MAREEBA to CHILLAGOE
Mareeba Shire is the second largest and most varied shire in the State, with pristine rainforests at Kuranda meeting rich fertile plains above the coastal ranges. From Mareeba, the historic 'Wheelbarrow Way' winds through the area's pioneering goldrush towns to Chillagoe. This fascinating drive is a mere 140 kilometres, but you will find yourself on the sunburnt edge of Australia's arid Northern Outback.
FOR ALL THE BEST LOCAL ATTRACTIONS, ACCOMMODATION AND DINING AREAS IN THIS REGION, USE THE LINKS ABOVE OR SCROLL DOWN. TO OPEN AN INTERACTIVE MAP OF THE ATHERTON TABLELANDS IN A SEPARATE SMALLER WINDOW, CLICK HERE.
MAREEBAMareeba itself is a hub for travellers heading north to Cooktown and Cape York, west to the Outback or south to explore the towns, villages and hamlets of the Atherton Tablelands. The town's name comes from an Aboriginal word meaning 'meeting of the waters', since it is here that the mighty Barron River meets Emerald and Granite Creeks.
Mareeba's distinctive flavour is due in part to a rich multicultural heritage. Prior to European settlement, Mareeba was a meeting place for the Kuku Muluridji Aboriginal people. When gold was discovered on the Palmer River, a great population boom followed, including a large percentage of Chinese miners. In fact, on many of the goldfields around the Atherton Tablelands region, also known as the Cairns Highlands, Chinese outnumbered Caucasians. In 1877 a pastoralist named John Atherton arrived with his herds of cattle to take up land in the area. John Atherton is revered as the founder of Mareeba. At that time, Mareeba was fast becoming a busy crossroads for coach transport between the coastal towns and the tin mines at Herberton. But it was when the railway reached the town in 1893 that Mareeba really flourished.
In the early 1900's, Mareeba attracted a large number of European migrant farmers, particularly Italians, who found the fertile soil perfect for growing high quality tobacco. At its peak, there were 800 growers in the area, producing over 8,000 tonnes of tobacco a year, sixty percent of the country's total yield. From 1942 to 1945 up to 10,000 Australian and US servicemen used Mareeba Airfield as a staging post for battles in New Guinea and the Pacific. Demand for tobacco was never higher, but changes in government policy in the 1990's caused the demise of the once thriving tobacco industry, and in order to survive, farmers have diversified into other crops such as tea trees, navy beans, sugar cane, cashews, vegetables and assorted tropical fruits. Modern day Mareeba has a population of approximately 8 000. Interestingly, Mareeba is also home to one of the oldest surviving continually used mosques in Queensland, built by Albanian immigrant farmers.
The fertile district around the town has gained a reputation as a food lovers' paradise, thanks to early migrant farmers who, in the 1950's, began channelling water from Lake Tinaroo, 37 kilometres away. Visitors have ample opportunity to sightsee nearby plantations, farms, wineries and distilleries as part of what has become known as the 'food trail'. The area is now responsible for 90% of Australia's coffee production, and visitors can sample some of the local brews, including macadamia flavoured coffee, right on the plantation. Also, there are wineries that make wines and liqueurs from banana, coffee, mango, lychee, jaboticaba, bush cherry, mulberry, star apple and passionfruit... just to name a few. You can visit Australia's largest mango plantation or taste the world's lowest acid, highest flavour pineapples, the 'Mareeba Gold', famous around the country. And if you fancy something a bit more substantial than fruit and coffee, you can sample the famous local freshwater crayfish or lobsters, known locally as 'red claw'.
Through its ideal climate of cool evenings, fine days (300 sunny days a year!) and clear mountain air, Mareeba has become the hot air ballooning capital of Australia. Every morning a colourful array of balloons rise above the landscape and then drift away with the breeze. If ballooning isn't exciting enough for you, there's scenic flights, helicopter tours, charter flights, and skydiving are all easily arranged.
But not only is Mareeba Australia's hot air ballooning capital, but also the coffee growing capital of Australia, with more than a dozen plantations in the area. Mareeba, thanks to its ideal climate conditions, produces more than 80 per cent of the nation's commercial coffee crop. And it has by far the most diverse collection of coffee harvesters anywhere in the world, many of which can be seen on display at the coffee plantations themselves.
SERVICES: Mareeba has a number of petrol stations in and around the town, two pubs, a supermarket, and numerous restaurants offering a range of cuisines. There is a local police station in town, a doctors surgery and pharmacies, a post office, public telephones, a bank with an ATM, and a public toilet at the Information Centre.
"Dad pushed a wheelbarrow in which were stacked all our belongings. A few pieces of iron which would be used as a shelter, maybe some hessian, a spade, a lantern, a few kitchen things and very little else. Mum and the children walked behind, Mum usually with babe in arms". Mr.Peel, an early settler in the Chillagoe region.
The 140 kilometre outback road that links Mareeba with Chillagoe is called the "Wheelbarrow Way". It was named in tribute to the pioneers who trudged the dusty track to Chillagoe in the late 1800's, after discoveries of gold were reported.
If you follow the Wheelbarrow Way inland from Mareeba to Chillagoe, you'll pass through a handful of tiny towns, barely dots on the map, but for the visitor these towns can provide a fascinating insight into rural life, and the history of the region. Mutchilba, just 34 kilometres west of Mareeba, is nothing more than a few homesteads, a shop, school, church and playground. But this is the heart of mango country, and every November the tiny township hosts the Mango Madness Mardi Gras.
A little further west is Dimbulah, once famous for tobacco growing and now for its teatree oil and mangoes. The area around Dimbulah was originally home to the Djankun and Kuku Djungan Aboriginal tribe. During the 1920's the Queensland government FORCIBLY REMOVED most of their children, forcing the tribe to scatter.
Now, you're in goldrush country, and if you have time to venture off the Wheelbarrow Way a little, the area to the north can be an enthralling trip into the history books, as well as offering some stunning natural scenery.
SERVICES: Dimbulah has three petrol stations, a pub, a supermarket, takeaway food, a butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker (just kidding). There is a hospital in town, and a post office. Public toilets are in the park opposite the supermerket.At the Hodgkinson goldfields, 27 kilometres north of Dimbulah, Tyrconnell Gold Mine has been lovingly restored and offers overnight accommodation in heritage cabins. You can tour the mine, and witness the 120-year-old quartz-crushing machine spring back to life. Panning for your own gold adds to the excitement of this trip. Take home a tiny bottle of colour, flecks, flakes and wee nuggets of gold gouged out of the ground, panned with your own bare hands. Station stays on the mammoth Mt Mulligan Station makes a fascinating holiday alternative, here horseback riding and bushwalking combine with your opportunity to evolve from a city slicker to cowboy and help with the cattle round-up, droving, drenching and branding.
A further 20 kilometres along the unsealed road will bring you to the ghost town of Mount Mulligan. Mount Mulligan was the scene of Queensland's worst MINING DISASTER, in 1921, when a series of explosions in the newly opened coal mine killed 75 men, rocking the close knit township. The local cemetery remains a poignant reminder of the disaster, as gravestones show fathers buried next to their sons, date of death 19/09/1921. The landscape around the town is dominated by the massive escarpment of Mt Mulligan, an 18 kilometre long sandstone monolith that rises to almost ten times the height of Uluru.
Back on the Wheelbarrow Way, about 40 kilometres past Dimbulah, is the single-digit-population settlement of Petford. Petford was a watering hole for miners during the boom, but all that remains now is a general store. Petford is however, home to famous authoress Mrs Doreen McGrath. Doreen's home is by the old Petford railway siding, and it is said that she welcomes visitors for a chat.
A few kilometres past Petford is Lappa Junction, famous as the home of Queensland's only PUB WITH NO BEER. The century old corrugated iron Espanol Hotel owes its existence to the railroad, which brought civilisation to the remote outback towns in the early 1900's when gold, copper and tin mining boomed. But the pub closed its doors when the railway was closed in 1965. It was restored in 1990, and these days operates strictly as a BYO (bring your own) establishment, also housing a collection of railway and mining equipment, old bottles and minerals, riding gear and household items.
The sealed road runs out at Almaden, thirty kilometres short of Chillagoe. Like so many other towns in the area, Almaden was established as a railway workers town in the late 1800's or early 1900's. The difference is that Almaden still boasts a pub, offering weary travellers a cold beer and a home made meat pie.
From Almaden, the road is unsealed. Although it is quite well formed and generally suitable for travel in conventional vehicles, we remind you that many car rental companies restrict the use of their vehicles to sealed roads. Check your contract, as you will not be covered by insurance if you breach your agreement.
The first sign of Chillagoe on the horizon will be the massive chimney of the now abandoned smelter. The smelter operated from the early 1900's and until it closed in 1943, treated 1.25 million tonnes of ore, yielding 60,000 tonnes of copper, 50,000 tonnes of lead, 181 tons of silver and 5 tonnes of gold. By World War One, Chillagoe was one of the largest metallurgical developments in Queensland, and at its peak in 1917, Chillagoe had a population of about 10,000 and boasted 13 hotels, two newspapers, and a hospital. But when the smelters closed, Chillagoe plunged into a decline from which it is only now starting to recover. Today the population fluctuates around 350 people, with a further 400 projected workers due to provide labour for the massive Kagarra Zinc mine.
But the big attraction in Chillagoe is the caves; a massive system of more than 600 caves, the only place in North Queensland that offers this kind of caving experience. The limestone bluffs and massive underground cave system are known as the "Reef of the Outback". The caves are the remains of coral that lived in the inland sea covering this area about 450 million years ago. The National Parks Authority conduct tours with experienced guides many times daily. The caves are always much cooler than the outside air temperature, remaining at a constant 23 degrees Celsius.