17 July 2017
Today we are going on our first “Billy Tea Safari” on the Chillagoe Caves and Outback Day Tour. Our driver Matthew picks us up outside the hotel at 7.00 – we are still on NZ time so the start doesn’t seem quite so early. We have a custom-built 4WD truck (named Echidna) that is very comfortable but unfortunately today we are the last ones on and the only seats are up the back. We head up the McAllister Ranges via a very windy road that takes us close to where we were yesterday at Kuranda; with the winding road and the swaying at the back of the truck I am feeling very queasy and unfortunately forgot to bring my motion sickness tablets with me so I have to concentrate very hard not to lose my breakfast for about 45 minutes.
I am amazed by how quickly we pass through the lush rainforest and see the vegetation change to eucalypt forest and then to the desert landscape of the outback. We continue westwards on dirt tracks and although it is thankfully very dry as we pass through, we see dry river beds that are subject to flash floods with the depth markers standing up to 2 metres above the road we are travelling on. We start to see termite mounds everywhere and keep an eye out for kangaroos and agile wallabies; wedge tail eagles soar above us. When we arrive at our first stop, the Mareeba Wetlands, we are greeted by a group of emus. We head into the Jabiru Safari Lodge for our morning tea and freshly baked biscuits, but take them with us onto our boat cruise around the lagoon. It is a very beautiful spot but things are starting to dry out and the waterlilies have stopped flowering. We do see a range of birds but they are quite far away and even though binoculars are provided we don’t see many up close.
Our lunch spot is at the township of Chillagoe at the 100 year old pub; we chose our lunch earlier from the selection of burger and chips, chips and burger, fish and chips, chips and fish and Matthew had phoned our order through so that we could eat soon after arriving in the town. Although it was a thriving community in the early 1900s when the now heritage listed Chillagoe Smelters were at their heydey producing copper, lead, silver and gold, it now has a population of less than 200 people and its main claim to fame is the Chillagoe Caves that we are to visit. Before lunch we visit the site of the old smelters and it is very hot even though this is the coolest time of year. It must have been unbearable in the heat of the summer. There are still 3 smelter chimneys standing – they are all different designs apparently reflecting the construction designs of the different nationalities of the builders. The slag heaps are still evident almost a century later and we look out to the Magnetic Hills (that are supposed to affect your compass). We learn of mining scandals that nearly brought down the government of the time – the Mungana affair.
The old Post Office Hotel is a fascinating place with the main bar area absolutely covered in graffiti – even on the ceilings. We enjoy our fish and chips in the ‘garden bar’ with a glass of light lager and then have a “tennis tour” of the town – on the left is the old post office, on the right the hotel, on the left the town hall, on the right the general store, on the left the hardware store, on the right the butchery – and that is about it!
The natural environment is much more interesting: it has been said by leading geologists that this is the most geologically diverse region on earth. Most evident are the spectacular karst outcrops that dot the landscape and the limestone caves beneath. We head out to a large karst outcrop in the national park area and meet our guide for the afternoon. First we are kitted out with the most unusual caving equipment I have seen that consists of a battery pack that gets strapped around your waist and then a long flexible tube with a torch on the end that gets wrapped around your neck and then tucked under in front of your stomach.
We enter into the Royal Arch Cave at the base of the karst outcrop and spend a couple of hours looking around; I am not sure whether the caves are essentially inside the outcrop or whether they drop down much further underground. There are several places where we see the sky above and tree roots snaking down to find water far underground. The caves are dry when we visit but seem to be subject to flooding in the rainy season like the rest of the area. There are stalactites and stalagmites, formations that sparkle in the torch light, places where we can see fossils in the rocks, and bats, spiders and swiftlets inhabit the caves. Some of the caverns are enormous and we hear that many locals used to come here for picnics to escape the punishing heat outside and enjoy the coolness of the caves. I think people must have spent long hours underground (without much oxygen) as they have identified a wide range of different shapes in the formations supposedly representing all sorts of different creatures – if you squint and hold your mouth right you can see some of them.
After our cave tour, we have a long journey back home with an occasional comfort stop. The cafe that we are supposed to have afternoon tea at has decided to close early so the only option we have is MacDonalds (at least the toilets are clean). When we reach the Kuranda area, I ask if I can join Matthew up the front of the vehicle and it is a much better trip for me down the winding road than it was on the way up. We stop part way down for an evening view over Trinity Bay and the Cairns area. It is late by the time we get back to Queens Court, so we decide to just walk to a nearby hotel that has a Chinese Restaurant for dinner – I have dumplings and greens and Gill has a Ginger Chicken dish.
Our itinerary for the week:
Arrive in Cairns, Tropical North Queensland
Kuranda Scenic Train and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
Chillagoe Caves and Outback Tour
Daintree, Cape Tribulation and 4WD Bloomfield Track
Magical Outer Reef Experience to Moore Reef
Atherton Tablelands and Waterfalls Tour
Daintree Dreaming Tour with Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk