Following in the footsteps of ghosts of the past… our next journey takes us along the ‘Wheelbarrow Way’ to Chillagoe.

The Burke Development Road was another great off-road adventure for us… a road just south of the Cape York Peninsula and west of the Atherton Tablelands.

It starts at Chillagoe, travelling past numerous mine sites and cattle stations, finishing at the Karumba and Normanton intersection.

To get there we first had to cross the Dimbulah Road between Mareeba and Chillagoe, a road with lots of history that also claims the nickname of the ‘Wheelbarrow Way’.

This name came about from a time in the late 1800’s when work was scarce and transportation was limited thus many miners travelled the region pushing wheelbarrows packed with their worldly possessions and sometimes with family in tow.

The original road to Chillagoe began at Herberton with the locals very proud of their claim that in 1949 a ‘T’ model Ford was used to blaze the shorter route of this track close to the railway track between Dimbulah and Petford.

Today, the Wheelbarrow Way traverses this same country and follows a similar path close to the railway line, which, once privately owned, has since been incorporated into the state rail system and the line that originally shipped material from the Chillagoe smelter to Cairns via Mareeba is now the route for the Savannahlander, a very popular tourist train that travels a 850-kilometre return trip between Cairns and Forsayth once a week (between March and December). 

After stopping at Mareeba to stock up on groceries and re-fuel we headed west along Dimbulah Road, aka Wheelbarrow Way, passing the Mareeba Rodeo Ground where the annual rodeo was in full swing.

As our journey continued, we travelled through rich farmlands and wooded Savannah country, fields of sugar cane, banana plantations and mango orchards and it was an easy 143-kilometre drive with all but the last 20-kilometres of road to Chillagoe unsealed.

Wildlife seemed to prosper in this area and it wasn’t uncommon to see kangaroos feeding beside the unfenced road or cattle and horses wandering freely… as did road trains and cattle trucks as they transported supplies and produce to and from the more remote parts of Cape York Peninsula and the Gulf country.

The first town we came to was Mutchilba well known for the ‘Mango Mardi Gras’, a celebration of the many mango farms in the region.

Established in 1923, this town was downgraded by the Mareeba Shire Council in 1999 and officially become a part of Dimbulah, a bit over 11-kilometres further up the road.

Dimbulah is a little village with lots of mining history. Its name translates as ‘long waterhole’, no doubt named because of the nearby Walsh River and the town itself boasts an Olympic pool, a supermarket and the lovely restored Dimbulah Railway Station museum.

It is well known for its ti-tree (from which they get oil) and more mango plantations. Before the town limits is the ‘Xanthin Australian Tree Farm and Gallery’ turnoff, which is home to some of Australia’s rare native plants and just north of the town is a side track to the Hodgkinson Goldfields.

This town was developed as a stop for trains servicing the mines at Wolfram Camp and Mount Mulligan, and although the station no longer operates as such, the line still exists, with the Savannahlander tourist train passing through on its merry way between Cairns and Forsayth.

The railway museum’s interpretive panels gave us a fascinating insight into Dimbulah’s history as did the volunteer helpers who were busily setting up morning tea ready to cater for the many tourists aboard the Savannahlander

Beyond the small town of Dimbulah, the landscape changed from cattle country and mango plantations, to wooded savannah as it rose gradually through very dry vegetation and forests of cypress pine and silver-leaf ironbark, before dropping into Emu Creek Valley where we soon arrived at the tiny 1 house railway hamlet of Petford.

This section of line was the first to be opened in 1900 from Mareeba to Lappa and although the railway station still stands, all that is operational today is the rail line for the Savannahlander as it passes through.

Around 7-kilometres on, at the top of the Featherbed Range, we came to Lappa Junction where the old Espanol Hotel, built in 1901, sits near the Mount Garnet turnoff. This iconic bush pub, made from round bush timber and galvanised iron and 2 other buildings, the Almaden Church, which was built in 1900 at Almaden and moved to Lappa in the early 1940s, and the oldest, the Lappa Railway Station that opened in late 1900 are all that remains of this little mining town where silver was discovered in 1891. The word ‘Lappa’ means ‘a large rock bluff’ in Aboriginal language.

The Espanol Hotel that once served miners’ is now a pub ‘with no beer’ and ‘no publican’ and today after serving travellers and locals for 118 years it is a BYO pub (after it surrendered it’s licence in December 1966), and a museum with a collection of local history, old mining equipment, early posters and rooms that have aged and not changed from bygone days. It is owned and run by a guy who goes by the name of ‘The Yappa from Lappa’, and has proudly worn his title for 25 years.

Further on we came to the small township of Almaden where we stopped at another historic pub, the Railway Hotel, which dates back to 1906. This pub had beer and a publican… so we couldn’t pass through without a nice cold drink!

It is also famous for its homemade pies and is another stopover for the Savannahlander tourist train, which unfortunately, we had just missed.

From here on to Chillagoe the road was largely gravel, with only the odd patches of bitumen.

This is a region of spectacular rock formations and wild ranges and we instantly noticed the tall chimneys and old smelter ruins as we neared the mining township.

After booking into the caravan park behind the roadhouse we grabbed our cameras and headed to the ruins of the Chillagoe Smelters where lead, silver, copper and gold was once brought to be processed.

It was an eerily picturesque sight and an iconic reminder of the past as we followed a short walk from the carpark to an elevated viewing area where we had full view of brick flues, chimneys and the remnants of the old furnaces.

Chillagoe is a lovely outback town famous for its limestone caves and apart from the ruins of these copper smelters and its mining history, it had some very interesting geology, mainly in the form of the spectacular limestone boulders that seemed to surround us.

We wandered around the town to photograph the many historic buildings, which included the railway station, a bank vault, the court house, post office and the Post Office Hotel.

Each tiny hamlet we had passed through along the ‘Wheelbarrow Way’ told a story of yesteryear and we couldn’t help but notice the nostalgia that hung over them.

We felt privileged to follow in the footsteps of ghosts of the past who forged their way over this rugged land… miners in search of gold, wearily wheeling their barrows full of their worldly possessions and Cameleers who trudged behind their camel teams.

Before leaving Chillagoe we were told to visit the ‘Hub’ museum and information centre, but unfortunately, we were turned away at 3:30 pm as it was closing with the only advice from the lady being not to continue on the next part of our journey along the Bourke Development Road. We were told it was rough, corrugated and prone to lots of trucks in and out of the mines and a man standing at the counter added he had driven 6-kilometes in from Chillagoe and turned around, it was way too rough.

Not sure of what was ahead of us our next off-road adventure would take us across a road less travelled to Karumba on the far north Queensland coast.

The Burke Developmental Road was originally constructed to service the beef industry and for us was a great drive past many cattle stations and and million of acres of savannah woodland country.

Come with us on our next adventure as we explore more of the remote outback Aussie countryside….

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