I thought I might share something of my youth. I was a fresh faced not yet 17 year old when I packed a suitcase and boarded a plane for Mt Isa, North West Queensland. To be honest, I don’t really look back on these formative days with fondness. They were pivotal in my development as a young man, and I can’t say I have any regrets, but I have no desire to relive these days in any way.
I had taken a job as an apprentice with Mt Isa Mines. The first day I arrived my cousin picked me up from the airport. Getting off the plane was a shock enough, with a kind of deserty moonscape of dry hills, spinifex grass and a hot wind. Really hot. Dry, but hot, with a wind that felt like a hair dryer on hot and flat out. My cousin took me up to the look out that you can see in the picture above.
So what can you say about Mt Isa? Its isolated, inland, 900 km from the coastal city of Townsville. The population is made up of working men, which vastly outnumber the women, although there are families there, and aboriginal people. Drinking was a very common pastime, and I regret to say that this correspondent binged on many an occasion. My drinking was generally constrained to the weekend, getting blotto and spending all my cash, only to wake up with a fucking massive hangover, swearing off drinking, and repeating the process next weekend. Uhhgggh.
Fighting was prevalent, and I had occasion to trade punches with other overly aggressive testosterone driven angry young men. Fun stuff. I used to go out to the bars, and typically, in an environment like that, when the grog stopped flowing and people milled about waiting for a taxi outside the Irish club, you can fucking bet there’s going to be fights, several of them.
Ok, quick recap, its hot as hell, very far removed from the civilised world, a lack of women to go around, and fights happen every time there are a group of people finish at the pub. Hmmm. Sounds like a shitty place for a young guy, right? What else, um, well some of the ‘homeless’ aboriginals that lived in the town would often be drunk, and often they would pass out on the pavement, so you had to step over them, or otherwise they would be yelling, fighting, puking or doing a range of other activities that you would really want to avoid. Disclaimer, I can imagine that people may feel these comments are racist. I am not racist, just describing the reality of that place at that time, no offence intended. White people were behaving badly too!
Now if you were a young lady in town, well, you could be a total princess, with your options for suitors laid before you. Of course, this could drive some fairly bad behaviours from both guys and girls. One time I went out on a Wednesday night, and there was about 30 guys and literally 2 girls. With odds like that they could afford to act like princesses, or whatever they wanted I guess. If a girl was a ‘5’ on the coast, she’s an ‘8’ in the Isa. Most weekends were not quite as extreme as that, of course there were young ladies that lived in the town. I will add, that of course there are a lot of decent nice gals in the Isa, I’m describing one aspect here that goes with any overly male populated mining town.
What could make a place even more desirable? Oh, yeah, there was a copper smelter and a lead smelter that chugs a various mixture of lead fumes (that you cant really smell, the lead stack is higher than the copper smelter stack) and a copper smelter that chugs copious quantities of sulphur dioxide. You can see that noxious shit coming from the stack in the picture below. On a hot day, which was often, the stuff would actually settle on the ground, rather than go high in the air. Working underground or on the mine site, you would be exposed to this – it was drawn into the air vents for the fans and sometimes, there would be a fog of this shit in the underground workings.
Now if you haven’t had the pleasure of inhaling sulphur dioxide, it will make you wheeze. You can actually taste it on your tongue even before you can smell it or see it.
So as a young man, I went underground to work shifts in the mine. It took me about two months before I could actually stop ‘thinking’ about working underground – getting over the general sense that you are way underground, under tons and tons of rock and earth. We would ride a ‘cage’ which was a big industrial elevator that could hold 92 men (yes it was crowded, claustrophobic, dark and it really flew up and down).
Working underground was an experience in itself. The biggest factor for me was how hot it was. I don’t really handle heat too well. Its a bit like if you stand in your garden shed on a really hot day in summer. Its that hot, and the air quality is shit, with diesel fumes, blasting fumes, and the sulphur dioxide all making for an aroma that was really not nice. The winter times (not that we had much of a winter) underground were not as hot, actually quite tolerable.
There was loose rocks, large equipment being operated in small spaces, remote control equipment being operated etc. Plenty of hazards. I was working on drilling equipment and mobile equipment like in the picture below. Every shift they would blast, and we would wait it out in the crib (lunch room) and hear the shots and feel the pressure wave. Underground was a scary exciting place. I got lost on more than one occasion. I was left behind by a co-worker to get tools etc, and imagine being 1500 metres underground alone, with a diaphragm pump psst-psst, psst-psst clearing a puddle of water, and just me and my cap lamp and a job to remove a hydraulic cylinder.
Jumbo drill rig. My work uniform was just like what this guy has on.
So in closing, I don’t want to leave you, reader with a bad taste in your mouth. I had many good times in ‘the Isa’. I met some wonderful friends. I met my wife when I was living there too. The people were fantastic. Really down to earth, decent working people. Again, I have no regrets, it was a challenging time that helped me grow up a lot. However, I have to agree with the t-shirt that was getting around at the time ‘happiness is Mt Isa in the rear view mirror’.