Rolling solo

Months ago Betty’s daughter mentioned an event that was being organised for hundreds of women to travel to the East MacDonnell Ranges and stay at the Ross River Resort for a few days in August this year.  As Betty and I chatted on the phone, I googled the details and we both decided we would book into the ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’s’ event. How glad we were that this opportunity came our way, because it set in train almost two weeks of extraordinary and uplifting experiences.

Rolling Solo Australia is a new company designed to bring together women who love travelling solo in their motorhomes, caravans, tents and in whatever other travel paraphernalia they choose.  It provides a forum for exchange of ideas, helpful workshops, and a ‘place’ to meet other like-minded travellers.  The Rolling Solo website explains “Our online community supports independent women of all ages and encourages outdoor recreation, travel, adventure and friendship and our membership portal is the link to our community of over 6000 women in Australia that are interested in getting out there, having fun and enjoying life outdoors!”

The company’s first organised event was titled ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’s’ but Betty and I were not part of the full 6000 rather of 500 amazing women.  While that was a large number of people  present, I certainly never saw, leave alone met all the crowd over the five days we ‘lived’ together east of Alice Springs.  But I am getting ahead of the story … lets go back to Alice Springs and the start of this part of our adventure.

Flying to Alice Springs

Hobart to Melbourne. From Melbourne to Alice Springs. That second leg, lasting around three hours, crossed over the wheat belt of Victoria and into South Australia as it curved towards the red centre of Australia. Although I was 30,000 feet up in the air, I could see the initial greening of the country with its irrigated paddock patterns petered out into a fenceless and relentlessly flat worn down landscape unsuitable for crops.


The surface of the land below mesmerised me.  Between the southern green and the northern brown land lay the glaring white of great salt lakes.  I had not flown this path before and  when I saw the first salt expanse, memories of documentaries made me guess it was Lake Eyre. I grabbed the inflight magazine, found the map of Australia with flight paths and realised we were passing to the south of Lake Frome. I had not heard of this lake yet there it was, a massive salty expanse.  A while later we reached then started flying across the even larger white surfaced Lake Eyre.






I hoped to see Uluru in the distance as I flew into the Northern Territory, however my seat was on the right hand side of the plane and that monolith was located way west.  I doubt if those on the other side of the plane saw it because the distances are so great.  With minimal experience in this part of the world and without having studied maps, many assume that Uluru is right next to Alice Springs rather than being out of sight hundreds of kilometres further south.  Passengers next to me, when they spotted some upthrusts of the east MacDonnell Ranges as we approached Alice Springs airport, wondered in excited voices if they were seeing a bit of Uluru.  Of course it was not, but those ranges are equally as interesting for their geology, ancient aboriginal histories and the more recent social histories since European settlement in Australia.  Yet tourism promotions give these rocks minimal exposure by comparison to Uluru.

Eventually the plane touched down in Alice Springs. Stepping out into the warm sun and crossing the tarmac, grabbing the bag from the carousel, finding Betty patiently waiting since her Cairns-Alice Springs plane arrived an hour earlier by reading her novel, completing the hire car paper work  … these were the arrival activities.  Nothing could lower our spirits even when we could not get the car to start despite asking everyone in the hot car park to try their hand.  Eventually the Hire Car company operator made a jiggle and of course everything worked.  The advantage was that the two of us became memorable to him so that when we returned the car days later, and late after the agreed drop-off time, his body language said ‘okay, I always knew things wouldn’t go perfectly with you two, so don’t worry I won’t charge you extra’.  And he didn’t.

From the north to the middle

This blogsite was always going to offer a changing feast.

The last set of blog posts introduced you to an aspect of Far North Queensland;  some of the savannah country (with a smattering of tropical rainforest thrown in for good measure) out west of Cairns.

This new set of blog posts will take you into the heart of Australia; to Alice Springs, to the east and west MacDonnell Ranges and then southwards to Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (formerly known as The Olgas) – all within Australia’s Northern Territory.

A series of maps (courtesy of Google Maps) will help you to locate the places I visited. The red indicator in the map below pinpoints the town of Alice Springs which was the starting point of my exploration and personal discoveries.


The Northern Territory represents  millions of hectares of land.  Its capital Darwin is almost 1500 kilometres north of Alice Springs.

Alice Springs.JPG

The following map shows both Alice Springs and Yulara, the base point for visiting Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  These two towns are approximately 450 kilometres apart.

Alice and Yulara and Mititjulu.JPG

Initially I planned to investigate the east and the west MacDonnell Ranges to the extent that time and resources allowed.  I have circled a topographical view of those ranges stretching in both directions from Alice Springs for a total length of around 500 kilometres.  Looking at this landscape using Google maps, before departure, amazed me because of the dramatic shapes of the geological structures.

McDonnells circled.jpg

The day after arrival in Alice Springs I was on the road eastwards. The topographical map below shows an ancient landscape in the east MacDonnell ranges.  The rocks around Chillagoe (seen in earlier posts on this blogsite) are 400 million years old and these are around 800 million years old.

East McDonnells.JPG

A few days later, I entered the west MacDonnell Ranges.

West McDonnells.JPG

The second part of my central Australian trip involved travelling to the south west corner of the Northern Territory to see Uluru and Kata Tjuta. The cluster of rocks on the left is Kata Tjuta, and the township of Mutitjulu is slightly south east of Uluru on the lower right of the map below.

Kata Tjuta and Uluru and Yulara.JPG

General overview of Savannah country experiences

Once back at my friend’s house in Cairn I felt weighed down by the heavy humidity after the dry savannah country.  However all that moisture ensures a tropical garden. After the dry greys, dusty greens and rock and sandy country, I loved the juiciness of the foliage wearing their rich greens and flashing colours.

For example, the hibiscus  20170622_080112.jpg




The bird’s eye chillis


The pawpaws20170622_080316.jpg

A profusion of healthy herbs20170622_080233.jpg

And the drama of the palms20170622_080238.jpg

Tropical foliage bookended this trip to Far North Queensland. Starting with the rainforest excursion to the west of Cairns and a foray into some Savannah country, the bulk of the journey was out west, but finished in Cairns. The lava plains at Undara, the limestone caves and rock wall paintings of aboriginals at Chillagoe,  the healthy cattle stock at Almaden and the birds eye view over the Mareeba part of the Atherton Tableland showed me variety and richness.  In total, I was away from Hobart for 10 days.

Mareeba – hot air ballooning

Eventually we reached Mareeba, the biggest town on the Atherton Tablelands, and booked ourselves into accommodation for the night.

Prior to European settlement, the area around Mareeba was inhabited by the Muluridji indigenous people. In the local Aboriginal language, Mareeba means meeting of the waters – referring to the point at which the Barron River is joined by Granite Creek.

That evening we walked into the Secret Recipe Thai Restaurant and later found this was its opening night. We felt the food was ordinary and the service needed refinement. Then it was to bed ready for a 4 am rise and repack.

By 4.45 am I was walking in the dark for a kilometre or so to the Mareeba Heritage Centre.  A small HotAir company bus pulled up soon after and Peter and I registered ourselves ready for our hot air balloon adventure.  Depending on the wind and the weather, the balloons rise from different parts of Mareeba so time passed while decisions were made as to the best departure point (the company has agreements with about 30 farmers to rise from or land in their spare paddocks). While some people were disconcerted about the delay, this was all about giving us the best and the safest experience.

Once under way, the dark sky began to lighten and by the time we reached the paddock, it was possible to see one of three balloons cumbersomely beginning to take shape while it rocked and rolled on its side.  Then air began to expand the second balloon.



Never at any stage was I fearful.  From the moment the guide in the bus started explaining all the procedures, to our arrival at the departure point where additional safety and process information was supplied, I felt I was in good hands.  As the morning lightened I watched a vast team of people setting the balloons up and controlling them. Everyone seemed very professional and it was clear that safety for all was a paramount concern. So my only feeling was one of excitement and let’s get on with it.

Finally ‘my’ balloon decorated with a kangaroo including a pouched baby began to take shape.  The roar of the burners resounded across the paddock and heightened my anticipation. IMG_0460.JPG


Before long, one balloon was ‘standing up’.   Soon after I looked across and the first two balloons were caressing each other. IMG_0464.JPG


And then it was the turn of my balloon to lift itself and become vertical.



IMG_0471.JPG The rectangular carriage basket held approximately 8 people on each side of the pilot and his burner. To keep the balance we loaded ourselves one at a time from each end; this meant using a foothold in the basket to swing the legs over and drop softly into a space that comfortably fitted two people and three at a pinch – standing only.  It is worth noting that you must pass a security/safety test – if you could not get into the basket unaided then you could not travel. Despite my aches and pains and limited flexibility nothing was going to stop me and, while my entry wasn’t glamorous, I got into the basket and I flew.

I was surprised with the use of soft fabric covering edges and the interior, so it seemed safe and plush.  hotairballoon 1.JPG

hotairballoon 9.JPG

When loaded, the accredited pilot had his final chat with those on the ground who continued to restrain the balloon from lifting off. IMG_0476.JPG


I looked up into the glowing interior.  Peter and I were ready/rearing to go. IMG_0477.JPG

IMG_0478.JPGI didn’t feel the loss of contact with the ground. There was no big announcement. No shudder. Perhaps we were a couple of metres from the earth when I realised we were flying; but the word fly suggests felt movement.  There was none and for the next hour (we were booked on a half hour trip but some people were on an hour trip – would we mind staying on longer?  Silly question. Of course not) never once did I feel movement or notice any markers of movement on my body. Strands of hair stayed put and did not wisp around.  Never a sense of a breeze across my face.  No shuddering or jolting. Just smoothness of the kind where you would swear you were not moving.  Even the word float conjures up dips and rises which suggest that a lurching might be felt from time to time.  But there was none. No bouncing, no rattling and no vibration.

We kept rising. Seemingly drifting, but with the pilot taking us purposefully westwards, over the township of Mareeba, over eucalypt forests, over fruit orchards, over rivers, over jumping macropods and onwards. Sometimes he took us down to tree top level and sometimes we rose to around 2000 feet.  Yet never a wobble.  Never a sense of change.  The picture was complete with the occasional interpretative commentary.   IMG_0483.JPG


IMG_0487.JPGGiant selfies were taken.  Peter and I were together in the right hand corner at the back of the right hand side.hotairballoon 4.JPG

hotairballoon 9-3.JPG

Near the end of our trip, the pilot informed us that where we would land was further than he had ever travelled with visitors like us – and this had been the result of the good luck of the upper air currents pushing the balloon along.  He was headed for a new paddock.

Have you seen the American movie  “Twister” (1996) where gung ho locals chase tornados?  While we flew, down below the ground staff raced around in  their vehicles following us by finding the best back roads.  Then, when we landed, they were present to dismantle the balloon and return us to Mareeba.

With so much to see and think about, the hour passed seemingly in one moment and then we headed for a  cleared paddock which a high grassy area before it.  With a slight misjudgement the basket softly slithered across the dew laden tall grass and came to a gentle halt.  I didn’t feel it land, only felt the wet grass tickling my face as we swished through it. I giggled with pure pleasure.

IMG_0490.JPG It was easy to get out of the basket and help from the organisers came readily.


Then we were asked who would like to help dismantle everything.  Everyone was happy to help and the packing up became part of the whole adventure.  First the balloon was wrapped and tied.     IMG_0492.JPG




IMG_0498.JPGThen the balloon was packed into large blue ‘crates’.IMG_0501.JPGThe basket was loaded onto a trailer then the blue ‘crate’ added.  The pack-up process was beautifully orchestrated, and completed within 10 or 15 minutes. Very impressive. IMG_0503.JPG



IMG_0509.JPG    hotairballoon 6.JPGWhen we all jumped onto the trailer cadging a lift to the edge of the paddock and our return bus, it was suggested I might like to sit up front with the driver (age before beauty?).  Yes please.  The driver, Eva was the only woman in the group of organisers. I had already noted how fit and strong she was and how gender played no part in her contribution to the organisational process as she did her share of the heavy lifting.  I was surprised to learn she and most of the others would then be going off to their day jobs.

Overall I was most surprised how warm it was;  I had left my thermals and beanie on the bus when advised the temperature in the air would be no colder than on the ground. In fact I should have left my jacket on the bus as well.  However a hat would have been useful; whenever the burner was activated, a whoosh of very hot air hit the top of my head even though the flame was three or more metres away.

This balloon ride is one of my life’s memorable experiences – mostly because I am still amazed there was no ‘movement’ even though we covered many kilometres, that it was warm ‘up there’, and that in feeling so safe I was perpetually in a state of hyper-excitement, eyes wide open in wonder, through the entire flight.

For breakfast, we can recommend Dino’s Europa Deli; and for fascinating delicatessen items to take away try the Vanilla Almonds.

Coffee plantation

After leaving Almaden, we drove 30 kms eastwards through the town of Petford, then a further 30 kms to and through Dimbulah.

Between 1978 and 1999 the town of Petford was the centre for an experiment to help disadvantaged youth. The Petford Training Farm operated as a camp for troubled indigenous youth. The primary activity was to educate Aboriginal youths about horse riding and horse care.

In the 19th century, Dimbulah provided a gateway to the Hodgkinson gold fields.


During that time wheelbarrow moves between various sites in the district were commonplace.  In the 1950s tobacco was a mainstay of local agriculture. Since then, alternate crops such as ti-tree, mango plantations, native trees, sugarcane and coffee plantations have been introduced.  We noticed the greening of the landscape the further we travelled east, indicating the existence of more reliable water sources for irrigation.

South of Petford and Dimbulah sits the town of Irvinebank where Peter’s grandmother Doreen was born. Unfortunately, we did not have time to travel there.

Approximately 50 kms later and before reaching the township of Mareeba, Peter took a detour and sought out the Skybury coffee plantation, complete with café and publically accessible  coffee Roaster. The Skybury Tropical Plantations company has been in the coffee production business for 30 years and grows Arabica coffee with supplemental income from crops of sweet red papaya (pawpaws) and bananas.

Perched on the top of part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range, I had sweeping panoramic views of the wider landscape from the beautiful contemporary wooden structure which houses a large café, a retail outlet and the equipment and machinery for roasting the coffee beans.  All very interesting.







Accordingly to Nomenclature of Queensland in the Courier Mail newspaper of 8 October 1935, the town was named after a town in Spain celebrated for its mercury mines and lead and sulphur deposits. That Spanish town’s name Almadén is derived from the Arabic word المعدن al-maʻdin, meaning ‘the mine’.

The Australian town of Almaden (or Alma-Den as it was alternatively recorded in the 20th century), located approximately 35 kms east of Chillagoe on the Burke Development Road, has had many roles since first white settlement in the 19th century.   Copper, silver lead and gold ores have been mined in the district.  Thousands of head of cattle have wandered around the large surrounding pastoral stations. For a few years, Almaden became a Cobb & Co stagecoach stop: The photo below is in the collection of the State Library of Queensland and shows a coach in Almaden in 1904.

Stage coach at Almaden 1904.JPG

But principally Almaden has been a staging post between Far North Queensland’s eastern towns and Chillagoe to the west.  When the railway was opened in 1901, minerals could be trucked to Chillagoe for smelting and cattle could be transported to markets in the east, from Almaden. It became a busy centre servicing locomotives.  In addition, by 1901 copper matte from a smelter at Einasleigh was being transported to Almaden by camel train. The line was subjected to flood damage and bush fires often destroyed the timber trestle bridges. Almaden became the base for the railway repair crews and a junction for the transfer and control of rail traffic.

In 1927 a cyclone caused all sorts of damage and in 1931, flood damage was so bad that consideration was given to close the line to the South but Almaden continued to survive.

These days The Savannahlander is one of tropical North Queensland’s unusual rail journeys. It runs from Cairns to Forsayth overnighting in Almaden. Locals refer to the Almaden community as Cow Town as cattle often camp along the streets in unfenced areas.  I loved these huge animals with their glossy coats resting, feeding and walking untroubled a few feet from me. I am not sure if these were Brahman or Brangus cattle – can you identify these accurately from the following photos?





Many were resting or feeding on the train line and around the railway station, and on the garden verges of private properties. The township of Almaden is in the middle of an 85,000 hectare working cattle station.


Peter and I enjoyed a cold drink sitting at the pub bar as we downed an excellent home-made mushroom pie made by a local woman who lives ‘down the back’ from the Railway Hotel. Chatting relaxedly with the hotel staff made it difficult to leave. The Hotel offers accommodation so I may return one day to soak in the seeming simplicity of the world of Almaden.  Trip Advisor shows photos of the town and the Hotel and more here.

Chillagoe –post  12 of 12 – white marble


On the drive into Chillagoe from Cairns we noted hundreds of large (and I mean large) white blocks sitting in paddocks occasionally, but being in a hurry we determined to look more closely when we left Chillagoe on the return trip. We had not then read about the marble quarries for which Chillagoe is well known – after all this is limestone country.

On our return journey, quite suddenly we noted a white block grouping.  We remembered there had been a number of these sites and so continued onwards looking for one where we could have easy access to investigate further.

We soon pulled up outside a fence with a gate that can only be described as a loose idea of wires and a complicated way of stretching these and ‘locking’ them to a tree. I suggested we enter by fitting ourselves under the ‘gate’. Long term readers of my blogs will know I have considerable experience with ‘creative gates’ from my project, and my preference is not to disturb. I have found that the best option is usually to find an alternative means for a crossing.  However on this day, Peter assured me he would be easily able to get it all together again if he was to release that wire conglomeration’s tension. Ping!  The ‘gate’ was down and the wires lay sprawled in the dust. Hmmm?

Off we went and clambered around huge blocks of marble.  The scale and volume was extraordinary, and I realised this was only one ‘dumping’ ground of many.  20170626_111208.jpg




20170626_111608.jpgWe puzzled over who purchases these blocks, how they are transported, and whether these ‘killing fields’ for marble were operational these days. But there were no answers available to us.

Time to leave. Back at the ‘gate’, Peter worked hard to make the wires connect while I held up the length of gate and pulled it as taut as possible. We were not achieving much.  Out of the corner of my eyes a vehicle turned off the main road and came to a halt a few feet from us.  Peter had his back to the intruder while trying to solve the puzzle and so he didn’t understand me when I said ‘we’ve been sprung’.  The man stepped from the car and spoke. Peter dropped the bundle of wires.  It was a policeman with a wide ranging brief to cover hundreds of miles across this part of Queensland. He had found us trespassing on private property and clearly not able to put the security gate back together.

I turned on the normal friendly tone I use when in such situations; wasn’t the day lovely, I have come all the way from Tassie and isn’t this country fabulous,  how fascinating these marble blocks are – what a surprise way out here,  I know we probably shouldn’t have gone onto the private property to have a look but I was so curious, they are marble aren’t they, we are just closing the gate now, and on I drivelled.  Blind freddy could see we would never get that gate together again, and the obliging policeman (to maintain order) walked across and performed the miracle; when he turned back to us the gate was strained perfectly back onto the tree.  Of course he could see that no harm had been done but that still didn’t let us off the hook so he admonished us and we sedately agreed it was private land and we did not have permission to enter.  At a certain point Peter couldn’t stand my drivel anymore and walked off to our car. Meanwhile I kept chatting gaily and asked the policemen about his work in this remote area, his daily routes and the scale of the country that he was responsible to patrol.  Phew!  Surely the policeman was glad I eventually said goodbye.  All very amusing.  And I am sorry to say I don’t feel chastened – I wanted to look at that marble. I did. I loved seeing it up close. I have no regrets.  But blog readers beware – if you are travelling  out near Chillagoe please look at those marble blocks from the fence or gates only.

I have zoomed in on Google Maps along the Burke Development Road slightly east of Chillagoe and, while I cannot positively identify the spot where we stopped, I can see a number of quarries and ‘storage’ spots for the cut stone.

A Cairns marble retail site shows photographs of various Chillagoe marbles which it sells: refer here.  Perhaps it was the ‘Champagne’ and ‘White Pearl’  that I saw  during our adventure.

Chillagoe –post  11 of 12- general overview

Visiting Chillagoe was a rich experience.  The geological structures underpin the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples and the mining industry.  I was enthralled to see the limestone landscape and walk beneath it and across the flat expanses of some of the ground. I did not go up; no rock climbing.  Seeing the paintings on cave walls was a thrill. Talking to locals and others added additional dimensions.  Our accommodation offered learnings associated with astronomy (at night, the clear sky is filled with the dots of millions of stars) and Peter went off to listen in the evening.  I was up in time for the sunrise next morning and then wandered around the precinct close to our Eco Lodge with the sounds of Galahs and other parrots noisily waking up the morning.



IMG_0417.JPGEnterprising, it has an outdoor viewing area for film nights.

IMG_0425.JPGNearby the Hospital waited for patients.


It was a long time since trains had arrived at the station across the way.  Although this fact wasn’t stopping  a refurbishment of the old railway station. Why?  IMG_0438.JPG


IMG_0445.JPG Walking around town introduced us to historical buildings and other structures. 20170626_101001.jpg




We found the Hub (Chillagoe’s Information and Tourist Centre) holds a permanent photographic and interpretation panel exhibition, from which much can be learnt.


The Wakaman people ranged over the area demarcated by the head of Lynd River; north to Mungana and the vicinity of Chillagoe; east to Almaden and the Dividing Range, keeping in the low country; west to Dagworth; south to Mount Surprise (near Brooklands); at Crystalbrook and Bolwarra.  The Djungan peoples hail from the Mt Mulligan area and the Bar Burrum (Mbarbaram) people come from the Atherton Tablelands.

Chillagoe – post 10 of 12 – the aboriginal paintings and rocks

We learnt that another rocky outcrop contained overhangs with paintings by aboriginal people, and since this was something I was keen to see, we followed our map to Balancing Rock with the Wullumba Art Site nearby.

From the carpark, Peter headed off along the path seeking the Balancing Rock. 20170626_092252.jpg


Eventually he saw the following (Photo by Ludo Kuipers, Fri Jul 02, 2010)

Balancing Rock Chillagoe.JPG

Meanwhile I took in my surroundings. Dramatic in their own way.  20170626_092205.jpg


20170626_092532.jpg  Later we walked to the Wullumba Art Site.


The colourful rocky karsts filled the view beside the pathway. 20170626_093638.jpg


Then suddenly we stood before an overhang under which ochre paintings had been added.  These paintings appeared not to have been retouched in some time, and either seemed washed out or almost absent.  The lack of clarity and boldness of paint may explain why some tourists shrugged their shoulders and exclaimed it was a waste of time to visit these.  It may also explain why fewer tourists make the trip out to Mungana to look at the paintings in the Archways cave – perhaps they worked on the erroneous assumption that those would be as faded as these.

By contrast, I relished the opportunity to look at these indistinct ochre drawings, and to use my time to think about the reasons why Australia’s aboriginal communities have traditionally painted cave walls, and to think about the persisting value of the paintings and of the knowledge which many indigenous people still hold. I have so much more to learn to understand the specific ideas being communicated here. 20170626_093727.jpg




A scientific study by the Australian Museum has determined the paintings in the Chillagoe are relatively recent being less than 3500 years old.  You can read more here.

Chillagoe – post 9 of 12 – Chillagoe Cemetery

Early next morning we followed a sign to the Chillagoe Cemetery and found it located not far from our accommodation. 20170626_085337.jpg

We enjoyed walking around this gum tree fringed cemetery looking at names on tombstones and wondering if any relatives lay here permanently.



20170626_085707.jpgSome grave markers were grand and elaborate.




20170626_090405.jpgA list of people buried in this cemetery, as at June 2008, is provided here. The range of occupations makes for interesting reading.  A rich historical novel could be developed on the basis of this alone.  Additional information is located here.


Chillagoe – post 8 of 12 – the pub and the smelters

By late afternoon, Peter and I had returned to Chillagoe and arrived at the ‘lower’ pub for a drink and friendly chat with those around.

Chillagoe bottom pub.JPG

We sussed out further information about the Chillagoe Smelters and announced our intention to visit in time to appreciate the sunset.

Mining commenced in the area around 1870 but it was not until the beginning of the 20th century the Chillagoe Smelters were built. Considerable information about the Smelters can be read online.  General information,  the significance, the history, a description, and a photographic gallery are located on the Queensland Heritage Register. Wikipedia explains the “Chillagoe Smelter operated until 1943 and in its 40 odd year lifetime treated 1.25 million tons of ore, yielded 60,000 tons of copper, 50,000 tons of lead, 181 tons of silver and 5 tons of gold.”


Wikipedia notes Chillagoe “was once a thriving mining town for a range of minerals, but is now reduced to a small zinc mine and some marble quarries.”   Expect to read more about my experience with Chillagoe’s marble quarries in a later blog post.

We left the pub in time to see the sun set over a hill to the west of the Smelters site.  Dramatic visually. Quiet aurally.  IMG_0371.JPG




IMG_0385.JPGI sat for a while on the patch where the Superintendent’s house once stood. Broken concrete slabs are all that remain amidst the vegetation reclaiming the space.



IMG_0375.JPGI watched the passage of the reclining sun, and looked out across the landscape.   IMG_0361.JPG


IMG_0362.JPGThen suddenly that strong day light was gone.      IMG_0378.JPG


IMG_0387.JPGThe very large Smelter operation site is now fenced off with viewer walkways, platforms and specially constructed stairways located around the edges.


Mostly metal and brick remnants remain across the large site.  I love the dramatic brick furnace towers that punctuate the air seemingly with exclamation marks.    IMG_0392.JPG




IMG_0403.JPGInterpretation signs helped with explanations of many features.


IMG_0406.JPG The slag heap



The reminder this is limestone country. IMG_0398.JPG



IMG_0367.JPG From a hill on the Smelters site I had a grand view of this area’s open woodland landscape.


As the sun dipped, the temperature dropped and the land became even quieter.  The scars in the land left by the smelting operations will be closed over by vegetation as the years pass. For now, there are sufficient artefacts to see and with interpretation, it is easy to imagine hearing the noise of this enterprise and to imagine seeing the ongoing flurry of activity across the site.

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.