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The Natural and man-made attractions at Chillagoe Queensland
A place that has ancient aboriginal rock paintings, historic mining relics, amazing limestone caves and a unique vehicle museum would attract many people, writes Len Rutledge
Our anticipation was high as we headed 140 kilometres west of Mareeba along the Wheelbarrow Way to Chillagoe, North Queensland and a day later we agreed that our expectations had been surpassed.
Chillagoe was once an ancient coral reef which has been transformed into spectacular limestone bluffs with a network of more than 500 caves. It is one of the most interesting and unusual places in the whole of northern Queensland.
In 1887, two men working for the mining baron John Moffat found copper and silver deposits on Chillagoe Station. Soon after, Moffat began mining in the area but soon realised that his problem was the difficulty of transportation. He solved this by building a private railway line from Mareeba to Chillagoe and Mungana. In 1901 the line was completed and a large copper smelting plant was opened by the company at Chillagoe.
The tall chimneys on the edge of town are part of the former ore smelter which is now a drive-around museum with a viewing platform, walkways and storyboards. The Chillagoe smelter was opened in 1901 and at its peak over 1000 men were employed extracting gold, silver, copper, and lead from ores which were brought from the surrounding area.
The next 13 years was the most prosperous period for the district. Much of the capital backing the companies was German, however, and this was frozen when war broke out in 1914. This closed the smelters. In 1918, the Queensland Government bought the smelters and they continued to struggle on until closure in 1943. They were sold for removal in 1950.
Many of the caves are within the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park. I strongly suggest joining a guided tour with a National Parks ranger so you can learn more about this amazing underground ecosystem. Tickets can be booked on-line and collected from the Chillagoe Hub, a tourist information centre.
There are five caves open for viewing. The Royal Arch, Trezkinn, and Donna Caves are seen by guided tour only. The tours are conducted every day at 9 am, 11 am and 1.30 pm.
The Donna Cave and the Trezkinn Cave are well-lit and have modern walkways and stairways but are relatively small. Visitors descend into the caves by a series of steep flights of steps and each tour takes less than one hour.
The Royal Arch is a series of 11 chambers spread along a 1‑km passage with roots from trees and patches of light reaching into the caves. The cave is not lit so you explore with hand-held lamps.
The Bauhinia and Pompeii Caves can be seen on self-guided tours but you need a torch and you should notify a ranger before entering the caves.
There are a number of interlocking walks which connect the caves, the lookouts and the interesting landmarks. Two that I particularly recommend are to Balancing Rock, and to the Wullumba aboriginal art site. Both are a short walk from the Balancing Rock car park.
15 km beyond Chillagoe is the remains of the old settlement of Mungana which was once the site of two famous copper mines. Two kilometres off the main road is The Archways, an open daylight cave system which I thought was fascinating. I initially wasn’t keen to visit here but afterwards rated it as one of the highlights of the area.
The lack of a guide on this self-guided exploration was more than made up for by the freedom to go at our own pace, and a sense of excitement as if we were discovering the caves for the first time,
On the road into the cave there is an Aboriginal rock art site with a number of interesting paintings on the cave walls. The surrounding rock outcrops are worth exploring and you will come across a timber table which makes a unique tea or coffee stop.
‘Old Fords never die’ says the owner of one of the country’s biggest and most remote private vehicle collections. Beneath an enormous galvanised iron roof, 82-year-old Tom Prior has put together a stunning collection of restored Fords. Tom was born in Chillagoe in 1938 and has remained in the historic mining town all his life.
Tom’s consuming passion for historic vehicles becomes truly evident the moment he starts talking. There are more than 30 pristine cars and trucks, from a Model A to a red-trimmed white 1970 XW Ford Falcon GT 351c, built in Australia. Outside, on the dirt driveway, there are hundreds more rusting relics, ready for some loving care.
A visitor book in his shed is filled with comments from people from all over the world, many of them Ford enthusiasts who have travelled specifically to Chillagoe to see his collection.
Quarries excavating marble are seen all around the edge of town although most are now idle. The Chillagoe limestone has in places been transformed to marble, baked by the extreme heat generated during ancient volcanic activity. The calcium carbonate in the limestone has been melted and re-crystallised and many minerals in the original limestone give the newly formed marble its characteristic streaks and patterns.
Chillagoe has two hotels, a guest house, an eco-lodge, and a tourist village. We stayed at the Chillagoe Cabins which has well-appointed, self-catering cottages and which provides breakfast.
Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge