Visiting Chillagoe – Queensland

Visiting Chillagoe – Queensland

It was a beautiful spring day in the Atherton Tablelands when I set out for a weekend in Chillagoe, with Bron and Keith.

Atherton is situated in rolling green landscape, with rainforests, waterfalls, volcanoes and lakes nearby. Chillagoe is around 160km from Atherton and is described as being in “Australia’s outback”. I was looking forward to travelling from this lush food producing area to the outback in such a short time, with a minimum of effort. In my case, no effort at all. Keith drove, I enjoyed the drive through rapidly changing landscape.

Leaving Mareeba, we travelled along the Wheelbarrow Way, named for the miners, who in the late 1880’s travelled on foot, pushing a wheelbarrow containing their possessions, looking for work. There are statues along the way depicting the miners pushing their wheelbarrows.

One of the statues along Wheelbarrow Way.

Driving along Wheelbarrow Way, we passed through farmlands – mango, banana and sugar cane, cattle country, savannah and lots of red dirt and termite mounds.

Driving to Chillagoe along the Wheelbarrow Way.

The immensity of outback landscape with the seemingly endless horizon, huge sky and the silence invoke an almost spiritual experience for me – though not in the sense of there being a god who created heaven and earth. As we approached Chillagoe, the landscape changed quite dramatically – vegetation becoming sparse, generally smaller trees, more and more red soil and larger termite mounds. Limestone rock formations became more frequent.

The chimneys of the old smelter are the first signs that you have arrived in Chillagoe village. The smelters ceased operation in 1943, and other than the chimneys there is little left.

Chimneys on the edge of Chillagoe, part of the former or smelter.

First nation people lived in this area for thousands of years before European settlement in the 1880’s. They were forced from their traditional lands, some were massacred, others worked on the stations. Settlement of this area historically then, can be said to be thousands of years old rather than pretty recent.

There are a lot of birds around this area. Too many for me to list here, but the area is apparently a bird watchers paradise. Suffice it to say that the evidence of the number of birds manifested itself around dawn. The dawn chorus was more an ear shattering screeching. Having been woken by the birds welcoming a new day, I went outside to see what they were. I almost felt I was in the Hitchcock movie – every power line was packed with birds – cheek by jowl so to speak and they were challenging each other for space in the trees. I was so busy watching them that I forgot to photograph them. Bron and I recall that they were Apostle birds – aka happy families. The jousting for position at dawn exhibited behaviour not conducive to happy families.

Chillagoe is situated on a belt of limestone, created millions of years ago, when the sea covered the area. The dissolving coral reefs have formed majestic and extensive caves underground, and above the ground the limestone outcrops form many fascinating shapes

Limestone caves are endlessly fascinating. My early experiences visiting the Waitomo glowworm caves when I was growing up, laid the foundation for my interest in visiting caves. I tend to prefer the cathedral type spaces, where the stalactites and stalagmites look like the mighty pillars in huge cathedrals. Listening to an opera singer in one of these cavernous caves in Waitomo and in a huge cave complex in Vietnam was a sublime experience.

We had no opera singer with us when we visited the Chillagoe-Mungana cave system. We did however have an aboriginal guide, who was very knowledgeable and pointed out various different types of limestone formations, including one he called the “Limestone Cowboy”. Why a cowboy in this part of the world? It took me a while to realise it was a play on Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy. Didn’t look much like a cowboy to me.

We visited part of the Royal Arch Caves, one of around 600 caves in the area. There are 11 separate caverns, some being semi open, with numerous passageways and steps. The Royal Arch caves contain several varieties of bats who use echo location to navigate the caves. Spotted pythons eat the bats, locating them by sensing their body heat. I was willing my body to get rid of its heat, in case a python was looking for a change in diet. I must have been successful, as no pythons were sighted.

Having all the lights turned off could have the effect of bringing on a panic attack – remember those pythons. I didn’t want a bat, mistaking me for a stalactite and trying to roost on my head either. There were also the colonies of snails to consider, and beetles. It was a relief when the lights came back on.

An old bank vault is one of the remaining historical buildings in the village. Not sure what happened to the rest of the bank, but the vault still stands. It reminded me of of an occasion when someone tried to blow open a modern day ATM. The Bank building was partially demolished, but the ATM was not breached.

The remains of the Bank of Australasia.

Historical vehicles are not generally of much interest to me, but the Tom Prior Ford Museum was an unexpected delight. Keith knew Tom, and we were “right royally” welcomed. There are a large number of restored vehicles under cover, and dozens of rusting old vehicles outside. The 1925 Model T and the 1928 Model A were fantastic. I fell in love with the 1965 Shelby Mustang. There were old jeeps and trucks, my favourite being an old carriers truck, with the sign on the door “Tom Prior, General Carrier, Phone 8”.

As a person who used to say that Australia was around 24 hours flight from anything historically interesting to me, this adventure proved me wrong.

Sweers Island – Gulf of Carpentaria

Sweers Island – Gulf of Carpentaria

Getting to Sweers Island is an adventure in itself. I flew on a commercial flight from Sydney to Brisbane, and then a small four seater charter flight to Sweers Island.

The adventure included refuelling stops at Chinchilla, Charleville, Longreach, Cloncurry and Burketown, all Australian outback towns, none of which I had visited. The Australian outback has to be seen from above, preferably in a small plane to attain any comprehension of its vastness. We only flew a distance of approximately 1738km, leaving Brisbane at around 7.30am, and arriving in Burketown at around 5.30pm. That very small part of the outback can only provide a fleeting taste of the emptiness of Australia.

Burketown was our final stop for the day. After bedding down the plane for the night, we went to Savannah Lodge in Burketown. What a lovely oasis it turned out to be. Relaxing on the verandah, surrounded by tropical vegetation, sipping a cold G & T, contemplating whether a dip in the pool would be pain or pleasure, I felt as if I had reached my Nirvana.

It is only a short flight from Burketown to Sweers Island. The salt mudflats, seen from above look like exquisite works of art.

Sweers Island, from above, looks like a little jewel.

Sweers Island Resort is a fishing lodge. For anyone who loves fishing, it is a little paradise. Maybe at this point I should wash my mouth out, but Sweers Island has so much more to offer than fantastic fishing.

Sweers Island is traditionally owned by the Kaiadilt people. One of the middens on Sweers Island contains shells dating back 5000 years. There are also aboriginal fish traps, although more fish traps are visible on nearby Bentinck Island, dating back 2000 years.

The birdlife around the island is rich and varied. A bird list, compiled by Lyn Battle, one of the owners of the resort, lists 114 species which have been seen on the island. I loved watching the Brolgas, daintily stepping out on the beach, running through the bush and flying. The Bustards were very entertaining, strutting around the resort as if they owned the place. Flocks of black cockatoos showed off the bright red splash under their wings. The wagtails flitted about. This one was right outside the window.

Willy Wagtail

The sunsets were spectacular. What better way to feel at peace with the world than to watch the sun go down in paradise, accompanied by a NZ Sauvignon Blanc.

A toast to the end of a splendid day.

We set off late one afternoon to walk along the beach to the red cliffs, to watch them turn red as the sinking sun hit them. In order to totally appreciate the spectacle, we had gin and tonic to toast the going down of the sun. Glasses. Who needs them – especially when you have forgotten them. A bit of deft juggling with water and tonic bottles provided an alternative to a glass.

I learned a lot about the aboriginal and European history of Sweers Island from Tex Battle, who owns and operates the Resort with Lyn. Middens and fish traps well predate European “discovery”. Early explorers visited, the name of Flinders ship, the Investigator was carved into a tree, known as the Investigator tree (what was left of the tree was sent to Brisbane), initials of William Landsborough, who was searching for Burke and Wills, and date of 1866 are carved on the walls of a cave, there are wells, an old lime kiln and old graves.

Sweers Island is a little bit of paradise in the gulf of Carpentaria. For those who love to fish, it is a perfect place to be. The Resort provides boats, and much more for fisher persons. For a non fisher person, there are beaches to explore, an enchanted forest to picnic in, birdwatching and lots of historical sites to visit.

To see what Sweers Island Resort has to offer, visit their website