Day 56 – Monday, 17 June 2024 – Mt Isa to Camooweal

The main roads in Mt Isa are fairly wide which makes it a nice drive through. It harks back to World War 2 when the rail link from Townsville stopped at the Isa.

A supply link between the Mount Isa railhead in Queensland and the North-South Road, running from Alice Springs railhead to the Birdum railhead in the Northern Territory, was first proposed by the Main Roads Commission (MRC) in October 1940 during the formation of the North-South Road – the Stuart Highway.

Initially a road was planned across the Barkly Tableland from Newcastle Waters to Camooweal, using MRC road plant returning from construction of the North-South Road.

However, the project was shelved until March 1941 when the Army advised that approval had been given for immediate construction of a road by the most direct route from Camooweal to Tennant Creek – named the Barkly Highway in 1944.

The Queensland section of the Barkly Highway has been realigned, widened, resurfaced and upgraded in recent decades. Bypassed sections of the wartime road remain, including reinforced concrete low-level bridges, such as at Spear Creek north of Mount Isa. At Camooweal the former MRC workshop and Army bore are still in use.

By early 1941 a road had been surveyed. Clearing and forming the road commenced from Camooweal in April and the initial cut of 283 miles (455 kilometres) was completed by late July.

To assist travellers, bores were sunk at suitable sites to overcome the lack of surface water over the last 200 miles (320 kilometres) to Tennant Creek. The work of gravelling soft and sandy sections of the road continued throughout 1941. At the same time the existing track between Mount Isa and Camooweal was improved by the MRC as a State project.

In late January 1942, owing to the sudden strategic importance of the link for the Pacific area, the War Cabinet approved the construction of the whole of the Mount Isa-Tennant Creek Road as an all-weather road, together with the provision of further bores for water supply at about 10-mile (16 kilometre) intervals.

The work was underway by March. The difficulties of dry, sandy country and heavy wear on machinery were compounded by almost continuous military traffic, which for some months during 1942 amounted to a thousand heavy trucks a day in addition to light vehicles.

Reinforced concrete and steel bridges were completed across the dry watercourses and the first enrolment of men on the job into the Civil Construction Corps (CCC) was made in August 1942. Later, 400 CCC workers were replaced by 540 internees of the Civil Alien Corps. (More info later in the story).

The Australian Army unit responsible for supply between the Mount Isa and the Northern Territory railheads was the Mount Isa Maintenance Force (MIMF).

A staging camp was formed opposite the Mount Isa railway station early in 1941, then a second camp and a Bulk Issue Petrol Oil Depot (BIPOD) was established at Camooweal. A third BIPOD and camp was established in the Northern Territory at No.3 Bore, later known as Frewena.

Meanwhile the first US ordnance units began arriving in Mount Isa to set up trucking depots and workshops. Many of the transport convoy drivers were African American troops.

Early in 1942 the MIMF was replaced by the 2/109 Australian General Transport Company (AGTC). The unit operated from Mount Isa to Larrimah (Birdum) and return until late 1942, transporting everything from ammunition and petrol to army personnel, rations, building materials, machinery and finally bitumen for road sealing; while enduring long driving hours, heavy choking dust, high cabin heat and the impact of road corrugations.

Due to the impossibility of maintaining the gravel road surface under the concentration of heavy traffic, bitumen surfacing commenced in January 1943 after a plant was established at Mount Isa for the manufacture of bitumen emulsion.

A further emulsion plant was erected at Camooweal and later in the year the Mount Isa plant was dismantled and transported to the North-South Road.

A number of road camps were formed by the MRC, including the 114 Mile Camp, during sealing of the road between Wooroona Creek and Camooweal. The workers slept in prefabricated huts and the concrete bases from these huts are still visible.

Bitumen surfacing was completed by the MRC in May 1944 and the road was handed over to the Department of the Interior which undertook the continuing wartime maintenance of the project.

The project workshop at Camooweal continued to operate until January 1945 to service works at the Camooweal aerodrome and to repair road plant. The workshop served for a time as a garage and service station during the post-war period.

The Civil Alien Corps was controlled by the Director-General of Allied Works in which refugees and enemy aliens between 18 and 60, not serving in the defence forces, were directed to serve.

These men were employed on important projects or works and made a valuable contribution to the war effort. They worked on such projects as railway maintenance and road construction in various parts of the Commonwealth, did excellent work and gave satisfactory and loyal service.

I keep finding rabbit holes to go down!!!

The part of the Barkly Highway we are travelling today is signposted to advise it is a High Crash Zone for 115 kilometres, and then you can add in the likelihood of meeting a kangaroo or two on your journey.

Thankfully, we made it safely to Camooweal and arrived there at 12:20pm. This is the first of several places where you cannot make a booking, but is the first in, best dressed scenario.

The caravan park is quite large and is located behind the Hotel. It is to the bar that you go to pay once you have chosen the site you want to occupy for the night.

We were all set up by 12:39pm so now it is time for a cuppa before finalising the last of the photos for the website.