The Hard Times Mining Tour is a must do when you travel to Mount Isa.
The Hard Times Mining Tour is a must do when you travel to Mount Isa. Tara Miko

Mt Isa full of surprises

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 Rodeo.

A recent trip to the outback city revealed there's just as much happening under the ground as there is 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.

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.

Alongside the historic mining operation, there's another major drawcard 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 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 across Australia to the desert arena.

The writer was the guest of Tourism and Events Queensland.

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