Back in San Diego, Ed and Rita have an awesome motor home that they love to jump aboard and escape into deserts. They had done a trip around western Queensland with us a couple of years ago and were game to come back to join us again, this time hiring a vehicle from Cairns at the embarrassingly excruciating price Australians charge for 4WD motor home hire.
We dubbed their little high-top home Thelma Toyota and introduced her to our Isabel Isuzu and Barb and Phil’s Narelle Nissan. Isabel led out of Cairns and through Mareeba. We kept Thelma in the middle and Narelle brought up the rear, with Phil on the CB singing snatches of Convoy and reminding Ed to keep left.
Mareeba to Chillagoe is The Wheelbarrow Way. In May every year people race wheelbarrows along the 140km, most of which is sealed. This year more than $460,000 was raised for charity. Fit Bucks set a team record is 7 hours 15 minutes and the solo section was won by Chris White (no, not the Maryborough Chris White of joinery fame – he’s wacky but not enough to do 140km in 14 hours pushing a wheelbarrow.)
Piles of marble rock slabs weighing about 30 tonne sprout from quarries as you close in on Chillagoe. The industry was started in the 1980s and the marble sent to Italy for processing. Polished local marble slabs create in impressive entrance to The Hub, where the Chillagoe information centre tells you about cave tours, history, marble the local sights.
An old thick-walled bank vault is an odd adornment in the open air art and raw marble rocks that decorate the ground around The Hub, which has an absorbing depiction of odd early mining ventures by tough and ambitious mining entrepreneurs.It also tells of Chillagoe’s geographical wonders, crated when a subterranean upheaval tossed an ancient Great Barrier Reef out of the sea.
Hundreds of limestone bluffs, exposed coral reefs and extensive cave systems have trapped evidence of almost mythical creatures long gone the way of the dodo.
Three cave tours are on offer at Chillagoe, two in the morning and one in the afternoon. We skipped them for various reasons – claustrophobia, crooks knees, time and “all caved out” – but it seems they would be well worth factoring in if you had a bit of foresight about visiting Chillagoe.
Six dollars a vehicle bought us the right to camp at the rodeo grounds where the basic amenities and showers were fine. We had really only thought of Chillagoe as a pit stop but it is worth a lot more than that.
When Ed and Rita had come through customs at Cairns the night before the X-ray of their luggage showed up an enormous bottle. “What’s that?” said the customs man.
“Tequila,” said Ed. “I’m planning to make margaritas for my friends.” The custom’s man took another look before nodding approvingly: “Looks like you’re going to have fun.”
So at the Chillagoe rodeo grounds before dinner on our first night we toasted ourselves in margaritas. Ed makes a sensational margarita. He also makes a big batch. We slept well.
Next morning we visited the intriguing balancing rock a kilometre down the track, took photos of us all pretending to hold it up and decided to fuel up the bowser-less run of almost 600km to Normanton. That’s when we met old Tom and his Fords. And that’s another story about why Chillagoe is not a pit stop.
PICTURE ABOVE: Nancy, Rita, Ed, Phil, Barb and Tony wave for the camera at Chillagoe.