Saturday, 3 August 2013

On to Isa and the Northern Outback.

Leaving Winton we travelled 240 kms till arriving at McKinlay mid afternoon. A tiny place with a very well known pub thanks to the film 'Crocodile Dundee'. The only park was behind the pub so we settled in and as we noticed the pub provided evening meals, we decided to dine out. The drinking bar of the pub is pretty much the same as it was during the movie. However there was quite a nice, old-fashioned room for dining painted in shades of green with William Morris design curtains and matching oil-based tablecloths which I'm sure Crocodile Dundee never saw. Shortage of tables meant we were asked to share with another couple and would you believe - the wife worked in a secondary school office and library and her husband was an electrician. Same as us! What are the odds in such a remote area of Australia?

Next stop was the city of Mount Isa known to the locals as 'The Isa', and known all over Australia for decades as THE mining city. They mine copper, lead, zinc and silver and for many years the deep underground mines have been a mecca for miners to earn big money. It is an extremely busy place with a thriving shopping centre, traffic lights, and all the attractions of a big city. We took advantage of the supermarkets and stocked up on supplies, then booked into the major event for travellers - a trip down a mine - in this case it was The Hard Times mine.

With about 20 others of mixed ages we were given a briefing from a retired miner, Bill, and were then kitted up with disposable overalls, hard hat, miner's belt to which was attached a heavy battery pack to power the light on our hard hats. Finally we were given gumboots and we were ready for our photo session before 'going down'.  We were given a really good idea of the work that miners did in the 1950s and 1960s and the equipment used then. Such a hard, heavy and dangerous line of work, in spite of the many safety rules and we were told of many stories about accidents in the mines.

Leaving Mt.Isa and its busy-ness behind we headed north into the bush and unmade roads and finally came to Gregory Downs. The pub has been operating since the late 1880s and most grey nomads stop for a cool drink, enquire for caravan parking (to the rear of the pub!),  a chat with the locals and other travellers not to forget the two or three friendly dogs wandering around. I think the Gregory Downs pub might just be the only pub I've ever known to sell homemade icecream and the local aboriginal children lined up for a treat. Once settled, we had the job of dusting out the van. The fine red dust seeped into just about every nook and cranny in the van.

Next stop was Burketown right up near the Gulf of Carpentaria. Burketown is believed to be the basis of "Willstown"  a very amenity-challenged town fictionally developed into a successful and growing community to become A Town Like Alice by Jean Paget, a character created by Nevil Shute in his bestselling novel of that name.

It is a quiet little town and very popular with holidaying fishermen many of whom arrive with their caravans and 'tinnys' (aluminium small boats) during the winter months to fish for the famed barramundi. (This fish is highly prized for its beautiful delicate flavour). The shady caravan park is lovely and peaceful - except when a large flock of very noisy corellas (native birds) take possession of the trees. Our caravan park neighbour half demented by the continuous loud squawking had an ingenious contraption of a tin box filled with rattling stones which he hauled up into the branches (like you would raise a flag) to try and scare off the birds. Did it work? Nup!

These days Burketown is the administrative base of the vast Burke Shire Council. There is a small supermarket, a combined butcher and baker, small cafĂ©, service station and, of course, a pub. Unfortunately the pub burnt down last year and a new pub is presently being built. A small library, a kindergarten and a neat and tidy primary school are among the few facilities in the town.

The town is also popular with glider and hang-glider pilots during  September and October  who like to 'surf' the Morning Glory cloud which appears in September and October - a big moist cloud that rolls in and which glider pilots love to 'surf'. We liked our short stay in Burketown. Just on the outskirts we came across a large flock of Brolgas - large graceful and they looked wonderful.

The road next travelled was east along the Savannah Way - about 200 kilometres of mainly unsealed road to Normanton (think lots and lots of fine red dust - called 'bulldust' which managed to work its way into every nook and cranny of our caravan). Guess what we spent a fair bit of time doing when we finally got to the park in Normanton? A reward for the hard travelling along this road was the vista of the beautiful Leichardt River named by an early explorer Ludwig Leichardt during his first expedition in 1845 but who disappeared during a later unsuccessful expedition to cross the continent in 1848.

We booked a trip on the little Gulflander train which travels between Normanton and Croydon and which only travels one way on Wednesdays and returns the following day. This is quite an experience for train aficionadas and when three carriages were packed with people we began the trip. Because this part of the Gulf country is often inundated with floods, an ingenious method of laying inverted steel sleepers meant the rail line was never washed away in 125 years. However, it is definitely not a fast smooth ride taking five and a half hours to cover the 156 kilometres to Croydon. The driver, Ken, (aka the Normanton Station Master, Savannah guide and train driver) kept us entertained with facts about the line and stories of the people connected with it and we stopped for half an hour for a morning coffee and muffin along the way. We got to keep the enamel mug inscribed with The Gulflander as a souvenir.

At Croydon - a very small town (once a gold town), we stayed at the very old Club Hotel. Definitely not Hilton standard but extremely interesting nonetheless. Dinner at the pub that night was delicious Barramundi, chips and salad. Sunset from the veranda bar was spectacular.

Of course next day, we had to return to Normanton with another five and a half hours of noisy and bumpy rail travel. However, when we returned it was to find our car had been vandalised with a rear back side window smashed and several side panels also dented by rocks. The local Police quickly apprehended the culprits - two 10 year old Aboriginal lads from out of town! Too young to be charged but the local Normanton people where horrified and couldn't stop apologising to us. Luckily the kids hadn't managed to get into the car, so nothing was stolen. Hopefully, we'll get the window replaced in Cairns in about a week's time. In the meantime it is sealed up securely with the ubiquitous duct-tape. If that is the worst that can happen to us on this trip, then we'll be satisfied.

We still managed to do a bit of sight-seeing around Normanton and one day drove to Karumba right on the Gulf of Carpentaria to actually see the Gulf waters. This area is well known for the huge crocodiles in the ocean and rivers and so despite the heat any swimming is done safely in swimming pools. There is a model of an enormous crocodile in the main street of Normanton based on a monster which was caught back in the 1950s - amazingly by a woman.

All our washing of dusty bedding and clothes completed, we are now on our way again. Today we drove along the Gulf Development Road eastwards, and once again we are in Croydon. This time it took us less than two hours to get here!


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