June 8, 2008


Published on The Brunei Times (http://www.bt.com.bn/en)

Chill in Chillagoe for a taste of the real Australian Outback
Liz Price


Sunday, May 18, 2008

KANGAROOs were bouncing across the road and a flash of bright colours in the trees ahead indicated the presence of cockatoos. The blue sky contrasted sharply against the brown earth. This was bush country, the real northeast Australian outback.

In the dry season here in Chillagoe, everything is brown. There is no other colour except for the cloudless blue sky. The creeks are bone dry, the cattle painfully thin, and there is not a drop of water to be seen. But the harshness of the landscape is somehow fascinating, especially knowing that everything is lying dormant, waiting for the rains.

And when they come it is a different world. The wet season is from November to March and the whole landscape is transformed. Everywhere is green. The bushes and trees all develop leaves, there is grass where previously there had just been dusty earth, and even flowers are blooming. The creeks are all running and often the roads get washed out. The rivers overflow their banks and flood huge areas, and you realise why the locals warn visitors never to camp near a riverbed. Flash floods are so common.

Chillagoe lies about 200km from Cairns at the southern end of the Cape York peninsula in a landscape totally different climatically and geographically from Cairns. The limestone area of Chillagoe comes as a great surprise. I first saw the towers jutting out from between the trees. As we got closer the rocks appeared to rise vertically from a jumble of cracked and broken boulders to end in enormous jagged ramparts standing clearly out against the tropical blue sky. It is like a scene from a film set, and is similar to the limestone area of Guilin in China.

The Chillagoe limestone is noted for its sharpness, and this is an understatement. Razor sharp edges cover every surface, and I can see why the area has been likened to the Mountains of Mordar in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. House sized boulders are jammed in crevices and every- where there are holes, some leading into caves, others just into impenetrable fissures.

Chillagoe is now an area of National Parks, divided into nine separate areas within a 16km radius. The two largest parks are Royal Arch and Donna Cave. They consist of limestone bluffs which are honeycombed with caves, rising from an undulating plain.

The plain is open woodland and grassland with trees such as ironbarks, bloodwoods, and ghostgums. On the bluffs are fig trees and helicopter trees. The leaves of the latter give a nasty sting. Many trees have roots which extend deep into the caves in an attempt to search for water.

Various caves are open to the public, and the more intrepid can go adventure caving. But apart from the caves, Chillagoe is noted for its aboriginal paintings, its smelters and its marble. As recently as one hundred years ago, the area was inhabited by aborigine tribes who made use of the relatively reliable water supply (the climate is drier today) and hunted the wallabies and other small mammals. They drew rock paintings of spirit figures and animals and they made hand stencils. The spirit figures were thought to represent deities inhabiting the caves. Thus people themselves stayed away from the caves.

The first white settlers encountered fierce resistance from the aborigines in the 1880s and many bloody battles were fought. The first settler, William Atherton, built his homestead at Chillagoe Creek. He and his family explored the caves. An aborigine girl was murdered by one of his stockmen and her body was thrown down a cave — her spirit is said to haunt the area, now known as Haunted Tower. Atherton sold his cattle to the miners who were beginning to flock to the area, prospecting for gold, silver and copper.

The mining boom lasted fifty years, and Chillagoe grew into one of the biggest mining centres of Queensland and at its peak in 1917 it had thirteen hotels, two newspapers and a hospital to cater to the population of 10,000. Today there are about 200 people. The workings were closed after WWI, and the smelters fell into ruin. Today, marble quarrying is the main industry. The Parliament House in Canberra contains genuine Chillagoe marble, which was sent to the marble area in Italy for finishing before being shipped back to Australia.

Tourism is also a thriving industry as people come for the cave tours, and also to experience the beauty of this stark landscape.The Brunei Times


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