The pits, and we love it

The resources boom is driving the economy and now tourists are chasing a slice of the action, writes Sue Williams.

Roll up! Roll up! Buy a ticket to see The Greatest Show on Earth: Australia's incredible resources boom. Feel it in Queensland's Mount Isa, where the earth moves twice a day when underground explosives are detonated in the copper, zinc and lead mines, causing the whole city to shudder.

Smell it in the country's biggest tonnage port, Port Hedland in Western Australia, where the great churning machinery, gigantic dump trucks and thousands of orange-overall-clad men send smoke and dust billowing into the air as they process and transport half a million tonnes of iron ore a day.

And see it in NSW's Hunter Valley, peering past mammoth mounds of tree-planted dirt that have risen up to conceal the region's vast coalmines.

In most of our cities, far from the action, it's difficult to appreciate the stunning scale of the resources boom, which is powering the Australian economy and impacting on all our lives. But it does explain one of our fastest-growing travel trends: industrial tourism.

"People hear so much about the resources boom and are curious to see what it's about," says the chief executive of Australian Golden Outback with Tourism Western Australia, Jac Eerbeek. "When you actually look at something like the Kalgoorlie Super Pit and see it in 3D: Wow! The size and scale of it is astounding. People are really getting into this kind of tourism and enjoying it tremendously. I can see it only growing in popularity."

It's not just men and boys mesmerised by massive machinery, either. The new tour operators report they're often seeing just as many women and girls coming to inspect the hot spots of our latest industrial revolution, going down the mines, clambering up the viewing platforms and marvelling at the top- 10 highlights of the boom-time bonanza.

1 Mount Isa, Queensland

It's all about mining in Mount Isa, in the far west of Queensland, digging for lead, zinc, copper and silver. The town's star attraction is the Outback at Isa centre's Hard Times Mine, a $5 million purpose-built mine to show visitors what working underground is really like.

You slip into overalls, a helmet with cap lamp, a heavy belt for the battery pack and radio, earmuffs and gumboots, then step into a cage lift that descends 25 metres underground. You trudge off through the dark, gloomy and wet tunnels, with just the light from your lamps.

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It's incredibly hot and you can't help imagining what it'd be like to actually work there. But you don't have long to speculate: you're soon handed an air leg drill to drill into the rock walls yourself. Your whole body vibrates and teeth chatter so much with the effort that, after just a minute, you're lathered in sweat. You're also shown various pieces of machinery, ventilation pumps and the crib room and then treated to the sound of a detonation going off - absolutely deafening.

By the time you emerge back overground, you all agree: underground miners deserve every dollar of the thousands they're paid every week!

Getting there: Rex, Airnorth and Skytrans all fly to Mt Isa; there's a train from Townsville; there's a good network of roads; and there are regular bus services to all main centres.

Staying there: The Spinifex Motel, (07) 4749 2944, spinifexmotel.com.au.

To do: Book a 2½ -hour Hard Times Mine tour from the Outback at Isa centre; adults $49, children $30; 1300 659 660.

What else? Drive 20 kilometres out to the beautiful Lake Moondarra for swimming, boating, sailing and canoeing.

2 Port Hedland, Pilbara, Western Australia

The world's biggest iron ore port is full of huge ships that, if you stood them on their end, would be taller than the Eiffel Tower. It's here that the globe's longest privately owned railway, at 425 kilometres, terminates after carrying stacks of iron ore from Newman, the home of the biggest single-pit open-cut mine on earth.

A tour through BHP Billiton Iron Ore at Port Hedland shows the kind of sights Hades might offer: all fire and brimstone and great rocks being crushed by massive machines, before being carried on a mind-boggling 78 kilometres of conveyor belts to be put into ships and sent off to China, Japan and Korea.

Getting there: Skywest and Airnorth fly to Port Hedland, and there are buses from Broome and Darwin.

Staying there: The Esplanade Hotel, 2-4 Anderson Street, (08) 9173 2783, thenard.com.au.

To do: Mine tours from the Port Hedland Visitor Centre; adults $35, children $10.

What else? View the flatback turtles at their nesting grounds on Cemetery Beach and Cooke Point, or fish in the peaceful, mangrove-fringed tidal creeks away from the main action.

3 Hunter Valley, NSW

Newcastle is now the world's biggest coal-exporting port and has the capacity to send off more than 114 million tonnes of the resource a year from the Hunter Valley's 22 mines.

"It's fantastic to actually come here and see it all," says Ross Fleming, who runs tours of the coalmines from the Coal Industry Centre in Singleton. "You just can't understand the scale of what's happening until you do."

Tours show cleaning the coal and (sometimes) blasting operations, the trains carrying the material, the infrastructure of the mines and earth-moving equipment.

Getting there: A 1½- to 2 ½-hour drive north from Sydney.

Staying there: Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley, crowneplazahuntervalley.com.au.

To do: Tours booked at the Coal Industry Centre in Singleton; $240 for a group of up to six or $5-$10 a person for coach parties, (02) 6571 1344, coalcentre.net.

What else? Tour the area's great wineries and taste as many wines as you can manage.

4 Coober Pedy, South Australia

This is the centre of the opal-mining boom, with its milky-white opals, and was also one of the most fascinating and eccentric towns in Australia. As well as tours of an opal mine, and the chance to dig yourself, there's the eerie pock-marked lunar landscape of opal mine shafts, the warning signs not to fall down the holes, underground homes and a Mad Max vibe.

Getting there: Rex flies regularly from Adelaide.

Staying there: Desert Cave Hotel has pitch-black underground rooms, desertcave.com.au.

To do: Umoona Opal Mine also has a museum, (08) 8672 5288.

What else? Visit the Serbian Orthodox Church - drilled out of solid rock and featuring an incredibly intricate interior.

5 Kalgoorlie, Western Australia

The site of one of the world's biggest gold rushes, Kalgoorlie now has the KCGM Super Pit, Alan Bond's amalgamation of all the shafts dug by the old-time miners, which is now the largest gold open-cut pit in Australia. Stand on the platform overlooking the pit and be stupefied by the sheer size and scope of the vast site before you, one where the giant dump trucks look like tiny toys.

Getting there: There are flights, and the train, from Perth.

Staying there: All Seasons Kalgoorlie Plaza Hotel, all-seasons-hotels.com.

To do: Finders Keepers conducts tours of the Super Pit; adults $70, children $45, as well as gold-prospecting trips, finderskeepersgold.com.

What else? Surf and bodyboard far from the coast on the only wave-rider machine outside the Gold Coast at the Oasis Recreation Centre, (08) 9022 2922.

6 Mary Kathleen, Queensland

At most uranium mines, you're not allowed to go near - except for the old mine at Mary Kathleen, near Mount Isa, which closed in 1983. All the buildings in the former thriving town were auctioned off.

The old pit itself is a spectacular sight, with stepped rock faces streaked with the oxidisation of the minerals, and a stunning lake of vivid electric turquoise at the bottom. It would be great for a swim - if it weren't so deadly!

Getting there: Drive 50 kilometres east from Mount Isa.

Staying there: Stay in Mount Isa.

To do: Self-drive.

What else? Drive around the other ghost towns, deserted and now overgrown, such as the old copper-mining town of Kuridala.

7 Broken Hill, NSW

Mining is still conducted in Broken Hill, once the site of the richest silver, lead and zinc deposits the world had ever seen, by the company that had its roots in the town and is now recognised as the world's biggest miner, BHP Billiton. The Line of Lode Miner's Memorial, as well as remembering the 800-odd miners who lost their lives, re-creates the damp, claustrophobic underground environment and has great audiovisuals of miners hard at work.

Getting there: Drive, fly or catch the train or bus.

Staying there: Red Earth Motel, (08) 8088 5694, redearthmotel.com.au.

To do: A guided tour along the Broken Hill Heritage Trail runs three days a week from the visitors' centre for a voluntary donation.

What else? Broken Hill has a vibrant arts scene, with a huge number of galleries, showings and art stores.

8 Lightning Ridge, NSW

Another centre of the opal trade, and the only place in the world to produce black opal, Lightning Ridge has the Walk in Mine, originally a working mine and now restored for visitors to experience the life of a miner. Alternatively, drive over to Sheepyard, buy a few miners a drink and see if you can persuade them to show you their own mines.

Getting there: Drive, train-and-bus combination or fly to Dubbo and then drive.

Staying there: Bluey Motel, (02) 6829 0380, blueymotel.com.

To do: Black Opal Tours has day trips to the opal fields, (02) 6829 0368, blackopaltours.com.au.

What else? Have a long soak in the town's artesian bore baths: therapeutic, relaxing and guaranteed to wash the dust away.

9 Hill End, NSW

It's fascinating to see what happens to a town when the minerals run out. Check out Hill End, this time a beautifully preserved former goldmining town in an isolated valley 60 kilometres from Mudgee.

Go underground at the Bald Hill Mine for a look at 1870 mining conditions, or take a self-guided tour along the old gold rush streetscape.

Getting there: Drive 275 kilometres from Sydney.

Staying there: Hill End Hosies Bed & Breakfast, (02) 6337 8290.

To do: Tours can be booked on (02) 6337 8206.

What else? Take time for a drive around the surrounding countryside - these are the landscapes that inspired the art of Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale.

10 Wittenoom, Western Australia

For a glimpse of the dark side of a mining boom, take a look at the scene of one of our worst-ever industrial disasters: Wittenoom, where blue asbestos was mined and milled - exposing thousands of workers and their families, visitors, consultants and government officials - until doctors became horrified by the number of asbestos-related cancers and diseases among the local population.

Both the mine, and the town, were closed down in 1966, but a few hardy souls still refuse to leave and, despite all efforts to take it off the map, it's still possible to visit.

Getting there: Drive 200 kilometres south from Port Hedland.

Staying there: The nearest accommodation is the Auski Tourist Village, (08) 9176 6988, auskitouristvillage.com.au.

To do: Self-drive tours are the only option available.

What else? It's not far from the Karijini National Park, with its spectacular gorges and great walking trails.

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