Chillagoe in the Outback

Chillagoe Donna Caves.jpg

Chillagoe in the Outback

This small red, dusty town on the edge of the outback in northern Queensland is no more than a three hour drive from two luxury lodges, or a much shorter heli flight, and provides an interesting day trip from either place.

Chillagoe is an excellent place to visit if you want to experience a taste of the authentic Australian outback without the tourism overlay of places like Uluru or Kakadu. Watch out for Almaden, a small settlement 25 kilometres short of Chillagoe, where the cattle are almost as big as the houses and there is, as Lonely Planet once put it, a very general store.

I eventually arrived in Chillagoe (I drove in the back way) to a town I’d been told had a turbulent geological past and a rich history of Aboriginal habitation. I was welcomed by a smiling, sprightly local woman who then ran the Chillagoe Creek Homestead. Mary’s local knowledge was impressive as she spent the following days showing me a few of the hot spots, and her favourites. She had also spent many years as a Savannahland guide and put me to shame with her fitness and stamina.

Modern Chillagoe began life as a mining town, with relics of an old smelter being a highlight for some visitors, although it’s aboriginal past goes back much further than that. And even older again are the spectacular limestone outcrops and cave systems found just a few miles out of town. There are 600 limestone caves in the Chillagoe area but only five or six are open to visitors. A local company runs tours through the best of these at set times during the day; the Donna Cave is well worth a visit if you only have time for one. Several are open for self-guided tours. This limestone area was once part of the Great Barrier Reef system and the mind boggles at just how it all ended up here, 200 kilometres inland. 

Mary took me to the overgrown remains of the old Calcifer settlement and graveyard where those who didn’t survive a turn of the 20th century mining disaster 

are buried. We wandered around town (if you could call it that) and checked out the museum (about 30 metres square) and the local café. The tiny hospital down the road, with its classic Queenslander style verandahs, has the Flying Doctor Service fly in every fortnight to take care of the locals.

But it was the Aboriginal sites that were most fascinating. Time Magazine has suggested Chillagoe’s art sites are among the six most significant Aboriginal sites in Australia. Not openly signposted, a bit of local help is required to see the best places. We visited two sites, the first a plain shelter under a huge overhanging rock with a grinding stone and some rock art still evident. Local indigenous people still visited this site seasonally as late as the 1940s. 

However it was the second place that was so magical, a place they call Echidna Dreaming. This site is higher up on a rock outcrop, overlooking the tree-scattered plains in the distance. Artwork resembling stars in the night sky is drawn across the roof - some at such alarming angles the ancient artist would have needed abseiling gear to reach it. This site has a special feel to it - a timelessness that reflects the fact it was inhabited during the last ice age, up to 23,000 years ago. The aptly named Balancing Rock is another of those precarious attractions that have you wondering just how it happened, and how it manages to stay there.

Later that evening I sat out on the wide verandah at Chillagoe Creek Homestead. There was rain around but it didn’t come near. During the day the countryside had been lit by bright red-flowering poinciana trees; at night it glowed under distant lightning. The red dust had settled and the land was quiet.

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