Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, large white gumboots and a hard hat with a torch on the front we descend into the mine. I’m in Mount Isa, deep in the north-west of the Queensland Outback. It is a city built by mining, rising from the arid red dirt of the landscape in 1923, after prospector John Campbell Miles first discovered lead ore here.
From the air, the land surrounding Mount Isa, or The Isa as it is known by locals, looks like the scarred surface of an alien planet. From my window seat in the plane, the rocks below reflect back beams of light from the setting sun, hinting at the great seams of zinc, copper, lead and silver buried under the dirt.
We’re on the Hard Times Mine Underground Tour , just beside the Outback at Isa visitor centre, in the middle of the city of around 22,000. Because of health and safety precautions, tours into the actual mines closed a few decades ago, so the city built its own mock mine, with around 1.2 kilometre of tunnels. Our tour group is led by Alan Rackham, a miner of 49 years who over the course of the next two-and-a-half hours takes us through the history of mining in the area.
Going down the lift shaft, around 20 to 30 metres below the surface, I get a faint tinge of claustrophobia, but the area down below is well ventilated. The blasted rock surfaces of the tunnels are covered with wire netting, with thick screw pieces drilled in every metre or so to support the load.
To explain the mining process Rackham employs the metaphor of a street system, with the first tunnel we go down functioning as the main street. “If you drive into a small town, this is the main street, it’s hooked up to the lift and the air flow,” he says.
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