There's more to Mount Isa than meets the eye
MOUNT Isa is literally a city of hidden gems.
Against the barren outback of red dirt, I was surprised to learn there was more than just Queensland's largest mining operation to discover.
Also, there's more than the Mount Isa Mines Rotary Rodeo.
On a recent trip to the outback city, I was taken on a tour and discovered that there's just as much happening under the ground as there was above.
For any history buffs, the city is a gold mine - literally and figuratively - which dates back to 1923 when a chance discovery of lead ore by prospector John Campbell Miles paved the path to the record books.
Iron, copper, zinc and gold are all mined, and it was Miles' discovery that sparked the start of what would become Australia's largest and continuous mining operation.
That history is celebrated right throughout the city (declared as such in 1968), and the 90th anniversary this year was a colourful spectacle.
After the Japanese bombed Darwin in 1942, Mount Isa feared it would become the next target due to its ongoing mining operation and supply of copper to the Australian war effort.
Fearing the worst, the hospital board made the snap decision to build an emergency hospital that would remain undetected and secure.
The solution was to mine a hole in a non-descript hill in the centre of town.
I was surprised at the authenticity of the underground hospital, painstakingly restored by a team of volunteers in 1977 and preserved to this day.
In keeping with the mining mindset, visitors are able to get a deeper appreciation of what it's like to go underground at the Hard Times Mine Tour.
It's an eerie feeling going deep underground - or in my case, about 30 metres - but the experience is one that is typical to Mount Isa.
After being given a safety briefing and a few tips and pointers, as well as an impassioned plea to inform the tour guide before you pass out "because it makes it easier for us to get you back above ground", a quick photo is taken and you're trucked down below.
Experienced miner turned tour guide Shane Tulloch knows his stuff and sheds an interesting light on the happenings below the city.
"There's always a great reaction from people, but you can never guess how some are going to react," he said.
"Mostly it's just people are so impressed and amazed at what happens beneath their feet, and when you tell them that mining is going on under them pretty much everywhere in Mount Isa, they are quite amazed."
The tour takes about two-and-a-half hours and by the end, it's a relief to be back above ground, in the glaring light of day.
But despite the historic mining operation, there's another major draw card to the city each year - the largest event of its kind in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world.
It's a daunting title to own but the organisers behind the Mount Isa Mines Rotary Rodeo stop at nothing to deliver a bucking spectacle that enthrals spectators for three days.
The total prize pool of more than $200,000 draws rough riding cowboys and cowgirls from around Australia to the desert arena.
The three-day event at Buchanan ParkÖ, a short drive from the city centre, has something for everyone - a sideshow alley for the kids, Fred Brophy's Boxing Troupe for those wanting to see some raw boxing action, helicopter joy flights and of course, the rodeo.
The Mardi Gras Festival and Parade officially kicks off the rodeo and thousands line the path where more than 120 trucks, floats, cars and bikes wind their way past.
Mount Isa is a city which bucks expectations and showcases the resilience of Queenslanders in the most unique fashion.
- The writer was the guest of Tourism and Events Queensland.
- Wear sunscreen at all times - the desert sun is unrelenting
- Pack for cooler nights but hot days
- Car hire is available
- Camping and caravan sites available but book months ahead
- Visit Outback at Isa at www.outbackatisa.com.au for more
- Rodeo admission: Three-day pass, $80, $75 for one day family pass
- Pre-purchase tickets on 07 4743 2706
- On again, August 8 - 10, 2014
- Hard Times Mine Tour: $49 adult, $44 concession, $134.50 family. Bookings essential
- City tour: $35 adult, $30 concession, $25 concession. Bookings essential.