Chillagoe – post 7 of 12 – Archway Caves complex

I wandered onwards from the cave with the paintings, through this peaceful place reflecting on the idea that the Royal Arch caves with its rocky crown, gave off no sense of people connections rather that it was a hard lifeless soulless place. By contrast, the Archways embraced me, warmed me, and made me feel welcome.  I could have lain and slept without fear and with a sense of belonging and comfort (despite the fact this was not my land).  Here I felt a smile drifting permanently across my face, whereas set eyes, lips and jaw had been my firm stance at the Royal Arch.  Aboriginal people have no interest in going into the dark of caves; that serves no purpose and had no connection with the stories of their association with the land. On the  other hand, at the Archways where some cave ceilings were long gone allowing light into safe spaces, aboriginal families could have comfortably existed and performed their living rituals.

I continued wandering around the complex, all the while sensing the people before me (both indigenous and non-indigenous) who had passed this way – with a sense of good will and calm. IMG_0315.JPG






Tree roots spread around.


roots.JPGSometimes, in the ‘outside’ areas of the complex, the small spaces between outcrops gave a feeling of cosiness.    IMG_0305.JPG


IMG_0333.JPGIn addition, the height of the limestone karsts could be appreciated from within.      IMG_0309.JPG





IMG_0334.JPGThe surface of the limestone varied.  Some textures particularly appealed such as the following:  IMG_0310.JPG


We saw scrub turkeys and rock wallabies living here. Peaceful and safe for all. I felt very much at home here.


Chillagoe – post 6 of 12 – Aboriginal paintings

Further along the track, past the Old Mungana Cemetery, we arrived at the Archways cave complex.  Alone. No other visitors.  Just us and the sun, the dry air, dust ready to rise where the ground is disturbed,  birds flitting in the lower vegetation, all accompanied by gentle breezes whispering in the trees.  A laziness permeated the atmosphere.


A protective entrance/barrier marked the entry into the cave area.


Then, in the recesses of cooler spaces (where the cave ceilings had long collapsed), I spotted ochre paintings painted by indigenous locals. While they were located away from rain, it surprised me greatly that there were no provisions to protect these paintings from human aggravation – no signs, no barriers. I was pleased that respect had been given and that the paintings had suffered no mutilation or defacement.

I felt wonder and excitement and privileged to be in the presence of something that extends back hundreds and thousands of years. Something which fits so perfectly into the environment and is of the environment. Something bigger and more important than ourselves.  Something enduring in the face of natural earth changes, social tragedies, and cultural disruptions.





IMG_0298.JPGI do not understand the protocols for retouching these paintings. I understand that current elders have the right and responsibility for the upkeep of cave paintings.  Some that I saw are fresher than others- some seem not to have been repainted in a long while. Does this mean that different clans have used these caves and that therefore, different elders are responsible for the maintenance of specific paintings?

Chillagoe – post 5 of 12 – Old Mungana Cemetery

The guided Royal Arch cave tour provided an excellent introduction to the geology of the district and it provided a transition event between the shock of arrival in Chillagoe and the pleasure of experiencing the Archways cave area.  Into the afternoon sun we drove for about 15 kms.IMG_0279.JPG

Closer to our destination, dramatic limestone karsts rose into the air near the road side. IMG_0285.JPG


This Archways cave system is located slightly west of the Chillagoe township near the Old Mungana Cemetery and the Discovery Guide provides a map (See details of the area and a map here).  Against the glare of mid-afternoon sun we saw the sign marking the cemetery, but after walking hither and thither we found no tombstones or other remnants.


Our walks gave us special vantage points to appreciate the nature of the landscape. IMG_0337.JPG




Chillagoe – post 4 of 12 – the Royal Arch cave tour


We followed our map instructions and 6 kms later we arrived at the carpark ready for the Royal Arch Cave guided tour.  Peter and I sat and waited, soaking in the sights and sounds of the landscape.


When the guide arrived, he impressed with his manner of explaining how the tour would run, and the value of respecting the caves and the environment. Safety procedures were detailed clearly.  I was delighted with the organisation of the tour – each of us were  handed our own gear with battery to girdle our waistlines with a light at the end of a cord draped around our neck for easy access. Yes.  Inside most of the cave was dark; pitch black when the lights were off.

Geared up, off we walked towards a commanding rocky limestone edifice.  I could feel the warmth of the sunshine and the dryness of the air, see the movements of small birds in the trees and hear the sounds of larger birds higher up, all the while sensing the country was very very old. IMG_0242.JPG


We arrived at the rock and moved towards a narrow cleft through which we entered.


If I continued, would I be carried into the land of fairy stories? There are medieval legends of recesses in rocks through which people entered and either didn’t come out again or were transformed in some way. Mysteries often surround the history of caves. Would I come out again, be lost in some underground labyrinth, or be imprisoned by mythical mountain giants? Would I be changed forever by this experience?   When I walked into the ‘mountain;, I stepped into and down with great curiousity as the guide locked the gate behind me.  Clang.

Initially, daylight streamed weakly through a ‘skylight’ created by a rock fall.



Then we plunged deeper into the grand cave system.  Chains edged the pathway to provide additional guidance as we walked.  The result was that I did not fall off edges and into deeper caves. Periodically we ascended or descended strong railed steep metal stairs.  We negotiated narrow passages and low overhangs (I am always grateful for being shorter than some), and crouched our way through some sections. In so doing, we twisted and turned our way through cavern after cavern, and were rewarded with different formations and rock structures.


Caves are usually brightened by strong lights when photographs are being taken for use in promotional material. The result is an unrealistic presentation in terms of colour; as we walked, in the gloom and using our pointer lights, most of the cave exists in shades of grey and black.  This ‘loss’ of colour surprised some visitors.

We walked for some time admiring the internal structures of the cave spaces. Do you remember what the difference is between a stalactite and a stalagmite?   The stalactite descends from the ceiling. It is a more or less conical shape created as mineral laden moisture runs down and leaves a deposit of the minerals at the tip before some water drips off the bottom end.  The stalagmite ‘grows’ up from the ground as mineral laden water drops onto it.  After hundreds and thousands of years, we can then see their forms. If stalactites – the ceiling formations – grow long enough to connect with stalagmites on the floor, they form a column. In the Royal Arch cave, the stalactites and stalagmites were seldom thin and spindly, rather they were clumpy, bulbous, gross rather than refined.

When we reached another area where the ‘ceiling’ had fallen in, seeing daylight again was reassuring.   This is commonly referred to as ‘picnic cave’.  Greening occurs on some wall where light enters and rain can fall.

IMG_0255.JPGIMG_0256.JPGApparently years ago this was the site of a rescue of three local boys who slipped into the caves over locked gates carrying only one carbide light between them, ready for adventure. When the single light went out permanently they became lost in the maze of caves. Eventually they found the opening pictured above. Only one boy could eventually clamber up the fig tree roots and rocky walls and out of the steep irregular sides to go and get help – hours later.  His feet were cut badly from the razor sharp rocks.  The rescue was especially problematic because the upward air drafts from the cave meant the helicopter could only hover for 30 seconds at a time or risk engine overheating and failure. They then had to fly around for 5-10 minutes to cool down.

The textures of the limestone cave walls varied.  I was surprised by the sharpness of ‘gouged’/deep ‘engraved’ markings on the rocks.   IMG_0259.JPG




Within the cave tour, our guide allowed for personal adventure.  There was a tube like pathway which some could choose to squeeze through on their stomachs to an area then swivel around in a tiny confined space before going down the tube feet first to come out in a new cave space.  Peter dared to take this path while I walked the alternative open path.  And he loved the experience despite almost getting stuck with his wide shoulders. We were both surprised how few children were prepared to take risks; sad that they are already denying themselves the opportunity to explore what was really a safe environment despite the hype the guide added.

You might recall, when I was walking through one of the Undara lava tube caves, I showed photos of the calcrete floor surface.  There was a similar surface in one of the Royal Arch caves.


We saw a number of well camouflaged small cave spiders on the walls.  The spider in the photo below had spun a web connected to the railings of part of the walk pathway. Apparently the main spider types are the Huntsmen and the St Andrews Cross varieties.


Decades have passed since I last visited a limestone cave.  I had memories of spectacular white wet stalactites and stalagmites.  However all those were located in southern Australia where usually moisture comes through for most months of the year.  Way up north at the top of Queensland the weather and climate is quite different. The result are comparatively drier caves, and the speed at which water droplets fall is so much slower.

After two hours we emerged from the cave with its feeling of profound emptiness, and returned to the warm sunlit living landscape.


Chillagoe  – post 3 of 12 – Caving

Some caves are out of bounds except with official guides while others can be accessed without a guide (these  usually do not have stairways or lights – so individuals must take care and all responsibility). The named caves promoted to tourists in the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park are:

  • Self guided tours – Pompeii Cave (difficult 50mins), Bauhinia Cave (difficult 20 mins), Archways Cave (easy 30 mins).
  • Ranger guided tours- Donna Cave(moderate 60 mins), Trezkinn Cave (moderate 45 mins), Royal Arch Cave (easy 90 mins)

More information and photographs can be seen online

See details of the Chillagoe area and a map here

For adventurers who do not suffer anxiety in tiny or cavernous spaces, who have the right equipment and who like the excitement of underground discovery, and who can work as part of a team, then joining a caving club might be for you.   The Chillagoe limestone based area is a mecca for cave explorations and, as a result, it has its own club.

Chillagoe – post 2 of 12 – the place

The Cairns Post newspaper of 1 March 1939 on page 13 reported that “The cattle station established by the Athertons and called by them Chillagoe, led Mr W Atherton in his routine stock work onto the outcrops of copper and silver close to the homestead. The name Chillagoe, Mr Atherton explains, is not aboriginal as one would suppose. It comes from the words of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas.  The line containing the word was constantly being repeated by a friend of Mr Atherton and when a naming was sought ‘Chillagoe’ sang its way into history. Other district namings – Girofla, for instance – also come from operatic sources.”   Another source claims  ‘Chillagoe’ is a word from an old sea shanty: “ikey, cryke, psyke, mikey, chillagoe wallabodorie” and was the name given to William Atherton’s Cattle station in 1888.  I made a quick search of all the Gilbert & Sullivan librettos written before 1888 (Thespis, Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, H M S Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, The Mikado, Ruddigore, plus The Yeoman of the Guard of 1888) and none seem to have these words.  Has any  blog reader more information or ideas?

Queensland’s Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing (what an odd portfolio!) provides considerable information about the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park generally and Chillagoe specifically; see here.  On this site we learn: “Chillagoe lies within a belt of limestone approximately 5km wide and 45 km long, extending from south of Chillagoe, north-west to the Walsh River and beyond. Much more extensive belts occur as far north as the Palmer River.

The limestone was deposited as calcareous mud and coral reefs approximately 400 million years ago, on the bed of a shallow sea where Chillagoe is located today. Major earth movements folded and tilted the limestone and other inter-bedded sediments to an almost vertical position.

Over long periods of geological time, the limestone above the ground has been eroded by water, forming a set of distinct landforms called karst. Today, this limestone appears in gaunt pinnacled outcrops known as bluffs or towers that project up to 40 m above the surrounding plains.


Different formations can be identified: rillenkarren is limestone with a surface of narrow, sharp-edged grooves; kamenitzas are flat, shallow pans; rinnenkarren are large, vertical flutes in the cliff faces; and grikes are clefts in straight-sided blocks of limestone. The limestone below the ground has also been slowly dissolving away.


Rain combines with carbon dioxide in the air and the soil to form a mild acid. This acid has seeped through cracks and lines of weakness called joints, dissolving the limestone to form underground caverns and tunnels and depositing material in the form of cave decorations. Cave decorations reflect the condition under which they were formed. In damp conditions, the release of carbon dioxide from the limy water causes the lime (off-white calcium carbonate) to be re-deposited in brilliant sparkling crystals. Stalactites (forming from the roof), stalagmites (forming on the floor), helictites (forming sideways), shawls (draperies or bacon stone) and rimstone pools (gours), all form in this way. Under drier conditions, after the wet season, and in areas of good ventilation, evaporation of water produces knobbly formations with a chalky surface known as cave coral.”

The free Australian Tourist Publication booklet “Welcome to Atherton Tablelands and Gulf Savannah”, presents superb photographs of cave interiors on page 56 and 57.

Chillagoe – post 1 of 12– getting there

What was the attraction of Chillagoe? Why did I decide this was a ‘must do’ place to visit?

Earlier in the year one of my Far North Queensland based relatives (I live in Hobart near the southern  tip of Australia) researched The Wheelbarrow Way. The result was that a group of us planned to travel into cattle stations and through the towns along the way, with camping and grabbing whatever accommodation we could. Her research excited me. When the trip was cancelled unexpectedly, I realised that I need not miss out (my flights were booked) and so I set about determining how I could experience some if not all those proposed adventures.  The limestone caves, with their rich overlay of aboriginal history, at and around Chillagoe lured me. Then I found there was so much more to appreciate in Chillagoe and along the road west from Cairns.

A relative Peter and I hired an all-terrain car and set off westwards early in the morning after I returned from Undara.

We did not have information about the road condition, and therefore could not predetermine how long it would take to drive from Cairns to Chillagoe. In advance I had booked us into a Royal Arch cave tour (access only allowed with an official guide) very early in the afternoon, and so we were keen to arrive in time. We drove without stopping to Chillagoe and arrived with time to spare after less than three hours on the road. The road was excellent with a bitumen surface except for about 30 or so kilometres of gravel near the end.  At the western end of Chillagoe, the road surface becomes gravel permanently something which rental hire car companies do not want their cars to be driven on.  We were fortunate our hire car company allowed us to travel to Chillagoe on that small distance of gravel.

By arriving early we had time to book into our accommodation at the Chillagoe Observatory & Eco Lodge (with free WiFi) – a sprawling casual environment where we felt comfortable.

Then we drove the few blocks back into town and located the Chillagoe Hub , a tourist information centre and the place to collect our cave tour tickets.


A gentle walk along the main street brought us to the smart Chillagoe Tourist Village Café, run by people with an excellent sense of style (appropriate but different from what I expected in a small country town) where great cups of tea and coffee were offered.  We sat outside, chatting with others and watching birds flit between green leafed trees. This was a leisurely thing to do, and we settled into a relaxed frame of mind. We listened to the almost soundless town, felt the glow of sunshine, and were glad to have arrived.


The Wheelbarrow Way


In recent blog posts I have been showing you aspects of the Savannah Way so, now, what is the Wheelbarrow Way and what does it have to do with the Savannah Way?  Quite simply, the Wheelbarrow Way is one small part of the Savannah Way.

This website provides the following information about the Wheelbarrow Way (and much more): “On the 3rd September 1873 at Georgetown, North Queensland, a hand written notice was nailed to the bark wall of the Mining Warden’s office. “J V Mulligan reports the discovery of payable gold on the Palmer River. Those interested may inspect at this office the 102 ounces he has brought back. ” The rush was on, and the pastoralists followed. The development of Far North Queensland had begun. Men from countries around the world toiled in an incredibly hot, hostile environment. Their mode of transport was basic. When work became scarce, or it was time to move on, they walked. Irvinebank to Chillagoe, Chillagoe to the Hodgkinson gold fields, or over the wild ranges to Mt Molloy. “Dad pushed a wheelbarrow in which were stacked all their belongings. A few pieces of iron, which would be used as shelter; maybe some hessian, a spade, a lantern, a few kitchen things and very little else. Mum and the children straggled behind, Mum, usually with a babe in arms. ” (Quote from old-timer Mr. Peel) It is as a tribute to these pioneers, who trudged the dusty tracks, that this route has been named The Wheelbarrow Way. With little more than determination, they carved out a future and opened up the vast uncharted territory, just back o’ Cairns ……….the Cairns Outback.”


From this early practice grew a special (quite mad in my opinion) competition: The Great Wheelbarrow Race which extended between Mareeba and Chillagoe a distance of 140 km (and perhaps a greater distance in the 19th century).


The history of the race can be read here. Race information for 2017 shows the details for a three day race – the wording of the race categories make for amusing reading.  The words ‘mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ come to mind. Perhaps you would like to listen to Noel Coward when he performed his song with these words; go to this You Tube recording.

After leaving the town of Mareeba and driving westwards, the towns of Mutchilba and Dimbulah punctuate the Mareeba /Dimbulah Road. This road then changes its name and becomes the Burke Development Road on which the towns of Petford and Almaden can be stop-overs on route to or from Chillagoe. The Burke Development Road continues on after Chillagoe as a very long detouring alternative to reach Normanton, compared to the more direct route along the Kennedy Highway (the highway that I took when travelling to Undara).

I passed through all the towns between Mareeba and Chillagoe twice – going west and then returning to Cairns. The following blog posts will reveal the stories, accompanied by photographs.

Spear grass (Heteropogon contortus)

At Undara, friend John pointed out spear grass which had clumped together when the wind has blown strands together.  He noted all the tiny spear heads were ready to attach to anything that passed them by.


John explained that to walk through this grass was to invite future trouble; the tiny spears dig into your clothing and, with their barbed end, they resist being pulled out.  Of course, if you do not remove all of them from your clothes, and even if the clothes have tumbled through a heavy wash in a machine, then you will be constantly attacked by their points.  They are tiny and finding the individual spears on light and mixed coloured clothing can be difficult. Apparently, sometimes it is easier to throw the piece of clothing away than persist trying to find and remove the offending spears.  Once that lesson is learnt, vigilance in the savannah grass lands becomes second nature.

The Feedipedia site provides a list of common names for this grass: “Spear grass, speargrass, black speargrass, tanglehead grass, tanglehead, bunch speargrass, bunched spear grass, twisted beardgrass, tangle grass, piercing grass, pili grass, stick grass, wild oats [English]; flechinha [Portuguese]; hierba torcida [Spanish]; herbe polisson, hétéropogon contourné, herbe barbue, herbe à moutons [French]; assegaaigras, steekgras [Afrikaans]; pili [Hawaii]; kichoma mguu, kichoma nguo, kishona nguo, kishona [Swahili]; 黄茅, 地筋 [Chinese]; หญ้าหนวดฤๅษี [Thai]”  Research indicates spear grass might have been in existence for thousands if not millions of years and that it could be native to Gondwanaland (originally including the Australia landmass).  It spreads comfortably into areas of low fertility and is helped along by seasonal bush fires so that it can be found outside savannah country.

From the moment John showed me spear grass, I watched and saw the clumped spears often during my stay in various spots of the savannah west of Cairns.  As much as I wanted to walk through the grass to investigate a potentially interesting rock or landscape, I found other ways.





Undara – post 8 of 8 Atkinson’s Lookout walk

The Atkinson’s Lookout track starts on the western end of the Undara Resort, and is clearly marked once you reach a junction.  Before then it skirts around a caravan park and initially I was a little unclear where I was headed.


Early on I passed an interesting fruiting tree. I have studied photos of native figs but what I saw does not seem like a native fig? Can anyone identify this fruit/tree? 20170624_095341.jpg


Soft dry grasses, typical of this part of Savannah country, edged the first part of the track.


Later I passed land where a burn off had exposed the ground, and occasionally I encountered weather worn and abandoned ant hills (termite mounds). 20170624_100158.jpg



Paper daisies from the helichrysum family surprised me with their purity.20170624_100733.jpg

Either the vegetation was dense or burnt as part of controlled burn-offs.    20170624_101209.jpg



20170624_105137.jpg Eventually the Lookout rise was nearby. The bottom of the hill was boulder strewn and openly vegetated.  I climbed the stony track. 20170624_103258.jpg


Someone had time on their hands and had created a pyre of stones and dead wood to act as a cairn marking the top of the Atkinson’s Lookout.20170624_103719.jpg

I felt a quality of loneliness while I sat absorbing the sounds and the feel of this place – I was moved by an acknowledgement of the size of this country, and considered how difficult it would be for non-indigenous peoples to survive here .  I thought about the travels of European explorers in the 19th and 20th centuries and the effects of months and years of isolation on their mental health. The flatness in every direction would have been unnerving;  even with the sun and compasses to provide directions north, south, east or west, the distances are so vast, and from any hill there is no indication of where life-saving water might be found.  On the day I walked, near the foot of the Atkinson’s Lookout hill swept a small creek bed, dry except for one tiny water pool.  Later in the dry season this would be empty.


Of course our indigenous people would have known all the survival possibilities, and the vastness of this country would not have been a concern. 20170624_103737.jpg


During my walk I noticed one tree had thrown down ‘cotton’ loaded seed pods. The seeds, when burst, released white fluffy contents. I suspect this was a variety of Kurrajong tree (sometimes referred to as a kapok).  Can anyone help with the identification?   20170624_110527.jpg



Atkinson’s Lookout was rumoured to have excellent phone reception.  I never found it.  However, as usual with any walk that I undertake, this experience was educational and the vista grand so I am very glad to have made the approximate 4 km trek.

In summary, the Undara Resort experience was surprising for the extent and high quality of the facilities, and the competence and accessibility of the staff. My Pioneer Hut was anything but rough and rustic. It was a contemporary mini house with a smart spacious tiled bathroom and spacious bedroom/lounge room. Outside on two sides of the building spread a wide verandah with a range of relaxing furniture.  Superb and faultless.  All surrounded by open forest with intriguing varieties of birds flying through.

Even in the short time of my visit, I was able to immerse myself within the landscape by taking solo walks and finding no-one else on the track.  To be able to pad along comparatively quietly so that macropods either side of the path kept munching fresh green grass shoots, lifted my spirits.  While those animals watched me cautiously they seemed to understand I was not a threat.  Every blade of grass had its story.

My travel experiences provided the opportunity to reflect on social histories, geology, land use, weather and the changing climate, and the diversity of flora and fauna. They gave me substance and mental space so that I could cherish a larger and more holistic view of our planet.

I wish I had more time to take a number of other walks from the Undara Resort.  Perhaps another two days would have allowed me to absorb and appreciate more of the landscape. But it was not to be. After lunch, a staff member shuttled me back to the main road. Before long the Transnorth bus was pulling over.  I was lucky; the driver had saved me a front seat so he could act as a guide on my return trip to Cairns. Another example of excellent warm country hospitality.


Undara – post 7  of 8 Walk to the Bluff

Rather than returning to the Resort, after breakfast I set out on a walk which extended for about 3 kms.


I followed a track south westwards until I reached a junction.  From there I turned northwards along a new track towards a rocky  hill, the Bluff.  I clambered around outcrops following a narrow path which other visitors had created.  The views across the wooded lava plains were spectacular.





In case you didn’t notice in the photos above, one species of wattle had started to bloom.




I continued circling around the Bluff top until I could look out over the Resort.




The walk down from the Bluff was pleasant in the early morning coolness.  Eventually a signpost leading to the Resort appeared, to show the way if I had been lost.



At the end of my walk I discovered a sign with more information about all the walks around Undara. I resolved to pack my luggage, stow it in an office somewhere, and then head off to discover more.



Undara – post 6 of 8 Breakfast in the bush

Away from the main buildings and accommodation, a path wound around a hill for 300 metres until ‘civilisation’ disappeared from view. Then I spotted the breakfast arena and could smell the sizzling bacon.  Billy tea boiled on a fire was on offer plus bush cooked eggs, beans, tomatoes and fire toasted bread (always the best!).  In addition, fruit and other continental breakfast options were laid out for an ‘all you can eat’ consumption.


Clearly, the kookaburras knew that food might accidentally be dropped (we were warned not to feed the wildlife) so they flew in, were cheekily cunning, and needed watching or your breakfast could be carried away.


Undara – post 5 of 8 The bat cave


In semi darkness we descended from Sunset Hill and reboarded our bus.  The next stop was a lava tube where we descended a path with torches.


The excitement of the night was our expectation to see microbats flying in and out of Stephenson’s Cave that had been formed by the partial collapse of a lava tube.  A Queensland government site explains:  “Four types of insectivorous bat (also known as microbats) roost in the caves. Bakers Cave is a major nursery site for the large bent-wing bat Miniopterus schreibersii, the eastern cave bat Vespadelus troughtoni, northern horseshoe bat Rhinolophus megaphyllus ignifer, and coastal sheathtail bat Taphozous australis. Bakers Cave is thought to house about 80,000 of these little mammals during the maternity period, one of the largest colonies in north Queensland.”  Photos of the bats can be seen here.

From time to time we turned off our torches, waited a while then on came the lights and everyone took photographs in that split second as the bats flew out from the cave over our heads.  I now find that I inadvertently changed my camera setting to selfie – yes it was pitch black dark most of the time and everything I did was by feel. Alas, the two dozen photos I took of the flying ‘bats’ are photos of me!


The lava tube ‘ cave’ appeared as:



After the tour the hunger pangs needed satisfaction.  Thankfully the Undara Resort offered hospitality second to none. Its staff were incredibly friendly and helpful in a very professional way, yet their manner was comfortably appropriate for a remote location situated in the bush.  My evening continued with an excellent dinner (tasty coconut creamed vegetarian curry) in a large open but hooded area (the Fettler’s Iron Pot Bistro), with new found friends.



Then it was time to gather around the campfire for a game of trivia organised by Undara.  Very amusing; all these experiences left everyone tired but happy.  I slept very well!

Undara- post 4 of 8 Panoramic views at sunset

As the dusk deepened, our bus parked and we were instructed to hurry up a small hill; some were just in time to see the sun dipping below the horizon and the beginnings of a changing pink flush spreading across the land.  I dallied with eyes peeled for more macropods, and reached the summit after sundown. Before me lay 360 degrees of savannah lands.  Stillness.  Softness.







The photos show the facts of the landscape; the flatness of the savannah covered plains, the occasional volcanic structure, the rocky outcrops,  and the big sky with its sunset colours.  The photos have not captured the feel of the slight drop in temperature; I felt compelled to pull on a jacket and zip up.  The photos do not include people holding flutes of sparkling wine and nibbling canapes.  Together we celebrated the sun going down, the beauty of the vista, and our sense of privilege to stand in such an expansive and isolated landscape.

Undara – post 3 of 8 The hoppers during the sunset tour

Soon after returning from the tour of the lava tubes it was time to gather for the Sunset Tour. I confess that I wasn’t interested but had agreed to join the group – with a resigned ‘seen one sunset seen the lot’ notion coursing through my mind. I was surprised.  Pleasantly. Very surprised with how important this tour was to my understanding of the landscape and it’s animals – and yes, the sunset was fine.  I am full of praise for those who locked me into this tour.

The guide loaded a small group of people into a bus and we set off at dusk.  First up, he insisted that anything wearing a long tail and hopping had to be labelled ‘macropod’ and not ‘kangaroo’.  The reason being that in this landscape bounds a diversity of members of the macropod family; such as wallaroos including the antilopine wallaroo, pademelons, and many others in addition to varieties of kangaroo and wallaby.  Our driver wanted us to learn to identify the differences.  So we called out every time we saw a macropod feeding in the grasses near the track we were following; then the driver halted the bus for us to watch. Over an hour we all began to pick the differences and identify exactly which macropod or family of macropods we were watching.  This searching process ensured our eyes and brains remained active, and the reward was new understandings. Marvellous.





Of course you wonder if I can name each of the macropods in the photos above.  I cannot.  Alas, I have forgotten the details required to make the identifications.  Nevertheless, the experience was special and it opened my eyes to the diversity of bounders out in our bush.

We continued on along sandy tracks appreciating the ‘cold burns’ in the bush that keep the undergrowth controlled without burning through canopies and killing trees.  Quite quickly new growth appears and tasty green shoots emerge everywhere to tempt the macropods to break cover.  And it works for the health of the bush and for the fauna.

Undara – post 2 of 8 Into the lava tube

From the strong sunlight we descended into the darker world of the first lava tube.


The ceiling of the first tube was spectacular with its angular shapes and its soft brown colours.  Patterns from water created a decorative finish.


We walked down and beneath this ceiling.



I loved the subtlety of the colours, and the unworn rock structures.


20170623_135751.jpg Interpretation signs helped with my understanding of what had happened here.


20170623_135918.jpgWe continued walking and entered into a second lava tube. I loved the way the openings framed this subterranean landscape. They reminded me of 19th century arch shaped frames used on some paintings and photographs of that period.



In the wet season of northern Queensland the heavy rains flood the floors of these lava tubes and therefore a silt has built over the years.  Over time a substance called calcrete builds up; more information can be read here.



The ceiling of the second tube showed different effects.



In some places fine tree roots had penetrated through the thick rocky surface and they hung freely from the ceiling  Later our guide showed us, up on the surface, the living tree connected to one of the thicker roots swinging from the ceiling.

This tour was exceptionally interesting, not only for the information provided by the guide, but also for the sounds, smell, and visuals associated with these lava tubes.  Quite extraordinary. Both my friend and I were very pleased to have had the experience.

Undara – post 1 of 8 Tour to lava tubes

Once I arrived at Undara, and had dropped my luggage in my contemporary 1 bedroom separate ‘house’, friend John joined me after driving up country from the south.  Off we headed to a visitor group meeting point ready to be led by an accredited guide to the geological formations created by volcanoes millennia in the past; the lava tubes.  Undara and the country for hundreds of kilometres around, is volcanic country.

I learnt a new fact that day.  When the word volcano is used I always visualise a conical structure which, when it erupts, sends ash and projectiles and lava explosively into the air. Now I know that the ‘composite’ volcano is only one of two types of volcanoes.  The second type is categorised as a ‘shield’ volcano, is comparatively flat, and never explodes. The lava tubes at Undara have been formed by shield volcanoes.

After an introduction and housekeeping by the guide we boarded a small bus and were driven into the country.


We passed all manner of rocky outcrops.



Once out of the bus, I wandered over to an interpretation sign.


Then I followed the guide on the Archway Explorer tour (no-one is permitted to visit these lava tubes without an official guide). Along the path he provided an explanation of the rocks, and an introduction to the local geological history.


In the distance was a band of green vegetation, marking a gully created by a lava tube where the ceiling had fallen in.


An old Bottle Tree (Brachychiton rupestris) was also spotted.



The gully was a tangle of dry branches and rocking stones and rocks, and formed home for a small family of Mareeba rock wallaby. I saw one camouflaged with its grey fur moving deftly up the rocks and away from us.



The gully led to the entrance of our first lava tube.

Transit to Undara

After one day mostly in lush rich dense rainforest it was time to seriously start exploring savannah country. The Undara National Park, and specifically the Undara lava tubes, was my first destination. I taxi’d to the Cairns Central Bus Station around 6 am ready to travel on a Transnorth bus that transports people and freight three days a week to towns along a route that ends at Karumba on the southern end of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

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My destination was a few kms east of Mount Surprise, four and a half hours away from Cairns.

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The bus carried regulars who knew each other despite hundreds of kilometres of road separating their homes. Only a couple were like me, total strangers to each other and to the territory we were passing through.  But that bus trip felt like a comfortable one with family. Relaxed. Warm. Welcoming.

The bus did not have a toilet ‘down the back’, a normal feature of Australia’s long distance buses/coaches.  Instead, in that space a large area had been blocked off for freight. We were alerted to be prepared to wait for the public toilets in the towns along the way if we were desperate for a nature call.  Otherwise the driver would be making a point of stopping for a while in the tiny town of Ravenshoe.

As it happened, the driver stopped a great many times to collect and despatch freight, so no-one was ever uncomfortable.  The driver reckoned he had never seen such a volume, but we soon worked out the reason for the extra loads of freight.  It was nearing the end of June – only a few days before the end of the financial year. Obviously, businesses and individuals out west had been spending any left-over dollars and their ordered goods were now on their way. In fact there was so much freight that day, that I arrived at my let-off point for the Undara Resort half an hour late.

We wound uphill from Cairns along the Kennedy Highway and continued past the hillside town of Kuranda. Not long after, the road crossed Haren Creek. It was at this point I could see a dramatic change in the vegetation – dense rainforest on the Kuranda end of the Highway and the new open start of Savannah country on the inland side.

We passed coffee plantations, different varieties of mango fruit trees and other crops. Mareeba, on the Atherton Tableland, was our first stop to drop off and collect freight.  It was still early morning but the air was clear, the sky bright and the business of the day was starting to turn over across this town.

Next we arrived at the historic town of Atherton where I sat on the bus and remembered my past associations and mused. A couple of decades ago, I researched and developed a strategic marketing plan for the National Trust of Queensland in respect of the rare and historically precious Hou Wang Temple. It was a privilege to be associated with such an internationally important building and all its historical baggage.  I ‘came back’ to Atherton when I heard the back door of the bus bang shut; the freight was stowed and the bus driver was returning to his seat. Off we motored all the time moving southwards before the big shift to drive westwards.

Herberton was a long stop. I admired the driver’s fitness as he handled what seemed like a tonne of boxes, and managed to stack and pack them away. I knew Herberton is the home of the Historic Village which is a large scale outdoor museum with a particular focus on the local tin mining history, however there was no time to stop and view it;  the bus whizzed by and I was headed elsewhere.

The weather changed from sunny and dry. Clearly we were passing on the edge of the misty mountains area of the Tableland, where drizzle and rain are constants.

Misty Mts.JPGAt damp Ravenshoe a deliberate stop-over of half an hour was scheduled as a late morning tea break at the Tall Timbers Roadhouse at the edge of town. It was important to understand that the bus driver, apart from being the freight handler, was solely responsible to drive the whole distance from Cairns to Karumba in the one day, and then return to Cairns the following day. Around 12 hours. A big ask. In a big country. It is what people do ‘out back’.

Mt Garnet was the last town we stopped at before the bus continued on.  The trees were far apart.  The land was dry.  I was thrilled when seeing the occasional native bottle tree, and the rounded termite mounds across the paddocks.  The information about the termites here shows grand tall mounds, but what I saw were small low level much rounder structures.  Courtesy of the site here is a photo of the sort of mounds I enjoyed seeing.

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After many kilometres, we turned off the southward bound Kennedy Highway onto the Gulf Development Road which headed in a more north westerly direction.

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My destination was the Undara National Park just ‘up the road’ not far from the Kennedy Highway.

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The Undara Resort is 16 km off the Highway so in the hot afternoon sun it was not a proposition to walk that gravel road. Instead the bus driver contacted the Resort and let them know what time he expected to reach the T junction and asked that they send someone to collect me.  A woman and a small bus was waiting when the bus stopped by the side of the road – in the middle of nowhere.  Perfect service. Courtesy. No fuss. And it all just happened.

Etheridge Local Council and the Savannah Way

According to this site ‘The Savannah Way is Australia’s Adventure Drive, linking Cairns in Tropical North Queensland with the historic pearling town of Broome in Western Australia’s Kimberley, via the natural wonders of Australia’s tropical savannahs and the Northern Territory’s Top End.’ The sub-site ‘Cairns to Normanton’ focuses on some parts of the savannah territory that I crossed, walked around, and loved. The details are many and you can learn more about many weeks’ worth of experiences to be had in the area. Brochures and maps are provided.

A company, Savannah Way Ltd has been formed and some of its members are local governments; the Savannah Way passes through the land of different local governments. Undara, my second main destination is located on the eastern side of the Etheridge Local Council’s huge allotment; see the green shaded National Park on the right hand side here. Information about historical and cultural matters can be read here.  The Council’s vision: ‘Our vision for the Shire is one of growth and development but balanced with keeping our lifestyle as a safe and interesting place to live. Our growth isn’t just theoretical, we ARE growing and we need more residents to move to take up the many jobs and business opportunities available. Mining, tourism and the cattle industry are the predominant sectors in our economy but as our population grows, so will services need to expand. We have great hospitals, schools and services. Our showcase tourism facility is TerrEstrial, a unique concept incorporating a Visitor Information, Council Library, Internet Cafe and one of the Shire’s most significant Tourist Attractions – the Ted Elliott Mineral Collection.’

Atherton Tableland

The Emerald Creek Ice Creamery that was visited during my earlier excursion, is located on the Atherton Tableland.  On subsequent trips out west I passed through a number of key towns that dot this area so I thought it would be valuable to provide a little more information.

The Atherton Tableland is exceptionally important agriculturally for Cairns particularly and for north eastern Australia generally.  It is vast, fertile and most often it is luscious green in colour. This is overlaid with various tourism opportunities many of which are based on world heritage recognised environmental areas.

Wikipedia sets the scene with a tiny history and other facts.  The Kanjini Co-op  website includes a map showing the extent of the Tablelands. An Atherton Tablelands website introduces a range of food, events and locations.

The Tablelands provides a gateway to other tourism experiences in north western Queensland; I will be travelling through the Tablelands and onward to my next destination at Undara.  Later I will pass by on the way to Chillagoe. On another occasion I will float over one of the main towns, Mareeba.