A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (mid-October 2016, Queensland), I was nearing the end of my Darwin to Cairns roadtrip with a friend who had very kindly put up with me for almost two weeks. On day 13 of 16, after crossing into the Sunshine State that morning (overcast) and passing, relatively quickly, through the oases that are Camooweal and Mount Isa, we pulled into our bush camp for that night. Mary Kathleen, the abandoned Uranium mining town, which existed for only a brief period between the 1950s and 1980s. All that’s left now are the concrete foundations and a few recognisable remnants of town life: a crumbling water feature, cracked floor tiles, small flights of steps which lead to nowhere, old tennis courts and bowls greens, and a swimming pool.
I fell in love with it straight away. For me, at least, it still felt so present. As if, if they really wanted to, the old townspeople could just turn up and pick up exactly where they’d left off. Obviously, it would need a lot of work… namely walls and roofs for a start. But I think what I’m trying to get at is that it didn’t feel like some creepy old abandoned town. You could still picture the community. It felt unfinished. Even before I started reading up about it. As if the residents hadn’t wanted to leave and abandon the good, ol’ days. It felt sort of sad and a bit nostalgic. Don’t ask me how I got all that from a few concrete slabs, but I did. Maybe I was just lucky that the author in me created a story that conveniently fitted in with my research, or maybe I’m just that wonderfully intuitive. We’ll never know.
We were sharing the site with a few others that night, but it really wasn’t very busy. My friend worked out from an old map that we were probably staying in what was left of the cinema, which was a really nice spot to camp at on the edge of town. And, after my first ever guitar lesson, a delicious burger dinner, and a good night’s sleep in my swag I went out early the next morning to explore the rest of the town.
My exploration started off brilliantly and I disturbed a small mob of red kangaroos who were just as surprised as I was that anything else had stirred at that hour of the morning. It was the closest I’d ever been to wild reds, and even though it only lasted for a second before they’d disappeared into the bush I was slightly relieved that they hadn’t stuck around and decided that I was intruding on their turf.
I continued round the right edge of the town, deliberately, because I had an end goal in mind. When my friend and I had arrived the afternoon before we’d had a quick drive round to scout out potential camping spots and I’d noticed a collection of clutter at one site. Eventually I retraced our path and found what looked like all the old bits and pieces of town life that campers had discovered during their time at Mary K. It didn’t look like anything particularly exciting: rusty pipes, bits of unknown machines, cracked bricks, even an old toy train. While I was looking through this hoarder’s paradise, however, I noticed a little cubbyhole with a faded koala sticker on it. Inside it were a couple of notebooks encased safely in plastic Ziploc bags. I’d struck historian gold.
It was a visitor book. Apparently at the site of the McBow family house, a family who’d lived there until the first closure of Mary Kathleen in the ‘60s. Not only was the book filled with the comments of first-time visitors and admiring tourists (like myself), it was dotted with entries from old residents who reminisced about their time at Mary Kathleen. They all seemed to have absolutely loved Mary K (admittedly the only ones who’d have come back to camp were presumably the people who’d enjoyed their experiences living there), and they had so many fond memories of the community. It was a “beautiful town” and the first mining town of many for some but “without a doubt the best”. “An amazing place to live with a great community spirit”, “a thriving little town”, “what great times we had”.
A few had even left contact details to get in touch with fellow ex-residents. My historian brain kicked in then and I decided to make use of this and took some notes. I had to know more.
I continued to explore. I found some memorials at old residential sites and a few other recognisable bits and pieces that I mentioned earlier. I was determined to find the swimming pool because I was curious whether it had been filled in or just left as a massive hole (don’t know why I was so fixated on this but it became a personal mission). For anyone who is interested, it’s completely filled in with dirt and grass now rather than water, and even though there was definitely no swimming to be done I went in through what I believed was the main entrance and the changing rooms (although whether I used the male or female changing rooms, I couldn’t tell you…).
When I was back in civilisation and had some time to kill in Brissy I decided to contact my unsuspecting Mary K victims. The ones I managed to get in touch with were incredibly friendly and helpful, but mostly just genuinely surprised to hear from me.
So let me try to take you to Mary Kathleen as it was…
Imagine, if you will, a small town with never more than 1,200 people.
It is a friendly community which people take pride in.
You wander past exquisite gardens and the orchard, filled with tropical fruits, fifty varieties of mango and six of banana, all beautifully kept by Town Maintenance to keep the area looking luscious and green.
That morning you walk past the bus stop and wave at the miners waiting for their daily transport to work and a few others hoping to catch the bus into nearby Mount Isa which runs a few times a week.
You don’t have a phone, or a computer, or an endless supply of wifi hotspots (although there is a phone at the Post Office if you really need one), but you have access to almost everything you would need. Your town has all the amenities, bowls and golf clubs, an Anglican and a Catholic church, an open air cinema, tennis courts and an oval, even a Pony Club. And on a beautiful day like today you’re heading down to the swimming pool. You’re sure to find most of the locals down there with their friends and family on this long summer’s day and it’s a lovely place to catch up.
This evening you might head to the natural swimming hole and Sunset Rock, or enjoy a picture at the drive-in cinema (free three times a week), you’re not sure yet. You realise with a start that it’s already the beginning of November and on the first Sunday of the month you’ve got the Mary Kathleen Cup. And the Mary K Cup Ball the night before… *wink wink*. A chance to let loose and celebrate. Celebrate what? Who cares? Anything!
It’s a lovely place in a beautiful part of the world. And a wonderful place to raise your children: a haven for exploration and nature (don’t worry about the potential Uranium contamination; I’m sure it’s fine).
A mother taking her children up to the swimming hole every afternoon to see the resident water monitor, the father enjoying a few beers at the bowls club after work, catching up with the miners, colleagues and friends.
A son starting pre-school here and a daughter enjoying her first birthday.
A man working happily away in the machine shop, enjoying being resourceful in the middle of nowhere.
A married couple with two border collies, preparing for a dinner party with their neighbours.
A husband taking a picture of his wife at the fountain in the town centre, not knowing yet that he’d be back there taking that same photo of his wife during the second mining operation and then again 4 years ago…
It’s a town full of memories and obviously I can only capture a fraction of what Mary Kathleen was. Thank you to everyone who recorded their stories in the visitor book and to everyone who agreed to talk to me. I have most likely got something wrong, particularly as I’m combining experiences of people living there from the 1960s to the 1980s, but go easy on me and put it down to artistic license.
Mary Kathleen lives on. Old residents are still visiting their former homes, they’re still in touch with each other, still sharing their stories. As far as I know, there’s even a Mary Kathleen Facebook group.
21st June 2014: “We don’t believe anybody who lived and worked here wanted this place to close.”