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