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Highway One – Western and Central Queensland (North)

CATTLE AND DINOSAUR COUNTRY

 

 

Some of the small Western and central Queensland towns look like rural places hit so hard by drought that they’re going to become smaller towns before they get to be larger towns again. There are quite a few of these smaller towns in the NT which already rely heavily on the trade of the consistent truck and road train drivers and interstate travellers to make it from year to year. The same is true of Queensland.

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The three towns of Winton, Hughenden and Richmond are located in a basin region of Western/central Queensland which was once, during the cretaceous period, well populated dinosaur country.

As a former inland wetlands the region is now rich in ancient fossils and the local towns have decided to use that fact to full advantage in getting nerd tourism up and running. The towns’ futures seem to enjoy getting in bed with the dinosaur tourism trade. There are dinosaur civic sculptures, they appear on council lawns, road signs and all town brochures. In Richmond the local cafe even has dinosaurs on its wheelie bins. It’s a fun thing which the local community has taken up. But the reality of it is that it is an economic necessity for towns to link up and work as regions to keep tourism more lucrative. During the off-peak season when I passed through, tourism in these places is all but dead.

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Other towns seem a little more secured in their economic future but likely aren’t. Take the excellent example of Mt. Isa for instance. This is a one industry town where that one industry pretty much organises all of the other work being done.

The Mt. Isa coal mine sits at the centre of the town, bordering Barkly Highway so whereas most active mines along the national highway are located away from townships, often placed a significant distance from the highway from any living quarters with restricted access from the main road, Mt Isa is the exact opposite. Seeing the mine site is as easy as driving into town. Getting underground is as easy as taking the all day tour.

Mt. Isa is a mining town in the literal sense that they are still busy actively mining underneath the same ground which the town stands on. The other way of saying the same thing is to note that it is a town located around and on top of a huge coal seam. It is a coal seam which appears to be of very high grade, judging by the giant hill sized heaps of black ore and it is clearly a very productive mine site judging from the size of the town.

But the town is also tightly coiled around the mine so that it appears both a giant feature of the landscape from all directions, but it is also easily swallowed and hemmed in by residential, commercial and a lot of light industrial property. The finite size of the mine, choked off as it is by homesteads and pubs, looks almost gloomily finite when compared to the sprawling town which has sprawled into life around it.

IMG_5095The precariousness of the town economy being founded on a single large industry is a concern I found obvious after just a few days there so I reasoned that it had to be of concern to locals. I spoke to a few people and they all seemed keen to talk about it. Though productive as a mine site and a large town which connects the Territory to the cattle stations of Queensland through a fair bit of live animal transport, it is only a large town for the same reason mine sites have always built towns and its future really hinges on the longevity of the one industry. The people I spoke to don’t much want to stay there for long, it is a tough place to go so people go there to earn a lot of money in order to live somewhere else. Even the barmaid at the local pub talked about leaving.

Just as coal mining shapes the fortunes of the town today, or rather, just as the bulk of the money flies out of Mt. Isa and leaves the town to head south to Brisbane, Mt Isa has a real sprawl which speaks of a town which has survived a lot of money already leaving it. For the lack of conspicuous wealth within the town, it has certainly provided Queensland and the Federal government with a whole lot of money.

IMG_5032The country in North Western and North Central Queensland is clearly trending to a more expected tropical kind of climate, the landscape is greener than most parts of the Central Northern Territory. It is still very dry rather than humid though and this far from the Eastern Coast it is a little reminiscent of the road between Halls Creek and Wyndham and the far North Western end of W.A.

There are many of the same kinds of plants, there are also many new varieties which flourish in greater numbers, the reappearance of the occasional cluster of palms and the occasional Boab tree makes for a familiar looking landscape but with towns relatively close together and speeds of 130 now verboten, with petrol no longer such an expensive commodity, the drive is more packed with towns to get lost in and people to talk to.

 

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