While historians would probably say that the best days of the once-booming Queensland mining town of Chillagoe are behind it, grey nomads would most certainly beg to differ.
From a traveller’s perspective, the remote settlement – located 140 kilometres west of Mareeba along the Wheelbarrow Way – is an absolute gem.
It came into being after reports emerged in 1873 of rich copper outcrops in the area … and prospectors soon started to arrive. The post office opened in 1900, and the railway line to Mareeba soon afterwards. By 1917 there were around 10,000 people and 13 hotels in the town. Today though – although marble is still mined here – a mere 250 people or so call Chillagoe home.
However, strolling past the railway station, bank vault, court house, police museum, post office and the Post Office Hotel can still give visitors a sense of what life here must have once been like.
On the edge of the town is a tall chimney which is one part of the former ore smelter. Visitors can head out to the area to look at other remnants of the smelter and the giant slag heap, and there is a viewing platform and signage to tell the story of what happened.
In the 40 years it operated until closing in 1943, the smelter treated 1,270,000 tonnes of ore yielding 61,000 tonnes of copper, 51,000 tonnes of lead, 184 tonnes of silver, and 5.1 tonnes of gold. The Chillagoe Court House Heritage Museum is the place to go to get a fuller understanding of the area’s past, and many grey nomads will also enjoy a look at Tom Prior’s Ford Museum where a collection of lovingly-restored Fords is displayed in a few large sheds.
A drive out to view the remnants of the once bustling old settlement of Mungana, about 15 kilometres from Chillagoe, is also well worthwhile. Some leading geologists believe that the Chillagoe region has the most diverse geology in the world, and the area is littered with some 600 limestone caves.
The limestone was created when sediments, including coral, were deposited in the ocean off the edge of the Australian continent 400 million years ago. When the sea level rose, the continental shelf moved east and – approximately 360 million years ago – the sediments were compressed and uplifted.
The caves of the Chillagoe Mungana National Park are a huge draw for grey nomads, and there are a number of ranger-guided tours available including those at Donna Cave and Trezkinn Cave, as well as self-guided tours at locations such as the Archways and Pompeii Cave.
The park also contains a number of interlocking walks, which connect the caves, the lookouts and other interesting landmarks such as Balancing Rock – a precarious rock perched on the side of a hill – and a couple of Aboriginal rock art galleries.
There is no camping in the national park but there are some great options in town, including at the showgrounds, and at the Chillagoe Observatory & Eco Lodge, and at the Chillagoe Tourist Village.
Chillagoe’s best days are behind it? You have to be kidding!