The Capricorn Way

The Capricorn Highway goes from Rockhampton to Longreach. It’s mining country – coal and gems. There is a lot of coal, but not many sapphires. I wrote this before the election. We watched the election result in Longreach. I wrote about Longreach after the election. Oh, what a difference a day makes……


We came to Blackwater essentially because it was there and on the way. It was a long 500 km drive to get here. We have been running from the rain on the coast. We were going to stay at Eungella National Park (just behind Mackay in the mountains). We spent a day here many years ago and always wanted to return. But the weather let us down. Bushwalking in the rain is no fun. So Eungella will have to wait.

Blackwater is in the middle of the Bowen coal mining region. Coal mining here is huge. It is just south of Clermont where the big Adani protest finished a few weeks ago. So what to do in Blackwater? Go on a coal mining tour of course. I’m glad I did. I learnt a lot. Let me share it with you. We went to one mine and there are 5 others in the immediate vicinity. You can see them at night across the horizon. Busy cities, working 24 hours a day and mostly 7 days a week. There is a railway which cuts through the landscape carrying coal 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A train passes every 10 minutes on the way to the coal loader at Gladstone. The trains are 2 kms long and have 100 wagons. The value of the coal on board is approximately $1M. So, 6 times and hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year equals $52,560,000,000 per year. And that’s just the Bowen Basin. Apparently the amount mined in the Galilee Basin (even without Adani) is much greater. It costs $70 per tonne to mine and transport the coal. If they sell it for $100 (currently $120 per tonne), then the profit is 30%. I don’t know if this is pre or post tax, but it is a staggering $15,768,000,000. That is $US. And the costs are spent of course….on labour, equipment, rail. So a lot of money passes through the international, national and local economies. All the towns we have passed through in the area exist because of coal. Whole families work in the mine. It is capital intensive though, not labour intensive. The mine we went to today produced 5,000,000 tonnes of coal per year from a 20 km long open pit mine. And this is a small mine with 51% owned by a single Australian. They employ 280 workers. Interestingly, 20% of the workforce is now women. The tour guide said that women on the mine and greatly improved the culture and moral of the work teams. With the introduction of driverless machines the workforce will decrease significantly. They earn so much. An apprentice earns $170,000 a year! But work is hard – 12 hour shifts, changing day and night shifts, living in Blackwater in a box.  At least they would save all their salaries. All of the numbers are staggering.

So, on the tour I have to ask the question “what happens to all this if Labor wins the election?”

“Nothing. They will never stop coal mining.”

“What about the pledge to stop coal mining?”

“They might stop thermal coal mining, but never metallurgical coal. They can replace thermal coal with renewables, but the only way they can make steel is by burning this coal. The iron ore has to have carbon to turn into steel.” How come I don’t know this?

“There’s no alternative?” Apparently not. I don’t know if that’s true but I’ll be asking around. If it is right, we will be mining this high quality (read metallurgical) coal for a long time. If we succeed in stopping thermal coal mining there is still a great environmental benefit. However, these towns though will still really suffer. Some small businesses are making a fortune from the mines and miners. The motel we are staying in (just a motel, nothing fancy) turned over $250,000 last month. They are looking to sell if you are looking for a business in beautiful Blackwater. And if there are jobs for the miners to go to, I can’t see how they can replace their enormous salaries.

Another scary thing is that when they remediate the land where the mine has been, they put back the topsoil and reseed it. And then they graze cattle on it…….if you eat beef, I suggest you rethink this decision.

65. Being a vegetarian…oh alright pescatarian

66. Friends who lend you books. Thanks Charles for Warlight

We spent the following day at the Blackdown Tableland National Park just outside of Blackwater. Another great National Park no-one has ever heard of. Some lovely walks capped off by a beautiful waterfall and very cold swimming hole. The autumn flowers were lovely and the kookaburras very tame.

Sandstone cliffs

We then drove to Rubyvale, the gem country. Tyres all good.


We arrived just in time for dinner at the pub. I like pubs but I’ve had enough of dinner there. Maybe Justin Hemmes could buy a few……

It was blingo night. Blingo? It was run by Willow, a self described “only gay in the village”. 5 years ago Willow came home to look after his sick and aging parents and was the only gay in the village. Now there are 5 and last year they hosted the inaugural Rubyvale Mardi Gras where 80 people put on a parade like they had never seen before. This year, they have already sold 250 tickets for the Mardi Gras in September. I reckon we should all go along. What a great sense of community and inclusion. We sat with a couple from Blackwater, both miners (she retired from dump truck driving). We had a great night with them. They were union people, voted Labor and loved living in Blackwater. We have met some great people along the way.

As Rubyvale is the centre of the gem fields, we had to go fossicking. Emerald is just down the road so guess what the gemstones are. Yes, sapphires. It’s all geared for tourists. You arrive at the mine and you purchase a bucket of dirt and rocks for $20. Yes we paid $20 for a bucket of dirt. The bucket of dirt supposedly has been brought up from the mine (now only used for tourist purposes) and we get to sift, wash and sort it. And keep what we find of course. We can’t help thinking they just recycle the same buckets of dirt to the new day’s tourists….

We learnt a lot about sapphires. Common ones are blue and rare ones are yellow and pink. There are green ones, red ones and purple ones. Who knew? Rubies are just red sapphires! And we even found some. And we found a zircon big enough to cut and polish. I might just do that. We bumped into our mining pub friends from the night before and spent a thoroughly entertaining morning with them. We had a coffee at 11 and they had a beer.

67. Meeting people who you rarely have an opportunity to meet

68. Still learning stuff

69. Laughing

70. Finding sapphires

Underneath is an underground sapphire mine

Then back on the road heading for Barcaldine.


Barcaldine is famous for the Shearers strike of 1891. It is home to the Australian Workers Heritage Centre – essentially an homage to Australian Workers Union. We were there the day after Bob Hawke died so it was very moving. I hope Australians never forget what Unions have done for wages, working conditions and women. But maybe the memory has already faded. I can’t get over the irony that Queensland prides itself on this workers history, the pioneer heritage and the rebellious Australian spirit fighting for rights and workers.

Also in Barcaldine is “The Tree of Knowledge” under which all the striking shearers met and the police successfully fought them and put the ring leaders in gaol. It is quite a lovely monument but I do have to wonder where all the knowledge went. Enough said.

71. Long Service Leave

72. Equal pay for women

73. 4 weeks annual leave

74. Penalty rates (now to be completely eroded)

75. Anti-discrimination legislation

76. Health and Safety legislation

77. 38.5 hour work weeks

78. Paid maternity leave

Look for the reference to the Rouseabouts


We were in Longreach for election night. It is now the 26th May – 8 days later. I’m guessing you know how I feel…..

On the day of the election, we went to vote. We had been hearing about all the prepolling that had occurred and decided to vote on the day. I love voting (surprise, surprise). I chatted to all the volunteers handing out all the how to vote cards. I asked how the “mood” was. I had to explain what I meant. We went to vote “out of area” only to be told that because we were out of state we couldn’t vote. We were told that if we had prepolled YESTERDAY at the same booth it would not have been a problem. Who knows this? How can this be? For the first time in our adult lives we didn’t vote. Can you believe it?

I was jittery for the whole day and when I could no longer contain myself said to John “Morrison’s going to win and win easily.” “No, don’t be silly,” he replied. And at 7.15 it was all over. I have so many thoughts on this and it is still too difficult to write about – but I will later. I can barely watch the news or read a newspaper. I know many of you reading this will be thrilled by the result. That’s democracy.

But on a brighter note, we had a great day at the Longreach Show. Show jumping, cattle mustering, wool grading, sheep shearing, side show alley, art shows, cake displays, vintage car shows and pig races. It was great. No show bags, friendly chit chat, great weather and bad food. Perfect. Just how show days should be.

Next day we went to the QANTAS Founders Museum. It was an interesting morning with tours of old planes and jumbo jets. The history of QANTAS is another display of Aussie determination, bravery and know how. This has become a theme in Queensland museums and I see how this perception of ourselves is central to our national identity. It has given me much to think about, particularly in the context of the election result.

The Stockman’s Hall of Fame was next on the agenda. Our heart just wasn’t in it because as soon as you walk in, you know what you’re in for. Maybe another time.

We are heading home with a few more stops along the way.

2 thoughts on “The Capricorn Way

  1. Love your blogs Laura, am learning a lot. Places I’ve never heard of!
    Interesting to read your comments re women working on the mines as Rolf and I met two Aussie women on our Baltic cruise who drive the massive dump trucks as you describe. One of them works solidly for 3 months and saves enough money to travel the world the other 9 months. They are in their early 50’s and feel they’re coming to the end of working the mines as “too bloody hard” they said. They were gregarious and a lot of fun to hang with


  2. Another entertaining post and love the photos – John looks like a proper tourist! You are certainly covering some ground. I suggest you get back over the border before the State of Origin starts – it will probably be the final straw regarding your feelings for our Northern cousins. Love Steve and Jane ps remember to call in on your way back if you need a cup of tea or a bed for the night.


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