Why You Shouldn't Miss the Queensland Outback
A Queensland holiday typically consists of adventures in ancient rainforest, lazing on incredible beaches and exploring the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. And it’s for these reasons that it came as a surprise to me that it is possible to experience the Australian Outback right in this very state. The Outback is a barren land, famously defined by its deep red sands, unforgiving climate and is most commonly associated with the middle of the country. It’s also an unmistakable Aussie icon, so having the opportunity to visit the Outback while on holiday in Queensland was a no-brainer for me. Here’s what I saw when I joined a small local tour group called Billy Tea Safaris…
Mandatory posing next to the famous Balancing Rock in Chillagoe - Image: Chris Steel
Mandatory posing next to the famous Balancing Rock in ChillagoeImage: Chris Steel
Skybury Coffee Plantation
The sun had barely risen when my group were collected from our Cairns hotel. While there was plenty of excitement about the day to come, the early start had ensured that one or two yawns could be heard as we boarded the custom-built 4X4 truck, said a temporary goodbye to the coast and headed inland. It was a blessing, then, that our first stop was the Skybury Coffee Plantation...
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Australia’s oldest commercial coffee plantation, Skybury is quite the local hero. I opted for an eye-opening double macchiato, which was genuinely one of the best coffee experiences I have ever had! The Skybury Café and roastery is only an hour from Cairns on the Atherton Tablelands and looks out over a glorious expanse of bushland.
Sipping brews and taking in views at Skybury Coffee Plantation - Image: Chris Steel
Sipping brews and taking in views at Skybury Coffee PlantationImage: Chris Steel
Crossing the Great Divide
Our main destination for the first day was the tiny, once flourishing mining town of Chillagoe. Heading west from Cairns, it takes two-and-a-half hours to reach it via dirt roads. Fortunately, our 4X4 bus was well equipped for such a journey with excellent air con and forgiving suspension. From the lush rainforests that immediately surround Cairns, we headed up and over the Great Dividing Range and the change in landscape became instantly noticeable. The trees we passed by were no longer part of ancient forests but became fruit bearing crops such as mango and lychee as we travelled through the agricultural heart of the region. Crops dispersed and tree life became sporadic as the terrain became ever dustier, the roads much rougher and the only other traffic we encountered is in the form of a hulking land train. It was definitely getting pretty remote by this stage.
Chillagoe's old copper smelts - Image: Chris Steel
Chillagoe's old copper smeltsImage: Chris Steel
While Australia’s Red Centre can boast world-famous landmarks such as Uluru and Kings Canyon, Queensland's Outback has a much more underground offering. Quite literally. The Chillagoe Caves are a vast network of underground limestone caverns, which have been formed from ancient seabeds and coral reefs over 400 million years ago. As part of our tour we were kitted up with a high-powered torch, introduced to our charismatic guide named Eddie, and lead down into the darkness to explore the fascinating tunnels and halls of these caves. In addition to the towering stalagmites and precarious stalactites, we encountered one or two of the resident bats, although they kept themselves to the lofty heights of the larger caves. Eddie also took great pleasure in pointing out rock formations that resembled animals, faces or day-to-day objects.
The Chillagoe Caves: can you see an elephant in the rock formation? - Image: Chris Steel
The Chillagoe Caves: can you see an elephant in the rock formation?Image: Chris Steel
100 Year Old Pub
When you've been rooting around 400-million-year-old caves all morning, you work up an appetite. So what better place to tuck into a classic Aussie barbecue lunch than a traditional Outback pub. The Post Office Hotel first opened its doors over 100 years ago and has been helping to quench the thirst of miners from the Chillagoe Smelters as well as the local townsfolk ever since. It's here that we stop for juicy homemade beef burgers and an ice-cold beer. At some point in its illustrious 100 years' of business (ok, quite recently I'd say), the owners hit upon the novel idea to permit visitors to sign their name or leave a message scrawled on the walls of the main bar. Needless to say, after reading a few of the amusing comments that punters had committed to history, it didn't take long before a few of us from the group were scrabbling from a permanent marker and trying to think of something witty, novel or insightful to write. I ended up settling for my name and the date.
This Outback boozer is a local institution - Image: Chris Steel
This Outback boozer is a local institutionImage: Chris Steel
One of the most attractive reasons to head off the beaten track is to see and experience something unusual. Not only do Queensland's landscapes change as you venture further inland, so does the wildlife you're likely to spot too. I thought I was lucky to spot a Kookaburra, perched up in a gum tree but things got much more exciting...
Kookaburra - Image: Chris Steel
KookaburraImage: Chris Steel
It hadn’t been long that we’d been driving through the harsh scrub land of Queensland's outback before our driver slammed on the anchors as a large brown snake cut across our path. It shot over the road far too quickly to have a chance to snap a photo but was incredible to witness. Next up, Australia's largest bird of prey - the wedge tailed eagle. We'd been told to expect to see one or two of these impressive predators, but we were lucky enough to count no less than five ‘wedgies’ (as they’re affectionately known) on our outback adventure.