaide (in the South) to Darwin.

The rain we saw in Alice had flooded several parts of the dirt track we had been taking. The car didn’t have any problems (aside from getting pretty muddy!) but we did find a couple of people who had got their truck completely stuck in the thick sandy mud and would probably have had to dig it out in a few days when it had dried out!

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Uluru ( Ayer’s rock) was pretty spectacular despite the fact it was so overcast. It’s an incredible monolith that dominates the landscape, standing over 1000ft high, with a circumference of 10km, and it looks that characteristic red colour from a significant distance away. In the latter part of the 20th century aboriginal people from this area had to fight very hard to regain their claim to it’s ownership. In 1985 the area was given back to it’s traditional owners, who lease it back to the Australian government as a national park. The park is jointly run by aboriginal and non-aboriginal people from the top level down to the park rangers. Park rangers throughout the Northern Territory have adopted some of the Aboriginal ways of managing the land, most notably controlled burning. Fire is a part of the Australian ecosystem, and controlled patch burning helps to stimulate growth, as well as reducing the risk of fires becoming completely out of control. I didn’t realise quite how terrifying these fires are. Some of them can sweep through the whole width of the state unchallenged. They generate so much heat that they can ‘jump’ many kilometres, hopping over wide rivers. Once established they simply can’t be put out.

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We spent most nights camping by rolling out a swag (basically a foam bed with sheets and duvet contained in a big convas bag) in the back of our 4wd (just about acceptable leg room for me with the doors open). In central Australia there are often dingos about and we first heard them howling after sunset in a cartoonish wolfy way which was quite fun!

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We ate either on a camp stove or from roadhouses, causing burger consumption  to increase sharply during the trip!  Coffee hand grinder and aeropress were brought with us to ensure decent brews along the way.

After Uluru we start the long drive up NT towards Mataranka. Mataranka is a small town which is famous for a few hot spring sites. In foresty areas warm 36 degree water rises through porous rocks forming crystal clear streams that have been widened in a few places for swimming. You can float down small sections on your back looking up at the parrots in the sunshine on the top of the trees, or take a snorkel and look out of freshwater turtles sharing the water with you.

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Mataranka is also the setting for Jeannie Gunn’s autobiographical novel ‘We of the Never Never’, another story of a young women starting a life on a station(set in early 20th century). Sinead picked up the book and started it in a breezy cafe amongst purple bougainvillea, selected as it served a cream tea! (Good scones but not clotted cream!)

From Mataraka we started into Arnehmland for the Barunga festival of Aboriginal culture, sport and music. Its was probably about 50% indigenous/non-indigenous people. There was some stuff aimed at tourists like art you could buy and didgeridoo workshops etc but the most fun for us was the music. There were a few traditional sets or music and dancing, which were ace. Although the didgeridoo is a sort of Australian national symbol, its actually only from Arnhemland, the northwest part of NT. Aboriginal people elsewhere in the country don’t use it in their traditional music. The combination of the bass drone of didgeridoo (which is apparently the white fella name for it..), the minimalistic rhythm of the clapstick (more ubiquitous across Australia) and mournful singing, are together pretty powerful. This was accompanied by dancing which was acting out some event, like a hunt. But in addition to the traditional music there were also loads of Aboriginal blues bands, metal bands, hip hop and ballady pop groups. I think the blues was my favourite, and there is clearly a lot of scope for the subject matter in terms of the plight of aboriginal people in the last few hundred years. The whole festival had really good vibes, black kids and white kids dancing and playing with each and that sort of stuff. It was reassuring to see such a positive side of the culture, as we deal with a lot of the consequences of deprivation and badness in Mount Isa emergency department so tend to see more of the dysfunctional side of the community.

Also there were  swarms of bloody flying foxes (bats) intermittently flying about and shrieking, with many more roosting in the trees.

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From Burunga we went to Nitmiluk national park, home of the famous Katherine Gorge. It would have been nice to do a longer hike here but time was limited and we moved quickly on to Edith falls, a really fantastic swimming spot you can reach after a shortish walk in the northwest part of Nitmiluk national park. At this distance from the coast you need to start thinking about the possibility of crocs but fortunately Edith Falls was croc free, allowing anxiety free swimming around the waterfall!

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From Edith Falls we drove to Jabiru, which is the main settlement in the spectacular and expansive Kakadu national park. We did a boat tour of a wetland area, which was a bit ‘touristy’ but this absolutely did not detract from the experience, it really was stunning. We went onto the water just before sunrise, and the amount of wildlife was incredible, the guide who was pointing things out just couldn’t keep up. There was a huge variety of bird life and also we saw a number of saltwater crocodiles floating around and sunning themselves on the bank. They are terrifying things. Pre-historic looking. Often around 5m/15ft in length and weighing half a tonne.

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Once of the other draws of Kakadu is the well preserved ancient rock paintings. Indigenous Australians can lay claim to the oldest continuing/practicing culture in the world (I think?) and we really didn’t appreciate the timescale involved here. When I think of ancient cultures, egyptians, mesopotamia and all that, they about 5000-ish years ago, but aboriginal people have been around in Australia for about 40,000 years, and there is really a strong sense of cultural conservatism.

Some of the rock paintings are educational, with fish drawn in ‘xray’ format to teach kids where the guts, bones and tasty bits are in fish. Some of them depict dreaming stories about creation, and some depict events, like encounters with Europeans drawn with guns, the nationality of which can be deducted from the shape of their hats!

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From Jabiru we popped across to Darwin for 24 hours. We went to an outdoor cinema which was showing a cult British comedy ‘The legend of Barney Thompson’ which had Robert Carlisle playing a murderous barber with a very thick Glaswegian accent that we were impressed the Darwinian audience managed to understand!

The following day we began the 18 hour trip back to Mount Isa.

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We only have a couple of months left in Isa and are starting to feel the pull of Blighty, despite all the crap that’s been going on. Look forward to seeing you all soon!

 

 

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Road trip

[As always, you can click the pictures at the bottom of the page to blow them up, good for the panoramas]

We left late from the races, where a very boozy hospital Christmas party was taking place. We packed (pissed) and knocked back 2 pints of water ready for a 6am departure…

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We left Mount Isa the following morning at 10.30 for a 7 hour drive to Karumba on the Northern Coast of Queensland. The drive was much more interesting than expected. We saw our first live Kangaroo, saw a small twister in a particularly dry dusty area (we have since discovered that these are called willy willys!), we saw 2 huge eagles feasting on the roadkill and hundreds of skinny cattle attempting to shade from the searing midday heat. Even with the aircon on full, our backs were sticking to the seat. One of the most amazing outback sights are the termite mound fields. Termite mounds are everywhere, but in some areas they stretch back from the road far into the distance on either side, like thousands upon thousands of tomb stones.

[these two are bigger panoramas]

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A wooden bank

[a sped up youtube video of our drive!}

It feels like you’re driving over the surface of Mars, its alien and beautiful.

We reached Karumba, famous for outstanding seafood and beautiful sunset, pulling into ‘The End of the Road Motel’. We headed straight next door to the Sunset Tavern for a cold beer and view of the famous sunset over the gulf of Carpentaria, the only place in Queensland where you can see the sun set into the ocean. A “Karumba tasting plate” includes huge prawns, barramundi and kangaroo steaks which were gamey and delicious. The sunset was beautiful, after the sun descended, burnt orange flared along the skyline.

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We departed Karumba for the longest leg of driving, 8 hours to Millaa Millaa dairy farming community in the Atherton Tablelands. The country was not as changeable on this leg and you can drive for hours looking at much the same view. The time went pretty quickly thanks to the ‘This American Life’ podcasts which are amazing public radio shows that we would recommend to everyone. We had our first wildlife driving incident; watching in slow motion as 3 kangaroos, 2 adults and one joey, hopped across the road in the path of the car in front of ours. They swerved and slowed but still hit one of the adults. They turned round and went back for it, maybe to put it out of it’s misery 😦

About an hour before our destination the country changed abruptly from dry bush to luscious green rolling hills with creeks everywhere. It looks like something out of Tolkein’s books and not long after that we saw a sign for the ‘Misty Mountains’. We arrived at Acton Ridge Farm-stay just before sunset, the home of a doctor friend in Mount Isa, whose lovely parents started a B&B when all their children left home. They were very welcoming and we had some home cooked steak, produced from their farm.

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At 06.10 we rose to have coffee with our hosts and ‘helped’ them to move cattle in the ‘ute’. The view from the homestead was beautiful in the morning light. We headed off to see the Millaa Millaa waterfall, swam in the cool, crystal clear waters of Lake Eachem and spent the afternoon in a coffee roasting place tasting their wares. Its subtropical around the northeast coast of Queensland and they coffee beans grow well. We left the cool, green heights of the tablelands driving north and descending into the tropical humid rainforest areas around Cairns. We arrived at Port Douglas around sunset and fell asleep at 20.00pm!

From Port Douglas we were able to do a few really awesome things. We snorkelled at 3 areas of the Great Barrier Reef which was fantastic although we both got very sunburnt. Swimming in a huge shoal of fish is one of the strangest and most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had. They move as one, like a flock of birds.

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The other day trip we had was to Kuranda, a small village in the rainforest with wonderful Aboriginal art and a kooky, hippie vibe. We travelled there in a cable car that lifts you up and away from Cairns over the rainforest canopy with incredible views. Behind the tourist shit-nak shops we met a very interesting man who was making Didgeridoo’s. He was a French Madagascan blues player who lives with local aboriginal folks. He calls himself Jimmy Didge! I left Adam with him for half an hour and when I returned he could play the Didgeridoo!

We took the journey home to Mount Isa in 2 days stopping at Hughendon, where we expected to spend an uncomfortable night in an unsanitary Motel. But thanks to Tripadvisor we discovered what can only be described as a luxury B&B run by an ex-international basketball player from Detroit. The bed and all the doors were hand carved hardwood. He cooked us some pasta, poured some red wine, and monologued about various local and international political and ecological issues before retiring. This barren desert land still has plenty of quirks!IMAG1365

Ghost town/Uranium Mine

Mary Kathleen mine is a 60km drive east of Mount Isa. Clem Walton and Norm Mochonachy discovered a uranium ore deposit here in the fifties. The uranium was mined until the mid-eighties when changes in the law prevented it from continuing. The adjoining settlement, built as a community for the families of the mine workers was dismantled and its inhabitants relocated, mostly to nearby Cloncurry.

A dusty turning off the highway eventually gets you to the small settlement. Not much is left. Concrete bases show where the small, light dwellings would have stood. A few are larger, one with cracked tiled floors and bits of toilet plumbing still poking out. Possibly a school? Roads link all the houses together into cute little cul-de-sacs and at the entrance to the settlement there is little roundabout marked by a tree still flowering in red-pink. People have made a few piles of household objects and rubbish that were left behind. Traces of Mary Kathleen’s former inhabitants. They bring it to life a little.

We drive over a crumbling bridge and take an offroad path to the mine site. Slightly troubling warnings about radioactivity punctuate the way but this place is on tripadvisor so it’s probably fine yeah?

We pull up to the modest sized open cut uranium mine and the water with which is it now filled is a beautiful blue (hasn’t really come up in our photos) and pretty clear. It would be tempting to swim there but it’s probably cancery in some way.

As we wander round the mine we come across a tiny tree with a good sized solitary fruit of some kind. We decided to avoid tasting it.

There was also a strange bunker thing nearby, a shower block for the workers? It was overtaken by nature and graffiti.

It was a hot day in the bush and we retreated pretty quickly…

The Mine

The mine and the city

If John Campbell Miles hadn’t stumbled across a bit of surface ore in 1923, Mount Isa wouldn’t exist. The town is the mine.

Two massive smoke stacks can be seen for dozens of kilometres away and the ore processing buildings dominate the horizon on the west side of town. At night the myriad of lights with the 2 smokestacks create the ‘ship in the desert’ (see pics).

Twice per day, every day, at 8am and 8pm the blasting is heard and felt throughout the town. Like a town clock. Somewhere a mine engineer will be crossing their fingers.

Most days the local rag runs a story on the front page on the current misfortunes/fortunes of the mine. There are often pieces on the mayor or MP arguing on behalf of the mining industry against the environmental lobby, which is weird having come from Bristol which was ‘green capital of Europe’.

Local radio ads include a regularly broadcast eerie piece by the ‘living with lead alliance’ reminding you to wash your hands regularly to avoid ingesting the lead which is everywhere in the ubiquitous red dust. Lead poisoning in children is far more common here and this has been shown to be as a result of the smelting operation rather than natural lead levels in the earth. The mine pumps money into the ‘living with lead alliance’ to try and offset this. They also fund free lead blood tests at the local GP. We’ve suspended the ‘ten second rule’ for dropped food for the time being as we’d like to avoid leaddy meals.

The mine is the biggest employer in town, and everything else exists because of the miners spending their wads of cash. But the relationship between the town and the mine is more than just about livelihood. The town itself spawned out of an early tent camp that the mine threw up for miners. Over the years the mine have invested in lots of community projects and infrastructure. If you go to the lake, lookout spots, parks etc you’ll often find a plaque somewhere telling you how this was generously funded by the mine.

So, in addition to being the hand that feeds, there is also this aura of creepy beneficence. Along with the other stuff above, this makes you feel that in a slightly odd way you are not so much living in a standard sort of settlement-with-a-democratic-council-running-the-show as a large and complex mining encampment.

We know a few people who work underground and often talk about the conditions down there so we were naturally curious.. It’s quite difficult to actually get into the mine but our friend Felix, a surveyor, kindly pulled a few strings and gave us a chance to have a look round. This was preceded by an hours worth of wonky eighties induction video with ‘Glencore’ (the multi-billion revenue megacorp who own the mine) telling us how much they care about our safety.

Mount Isa copper mine is the deepest mine in Australia at 1.9km.

The next day we donned our jumpsuits, cap lamp, and personal rescuer oxygen tanks and headed for the cage to descend the deepest mine in Australia.

As you go in there is a huge graph showing weekly copper productivity, reminding you to work hard.

We descend in ‘the flea’ a tiny lift which squeezes the three of us in although apparently can take seven. This thing can go up and down all day but the big cage descends only twice with the shift change. Graffiti covers the peeling yellow paint on the metal walls of the flea, similar to stuff in toilet cubicles; so and so takes it up the arse, discussions over the relative competencies of various footy teams, that sort of thing.

The flea halts. It’s noticeably hotter and much more humid. There is the sound of light rain, which as we step out through the metal door I notice is a heavy spray falling down the shaft and blown around the ledge where the lift has stopped. Some lands on my face and I lick my lips without thinking.

“Welcome to 24a”.

We wander through the first part of the tunnel, eyes slowly adjusting to the light. We pass a few men maintaining the pipework at the side of the tunnel. These tunnels are about 5m wide and 5m tall with a metal webbing covering the walls and ceiling. After a short walk we arrive at Felix’s lock up. It’s a cave dug out of the side of the tunnel, with a locked gate behind which lies his landcruiser. The mine is like an ant colony with hundreds of kilometres of tunnels with corkscrew ‘highways’ communicating the various different ore bodies, where the action takes place. There are petrol stations down here, diesel workshops, places to have your lunch and play cards.

We drive to the deepest part of the mine, 34D, which is 1.9km below sea level. It’s hot. Nobody is around as they haven’t been blasting here. We go to one of the active open ‘stopes’. This is a cavern that has been blasted in the ore body. The debris is scooped up and put in huge trucks which take it to be processed, the first part of which is underground. Felix has to keep in contact with the large trucks by radio as they are so big they may not notice our 4×4 truck and drive over us!

After a couple of other stops we drive up the levels through a giant corkscrew eventually seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel , as we exit the copper mine ‘portal’ and drive up through the ‘blackstar’ open cut lead-zinc mine. Felix gives us a quick drive around the overground operation where they process the ore. We see some of the bright molten copper being poured.

We were only down there for a couple of hours but were pretty happy to have escaped. The miners work 12 hour shifts, throughout the day and night. It’s dark, hot, and alien down there. It’s amazing to me that Felix can navigate driving around this labyrinth. He tell me that he used to get lost a lot when he first started at the mine. Working underground is attractive to people because of the money and relative ‘prestige’ but even pretty robust characters struggle in the in the first few months, physically with the humidity but also psychologically with such an alien environment.

The trip was good fun and has put things in context. Plus, now when we see people in ED who work underground we can tell them that we’ve been down to 34D!

 

Whip, Music, Lightning, East Leichhardt

Hi again.

Lots of snaps for you this time, click the images at the bottom of the page to enlarge them.

After much searching and nearly giving up hope we’ve finally bought some wheels! We got a bargain on a 94 land cruiser with 450,000km on the clock. The engine is good, the aircon is chilly and it has a few unnecessary but fun mods like raised suspension. Adam was able to try it out on some pretty gnarly local hills under the guidance of two friends, Jon and Felix (pics below). We have plans to take it on a road trip to Cairns later in the month.

The main bars in Mount Isa are functional places to drink but are decorated like motorway service stations. There is one place though which is more more of our vibe called ‘the shack’. This is a very literal description of the venue. Its is a tin shack with a few plastic chairs and a wonky wooden stage outside. The bar serves drinks from an old style cooler which looks like a really long Aga oven where each door is filled with drinks and ice. It’s primarily a live music venue with a sort of open mic policy. The first guy who plays to us open with a long and only partly comprehensible preamble about how the Chinese are staging an insidious coup d’etat in Australia. He plays the guitar, harmonica and ankle bells. He wears feathers around his shoes and head. Each song is punctuated with another ramble. Song writing was overall slightly questionable but it was nice to hear folk music with political tone, even if it felt a little misdirected. After that a guy played some piano versions of pop tunes which went down well, and lastly the lady who runs the nice played sang and played some guitar covers. She had that sort of look of indeterminate age that people have when they are really enjoying what they are doing.

There have been a couple of really amazing storms in the last few days. Rain has been short-lived but the thunder+lightening is incredible. Apparently the metal ore in the rocks has some effect on the lightning. We’ve never seen anything like it. Video below.

We’ve also been on a trip out to East Leichhardt with Felix and Erica. There is body of water there created by a section of dammed river, originally created as an emergency supply of water for the nearby, now defunct, uranium mine. The old uranium mine itself is a planned trip for the future, particularly as there is a ‘ghost town’ nearby of the supporting small settlement where the mine workers and their families lived. When the mine was closed most of them moved (with their houses!), so there is just the roads and bits of other infrastructure without any people or houses.

The area around East Leichhardt is lovely, you can swim or take a canoe if you have one, there are rocks and rope swings to play with. There is an abundance of birdlife including lots of stuff we don’t see so much of in the UK like pelicans. Small freshwater turtles poke their noses up occasionally for air. It’s very peaceful, aside from one other group of revellers nearby who decided to bring a jet-ski (!)

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Arrival, Horses, Granite, Lake Moondara

[Click pictures at the bottom to make them bigger]

A blog for interested family and friends who have asked us to keep in touch whilst in the colonies.

A longish one to start…

We flew out to Mount Isa on the 18th September, with a 24 hour stop over in Brisbane. Brisbane seems a nice metropolitan sort of place that would be worth spending more time around.

Its interesting that despite the ubiquitous trappings of western culture (Chinese takeaway, cheap scandanavian furniture, etc) we are reminded that we are on the other side of the globe by the entirely different dawn chorus (which we might not have heard without the scrambled circadian rhythm that accompanies a 24hr flight.)

The flight to Mount Isa was fantastic as we were able to look through the clear skies to the country below, watching the landscape change as we moved away from the coast and nearer to the red earth and dust of western Queensland.

Michelle, who works in HR at the hospital kindly picks us up from the airport and tells us her story in Mount Isa, intending to come for a year and staying for six. We hear a similar story from other people.

They are putting us up in a two bedroom place very close to the hospital. Like many houses round here it looks like a sort of pre-fab thing made of light materials. We have lots of space and most importantly aircon! When we have commented that the current temperatures of 34ish are quite hot for us we have been laughed at, as the coming
summer months will see temperatures regularly around 45(!)

We are invited by Michelle to go to the horse racing on Sunday. Races and rodeos are very popular in the country. Were told people dress up for them and Sinead finds a fascinator in town.

We lose a fiver on ‘Darcy’ (no points for guessing who chose that one), but ‘Snazzy socks’ nets us 8 quid. We meet loads of friendly and interesting people, one of whom is a
cowboy/stockman (he says that although they do use quadbikes and helicopters for mustering they still do most of it on horseback)

The gathering ascends into a full blown hoedown/hootenanny shown in the video below. If you’re wondering if there is a DJ playing ‘Cotton-Eye Joe’ out the pack of a pickup (“ute”), you’d be absolutely right.

The next day I go with two new friends on a 4×4 outing to a big stretch of granite running accross this bit of the country. It looks like they thought they could try to sell it at some point but gave up.
There are huge piles of granite boulders in a big belt across the horizon that you can clamber amongst and get a really good view over the country. It feels like I’m on Mars.

The next day we go on a trip to the local lake/water source ‘Moondara’ with Michelle’s family and friends. Darren and Nathan both work in the mine, placing the explosives that we
hear/feel at 8am and 8pm with every shift change. Nathan takes us
on a small boat to see if we can spot a crocodile (“they’re only freshies, they won’t eat ya!”) but are unsuccussful. I just like messing about in boats to be honest. The water
level is quite low at the moment as there hasn’t been proper rain here
for more than a year. When the water is high it runs right over the dam, sending metre long baramundi shooting over with it, which people then gleefully collect into their trucks
as they fall down the other side!

The area which has been dammed off is a similar looking landscape to the one I had seen the day before, but was much more green and full of life, especially birds which we could hear very loudly from our position on the rocks above.

Amenities in Mount Isa have far surpassed our expectations. The 400 earl grey bags we brought were not needed with lots of well stocked shops here and you can enjoy a good espresso
and fancy hipster breakfast of eggs and avacados if you wish.

Lots more to say but will leave for the next one.

Miss you all. Keep in touch.

A&S

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