Chris seemed to gain the most from the experience and is developing a special closeness with his
grandfather and there was much shared in the way of grandfatherly advice. Sarah spent some productive time with Goggy and they ended up on equal terms in the conversation stakes. A lessening of demands and complaints from Sarah was one impressive change we were happy to acknowledge and give credit for. Sam, as usual, was Mr Helper extraordinary, whenever Pa was about and their parting was a warm one.
With tears wiped from moistened eyes, we readied ourselves for town and our first day of sight seeing.
After completing some banking and procedural matters, it was off to the School of Distance Education - formerly the School of the Air - where we were shown and told of the operation of this long-standing outback institution. We all found this fascinating, despite the fact we were each intrigued for different reasons. I was obviously interested in many of the procedures, policy development, educational outcomes and employment conditions, whilst the children were simply stunned at each student having their own radio to talk on.
The school has been closely allied with the RFDS as ttiey shared frequencies and transmission equipment for many years, both in their former location of Cloncurry and after the move to Mount Isa. The first transmissions were in 1960 by the only teacher employed to assist outback children through the service, Miss Bid O'Sullivan.
The new facilities have been in use since 1990 and the building they occupy was formerly part of the Kalkadoon High School. By the start of next year, they will have the frequencies to themselves, as RFDS will cease to use radio transmissions at that time. Their use of telephone and fax technology makes radio obsolete.
Each of the 22 teachers at the school has two class groups of up to 9 and involves each group in a 30 minute "on air" lesson on every week day. The rest of their time is spent on marking the papers which are distributed every two weeks to the 320 students in their care. There is also some further consultation with parents and/or governesses regarding set work, but this is carried out using telephone communication. They have no involvement in the writing of the work units (Language and Mathematics), as these are done by a central Education Department agency. The work units are designed to be administered over a two week period and are written in such a way as to caterfor a variety of learning abilities. Interestingly, they are written on the basis of lock-step grade placement and there is little flexibility or consideration of stages rather than ages.
Most teachers usually only stay for the minimum three years, following their appointment to the school and this is varied mostly by marriage into a local family. In the case of the female teachers, this is reasonably common!
We were able to observe several lessons going to air from what are essentially standard radio studios,
minus the cart machines. Teaching staff appeared relaxed and patient in trying to communicate concepts to their distant students. The school arranges activity days, when students from an area will get together and work on some whole group activities. This provides them with rare socialisation and allows them to further build a relationship with their teacher, through personal contact. Two teams of couples also visit station properties throughout the year, to assist with problems and to provide individual tutoring as needed. These are usually couples, given the close proximity and time on the road. These teams spend 40 weeks of every 41 week school year, visiting properties and their clients.
Lake Moondarra, a man-made lake on the Leichhardt River: part of the water reservoir system which feeds Mount Isa. The Lake was created with the completion of the dam wall in 1957, after being built by Theiss Brothers, under contract from Mount Isa Mines (MIM). A further water storage facility has also been developed at Lake Julius, ninety kilometres further north. A camping ground and Sports & Recreation Centre has also been built at Lake Julius and it was to this destination we had watched God and Pa depart, that morning.
Lake Moondarra also plays host to Mount Isa residents for water activities and has a well developed
parkland north (downstream) of the dam wall. Given the abundant water, the area is well grassed and has a beautiful array of shade trees. It appears this could have, at one time, provided camping as well, as the power poles had numbered power boxes which gave one the impression they had been set up for that purpose.
Above both the dam wall and the picnic grounds, a lookout gives the visitor a 360 degree view of the
surrounding country. To the north and east, the downstream side of the dam is like a giant cauldron of
bumpy plain, bordered by a solid line of mountains which appear to have the plain surrounded. It reminded Sue and I of the pictures we had seen of Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges (SA) - a destination, further into this currentjourney.
In the other directions, one could see the vast expanse of water which is Lake Moondarra. On this typical outback day, the blue of the sky and the blue of the water were parted by the reds and oranges of the land, in a scene which evoked a strong sense of fulfilment in both of the grown-ups present We ate our lunch from this vantage point, even the children taken by the beauty on view.
Our romantic mood reverted to a more basic one, when Chris and I had a mandarin pip spitting contest with the remains of our dessert!
After lunch, it was back to Mount Isa, for a visit to the Underground Mining Museum, which was the
brainchild of a former mayor and has been further developed by the local Rotary Club. Using the local topography, the mayor and two of his mates, cut tunnels and a shaft into a low hill near the centre of town and under an existing water tower. The tunnels, shaft and water tank are now all part of this unique museum featuring many antiquities from early European settlement, mining equipment, outdated electrical equipment and a display of aboriginal artifacts from the local tribe - the Kalkadoons.
There was much to see, but the underground section suffered from the dust Inherent in tunnels. The signs which were part of the d i s p l a y s also needed updating, as many had faded and lacked basic grammar, therefore detracting from the presentation. There was also a lack of order in the exhibits, with newer additions not always in the place where you would expect them - probably because space was at a premium. However, the overall effect was good and the entry price of $9 for the family was very friendly ! We were assured, once again with typical inland humour, that the weather was better here in summer, as the winter temperatures sent most of the locals scurrying for their woollies ! As usual, we were in T Shirts and shorts whilst the speaker was in long sleeves and woolen pants.
Our last port of call for the afternoon, was the city lookout, which despite the flatness of the general area and the obvious hill we were to ascend, we managed to get lost in finding ! Our eventual discovery, gave us a view of the city, again dominated by Mount Isa Mine. A claim made at our caravan park, that this was the biggest city - by area (46 000 sq m) - in the world, seemed hard to support by the naked eye. Perhaps their calculation is based on underground area, as well!
The attitude we had perceived about locals' conviction they are living and working at the centre of the universe, was further supported by the signpost located at the top of the lookout, which gives visitors information about the location and distance of major cities of the world from this point.