Longreach, QLD. Saturday 27th May 2017
Having had my fill of hooves and harnesses at the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, I went to the Longreach Visitor Centre, to find out what else there was to see. “The Powerhouse museum, of course.” Oh yes, silly me, how could I have missed that? It being a Friday, with the museum closed over the weekend, I got myself down there.
Personally I love industrial architecture and technology. Human ingenuity writ large is the way I think of it. Whenever you turn on a light or cook a TV dinner in the microwave, somebody has made it possible by developing a huge engine to generate that power. In Britain we’ve had a national grid for so long it’s impossible to imagine how it must have been when a city like London had competing electricity suppliers, presumably with their own supply grids. In Australia their grids haven’t existed for all that long. Most towns started out by generating their own power and gradually, as more efficient machinery was brought in, it spread to nearby settlements and stations. In Longreach their first system was powered by charcoal and coal, but not by way of a steam engine. And that was what intrigued me.
Gas powered engine. The large yellow panels are the cylinder heads.
The Powerhouse Museum has a collection of gas powered engines, the gas having been produced by heating up coal then drawing that off as a fuel. You may have seen old newsreels, where cars in Britain during WW2 had huge bags on their roof containing coal gas to replace the almost non-existent petrol. The technology is the same, just much bigger. In 1925 the first gas engine was installed but charcoal was burned, then replaced by coal in the 1950s. The engines on display were from the 1950s and 60s, as is the gas producer unit. The combustion process is the same as any other spark ignition engine, just vastly bigger than any type I’d seen before. An engine the size of a garden shed looks pretty impressive. I couldn’t help but wonder what’s involved in re-gapping the spark plugs, or setting the points on the large magneto. Coal was brought in by train and the powerhouse is sited next to the town bore so it had a ready supply of cooling water. Apparently they were extremely noisy, and caused the ground to vibrate too. Nearby residents got used to all this and more often had trouble sleeping when the engines were stopped for maintenance than when they were running. Eventually, as diesel power became more effective, the engines were replaced by second hand units from other power stations. By 1971 all the gas engines were out of use and in 1985 Longreach was connected to the state grid. Peaceful nights for the residents at last.
Next morning I raised my focus from heavy iron to balsa wood and canvas when I visited the QUANTAS museum. Although it is a private enterprise, Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Service is seen as Australia’s national carrier and is certainly its biggest. But it suffered a gestation period that was difficult, to say the least, and it nearly went out of business within a few years of starting. If it had started up in one of the busier southern states, where there were railways and decent roads, it probably would have, but its founders instinctively knew that Queensland needed air transport. Huge distances, rough tracks which were impassable in the wet season, no rail service and a population with an innate pioneering spirit meant that it had a chance. But even then it was a near thing. It was started by two WW1 fliers, Paul McGuiness and Hudson Fysh, both of them decorated for bravery, who had come together as comrades, became friends, and had an idea.
Flying was still not taken seriously as a means of transport post war, despite its proven military benefits. Planes were flimsy, not always reliable and could usually only carry one passenger and almost no cargo. And that passenger had no more weather protection than the pilot did. Many WW1 fliers tried to make a living Barnstorming. Initially the name described how a plane would literally fly in one end of a barn and out of the other, although it came to refer to any kind of aerobatics. In order to demonstrate planes’ robustness, if nothing else, a London to Sydney air race was decided upon, to be run in the summer of 1919. McGuiness and Fysh had planned to take part but their proposed sponsor died so they couldn’t compete. Instead they were engaged to find suitable locations for landing fields, to be used as stopover points. They scoured Central and Northern Queensland, as well as part of the Northern Territory, in a car. On this journey they realised just how bad the road network was in those areas and conceived the idea of opening an airline. Three local pastoralists decided to invest in them and on the 16th November 1920, in Winton, QLD, QANTAS was born. Within a few months they’d moved operations to Longreach, to be close to the railhead and had sold more shares. In their early days they simply picked up passenger work wherever they could, as well as taking people up for joyrides. Their operations were rather hit and miss, although they did fly some regular routes too. But they were struggling to survive until the state government put out a tender for a regular aerial mail service for north and central Queensland. QANTAS won the contract and their future was assured.
Constructing a propeller. Why it’s done that way.
As passenger demand increased they began to build their own planes, under licence from De Havilland, one of the few airlines ever to do this. Eventually they won an international air mail contract, in partnership with Imperial Airways from Britain, to operate the Darwin to Singapore section of the London to Australia air mail service. They had now become international. Meanwhile, with their bigger aircraft, they were able to operate regular passenger services around Queensland and the Northern Territory. They eventually moved operations to Brisbane and grew into the international airline they are today, with their instantly recognisable kangaroo motif.
The museum is housed in their original hangar, where chief engineer Arthur Baird worked oily miracles to keep their small fleet in the air, and later supervised the construction of the de Havilland DH50 aircraft. It is filled with various planes, engines and information displays. Some good films about their early years too. There is a real sense of their pioneering spirit about the place. After all, it’s an amazing story and I can’t imagine there’s many international airlines that still have their original home, from where they can tell their story.
I mentioned earlier that Longreach houses a police training centre so I wasn’t overly surprised to find a checkpoint on the road out of town. They’d sensibly chosen a Saturday morning for this exercise and they were pulling in every vehicle. A tall guy in a Stetson hat asked to see my driving licence, chatted to me about where I was from and going to, and entered my details on his system “In case you go missing”. I didn’t bother to tell him that the reason why my name was already ‘on the system’ was because I already had! Then an obvious rookie breathalysed me before I was waved on my way. That was my first ever brush with the law during all the time I’ve been in Australia. Quite surprising after eighteen months of travel.
The town of Winton has a claim to fame from the pioneering days, being the nearest location to the Combo Waterhole. And why is that significant? Because that’s where the Jolly Swag Man jumped into a billabong and became the central character in a very famous Aussie song. Renowned poet and musician Banjo Paterson visited the area in the late 19th century, heard the tale and wrote Waltzing Matilda, Australia’s unofficial national anthem. The events described in the song are pretty much true, perhaps unusually, and there’s a museum dedicated to it in the town. Except that it burned down last year so I had to be satisfied with riding out to the location and taking a walk down to the waterhole. It is a quiet and peaceful place, with plenty of Coolibah trees along the banks of the billabong to provide shade. It is a strange feeling to visit the inside of a song, so to speak. Banjo Paterson was a very accomplished writer and there’s more information about him here: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/paterson-andrew-barton-banjo-7972 The campsite I stayed on that evening had an entertainer, a travelling poet named Greg North. He was very good indeed and he included some of Banjo Paterson’s work in his repertoire. Look up Clancy of the Overflow if you want to get a feel for the pioneering days and some good Aussie humour.
Old songs are one thing, old bones are quite another, and Winton’s ‘Australian Age of Dinosaurs’ is the place to see them. There’s a nice story behind this place. Station owner David Elliot was out mustering one day in 2006 when he spotted an unusual rock. He realised what it was and contacted Brisbane museum. They came and excavated, finding a number of bones, but not all that many. David had a feeling there were more to be found. This area is covered in black soil, a very sticky substance when wet. It is also ‘self mulching’, which means it draws dead plant life downwards, then, helped by the action of rain, it pushes the decomposed mixture back up again. David knew there would be more bones mixed in with this so he arranged another dig and was proved right when many more were found at a deeper level. So in 2009 he opened his own museum and paleontology centre where the entry fee supports further digs and the work of volunteers. He approached a neighbouring station to see if they would sell him some land on which to locate the centre. They wouldn’t. They gave it to him instead, being as keen as he was to explore this ancient aspect of the area’s heritage.
A painting of a dig. How the bones are protected from damage.
So the centre was built on the top of one of the jump-ups and houses a laboratory and storage facility. We took a tour round it and our guide explained how the bones are removed and then preserved until they can be cleaned ready for assessment and display. It’s all about newspaper, Hessian and plaster of Paris, which prevents damage during removal and storage. David likes to keep this activity local and no longer involves the Brisbane Museum. It’s definitely a more romantic and picturesque location than any city centre museum could ever be. We were able to watch some volunteers as they worked on the bones, carefully removing the plaster and rock with tiny grinders, to slowly reveal the ancient skeleton. It must be very gratifying work and we were able to ask questions of them quite freely. We watched a film and then a guide explained how it was all done and showed us two significant skeletons, neatly laid out in front of us. The big one is of a Sauropod, a giant plant eater nicknamed Matilda. The smaller one is of an Austrolovena, a carnivore known as Banjo. Their bones were found quite close to each other and the theory is that Matilda’s weight caused her to become stuck in mud at the edge of a waterhole. Banjo came along, thought he was getting a bite of lunch but Matilda killed him, possibly with her tail. It may be true, but there’s no way of knowing. Bones from another type of Sauropod have also been found and they know many more will keep turning up. David has a knack for finding them.
The top of the casing is removed. Revealing the bone.
They’ve created a walk through area called Dinosaur Canyon, which is a place were tales are told in bronze models, relating to other finds in the area, but where they have also planted Cycads, the palm tree like ferns that would have been the dominant plant back when dinosaurs roamed the region. It overlooks the plains below the jump-up and provides a stunning backdrop to the story. David is proud that he’s been able to keep this local and I think he’s created a terrific facility in an amazing location.
As I rode from Winton, through Cloncurry and out to Mount Isa, I could see how the terrain was changing. Flat, treeless grassland was giving way to stubby trees with huge termite mounds among them. There were low hills too. The land was definitely changing as I travelled north. By the time I got close to Mount Isa I was riding through jagged hills, on a road that actually had bends in it. Things were looking up. Then down. Then up again. Sorry about that, but after weeks of flat land and arrow straight roads, I was getting quite excited.
Mount Isa is a mining town. And by that I mean that it was built simply to support the mine, without which it would have had no reason to exist. Copper, mostly, but also lead with silver in it, and some gold. They provide a tour into the Hard Times Mine so I went on it. No photos as weren’t allowed for some reason.
In reality we didn’t go into the mine itself, just a mock up of it. They stopped doing tours around the mine proper for safety reason, so they’ve used some high level tunnels to create a replica. The local town council didn’t want to lose the tourist revenue so they helped the company to finance it. Dave, our guide, talked us through the mine’s history, how the company began and how they search for ore. Geology is key, as it always has been. But modern methods help things along, such as using aircraft to measure the magnetic reaction of the ground, to provide a 2D map, followed by core samples to check how deep the ore is.
The five of us got kitted out in safety gear and were taken down in a cage to the tunnels, a mere 35 metres below ground. The real workings are currently about 1900 metres below that. He showed us the machinery used to move the ore; allowed us to use one of the rock drills, which create the holes for the explosive charges and showed us how the blasting is done. He started up one of the earth muckers, a huge machine which shifts the blasted ore over to the conveyor belts, and told us the story of how his son-in-law was nearly killed in a near miss accident. He was in a tunnel in a Toyota Ute when a mucker drove backwards, thinking he’d moved from the tunnel. The machine is so big that the driver didn’t realise he was crushing the Ute. What saved him was one of the three signals that miners can give with their helmet lamps. Moving the head in a circle means to come over to the signaller. Nodding the head up and down means YES or GO. Shaking the head from side to side means NO or STOP. That was the one that saved him. The driver had seen a different Ute leave the area and wasn’t able to see out of his reversing camera. It’s reckoned he had probably knocked it and hadn’t bothered to straighten it out again. Another miner saw what was happening and gave the STOP signal with his lamp. In among all that modern technology, an old fashioned manual signal saved the day.
After that we were glad of some crib, the miners’ name for a meal break. The vegetable pasties and corn beef sandwiches went down very well and saved me from cooking that night. I had no desire for that kind of work though. It’s noisy, hot and hard. The miners are well paid but they surely earn it.
In the morning I rode up to the lookout for a view over the town. There’s nothing at all pretty about it, purely functional, with industrial workings all around. The population of 23,500 are mostly engaged in activities which support the 3,500 miners and their families. Mount Isa was named after a nearby goldmine called Mount Ida and the ore was discovered by pastoralists, as is quite common in this area. But this very functional town is set among some beautiful countryside and most of the miners are permanent residents, rather than FIFO – Fly In, Fly Out.
Time to go. Over the last few days I’d managed to visit all of the places that had been circled on my map. The dirt roads of the western end of the Savannah Way beckoned, with Darwin and the Top End beyond.