An isolated, historic mining township to the west of the Atherton tableland, Chillagoe is one of the favoured haunts of mining buffs tracing the heady days of the 1870's to the 1920's mining boom. The town is a stunning mix of outback landscape, mining heritage, aboriginal art sites and fantastic limestone caves.
Where is it?: Chillagoe is 141 km west of Mareeba; 205 km west of Cairns; 352 metres above sea level. Chillagoe is 215km or three hours' drive west of Cairns via Mareeba and Dimbulah on the northern end of the Atherton Tableland. The road is sealed all the way except for about 25km of gravel just before Chillagoe. Chillagoe can also be accessed via Herberton from the southern end of the Atherton Tableland, although there are more gravel roads along this route. Conventional-vehicle access is possible in dry weather but roads may be impassable in the summer wet season. A bus service operates to Chillagoe from Cairns and Mareeba and charter flights operate from Cairns.
The heritage listed Chillagoe smelters, the cemetery and the many old mines are a major attraction, particularly for history buffs. The Chillagoe Smelter operated in the early 1900s. 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.
By 1943, other smelters were built closer to the then major ore producing areas such as Mount Isa. Easy access to these areas outweighed the economic usefulness of the state run Chillagoe Smelter. In 1950, the buildings and equipment were auctioned. Today the site is managed by Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.
Just out of town is the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park containing limestone caves. There are between 600 and 1,000 caves in the Chillagoe-Mungana area. The caves, the spectacular karst landscape and the mining and smelting history are the main tourist attractions to the region.
The caves to look out for are Royal Arch, Donna, Bauhinia and Pompeii Caves, Chillagoe Pinnacles; Balancing Rock; The Archways (an open daylight cave system with maidenhair ferns growing in the passageways). From the caves there's a walking track to the nearby Balancing Rock formation and some Aboriginal rock art.
Marble mining was once an immense industry in Chillagoe and it is possible to view the open marble pits as you drive past them.
Featuring spectacular limestone caves, small galleries of Aboriginal rock art, jagged limestone outcrops and historically significant mining sites, this park is rich in natural and cultural heritage.
Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park is spread over the Chillagoe area. The Royal Arch Cave is located 7km south-west of Chillagoe while the Donna, Pompeii, Bauhinia and Trezkinn caves are located 1.5km from the centre of town. Another cave, The Archways, is at Mungana, 15km north-west of Chillagoe. The Chillagoe Smelters are located 2.3km from town. To reach the smelter site, take the Mungana Road from Chillagoe and turn right at the signpost. Several caves can be explored without a guide but others the Royal Arch, Donna and Trezkinn caves can be visited by guided tour only. Rangers conduct guided tours at 9am, 11am and 1.30pm every day except Christmas Day.
There are no wheelchair-accessible facilities but it is possible to drive around the short interpretive trail at the Chillagoe Smelters.
Limestone has been weathered, dissolved and reformed by water to create spectacular caverns and passages, decorated by stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones. The landscape around Chillagoe began to form about 400 million years ago, when limestone was deposited as calcareous mud and coral reefs surrounding volcanic islands. Subsequent tilting, folding and erosion exposed and weathered the limestone which today towers over the surrounding plains. Fluctuating groundwater levels slowly dissolved some of the limestone, creating caverns and passages, some of which have since been decorated by calcite stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones, deposited by surface waters penetrating through the rock.
Few animals can survive inside the dark caves. Several bat species roost and breed here and Chillagoe is one of five known nesting sites for the white-rumped swiftlet. The caves are also home to spotted pythons and a variety of insects and spiders. Fossilised bones of many animals including those of the extinct giant kangaroo have been found in the caves.
Picnic tables are provided at Donna and Royal Arch car parks and at the Mungana Aboriginal art site.
Go bird watching. More than 75 bird species have been recorded around Chillagoe including pale-headed rosellas, apostle birds and blue-faced honeyeaters. Listen for the black crow's raucous call drifting across the woodland in the heat of the day. Many agile wallabies live in the surrounding woodland and can easily be seen along the walking track, especially around dusk. The larger wallaroos are also common. Look for rock wallabies around rocky outcrops.
Several species of bats live in the caves including the eastern bent-wing bat and the common sheathtail bat. Two horseshoe-bats and the eastern cave bat breed in the caves. Look for white-rumped swiftlets circling over the limestone towers. Similar in appearance to swallows, they nest in the complete darkness of the caves in colonies of about 50, between November and February. The nests are made of congealed saliva and kangaroo grass cemented to sloping cave walls. Like bats, these birds use echo-location for flying in the dark. Swiftlets are very sensitive to disturbance in their nesting chambers. Avoid disturbing bat and swiftlet colonies at all times. In the caves, you also may find evidence of other animals. Spotted pythons and brown tree snakes prey on the bats. The stable conditions and the carbonate-impregnated soil help to preserve bone material bones of dingoes, wallaroos, brush-tailed rock wallabies, red-legged pademelons, marsupial mice, short-nose bandicoots, northern quolls, sugar gliders, phascogales and blue-tongued lizards have been found.
A few small rock galleries of Aboriginal paintings are found in the area but most are accessible only on foot. At Mungana, a small gallery is located 1.2km along the gravel road to The Archways. Another gallery, with viewing access provided by a small boardwalk, is located at Balancing Rock.
Camping and accommodation: No camping is permitted in Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park. Motel, hotel, caravan park and camping accommodation is available in Chillagoe. A range of accommodation and camping is also available on the Atherton Tableland (about 110km east of Chillagoe).
Several walking tracks allow you to explore above ground and you can also explore The Archways, Pompeii and Bauhinia caves on your own. Always take at least two torches when caving and never cave alone. Wear sturdy shoes and protective clothing when walking or caving. The limestone rock has sharp edges. Carry drinking water.
Balancing Rock track: 440m return (15 minutes) Grade: Moderate
From the Balancing Rock car park, located 2.8km from Chillagoe, a rough track climbs up the rock formation to view the spectacular limestone outcrop and the surrounding landscape of open woodland. Balancing Rock is an example of tower karst, a feature of world scientific interest found around the Chillagoe area. Balancing Rock can also be reached from the Donna Cave car park, via an easy 2km return walk meandering through open woodland.
Royal Arch track: 9km return (2.5 hours) Grade: Easy
From Donna Cave car park, this pleasant walk passes Balancing Rock then winds behind the outcrop to cross the picturesque Chillagoe Creek, lined with huge, old, paperbark trees. The track continues on through open woodland featuring bloodwoods, Cooktown ironwood, teatrees and grevilleas, before reaching Royal Arch bluff, an imposing jagged limestone outcrop rising abruptly from the surrounding woodland. Here the vegetation changes once more to the deciduous species common on all limestone outcrops. Look for agile wallabies and the larger wallaroos and listen for the many different species of birds along the way.
Pompeii Cave: 600m return (20 minutes) Grade: Moderate to difficult
Pompeii Cave: Self-guiding cave - torches are required.) From the Donna Cave car park, located 1.5km from Chillagoe, a well-formed track through deciduous vine forest and many steps leads to Pompeii Cave, a huge cleft in the rock, filled with large boulders. A short climb to the bottom reveals a dark passage and some attractive formations. Allow at least 45 minutes if you want to explore inside the cave. Bauhinia Cave: 300m return (10 minutes) Grade: Difficult
(Self-guiding cave - torches are required.) From the Donna Cave car park, a short walk brings you to the entrance of Bauhinia Cave, a dark narrow crevice requiring a steep scramble down large boulders. Please contact the Chillagoe Hub Information Centre before visiting this cave as it is a difficult climb.
The Archways: 220m return (15 minutes) Grade: Moderate
(Self-guiding cave - torches are required.)
The turnoff to The Archways is located at Mungana, 15km along the gravel road west from Chillagoe. Drive a further 2km along a gravel track to reach the car park. This open daylight cave is a giant grike system. A rock-strewn track meanders through deciduous vine forest and huge limestone formations to The Archways. Allow about 45 minutes if you want to follow the tracks around the feature and explore the many side passages inside the cave system. Look for trunk-fruiting fig trees forming a canopy inside the open caves. Wildlife is abundant, and in the wet season the cave is noted for its "garden" of maidenhair ferns. The ferns are fragile so please don't touch.
Rangers conduct guided tours of Royal Arch, Donna and Trezkinn caves at 9am, 11am and 1.30pm daily except Christmas Day. Fees apply. Tickets must be obtained beforehand from the Chillagoe Hub Information Centre. Groups should make advance bookings.
For cave tour details, fees and bookings, contact the Chillagoe Hub Information Centre.
Royal Arch Cave: 3km return (1.5 hours ) Grade: Easy
From the Royal Arch Cave car park, located 7km from Chillagoe, this tour is an easy ramble through 1.5km of passages and some 13 chambers in one of the largest cave systems in the area. Some hand-held lamps are provided to add to the excitement of exploring a labyrinth of tunnels and lofty caverns. Children may like to bring a torch. Unexpected shafts of daylight, glimpses of darting bats and sculptured limestone formations are highlights of this tour.
Donna Cave: 440m return (1 hour) Grade: Moderate
From the Donna Cave car park, located 1.5km from Chillagoe, this cave, although small, is very pretty. During the short 200m walk through the cave, visitors are required to climb several steep flights of stairs; about 200 steps in total. Electrical lighting is provided in this cave.
Trezkinn Cave: 590m return (45 minutes) Grade: Moderate
From the Donna Cave car park, located 1.5km from Chillagoe, access to the Trezkinn Cave is provided via a steel catwalk encircling a huge central mass of limestone. The walk through the cave is about 150m long, with several steep flights of stairs but the sight of a magnificent "chandelier" formation rewards the active visitor. Electrical lighting is provided in this cave.
Take the interpretive driving trail around the Chillagoe Smelters. Drive 1km west along the Mungana Road to the turnoff, then a further 1.3km along a gravel road to the smelter site. Follow the signposts, keeping to the route indicated by the arrows, and discover the highly colourful mining history of the area on a series of interpretive signs. Copper, lead, silver and gold were extracted here for a period of more than 40 years the site preserves relics of the State's mining and industrial heritage dating back to the 1890s. This industrial site includes pits, tanks and contaminants. For your safety, and to preserve this historical site, please do not walk or climb on the structures and do not interfere with historical relics. Take note of the regulatory notices indicating restricted access areas which must be observed.
Opening hours: Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park is open year round, although roads may be impassable in the wet season, December to March. For cave tour bookings and tickets, the Chillagoe Hub Information Centre is open 8.30am 5pm daily and 8am 3.30pm on weekends.
About Chillagoe: It has been stated by leading geologist Professor Ian Plimer that the Chillagoe region has the most diverse geology in the world. Once a thriving mining town for a range of minerals, the population now hovers around 200. Some of the families have lived here since the smelter days and others are here to enjoy the quiet sounds of the country and the outback hospitality. Mining still haunts the town with a lime works being established in 1970 and marble mining in 1982. Even now, there are still regular discoveries of fresh ore bodies.
Brief history: Chillagoe was first settled as a pastoral property by William Athurton. In 1887 two men working for mining baron John Moffat found copper and silver deposits on Chillagoe Station. Soon after Moffat began mining in the area. The Chillagoe smelter was opened in 1901 and at its peak over 1000 men were employed extracting gold, silver, copper and lead from ores extracted from the surrounding area. The mine closed down in 1943, having produced over 9.778 tonnes of gold, 184.36 tonnes of silver, 60,963 tonnes of copper and 5,080 tonnes of lead during its period of operation.
Chillagoe is reportedly named by pastoralist William Atherton (son of John Atherton) for his a pastoral run. The name is said to be taken from a sea shanty line "Hikey, pikey, psyche, crikey, chillagoe......" from the musical comedy, Sinbad the Sailor.