Queensland’s outback is much less known than central Australia’s outback featuring Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock. Nevertheless, if you are already in the north-eastern part of Queensland, Chillagoe and the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park is the obvious alternative for your Australia outback experience.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 19 JAN 2020
For a long time we have struggled to figure out how we can best combine an Australia East Coast trip with an outback experience. Ayers Rock just seems completely off our itinerary… so how can we tweak it? Googling around, our attention is caught by the small town Chillagoe with the nearby Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park in the Queensland outback. Located in northern Queensland, it is not even far from our already planned Queensland itinerary.
So here we are a late July afternoon on our way across the Atherton Tablelands in direction of Chillagoe.
Immediately after Mareeba we notice the first termite mound. These mounds kind of mark the beginning of the outback and the tropical savanna. The scenery definitely changes when we leave Mareeba. From lush farmlands to deserted cattle country. Little by little the landscape becomes drier and introduces another kind of vegetation adapted to the outback conditions. Although the road looks all right and paved at first glance, we soon have to admit that we cannot go that fast. It is now the dry season and the red-brown dust whirls around each time a car passes us in opposite direction.
So even if the distance doesn’t seem overwhelming on the map, it takes two full hours to travel all the way from Mareeba to Chillagoe via the old Wheelbarrow Way. As a tribute to the mining pioneers originally arriving in Chillagoe, the 149 km road between Mareeba and Chillagoe was named the Wheelbarrow Way. It was named after the miners from the late 1800s who gathered all their stuff in a wheelbarrow and went into the sparsely inhabited land to look for work and settle. Today, this is every year commemorated with a fundraising footrace where the runners push wheelbarrows the 140 km (87 miles) between Chillagoe and Mareeba.
On the way we pass through the small towns of Dimbulah and Petford. At some moments the road is slightly challenging. There are warnings about the risk of both wild cows and wallaroos passing, signposted at the roadside. We soon see a couple of dead wallaroos and wallabies lying on the road itself – probably struck by a vehicle a short time ago. It is now that we feel grateful that we decided to drive to Chillagoe before the sun sets! Otherwise we wouldn’t have got a chance to spot the dead animals and the occasional depressions in the road caused by earlier floodings in the wet season. Towards the end there is also a completely unpaved stretch with just gravel on it which unarguably means that we have to slow even more down. Anyway, we think that the road is reasonable in daylight – even for a normal car like ours that is not an off-road 4×4.
After two hours, just around dusk, we finally arrive in Chillagoe at the Chillagoe Observatory & Eco Lodge. We find it very pleasant here after the dusty drive. Gradually, on our way from Mareeba to Chillagoe temperatures have gone up. It is now around 28 degrees centigrade (100 degrees Fahrenheit) – notably in July which is a winter month here! That it is so hot is really a surprise to us – and we now appreciate that we thought about bringing our safari hats – we will probably need them! It is more popular to come here in winter since the summer season has tropical summer storms which flood the roads and the caves.
We now discover that the lodge, we didn’t know much about before coming, is a lovely place featuring both small cabins and a campsite where people sit around the campfires in the evening enjoying the outback atmosphere!
1. Chillagoe Smelters – old mining town in Australia’s outback
The area is packed with history and culture – and is a great place to go exploring. In particular, there is very interesting mining history associated with the small town.
Chillagoe is a historic mining town which was established in the outback in the late 1800’s when a mineral field was detected there, coinciding with rising copper prices in the country. The mine and smelters originally date from 1884. In 1888 William Atherton named the small place Chillagoe. A private railway line from Mareeba to Chillagoe and Mungana was initiated in 1897 and it was completed in 1900.
Chillagoe Smelters became operational in 1901. It soon became a thriving mining industry of copper, lead, silver and gold that was mined and processed in the Chillagoe Smelters. The mines and smelters were active until 1943 and treated during those years 1,2500,000 tons of ore and produced 60,000 tons of copper, 50,000 tons of lead, 6,500,000 ounces of silver and 175,000 ounces of gold. They created thousands of jobs in North Queensland. Especially after the World War they created jobs in the depressed mining districts (Chillagoe Smelters had been closed in 1914 due to severe floodings). Chillagoe was one of the largest metallurgical sites before World War I.
In its heyday during the first decades of the 1900s Chillagoe had about 10,000 inhabitants, 13 hotels, 2 newspapers and a hospital. Today the population is just a couple of hundreds – and the town is now a small tourist destination. There is a primary school, a hospital, 3 caravan parks, 2 hotels and other accommodation plus a mining museum (Chillagoe Historical Centre) with artefacts relating to the local history. Annual events are races at the racecourse and a rodeo.
Still today, you can visit the remnants of the blast furnaces and chimneys a bit out of town. The Chillagoe Smelters have been declared a restricted area since the polluted ground filled with toxic material poses a considerable health risk and danger. Instead, an elevated viewpoint overlooking the entire site and the landscape is located near the smelters. The three remaining chimneys symbolise the cultural heritage of the Chillagoe Smelters.
The slag heaps are also still visible as a dark, flat terrain next to the smelters. It is accumulation of waste produced by the melting process. The slag was brought to this place by horse-drawn trolleys. In several places around the area and in Chillagoe you will still find the old rails.
The life in the mining camp was tough. Water was short, snakes invaded the houses, dingos took the goats and goannas took the eggs of the hens. The miners’ life was unarguably tougher than the superintendent’s life. His impressive house stood on a rise with a view to the mining activities and production.
2. The Chillagoe-Mugana Caves
The Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park can be visited year-round – although there can be problems with flooded terrain during the wet season (December to March). In the National Park you will find some of Australia’s most spectacular limestone caves with a beauty of stalactites, stalagmites and cave coral in the vast chambers and comprehensive narrow passages. Check out the Chillagoe-Mugana Caves National Park map.
There are six caves you can visit: The Archways, Pompeii Cave, Bauhinia Cave, Donna Cave, Trezkinn Cave and Royal Arch. The first three can be explored as self-guided tours and the last three require a ranger-guided tour (which for each of the caves is provided on a daily basis). During your visit you will learn how the subterranean world was formed over hundreds of millions of years. 400 million years ago limestone and coral reef beds were deposited here by the sea, leaving traces of fossilised corals for the future. Now they appear as impressive rocks in Australia’s outback.
With time the limestone dissolved, leaving passages and caverns behind, as well as forming the present stalagmites and stalactites. Today, the caves are home to a diversity of insects, spiders and bats – besides being a location for finding fossilised animals.
Check out the cave descriptions below to judge if you are adequately fit and ready for the experiences. Notice that for the self-guided walks you should bring both torches, water and preferably a first-aid kit in the (unlikely) event of incidents.
For the ranger-guided tours you will need to get your tickets in advance from ‘The Hub’.
2.1 Donna Cave
Ranger-guided tour (1 hour, moderate difficulty). You enter through a narrow opening into a universe of spectacular crystals and formations illuminated in the darkness. The walk is a 470 m (1540 ft) walk with 330 steep steps. Access from Donna Cave car park.
2.2 Trezkinn Cave
Ranger-guided tour (45 minutes, moderate difficulty). The highlights of this cave are impressive limestones and a multitude of illuminated stalactites. Inside the cave the walk is a 230 m (750 ft) walk with 250 steep steps. Access from Donna Cave car park.
2.3 Royal Arch
Ranger-guided tour (1.5 hour, easy/moderate difficulty). The cave consists of 11 caverns which you will explore with hand-held lamps. In the darkness you may spot bats and surprising fossils. The walk inside the cave is an 800 m (2,620 ft) walk with 300 steps – sometimes you need to watch the low height of the passages. The cave can be accessed from Royal Arch car park. When you walk through the remarkable woodland in the area, you will with a little bit of luck be able to spot both wallabies and wallaroos.
2.4 The Archways
Easy self-guided walk (allow at least 30 minutes, 220 m /720 ft walk). This is a semi-open cave system 15 km from Chillagoe. The cave is accessed from the Archways car park in Mungana.
2.5 Bauhinia Cave
Difficult self-guided walk (allow at least 20 minutes, 300 m / 980 ft walk). Very narrow passage into an open underground chamber with breathtaking views. The cave can be accessed from Donna Cave car park.
2.6 Pompeii Cave
Difficult self-guided walk (allow at least 50 minutes, 600 m / 1,970 ft walk). Climb down a steep and dark passage for the views of spectacular rock formations. The cave is also inhabited by bats. Access from Donna Cave car park.
3. Balancing Rock
Another stunning limestone outcrop above ground is the Balancing Rock. It is a huge rock literally balancing on a single touchpoint – looking as if it could fall over any moment. Nevertheless, it is been there for an eternity!
4. Aboriginal art sites
Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was already inhabited by a people. It was home to the Kuku-Yulanji Aboriginal people who excelled at depicting motives on the cave walls in the area where they lived.
Mungana Aboriginal art site is located quite close to the Archways. On the rock formations sloping inwards you will spot aboriginal cave paintings. Surprisingly, visitors can come all close to the rock art galleries – without any protecting fence or anything of the kind here. It is very unique!
Also at short distance from the Balancing Rock just outside Chillagoe, another aboriginal art gallery, the Wullumba Aboriginal Rock Art Site, can be viewed. There is a track, the Royal Arch Track, which is 9 km (5.5 miles) return and takes around 2.5 hours. It passes the Wullumba Aboriginal Rock Art Site from the Balancing Rock Car Park to the Royal Arch Cave. In the outback landscape you may even be lucky to spot a wallaby or a wallaroo.
5. One of Australia’s billabongs in the outback
Chillagoe Weir is a swimming hole in the outback – a so-called billabong which is one of Australia’s iconic, isolated ponds which fills with water seasonally. It is located just out of town with easy access. A swim there is a real relief on a hot summer day!
6. Marble Quarry in Australia’s outback
Also other minerals and natural resources have been mined in more recent years. In 1970 lime works were initiated and marble mining was established in 1982.
Chillagoe is in fact still today an industrial site exploiting the resources in the area. New ores are detected now and then. However, it is the marble quarry a bit out of town that is the modern mineral field! Some of the trucks you encounter on your way between Mareeba and Chillagoe are precisely trucks loaded with marble products from the quarry and factory.
We are deeply fascinated by the comprehensive and intriguing, history of the small town in Australia’s outback. The culture in the area has developed from the original Aboriginal cave art producing people to a succesful mining adventure as it was at its peak a hundred years ago.
Today people visit on their way through Australia’s outback – or as part of their Queensland trip. It is even very pleasant to stay here in winter with the high temperatures and tropic climate! Winter is the popular tourist season. Although it is the dry outback, the area is still rich in animals and birdlife. Every day we see vast flocks of galahs around the Observatory where we stay – and listen to birdsong! We are stunned by the beautiful flocks of galahs in the trees and on the wires – especially when they gather in the evening. We do also spot the hopping wallaroos in the terrain.
The sunset is breathtaking. Never before have we seen such an impressive sky with shades of yellow, purple and red. The finishing touch is that the moon lies down – smiling! It is apparently a phenomenon which occurs only in the tropics – at special times of the year!
Initially, we have come here to get some kind of outback experience without really knowing what to expect. It therefore comes as a complete surprise that this small place in Australia’s outback, Chillagoe, in fact turns out to be one of our top Australian experiences!
Check also our 10 Days Itinerary Queensland in Australia out!
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