Chillagoe is a hauntingly beautiful, intriguingly odd place which we liked twenty years ago but hadn’t revisited since then because it’s a bit out of the way even by outback Queensland standards (more on its location later).
The town has a population of only a few hundred people these days but it was an important mining centre a century ago and has significant remnants to show for it. It also has improbable limestone bluffs riddled with caves, and our camping ground featured the best dawn chorus of our two-week northern journey, easily beating Cape Trib and Cooktown.
White pastoralists arrived in the area in the 1870s and soon discovered mineral deposits. Twenty years later, smelting operations for numerous small mines nearby had all moved to Chillagoe, and the smelters operated until 1943, producing copper, lead, silver and smaller quantities of other metals. The smelter ruins on the edge of town are now managed by National Parks and their site summarises the history. There’s more detail here (UQ) and here (focused on nearby Calcifer).
The whole area was a shallow sea 400 million years ago and its coral reefs became limestone which was tilted and folded by the more recent volcanic activity. Limestone, volcanically heated, becomes marble, and marble has been mined here for years. (Paddocks full of huge blocks of marble awaiting transport are among the town’s unique sights.) The miners were extracting minerals from the volcanic rocks, so the landscape is complex both above and below the surface.
Mungana, twenty minutes out of town along a memorably corrugated road, is the site of a new mine and an old one (which we didn’t visit), and an old cemetery.
The limestone now forms dramatic ridges and bluffs (the one at the top of this post is the Royal Arch cave bluff) rising from the red soil plains. They are eroded externally into fantastic towers and internally into caves. National Parks rangers lead guided tours through three of the caves, while others are accessible with various levels of difficulty.
The Archway at Mungana is self-guided but it’s exceptionally easy to navigate because so many cave ceilings and walls have collapsed that daylight reaches nearly every corner of it.
Balancing Rock is similar in that what looks like a solid bluff turns out to be more like the Colosseum, an amphitheatre surrounded by high, irregular walls. The Rock itself is an isolated fragment of the wall.
Wildlife and the oasis
Our visit was in the Dry season so there wasn’t much insect life except along the creek between the smelter and the town but the bird life around our camping ground was a delight.
I will just post two of my favourite campground bird photos here, since this link will take the interested reader to all of my Chillagoe natural history photos on iNaturalist.
Chillagoe is an hour and a half west of Mareeba on a mostly-good road which leads (eventually) to Normanton and the Gulf, but the only other route to or from the town is via the Lynd junction (gateway to Undara and Georgetown) and that road is poor. Then again, all of the towns I have just mentioned are well into 4WD territory and my expectations may just need revising.
- Introduction and index to Cape York (Cooktown – Cape Trib – Chillagoe) blog posts late 2021.