Charters Towers was a small gold mining town established in the mid-1800’s. The mines all closed down when the seams ran out in the early 20th century but many of the buildings have been lovingly preserved and restored where necessary. Not surprisingly there is a mining museum and a number of tourist attractions centred around those times. Included in these is the Stock Exchange established to curtail mining stock scams that flourished for a time, and there are a number of interesting stories about prospectors, mine claims and claim jumping. The town was wealthy and boasted good educational services, including its own School of Mines, gas street lighting in 1888, and its own medical facilities. In its heyday it became known as “The World”.
I started my second day here running half way around “The World”, and that before breakfast! My fitness level is woeful and I need to shape up.
I had plenty of time to take in this interesting period of local history whilst waiting for the road from Charters Towers to Mount Isa to re-open following the worst floods for more than 20 years. Even when the water subsides and the road at Julia Creek and Cloncurry re-opens I will not be able to proceed further than Mount Isa as a large part of the road from Isa to Camooweal has been washed away and will have to be rebuilt. The delay could be four weeks or more if there is further significant rainfall.
On my third day here the first cyclone of the season formed in the Gulf of Carpentaria and delivered deluges of rain. Some places had over 400 mm in 24 hours! Locally there was concern that the River Burdekin would overflow. I crossed over the bridge and saw that the river level was about 25 feet below the bridge but within 48 hours the level was lapping at the edge of the road. Things change in so rapidly here and the volume of water is almost unbelievable. In 1946 the level rose over 40 feet.
Things are starting to mount up as there is also an outbreak of ‘Dengue’ fever in Townsville which is only just down the road about 150kms.
Charters Towers does have other problems, specifically a flock of over 50,000 flying foxes or fruit bats. They swarm to this green oasis in an otherwise arid countryside and roost in the all the tall trees. They are protected and therefore there is nothing that can be done to persuade them to move on. They do present a public health risk in the same way that pigeons do in European cities and cause considerable crop damage on the fruit farms.
During the first weekend I drove over to Ravenswood around 60 miles East of Charters Towers. This is another gold mining town and there is still an operating open-cast mine here. The population is around 230 today, but in its heyday it was around 5,000. Most of the towns’ buildings are from the early days, although restored, and the town has been made a heritage site and listed by the National Trust. The town museum is housed in the old courthouse and has some fascinating items that demonstrate the way they lived in those early mining days.
Now a fortnight since my arrival the road is declared open between Charters Towers and Richmond so I am pressing on as far as possible. Just 10 miles west of Charters Towers and there is plenty of evidence of the flooding. In places the water is still up to the edge of the road floodways and much of the surrounding countryside is still under water. The scenery has also changed again and for much of the journey from The Towers there has been nothing obstructing the view all the way to the horizon. The whole landscape is similar to English meadows but hundreds of times bigger, with just occasional trees. What makes this scene so unusual is the colour. Normally this is sun baked, rock hard, arid countryside but because of the rains it is now green all the way.
I arrived in Richmond shortly after lunch and booked into another motel. I won’t stay for more than a night as it could rain again at any time and the roads in both directions could once more be cut off. The Richmond police have advised me that the section of highway that was washed out at Camooweal should be passable in 10-14 days time.
Bridget and I left at around 8:00am and headed for Mount Isa by way of Julia Creek and Cloncurry. Both of these places have figured prominently in the flooding and I am a little nervous. Julia Creek is about 90 miles west of Richmond and the journey went without event. The scenery all along the way is very different to what I have seen before with vast areas of grasslands and very few trees or bushes.
There is plenty of evidence of the floods however with a considerable amount of standing water on either side, but fortunately it was not across the road. I decided to stop at a roadhouse just the other side of Julia Creek and asked a police officer about the conditions ahead. He said there was water across the road in several places but that it was standing, not flowing, and only 15 cm deep. Bridget should be OK.
Around 20 miles west of Julia Creek we found the first floodwater over the road. There was a 4×4 coming the other way so we let it cross and I watched the level carefully to see if Bridget would be OK. I was not convinced and neither was the driver of the 4×4. My main concern was the speed at which the water crossed the road because it causes a build-up against the wheels which can then wash the car off the road.
The driver of the 4×4 offered to turn around and drive ahead, effectively making a shallow path for us to follow but before he could do that another vehicle travelling in the same direction as me arrived and he offered to do the same thing. The other driver said he would wait until we were safely across in case Bridget stalled and needed a tow.
So it was that we ventured across the first flood and the vehicle that shepherded us over helped at several more crossings further on. Only once did Bridget hesitate and that was when the water depth came over the front bumper but she managed to make it to the other side and after cough and spluttering a little we were able to continue our journey to Mount Isa. Our thanks to the unknown assistant in the multi-cab ‘ute.
As we arrived it started raining again!