Each year in far north Queensland The Great Wheelbarrow Race sees competitors journey 140km from Mareeba to Chillagoe over three days: on foot with a wheelbarrow in hand. The annual charity event follows the road known as the Wheelbarrow Way, a nod to the region's pioneering past.
The Wheelbarrow Way is a tribute to the trailblazing miners of the late 1800s who would load their possessions into a wheelbarrow, taking the long journey west on foot. It was an arduous trip taken with the hopes of striking it rich in the goldfields.
Some folks still like to try their luck at fossicking, but with the Wheelbarrow Way now a well worn road, they no longer need walk westward with wheelbarrows. And — I am grateful — nor did I when I found myself yearning for some red dirt and big skies during a recent trip to far north Queensland.
I decided upon day trip out of Cairns, heading west. My destination was Chillagoe, with stops along the way at Mareeba, Petford, and Almaden.
Day trip from Cairns to Chillagoe (return)
The Mareeba Wetlands were established in 1996, using overflow water from the Mareeba-Dimbulah Irrigation Area. The Wetlands now attract many species of birds and other wildlife.
Almaden is the last town on the Wheelbarrow Way before you reach Chillagoe.
Chillagoe is home to old smelters and older limestone caves—both of which have interesting histories that you can learn about at The Hub Visitor Information Centre. This is also where the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service staff can help you book onto a ranger led tour of some of the region's caves.
The Hub displays information about the region's geological formation over time, and its Aboriginal and European heritage.
There's artwork by Sherry Vincent that illustrates the Irvinebank Massacre as well as news clippings from the time. From the more recent past, there is a poster from the 1967 Referendum which saw the Australian constitution amended to include Aboriginal people.
Also on display at Chillagoe's tourist information centre is a selection of historical photographs including the Chillagoe Hospital in 1906, union organising at the local AWU hall in 1915, mine workers and the pack camels in 1901, the men at Chillagoe Gymnasium in 1905, and the local rifle club with their 1907 trophy.
"The copper and silver lodes of the Chillagoe district of North Queensland were first made known to John Moffat of Irvinebank by William Atherton of Chillagoe cattle station. In 1888, soon after Chillagoe Station was formed, rich copper ore was found there. Moffat set parties of miners to work opening up these great outcrops. Several small reverberatory smelters were erected throughout the district to reduce the ore to matte. All machinery and supplies had to come by waggon 150 miles from Port Douglas over rough roads.
The Chillagoe Railways and Mines Co. Ltd. was formed, and in 1897 the company was authorised to construct a railway from Mareeba to Chillagoe and Mungana and from Almaden to the Etheridge (Forsayth). The Mungana railway was completed in 1900, and the Chillagoe smelters in the following year.
The company brought £600,000 pounds worth of capital into the Chillagoe district; it built towns and a railway, and with the production of the mines it developed, it created improvements and products worth £8,000,000 during its lifetime. For years until the second World War the old Chillagoe railway throbbed to the roar of the loaded ore trains. It was the main artery of a great mining field."
— Triumph in the Tropics (1959)
In the late 1920s the Chillagoe Smelters became mired in scandal — accusations of political corruption circulated regarding the way the government dealt with the sale and purchase of mining properties in the region, including the smelters.
Anger from locals and opposition politicians (who were soon elected to government) led to a Royal Commission and high-level political resignations from those involved in what is now known as The Mungana Affair.
If you'd like a rest stop between visiting the smelter and the caves, allow me to introduce Chillagoe's Post Office Hotel where you can write on the walls to let it be known you were there.
And if you're up for a change of pace more permanent than a day trip can offer, the pub happens to be up for sale.
A short drive out of Chillagoe town is the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park, home to the remarkable limestone caves the region is now known for. You can go inside some of the caves on self-guided or ranger-guided tours, depending on which cave you're interested in seeing.
I visited the Royal Arch cave, a large cave system with dark passageways as well as daylight chambers. The ranger provides a hand-held torch with which to light your walk—in the depths of the cave if you turn off your torch, you'll find it is pitch black, and your eyes won't even adjust to see your hand in front of your face.
The photos I took inside the cave are hand-held and mostly lit with the torch.
"Some scientists believe the landscape around Chillagoe began to form about 400 million years ago, when limestone was deposited as calcareous mud and coral reefs on the bed of a shallow sea where Chillagoe is today."
— Queensland Department of National Parks
The journey back to Cairns from Chillagoe will run you about 3 and a half hours with a few rest stops along the way.
It's a scenic drive crossing varied landscapes from the red dirt cattle station country, across the irrigated fruit growing tablelands, and up through the rainforested mountains before descending into coastal Cairns.
The journey out west is not the most common day trip from Cairns. Cairns is a popular stop for those visiting Tropical North Queensland, which, as they say, is where the rainforest meets the reef — and it's the rainforest and the reef most are in the region to see.
When Cairns is your base, Kuranda, Barron Gorge, the Daintree, Mossman Gorge, Ellis Beach, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation, and the Great Barrier Reef are all popular spots to spend a day. And with good reason—these places are glorious.
But if you head west you'll find a different kind of day trip — red dirt, big skies, and bushland as far as the eye can see—and it's well worth the journey.