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.

Iceland Idyll – Further Travels of Gma and Lolly Girl

Iceland Idyll – Further Travels of Gma and Lolly Girl

Icelandic Sagas are enthralling. Dark and violent, vengeful. Myths and legends, or true stories of the Viking families who settled Iceland in the middle ages? They have been known as fiction, superstition and fantasy. It is said that truth can be found in the Sagas – that is Sagas were based on reality, but with mythical elements woven in to the stories.

Gma and Lolly Girl were idling about in London, Gma at Primrose Hill and Lolly Girl at Richmond. Iceland had been on our travel radar, and was far more accessible from London than from our antipodean homes. We were interested in the Sagas’, and were both reading a book written by Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason “Saga Land – the island of stories at the edge of the world.” The discussions of the Sagas, Icelandic history and the travel by the authors described in this book had us very motivated to visit Iceland.

Lets do it we said – so we did. Our only regret is that a week is not enough to do more than explore Reykjavic and areas close enough to visit on a day trip from Reykjavic.

Gma had booked a serviced apartment in the centre of Reykjavic, and was somewhat startled to find the city mapper app seemed to be taking us in a different direction than anticipated. Turned out that what I thought I had booked was not actually what I booked. The apartment was shabby, in a basement, smelt of cigarette smoke, and was basically a shabby room with a corner bricked off to accommodate a bathroom. A hovel in fact.

Lolly Girl was very good humoured, and didn’t seem too bothered, so after a minor tantrum on my part, and a good spray of french perfume around the hovel by Lolly Girl, we congratulated ourselves on saving so much money on accommodation by staying in a hovel, and set off to explore Reykjavic.

The architecture is varied. The buildings are constructed with reinforced concrete, wood or corrugated iron. My preference was for the corrugated iron. I loved the houses and shops in the central part of the city – bright and cheerful, some even sporting a turf roof.

The Harpa Concert Hall, designed by Iceland artist, Olafur Eliasson sits on the waterfront – a vision splendid, looking like a huge crystal sculpture, with its coloured glass facade. Sipping champagne at the bar, watching the light dancing on the glass panels and changing colour in different lights made me feel as if I was in a giant kaleidoscope. So entrancing was the view, more champagne was required before we were ready to leave.

A big disadvantage of staying in a hovel, is that we didn’t want to spend any time in it even to eat, which meant we were out hunting and gathering quite early for breakfast. An early morning coffee was elusive, even in Laugavegur, the main Street of Reykjavic. One establishment took our order, then we were told they didn’t open for another hour. It was not amusing. For a brief moment, I had a vision of seeking vengeance, Saga style, but I didn’t have access to an axe.

If we had turned left into Laugavegur instead of right, we would have discovered the most perfect breakfast place two shops down.

The hovel was just down the hill from the Hallgrimskirkja Church, which made it easy to visit whenever we wished – and to frequent the hot dog stand nearby. Lutheran churches have always felt quite austere and grey to me. Hallgrimskirkja was no different, but with soaring ceilings, long slim beautifully proportioned windows and a huge organ, the simplistic minimalism created a serenity often absent from the more ornate cathedrals and churches. The building is said to echo the shapes of cooling lava, and inspired by the basalt columns at the black sand beach at Reynisfjara, on the south coast.

There are a lot of waterfalls in Iceland. We managed to visit a very small number on day trips around the Golden Circle and the South Coast. They were awesome.

Although both Lolly Girl and Gma have spent many happy hours in thermal pools in New Zealand, we thought we should experience an Icelandic thermal pool. The New Zealand experience did not quite prepare us for our visit to the secret lagoon – Gamla Laugin. Clearly not a secret anymore judging by the number of people frolicking in the warm soothing water.

No hot pool we had visited in NZ required us to shower, totally naked, in a communal area. Deep breath, suck in stomach and go for it.

Lolly Girl escapes the naked scene before Gma. Gma emerges and collects a couple of noodles from the box beside the pool. Lolly Girl has a noodle, and is in deep conversation with a male swimmer. Male swimmer melts into the background when Gma arrives with noodles. Turns out that Lolly Girl had not noticed the huge box of noodles by the pool, and had approached the male swimmer with the line “oh, I say, do you need both noodles”. He clearly thought he was on to a good thing till Gma arrived.

The area around the Golden Circle and the South Coast contain most beautiful landscapes and are quite surreal in parts. Mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, spectacular beaches, historical sites, geysirs and boiling mud pools, crater lakes, wildflowers and birds. There were even trees here and there.

On the south coast drive, the most easterly point we visited was Reynisfjara, a black sand beach, with lava rock columns in the sea, caves and basalt columns. The Atlantic looked quite benign, although I felt it was treacherous, benign looking or not. Having read about people getting washed out to sea, I only timidly put a foot in the water. I had been particularly spooked by a story of a tourist, posing on a large piece of ice, shaped like an armchair, who got washed off the beach, floating away on the ice armchair.

The glaciers, as with other glaciers around the world, are receding. It was quite sobering to see how far the Solheimajokull glacier has receded over the past ten years. Little icebergs were floating on the glacier lake, and looked beautiful reflected in the water. An astonishing number of plants were growing in the barren landscape. A glacier hike was in progress, and 4WD trips on the glacier are available. A huge glacier could be seen from the road, behind a range of mountains – it looked like a cloud bank, rather than a glacier.

One of the highlights for me on the Golden Circle trip, was the visit to Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir was the place where the Althing was established in 930AD. The Althing is the National Parliament of Iceland and is one of the oldest parliaments in the world. At Thingvellir, the Althing was an open air assembly representing all of Iceland, and assemblies continued there until 1798

The Althing, at Thingvellir plays a role in many of the Sagas, where details of the Assemblies, laws and legal procedures are discussed, and I was very interested to see the landscape referred to in these Sagas.

Very little remains of the Althing. However the Thingvellir National park is an area of outstanding beauty, circled on three sides by mountains, and it was easy to imagine the characters in the Sagas riding through this landscape to attend the Althing.

The park contains a rift valley, where the Eurasian tectonic plate meets with the North American tectonic plate, providing the unique opportunity to walk between two continents. Dramatic fissures and cliffs, rocky rivers, waterfalls and a lake add to the natural beauty of the area.

On our final day in Reykjavic we decided to hunt for puffins. To do this we had to catch a small boat, which takes its passengers out of the harbour across to some small islands, where hundreds, if not thousands of puffins would be seen.

The boat trip was not for the faint hearted. Along with our tickets, we were given anti seasick tablets. The sea was very rough and it turned out that all trips after ours were cancelled. The boat was broadside to heavy swell, so we were rolling about rather alarmingly – thank goodness for the tablets.

The puffin lady was very passionate about puffins, and showed us numerous photos of these beautiful birds on our way to the islands. Luckily she did. The only puffins we saw were a few landing on the water some distance away. The puffins landing were fun to watch – they can’t glide due to body size and small wings, so they belly flop onto the water, but we couldn’t see them in great detail. There were large numbers of birds nesting on the island, none of which were puffins.

Above – The Christina was our boat. Below – the non puffins.

A final walk along the waterfront, champagne at the Harpa, and dinner involving lobster, Icelandic lamb – the very best lamb I have tasted – and wine, we ambled back to the hovel, well satisfied with our experiences in Iceland.

Iceland proved to be a most interesting and exciting place to visit. A return visit is necessary, to visit more remote places. The captain of the Christina told us that in the summer he slept for only four hours a night, whereas in winter he sleeps eighteen hours a day. I feel that to properly experience Iceland, I should visit in winter. Then it wouldn’t matter if my accommodation turned out to be a hovel.