Chillagoe

Although we have had a piece of Chillagoe marble on our kitchen bench since was given to us by David and Nerida Lee in 1988 as we left Innisfail, we had never made it to Chillagoe during our time in FNQ. That was a good enough reason to add Chillagoe to our itinerary but the presence of a national park with caves and an historic mining site added interest.

When I woke sometime after 6:00 am I wondered why my Fitbit alarm had not already wakened me. It was only later that I realised today was Saturday and I have an alarm set for 7:00 am to allow a later start. Despite the later waking time we were ready to move by 7:30 am and headed for the Cooktown Saturday markets by the waterfront. Majella bought some tomatoes, a cucumber, and a papaw but there was nothing else that we needed or wanted. By 8:00 am we had topped up with diesel and were heading out of town.

On the way up yesterday we had noticed an interestingly rocky river bed under a crossing just before we turned off to the Lions Den. There was nowhere to stop then on our side of the road but we did notice a spot across the road where a car was pulled up. We had made a note to stop there today on the way out and did. The parking spot was a little way beyond the bridge but we walked back to the bank of the Little Annan River for a closer look at its rocky bed. Upstream of the bridge was less rough than the downstream side that we could not easily access. 

As Majella drove back onto the road the van lurched. Soon after things became noisy in the back. When I went to investigate I found the fridge door had opened when we lurched and some of the contents had come out onto the floor. Fortunately nothing had spilled or broken so I reinstated the shelves and contents and we drove on.

About an hour down the road as we were ascending the Byerstown Range Majella spotted a specimen of the plant that had intrigued her yesterday. This time it was at a point where there was room to pull over. She did and we noticed several of the small trees in various phases of flowering and seeding. We took photos, hoping to be able to identify it later. Majella has since determined that it is the native kapok tree.

We stopped at Bob’s Lookout on the Desailly Range for photos. We had missed that yesterday because it was on the other side of the road and access was not good. It has sweeping views of the valley below to more ranges in the distance.

As we approached Mount Carbine, a bit more than 2 hours into the trip, Majella suggested stopping there to make coffee. A few minutes later she realised that the couple of establishments we passed was in fact the village and she had driven past, missing it entirely. Places to stop along the road were in short supply but we found a hard patch by a turnoff some way on and stopped there to enjoy morning coffee and change drivers.

I drove on from there, stopping once at another junction to capture photos of a couple of the giant ant mounds we had been watching as we drove. The selection was governed by convenience rather than quality of the mounds but they were big enough to make the point in photos.

We reached Mareeba around 11:30 am and found Coffee Works easily enough. Majella had been advised it was worth a visit and had picked up a brochure yesterday that included a discount. Unfortunately the tours were not operating but we had quiche for lunch and bought some chocolate before I drove on toward Chillagoe.

The road west and south was mostly flat and in good condition but there were a few short stretches of gravel with rough corrugations. We were surprised to see sugar cane growing along that way too. The nearest mill must be down on the coast so they have to cart it a long way. We saw a lot of mango orchards and some coffee plantations as we drove.

As we left Mareeba the road was named as the Wheelbarrow Way. It was not until we reached Dimbulah and saw a sign promising information about the Wheelbarrow Way that we discovered it is named for an annual race that is, in turn, honouring the miners who pushed their wheelbarrows from Mareeba to Chillagoe. The race is run by teams of up to 10 members working in relay over 3 days to push a wheelbarrow the 140 km from Mareeba to Chillagoe. The record holders did it in 8 and a half hours of actual running. We got that information and more from the display in the Dimbulah railway station where a group of locals were waiting to cater for the arrival of the Savannahlander train which was returning from its westward run and heading for Cairns. 

As I drove on we hoped to see the train (rail motor) which we had been told was about an hour away at Almaden. We did see the tracks occasionally when they ran near the road but they were often far away and we did not see the train.

As we approached Chillagoe we noticed a series of jagged rocky mounts. Just short of Chillagoe there was a sign near one for the Ramparts section of the Chillagoe-Mungana National Park. We paused and drove onto an access road but there was no obvious foot access and the track going in looked rougher than we were equipped to handle in the van.

Our early start and abbreviated visit to Mareeba had us in Chillagoe around 2:30 pm, substantially earlier than I had planned. That allowed time to do the national park visit I had planned for tomorrow morning, making time for more activity along the way tomorrow. 

We drove out to the nearest section of the park where there are two caves that can be visited without guides. In planning we had decided against the guided tours because of awkward scheduling and uncertainty about weather and other conditions. The caves were in and under a couple of rocky mounts similar to the ones we had seen earlier. We scrambled a little way into each of the two that were accessible. The passages were steep with jagged rocks rubbed smooth in places by generations of visitors so that getting a firm grip or footing could be a challenge. Some of the gaps up or down between footholds were longer than Majella’s short legs found comfortable so after venturing a short way in, we backed out, reasoning that we did not need to risk getting stuck.

Balancing Rock is an outside feature about a kilometre down a gravel road from the caves entrance. We drove there and walked the circuit through another set of rocky mounts and around the large balancing rock which is surrounded by a variety of other impressive rocky features.

My planned activity for this afternoon in Chillagoe had been to visit the old smelter site which is also part of the national park. Entry is not permitted because parts of the site are unstable and contain toxic materials including asbestos. However, there is a hill above the old site with lookouts that offer clear views of the ruins. We spent some time there looking at the site and reading the historical information about the smelter and descriptions of the geology. The explanation of how the local area formed with mineral deposits alongside limestone with caves and marble and not far from coal deposits to fire the smelter was intriguing.

By then it was time to find our campsite and settle. There was time to do some hand laundry before Majella cooked sausages and onions for dinner. They were accompanied by salad and followed by fruit salad that included the papaw from the Cooktown markets.