Cairns is known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and World Heritage Rainforest. While these sites are fascinating and definitely a must do on any travelers itinerary, there is so much more to do here in the Cairns region that often gets missed. One such adventure is a trip along the Wheelbarrow Way to visit the historic mining town of Chillagoe to explore some magnificent limestone caves.
A trip to Chillagoe Caves is a journey through the Outback that definitely shows a different side to the region than the lush rainforest or colourful reef.
So waking up early in the morning, a friend and I decided to go exploring. We took the Kennedy Highway out of Cairns past Kuranda to Mareeba, one of the larger town in the Tablelands Region. Because our early stop involved skipping breakfast, we decided to take a short pit stop at Coffee World before continuing on. Here we go to unlimited tasting of 30 coffees, 4 teas, and lots of chocolate. We also took a cruise through the famous Coffee World Museum. Did you know that coffee starts out as a red berry? After a satisfying breakfast and lots of coffee, we were finally ready to explore the Outback.
Mareeba is the starting point of the Wheelbarrow Way. The road to Chillagoe is known as the Wheelbarrow Way because the miners who headed out to the region usually carried all their possessions with them in wheelbarrows as they headed out towards Chillagoe and the other mining locations along the way. Luckily we were enjoying the road in comfortable air-conditioning. As we drove along, we could see the various coffee plantations that the Mareeba area is known for including Skybury Coffee Plantation. We bypassed these locations in order to get straight to Chillagoe so that we would have more time to explore. Plus our earlier breakfast stop at Coffee Works left us quite sated 😉
After passing the coffee plantations… the scenery did start to look a lot less green as we headed into what is known as the Savannah Region. Here it is traditional looking Outback scenery with reddish dirt, scarce greenery, and lots of termite mounds. Now, because we were quite used to the greenery found closer to Cairns, the hour and half drive along this round was fascinating to us. It was made particularly interesting by the occasional cow or kangaroo that happened across the road. While well maintained, the road to Chillagoe is gravel in some parts. While my car survived the journey, you will definitely want to check your tires or check with your rental company before driving out yourself.
(Interesting note: There is an annual wheelbarrow race every year from Mareeba to Chillagoe where some of the more intrepid locals celebrate the history of the region. This race is done over the course of three days and helps to raise money for charity. The event usually takes place during August.)
Well after 2 hours… there was some stopping to take pictures of the previously mentioned cows and kangaroos… we finally reached Chillagoe. Our first stop was a visit to the Chillagoe Hub. This is a private run info center where you can collect some information about the area and also sign up for a guided tour of the caves. The caves were our main focus on this trip as my friend had never been in the cave before so we made sure to sign up for the next guided tour. Before heading out to the cave, we took some time to explore the Chillagoe Hub in order to learn more about the region. In prehistoric times the whole area was actually under the ocean, and the caves were left behind when the ocean waters receded. These waters also left behind fossils of the reef that used to be there. (It looks like we hadn’t escaped the reef altogether).
The various geological events that occurred in the region also left the area rich in minerals like copper and others. It was these minerals that first brought people to the region and led to the founding of Chillagoe. The copper mine was the major source of income to the area. We were also able to visit the old smelters and the miner’s cemetary to better get a feel for the history of the region.
After our brief foray into the history of Chillagoe, it was time to head underground and explore Chillagoe’s main attractions. The cave we explored is known as the Royal Arch. It was discovered by Sir William Atherton in 1888. The cave is known as the royal arch due two combined features. Outside the cave, one of the rock formations looks like the profile of Queen Victoria and inside the cave there is a daylight chamber (daylight chambers are where the sun shines in) where the collapse of the roof of the cave hundreds of years ago led to the formation of a large rock arch. Our tour was a 2 hour walk and the ranger made sure that we were all supplied with torches before we headed in.
The first thing that we noticed about heading down into the caves was that we enjoyed the natural air conditioning effect of being underground. While the temperature outside was around 30 degrees, inside was nice and cool. Right away we got to see some cool stalactite and stalagmite formations. The walk through the cave took us through a variety of dark and daylight chambers. It was quite interesting to learn that the caves served as a tourist attraction since their discovery and that locals often like to take advantage of the cooler temperatures inside the caves by enjoying picnics in the daylight chambers. In one of the larger dark chambers known as the Cathedral, the locals still hold annual Christmas carols and take advantage of the caves natural acoustics and atmosphere.
The limestone caves are home to several species of microbats. These differ from the flying foxes that we get used to seeing in Cairns because they live off insects rather than fruit. We were able to see quite a few bats during our tour through the cave. We also saw several spiders and centipedes. We did miss out on seeing some of the wildlife known to inhabit the cave like snakes. My friend was quite happy about this. Considering the size of the spiders though, I don’t actually think any of us were overly upset by missing out on the snakes.
One of the creepiest parts of the tour was when we turned off all the torches in order to experience the actual darkness of the cave. It was amazing to see how dark it got that it didn’t matter whether your eyes were open or closed. Once the guide convinced us to also be be very quiet, the moment was definitely awe inspiring. The most fun however was in identifying what some of the rock formations reminded us of…we had elephants, walruses, corn on the cob, billy goats, skulls, and limestone cowboys..There was also a pipe, but I thought it looked more like a gnome sitting on a log. While my friend had a laugh about my imagination, she was the only one who saw the Statue of Liberty when looking at the Limestone Cowboy. Another highlight was when we got to have a mini-try at caving and crawled through a 30m tunnel to then slide into one of the caverns.
The tour of the cave was definitely an awesome experience. The two hour tour was more than worth it as it only cost $14 and definitely allowed us to appreciate the caves. For those wanting a bit more independence, there are also self-guided tours of some of the caves in the system. Just make sure to bring a torch with fresh batteries and stay on prescribed routes. Without experience, you definitely wouldn’t want to wander around lost or get stuck without a light halfway through a cave.
Now we just travelled to Chillagoe on a day trip, but there was camping and other accommodation for those with a bit more flexible time. The smelter site and the caves are just some of the regions attractions. Chillagoe also has other attractions like natural spring pools, other interesting rock formations like Balancing Rock, and even Aboriginal cave paintings. There are also other historic mining towns in the region with their own appeal like Hebertown, which has many of its historic buildings restored and with its collection of antiques is like stepping back into Australia’s past. The area here with its mix of history and geological wonders was definitely worth the drive and adds to anyone’s exploration of Far North Queensland.