Road Trip: Escape to Chillagoe Caves

For many travellers and visitors, Cairns region is known to them as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and World Heritage Rainforest. It is true and these sites are fascinating and definitely a ‘must-do’ on any travellers itinerary. Cairns region offers so much more to do here that often gets missed. One such adventure is a road trip along the Wheelbarrow Way to visit the historic mining town of Chillagoe. A road trip to Chillagoe Caves is a journey through the outback that definitely shows a different side to the region than lush tropical rainforest and colourful reef. Here you leave the world behind and escape to the magical outback west.

Living in Cairns, we are blessed that we can virtually drive only few hours away and your in the highlands of Atherton Tablelands, World Heritage Listed Rainforest and Outback West. The Cairns outback west is no exception and the Great Barrier Reef sits in the heart of it where you can simply ‘sail away’ calmly out to the reef. I decided to take a road trip weekend getaway, heading west.

My destination was Chillagoe, with stops along the way at Dimbulah, Petford and Almaden. Chillagoe is one place that I wanted to spent time on exploring its underground wonders and caves only short drive away. It is a great time to getaway from the city to the outback for relaxation. A weekend away for nature, beauty and exploration.

Why Go?

The township of Chillagoe is a genuine outback town with fascinating attractions and abundant wildlife. The area has its mix of history and geological wonders and was definitely on my list of what to see and do in Far North Queensland.

Chillagoe area is undeniably one of the most exciting, fascinating and diverse area to visit in the tropical outback. This town is known for its unique and impressive caves and underground wonders. Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park includes limestone bluffs, impressive caves, fossils, Aboriginal cultural heritage such as rock art and settler heritage such as historic mining smelters.

Also, the drive from Cairns to Chillagoe is one of my favourite back road that takes you through the scenic “dry” belt of the western Tablelands. During the winter months or wet season of the year, you’re able to capture some of the beautiful scenery. History tells that Chillagoe was once an ancient coral reef which has been transformed into spectacular limestone bluffs with a network of some 600 caves, early volcanic activity has created rich marble and mineral deposits has made it one of the fascinating place to visit. It was fascinating for me to explore this exciting underground world of vast chambers, eerie narrow passages, dripping stalactites and stunning limestone cave decorations. Given its remoteness and raw, natural beauty, it was the perfect place to visit and a ton of outdoor activities and this is what I wanted to do to fill up my weekend getaway. The visit to this area promises to be one of the great contrast, beauty and exploration.

Getting there?

During this global pandemic due to COVID-19, our travel restrictions have been in place and my plans on where to fly to have been limited so decided to go on the road again. Driving along a busy city laneway at 60km/h is not my idea of a relaxing road trip. But I am here 65km northwest of Cairns looking for the signpost that will get me away from the roar of the buses and locals commuting to and from work. It is only when I finally turn off the Kennedy Highway that my visit to one of the Far North Queenslands special places truly begins. This is The Wheelbarrow Way, which starts at Mareeba to Chillagoe, named after the gold mining pioneers who, when work was scare and transportation limited, trudged out bearing their worldly goods in a wheelbarrow.

Getting to Chillagoe is accessible by road and is known for its vast stretches of stunning Savannah land. The drive along the Wheelbarrow Way takes you through rich farmlands and wooded Savannah country. It truly gives you a taste of what tropical outback is like within doorsteps of Cairns. The road trip from Cairns to Chillagoe is 205km. Starting my road trip in Cairns, I crossed the Great Dividing Range (called Kuranda Range), passing Henry Ross Lookout, the Rainforestation nature park, the beautiful Kuranda village and continued to Mareeba, passing Speewah and Koah, on Kennedy Highway.

Mareeba is a sizeable country town located on the northern end of Atherton Tablelands, with fertile soils and consequently farming country. The town have a great museum and a few other things to see and do. I headed into the accessible outback west of Mareeba, taking the state route 27 and passing through Tabacum and Mutchilba before arriving in the quirky town of Dimbulah. Just before reaching Dimbulah is a small township which is the gateway to Hodgkinson Goldfields. In this tiny town, there is a historical railway station and a museum.

The township of Dimbulah in brief history, was the gateway to the gold fields, that sprang up on the Walsh River to service the ore trains. Once the mining faded, cropping became the focus and today sugar cane, mango and lychee plantations can be seen. Dimbulah has a memorial hall, local shops, a hotel, caravan park, soccer ground, bowling club and swimming facilities.

After Dimbulah, the road which is officially called Burke Development Road, I continued my drive west along the road to my next place, Petford. It is a very tiny place with a population of 32 residents. The locality takes its name from the railway station named after John, Joseph Petford, an official of the Queensland Railway Department for many years.

From Petford if you turn south, there is a side trip to Emuford, Irvinebank and Wtsonville that will take you all the way to the township of Herberton. After Petford, I continued my drive west along Burke Development Road to my next township west, Almaden. It is a small community with the population of 71 residents. This tiny township have another historical railway station and the pub – Railway Hotel. The places like Almaden, Petford and Emuford are all linked by the Etheridge railway, which welcomes the Savannahlander train on its weekly run from Cairns via Almaden and Mt Surprise to Forsayth.

From west of Almaden, I continued my journey to my final destination – the outback township of Chillagoe. On entering the Chillagoe region, a dramatic landscape created by massive limestone bluffs and rock formations greets travellers. The road is well maintained and the road to Chillagoe is gravel but the last 20km of the road close to Chillagoe are sealed and travellers should be on the lookout for cattle and horse which wander freely across the unfenced road. At times, you drive on dirt road and you’ll need a car that is reasonable at handling dirt roads. They can be rough at times but don’t require a 4WD.

As I took this state route 27, the scenery begins to change from lush greenery and farmlands to dry and less green as I entered the Savannah Region after Dimbulah. The Outbak scenery is dry, dirt reddish road, scarce greenery and lots of termite mounds. It is very fascinating to see and if it is your first time, you will be amazed to see how high these termite mounds lined naturally along the railways and Savannah.

Chillagoe

Finally, I reached the township of Chillagoe around mid-afternoon where I had enough time to wandered around the town to see the Railway Station, Bank Vault, Court House, Police Museum, Post Office and Post Office Hotel. Around the town, there are some great limestone caves, the old smelters, the courthouse museum, lookout point, the old railway station and the old Mungana township further west. At the end of the town, a tall chimney is visibly seen instantly as you enter the town is part of the ruins of the ore smelter which is iconic to Chillagoe. It is now a drive-around museum at no cost and there is a viewing platform and car park on a high vantage point with informative plaques. It is a site for great photo opportunity and fascinating information on how the pioneers toiled in those days.

As I explored more at my own leisure, I began to see and learn many surviving historic points of interest around Chillagoe and the region. There is so much to see and do to fully experience the past, it truly brought me back in time and immerse myself in the history of Chillagoe. I found Chillagoe a small friendly town with some interesting geology and history. It has a surprising mix of outback landscape, mining heritage, significant Aboriginal art sites and fantastic world class limestone caves. Chillagoe, once a thriving town in its hay-days for range of minerals and today only boasts a small zinc mine and some marble quarries and its world famous caves. Also, it is now one of the favoured haunts of mining buffs tracing the heady days of the 1870’s to the 1920’s mining boom.

Before retiring for the day, my last stop was a visit to the Chillagoe Hub. This is is a private run information centre where I wanted to collect some information about the area and also I signed up for a guided tour of the caves. The caves were my main focus on this weekend getaway road trip as I had never been in the cave before so I made sure to sign up for the next guided tour.

Chillagoe Smelters, once the centre of a thriving mining industry that brought wealth and development to the Chillagoe area, today the Chillagoe Smelters are a fascinating ruin.

Follow walking tracks to viewing shelters and gaze over this significant heritage site. The distinctive chimneys stand as reminders of the gritty bustling workforce, heavily-loaded ore trains and large-scale innovative industry that gave life to this site between 1901 and 1943.

What to do?

Just a short drive out of Chillagoe town is the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park. It is home to some of the remarkable limestone caves in the region that is known for. The following day, I went on an early Park Ranger-guided cave tours to Donna, Trezkinn and Royal Arch Caves. It was time to head inside some of the caves to discover and explore Chillagoe’s underground world which are most popular attractions in the region.

Donna Cave

It was 9am, when we departed for our first cave tour to Donna Cave, located about 1.8km from Chillagoe. From the car park, it was about 10 minutes walk to the cave entrance and had additional time to read the sign. This cave is well lit and is one of the 3 caves in Chillagoe managed by the NPWS. It is only accessed by guided tour with a NPWS ranger who provides a commentary on the formation and history of the cave. Once inside, the first thing that I felt as I headed down into the cave was the enjoyment of the natural air conditioning effect of being underground. The temperature outside was little hotter while inside was nice and cool.

As I entered, right away I could see some of he cool stalactite and stalagmite formations. This cave features beautiful columns, calcite crystals and a cave decoration in the form of the Madonna. The cave has steel walkways and stairs. While walking this 200 metres walk through the cave, we were required to climb several steep flights of stairs – approx. 440 steps in total throughout the tour, including 33 very steep ladder-type steps.

We were made sure to wear the right feet attire and I found myself reasonably fit to do this tour. We were not required for hand-held torches and this spectacular cave were well fitted out with electricity. The stalactites and stalagmites were awesome and the while experience was well worth the effort.

Trezkinn Cave

From Donna cave, I continued my second tour of the caves to Trezkinn Cave at 11am. From the Donna Cave car park, located 1.8 km from Chillagoe, a boardwalk leads to the shelter at the entrance to the cave. From here, we enjoyed outstanding views of the Chillagoe landscape.

The access to Trezkinn Cave is provided via a steel catwalk encircling a huge central mass of limestone. The walk through the cave is about 150m long. Within the cave there are several steep flights of stairs and ramps – about 520 steps in total which includes 46 very steep ladder-type steps.

Inside the cave, a steel catwalk encircles a huge central mass of limestone. The sight of a magnificent ‘chandelier’ formation rewards us and it was absolutely marvelous to look at. No need for hand-held torches, this cave has also fitted out with electricity.

Royal Arch Cave

The final cave visited was the Royal Arch around 1:30pm. From the Royal Arch Cave car park, about 6km from Chillagoe central, a short 200 metres walking track lead us to the cave entrance. Prior to entering the cave, we were given torches that add to the excitement of us exploring the tall limestones karsts and enticing tunnels and to ensure we were able to see where we were waking. There were low overhangs in some places within the Royal Arch Cave so we were to be fit enough to stoop low in several sections. This cave tour took us 600 metres walk through passages, a variety of dark and daylight chambers. In fact, it has 11 chambers in one of the largest cave systems in Chillagoe. Now and again we hist with shafts of daylight that appear in between karst formations, and we could see cave dwelling bats echoing their way around the cave roof tops. The Royal Arch cave has been described by some as grand and impressive. It is a horizontal cave and probably the easiest and longer to explore. In my opinion, this Royal Arch cave was the most impressive cave among the three caves visited.

This cave was discovered by Sir William Atherton in 1888. The name “Royal Arch” given due to two combined features. From the outside the cave, one of the rock formations looks like the profile of Queen Victoria and inside the cave, there is a “daylight chamber” (referring to where the sun shines in) where the collapse of the roof of the cave hundreds of years ago led to the formation of a large rock arch. One of the creepiest parts of the tour was when we turned off all the torches in order to experience the actual darkness of the cave. It was amazing to see how dark it got that it didn’t matter whether our eyes were open or closed. Once the guide convinced us to also be be very quiet, the moment was definitely awe inspiring.

It was quite interesting to learn that the caves served as a tourist attraction since their discovery and that locals often like to take advantage of the cooler temperatures inside the caves by enjoying picnics in the daylight chambers. To me, the highlight of this cave tour was the unexpected shafts of daylight, fig trees, glimpse of darting bats, naturally sculptured limestone formations and ancient marine fossils. It was just fascinating and what a thrill and honour to be exploring this unique caves in Far North Queensland.

My Highlights

After only spending two nights in this outback country town – Chillagoe, I thoughly fell in love with the place. I just wished, I had more time to explore many more other self-guided caves. Discovering these underground wonders of the former mining town of Chillagoe and learning about the natural beauty of the caves have left me spellbound. It was absolutely amazing.

The guided tours to these three spectacular caves with a National Parks ranger and learning more about this amazing underground ecosystem, as well as visit to the Smelter site and Balancing Rock were definitely highlight of my road trip. I have visited Jenolan caves in New South Wales and I must admit, these caves in Chillagoe outclass many of the better known ones in the country and probably the worldwide. The variety and quality of the natural features in the caves were absolutely amazing. The ranger gave indepth information about their age and formation was just beyond. We had to go through the caves which were challenging for the unfit, as there were lots of steps and a few tight places to squeeze through, but overall the effort was worth it. The guide was very understanding if someone was a bit slower.

The tour of the caves was definitely an awesome experience not only allowed me to appreciate the caves but allowed me to see intricate detail as well as sense the awesome big picture of Chillagoes limestone cave systems.. The natural history of the caves and the entire area was fascinating and definitely added a new dimension of new knowledge to me.

For any adventure seeker who is interested or curious in caves should include the Chillagoe Caves on their itinerary to the Far North Queensland. You also get to see a little of the Outback without going too far west. For those wanting a bit more independence on self-guided adventure, make sure to bring a torch with fresh batteries and stay on prescribed routes. Without experience, you will definitely wouldn’t want to wander around lost or even get stuck without a light halfway through a cave. It is totally pitch-black where there is no light.

Journey home

For past two days, spending my time on a lavish cave exploration, it was time for me to take a journey back to Cairns from Chillagoe. The drive back took me longer than expected with a few rest stops and divert of the main road along the way. It is a scenic drive crossing varied landscapes from the red dirt cattle station country, across the irrigated fruit growing tablelands and up through the rain-forested mountains before descending into coastal Cairns. I must say, the journey out west is not most common day trip from Cairns. Cairns is a popular stop for those visiting Tropical North Queensland, which, as they say, is where the rainforest meets the reef – and it is the rainforest and the reef most are in the region to see.

For many travellers, visiting Far North tropical paradise use Cairns as their base, Kuranda, Barron Gorge, the Daintree, Mossman Gorge, Ellis Beach, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation, Paronella Park, Hartleys Crocodile Park and the Great Barrier Reef. These are all popular spots to spend a day. And with good reason, these places are glorious. But if you head west, you will find a totally different kind of day trip – red dirt, big skies, and bushland as far as eye can see – and it is well worth the journey. If you never, never go, you will never, never see it.

 

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