In Cairns it doesn’t take too long to go from the lush coastal landscape, with it’s long sandy beaches and rain forest clad back drop, to the much drier and flatter outback. Within a couple of hours drive, you have literally been transported to a completely different world. It looks different, it smells different and it is different.
My husband and I took our beloved SAAB, nicknamed Sweedie, for a drive last weekend (husband’s love for this car will be another story). We decided to visit a little outback town called Chillagoe, about 220 km inland from Cairns.
It’s been several years since we last visited this little town and we have some very fond memories of the place. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be much there, what was once a thriving mining town with a large smelter has long since declined to a mere dot on the tourist map, with less than 200 inhabitants. But take a second look and you will find there is actually a lot to discover. I won’t go into details of what to see and do in the area, if you want to learn more the following links are a good place to start: Chillagoe Chillagoe, Queensland
Chillagoe is known for its limestone caves and beautiful white marble. The very first time we visited, we specifically wanted to explore the caves. The kids and I were very excited, husband much less so, he gets claustrophobic in small places. But I convinced him the cave we were going to visit was very big, no way was he going to feel closed in. After all, I had seen beautiful photos from inside the caves, they were as high as cathedrals, no possibility of claustrophobia there.
The particular cave I had chosen for us to visit was only accessible with a guide. Our small party was told there was no lights inside the cave so we were given miners lights to put on. We were also told the cave was home to hundreds of bats and not to shine the lights upwards to disturb them. They were sleeping and would not leave the cave until nightfall.
But of course, someone managed to upset the bat colony and while squeezing through a very narrow and low passage (we had to crouch and walk sideways) hundreds and hundreds of bats were flapping past us at lightning speed. We were told to turn our lights off and stand still, we were in pitch darkness and all we could hear and feel was the flapping of hundreds of wings. But not a single bat connected with us.
It was an amazing experience and I will never forget my amazement at how skilled bats are at navigating in pitch darkness. The experience did however make my husband swear never to enter dark unlit caves again. Actually any cave, lit or unlit, and that’s a promise he has kept to this day.
The old smelter sits just outside town, a testament to the thriving industry that once sustained this town. Three large brick chimneys proudly stand watch over what is now mere ruins. But it is not too difficult to imagine the hustle and bustle that once must have reigned here.
You are no longer able to enter the actual smelter site, but you get a very good look from the information platforms erected around the place and lots and lots of information about the smelter and the town is provided on signs around the place. For a history nut like me, it’s heaven. It’s also a very good spot for some fantastic photos.
The drive to Chillagoe is in itself half the fun. You drive through some sleepy little towns and if you stop for a coffee or a beer at the pub, if there is one, you’ll meet some wonderful characters. They are always ready for a chat and can tell you just about everything about the area. And they are wonderfully accommodating. We stopped for a quick coffee in one of those towns in the morning and the cafe owner, even though he closes at 2 pm, told us he would be happy to open up for us on the way home around 5 o’clock and make a pizza for us. Just in case we were hungry. That’s what I call service!
Almost all the road to Chillagoe is now sealed, there are only a few kilometers here and there that are unsealed. Those sections had just been graded when we made our day trip so it was an easy drive to the delight of hubby, who was a little bit worried about Sweedie getting her “feet” dirty. After all, she’s a mature lady of 25 and she requires a little bit of extra care. Which she got the next day – come 10 o’clock she was washed, dried and restored to her shining best. And awaiting her next adventure.