The Atherton Tablelands & Chillagoe

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September 18th 2012
Published: September 21st 2012
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Look out for lots of photos in this blog entry! The Atherton Tablelands are very picturesque. Presumably so named because of the area’s elevation above sea level, there are mountains everywhere and the climate is noticeably cooler. Atherton itself is a nice little town with a laid-back atmosphere. For such a small place, there seemed to be a lot of pet shops – and I completely fell in love with a little girl kitten whom I named Josephine. Naming her was possibly not the smartest thing to do as it made it all the more hard to tear myself away. Another customer in the pet shop told me that she knew a couple who travelled around with their tomcat! But no… surely that’s not right.

It’s well worth driving out into the countryside surrounding Atherton. Not only is it pretty, but you get to see the most amazing strangler fig trees. The first one we saw was the ‘cathedral’ fig tree, named for the shape that its roots form. Strangler fig trees work in a bizarre and unique way: a fig seed is dropped onto the another tree by a bird or a bat; it germinates and the seedling lives in the tree’s canopy; as it grows and needs more nutrients it sends out long cable-like roots that descend to the ground or encircle its host; the fig continues to grow, either outliving or killing its host. The second tree that we saw was the ‘curtain’ fig tree. After sending its roots down to the soil, this one developed aerial roots which reached over and strangled the host tree, causing it to fall into a neighbouring tree, at which point the fig sent more roots to the ground. Eventually the host tree rotted away, leaving the free-standing fig tree with its curtain-like appearance. Fascinating! And mean but beautiful.

After lunch we drove on to the Crater Lakes National Park and found a lovely camping spot next to Lake Tinaroo. Waking up to the mist over the water and a bath in the lake the next morning was absolutely beautiful. Our next stop (you can’t bypass it if you’re in the area!) was the awesome Mareeba Coffee Works. Aside from high quality decaf, I’m not really a coffee person, but I could easily have spent the entire day there. Quite possibly because of the chocolate! As well as 40+ types of coffee blends, they have a chocolaterie in which they produce over 50 different flavours of the yummy stuff. And their dark chocolate is the real thing, using only cocoa butter and no dairy. They even make chocolate pizzas! We treated ourselves to the ‘Coffee Works Experience’ which includes unlimited tastings of coffee, tea, chocolate and liqueurs. We were so stuffed that we didn’t have lunch until 3.30pm :-) We also really enjoyed the Coffee Works museum, featuring all kinds of coffee making equipment and collectables, and I loved their quirky gift shop.

Next, we drove out to the remote town of Chillagoe. We noticed a very dramatic change in landscape as we approached the town. Instead of lush green surroundings, there was dry red earth and zillions of termite hills. Apparently, Australia’s giant termites are related to termites found in 50 million year old fossils! Their nearest relatives are cockroaches and the workers (at 10mm) are amongst the largest termites in the world. Lovely!

To our surprise, we were almost rammed off the road by a couple of road-trains. We certainly hadn’t expected to see those beasts in this area and the only thing to do when you see one coming towards you is get off the road; fast! Because of all the dry earth – a presumably there are lots of little holes in our van – everything inside and outside the van got covered in dust. I suppose that’s a taster of what’s to come when we travel through the red centre!

That afternoon, we walked up to Balancing Rock (a pretty good description!), splashed around in a delicious waterhole and checked out the Chillagoe Smelter Resources Reserve (a lead and copper smelter which closed down in 1950).

Our abode in Chillagoe was the rodeo grounds. We had been warned that the facilities were very basic (and at $6 a night we certainly hadn’t expected anything flash) but it was still a hoot to find a tin shed with prehistoric toilets that were filled with cobwebs. Luckily there was a slightly newer block of amenities nearby, complete with barrels of rainwater under which you had to light a fire for a warm shower. We didn’t really have the time for that so just had a cold shower instead :-) Not that you’d want to spend a long time in those showers anyway!

The following morning, we went on a tour of one of the famous Chillagoe Caves. Donna Cave was given its name because of a rock protrusion at its entrance which looks just like the silhouette of a woman’s head. We learnt all about stalactites and stalagmites and the creatures that live in the cave. Apparently there is even a python that likes to feast on bat poo! I can’t be 100% sure of that though as our tour guide’s humour was somewhat strange. Afterwards we took ourselves off to nearby Pompeii Cave which is a cleft in the rock filled with large boulders, the remnants of a previous collapse. It was cool to see, but tricky to climb over the debris.

The rest of the day was spent driving (Dean) and studying (me). Actually, studying in the passenger seat works remarkably well. I have to control the urge to constantly look at the countryside but, once I get into ‘the zone’, it’s fine. I have now submitted my first assessment – so fingers crossed that I get a good pass mark!!

As some of you already know, we have been considering a change in our travel plans. The original plan was to continue right around Australia, across the top and down the west coast of the country. We are now thinking about heading inland to Alice Springs and Uluru after we leave Cairns, and then continuing south to take a break of a few months (ie live in a house) in either Melbourne or Adelaide, before continuing our trip up the west coast. For now we are just going with the flow and decision time will come when we reach the junction of the Barkly Highway and the Stuart Highway. North to Darwin, or south to Alice Springs? Keep watching this space!
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