In the dry and distant Queensland outback, the city of Mount Isa was founded in the 1920s when a lone prospector came across one of the world’s largest metal deposits.
Within a few years, Mount Isa would be a fully fledged town hooked up to the coast by railway.
Mount Isa Mines has brought record-breaking amounts of zinc, silver and copper to the surface.
Above ground, this industry is confined to Mineside on the west bank of the Leichhardt River, while most of the amenities and the arena for the largest rodeo in the Southern Hemisphere are in Townside on the east bank.
Mount Isa is the nearest city to the Boodjamulla National Park, treasured for its red sandstone gorges and immense fossil fields recording the evolution of Australian mammals over millions of years.
1. Outback at Isa
The starting point for all new arrivals in Mount Isa has to be this attraction rolling together a mine tour, visitor centre, regional art gallery, museum exhibits and a sumptuously landscaped park.
We’ll talk about the Hard Times Mine Tour and the Riversleigh Fossil Centre later, but in the meantime you’ve got the Isa Experience, shining a light on the city from a few different perspectives.
You’ll learn about mining and Mount Isa’s immense metal deposits, as well as the importance of this place to the Kalkadoon Aboriginal tribe.
The Rodeo Hall of Fame also opened here in 2018 where you can find about the bulls, bucking horses and cowboys and cowgirls who have made history in Mount Isa.
Outside, the Outback Park is like a miniature version of Lawn Hill Gorge, with lush endemic plants and a waterfall.
2. Hard Times Mine Tour
At Outback at Isa you’ll find out all about the rodeo and the natural wealth in Mount Isa’s vast backyard.
There’s another strand to the city’s story at this show mine, designed and operated by old hands from Mount Isa’s mines.
Short of becoming a miner, this is the best way to find out firsthand what it’s like to work underground in this part of the world.
Your guide will have a lifetime of facts and anecdotes to share, as you don overalls and cap lamps and go down the shaft in an Alimak cage.
You guide will show you how the tunnels and galleries are carved out by huge boom drills and mucking units, and you’ll be able to get hands-on with some of the machinery like the air-leg drill.
3. Mary Kathleen
You would hardly know it today but until the 1980s there was a flourishing town east of Mount Isa, located six kilometres away from a uranium mine.
Mary Kathleen had a population of over 1,200, and boasted a school, cinema, sports ovals and post office.
None of this remains today, as the mine closed in the early-1980s and both the mine and the town were rehabilitated to allow nature to take over.
Open to overnight campers, the whole place is an urban explorer and instagrammer’s dream, with eerie spaces where buildings used to be and spectacular terracing over a pool of ghostly blue water at the open-cut mine site.
4. Underground Hospital and Museum
The Second World War became very real for the north of Australia with the bombing of Darwin in February 1942. This left Mount Isa in a vulnerable position, with invaluable copper deposits but almost no military presence to protect it.
So as a precaution against air raids, the Mount Isa District Hospital was moved underground.
Using the mining technology of the day, three parallel tunnels adding up to 100 metres were burrowed into the hillside, with a vertical shaft for ventilation.
All of the amenities and fittings of a hospital from the period were provided, with a surgical theatre, delivery unit and separate wards for men, women and children/maternity.
As it happened Mount Isa was never hit by an air raid, and the tunnels fell into decay before gaining heritage listing in 1999 and reopening as a museum for a compelling chapter from local history.
5. Mount Isa Lookout
Mount Isa’s eponymous peak looms over the rodeo ground on the Townside, and gives you a clear view over the city and across the river to the stacks on Mineside, and out into the bush.
One of the great ways to pass a clear evening is to visit the lookout with a picnic and watch one of the prettiest sunsets you could hope to set eyes on.
A nice touch is the signpost showing the direction and distances to the North and South Pole, and cities as diverse as Nouméa, Rome, Edinburgh, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.
6. Riversleigh Fossil Centre
The World Heritage-listed Riversleigh Fossil Fields in the south of Boodjamulla National Park have the richest fossil deposits in the world.
Some 350 kilometres north of Mount Isa and preserved in limestone is an amazing document of mammalian evolution in Australia’s uniquely isolated environment.
The fields continue to give up incredible finds, like the new marsupial lion identified for the first time in 2020. If you’re not ready to travel for half a day into the outback, there’s a visitor centre right by Outback at Isa which was given a multimillion-dollar makeover in the middle of 2020. In a building with high-tech ambient sound and lighting, you can pore over startling fossil specimens going back 25 million years, view state-of-the-art interactive displays and check out life-sized recreations of these ancient mammals.
7. Lake Moondarra
The water for the city and Mount Isa Mines comes from this reservoir on the Leichhardt River, found a few kilometres upriver and cradled by ochre-red hills.
The lake was ready in 1958 and its Aboriginal name means “plenty of rain, also thunder”. The appeal of an oasis-like spread of freshwater is undeniable, and there’s a sealed road approaching the shore with sublime views.
You’ll find several sheltered spots around the lake’s perimeter, thought to be some of the very best places in Mount Isa to enjoy a barbecue, with sunsets that are out of this world.
Strolling along next to water you may catch sight of cormorants, pelicans, ducks and galahs, while the water is also regularly stocked with barramundi.
No fishing license is needed, but there are catch limits.
8. Telstra Hill
Off the Barkly Highway, a few short kilometres east of Mount Isa is a hill crested by an unofficial lookout.
Although Telstra Hill isn’t signposted, it’s quite easy to identify thanks to the telecom tower on its summit.
There’s an old road to the top, best attempted on foot.
You’ll find very little tree cover, either on the slopes or the peak, so an ascent of Telstra Hill is something to be done outside the height of summer, either first thing in the morning or late in the day.
You’ll know why you made the effort, because the view of Mount Isa and its surrounding arid landscape is phenomenal, either at dawn or dusk.
9. Splashez Public Pool
For a family activity on a scorching summer’s day there’s a public aquatic centre in town with lots of facilities.
Perhaps most importantly the Splashez Public Pool has ample shade, provided by enormous sails covering a big patch of the main 50-metre pool and the grassed poolside areas where you can relax.
There’s a designated pool for children, and a play area with fun water features.
You’ve also got a cafe on site preparing snacks and full meals, and barbecue areas with more covered seating.
So, pretty much everything you need to keep the clan content for a few hours.
10. John Campbell Miles Clock
This monument by the roundabout for Rodeo Drive and Miles Street will tell you a little about Mount Isa’s European history.
Buried underneath are the ashes of John Campbell Miles (1883-1965), an itinerant prospector who happened upon one of the world’s richest deposits of zinc, copper and silver at this remote place in 1923. Above is a tower with three pillars in its framework, representing Mount Isa Mines, Mount Isa Shire Council and the Chamber of Commerce.
At the base are interpretive plaques going into topics like Mount Isa’s mineral heritage and its Kalkadoon traditional owners.
11. Mount Isa Family Fun Park
Before you get to the industry on the west bank of the Leichhardt River there’s a well-maintained and valued public play area for kids of different ages.
Under big canvas canopies is a variety of up-to-date climbing equipment, roundabouts, swings and slides, all set on safe rubber tiles.
A real asset here year-round is the zero-depth water playground with all manner of jets, sprays and funnels.
And for when you need timeout the park has shaded barbecue facilities.
12. Mount Isa City Tour
Now, in a city with summer highs in the mid-40s it’s worth letting someone else take the wheel if you want to see the sights and learn about Mount Isa’s past.
This two-hour interpretive experience is in an air-conditioned coach provided by North West Tours.
You’ll set off from Outback at Isa to see the city’s beautiful residences, learn about the famous rodeo and discover the native flora growing in this far-off part of the world.
Mount Isa’s immense mining infrastructure takes centre stage, from the original Copper open cut pit to the giant lead smelter.
At the railway station you’ll learn about the mammoth task of linking Mount Isa by railway to the port at Townsville in the 1920s, while there’s also the luxury of Casa Grande, the heritage listed residence for the managing director of Mount Isa Mines.
13. Lawn Hill Gorge
Pack extra fuel, water and food and you can make the mammoth but worthwhile journey along the Barkly Highway to Boodjamulla National Park.
It may not be easy to reach, but this is one of the state’s most beautiful national parks, in an upland environment of sandstone peaks and deep gorges lined by sheer red cliffs.
One of the essential locations is Lawn Hill Gorge, on the namesake creek fed by freshwater springs.
The gorge is jaw-dropping, with soaring cliffs, cascades, lush vegetation and enticing emerald waters.
You can dive into the creek and take time to soak up the peace and greenery on a kayak trip (don’t worry, the freshwater crocs in these parts are shy). On land make sure to hike to the various lookouts on the lower and upper gorge.
14. Riversleigh Fossil Fields
If you’re a truly committed traveller Riversleigh’s mammal fossil sites will give you another reason to set your sights on the Boodjamulla National Park.
Conservationist and broadcaster David Attenborough billed this one of the four most important fossil deposits on the planet.
While the Riversleigh Fossil Fields are now in a stark, barren landscape, this was rich rainforest teeming with life millions of years ago.
The fields cover tens of thousands of hectares, and though only a small fraction is open to the public, it’s enough to get a handle on this extraordinary place.
This is Site D where embedded in the ground you’ll see the fossilised remains of long extinct mammals and reptiles going back 15 to 25 million years.
Some of these bones belong to animals as strange as the largest ever species of freshwater crocodile, or giant flightless birds.