Wheelbarrow Way (Mareeba to Chillagoe – 140km)
Late in the 1800’s when work was scarce and transportation was limited, miners often used to travel about the region using a wheelbarrow to carry all of their possessions. In 2004, as a tribute to these early pioneers and to honour their amazing trail-blazing feats, the road between Mareeba and Chillagoe was named the Wheelbarrow Way.
The following quote from a Mr Peel, an early settler in Chillagoe captures the essence of the spirit that is being celebrated with the development of the Wheelbarrow Way.
“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.”
The original road to Chillagoe began at Herberton and locals claim that a ‘T’ model Ford was used to blaze a shorter route close to the railway track between Dimbulah and Petford in 1949.
Today, the Wheelbarrow Way traverses this same country and follows a similar path close to the railway line which was originally privately owned but has since been incorporated into the state rail system. The line was originally used to ship material from the Chillagoe smelter to Cairns via Mareeba.
Today a journey along the Wheelbarrow Way takes the traveller through rich farmlands and wooded Savannah country. All but 20kms of the road close to Chillagoe is sealed and travellers should be on the lookout for cattle and horse which wander freely across the unfenced road.
Wildlife abounds in the region and it is not uncommon to see wallaroos and wallabies feeding beside the road. Travellers should also be aware that road trains use this section of road to take supplies and produce to and from the more remote parts of Cape York Peninsula and the Gulf country.
TAKE A TRIP ON THE WHEELBARROW WAY – sights to see
Odometer reading begins at the Chillagoe turn-off just north of Mareeba’s CBD. Readings are rounded to the nearest kilometre. R = Right hand side, L = Left hand side.
Mareeba is an aboriginal word meaning “meeting of the waters” and refers to the fact that the town lies at the junction of two watercourses – Granite Creek and the Barron River. The town evolved from a busy stage coach stop to become a bustling railway town. It has since grown to become a major administrative and supply centre for the region.
(1km/R) Eastern Grey Kangaroos can often be seen on the golf course and the Mareeba cemetery is typically Italian with its many crypts.
(2km/R) The Rodeo ground is the home to the famous Mareeba Rodeo and Christmas in July celebrations for the Grey Nomads.
The landscape immediately changes to picturesque rich farmlands dotted with specialised and unique farm machinery. Solitary kookaburras can often be seen perched on powerlines, their heads cast down starring, waiting for a tasty morsel in the form of a rodent or reptile to come along. This region was once a major rice and tobacco growing area but is now dominated by sugarcane plantations which are often marked by very large and spectacular overhead sprinkler irrigation systems.
Water for irrigation supplied from Tinaroo Dam enables a tremendous range of fruit and vegetables to be grown to supply both domestic and overseas markets. The range of crops is truly amazing and includes avocadoes, bananas, cashews, citrus, coffee, cow pea, custard apples, Dolichos, flowers, fresh herbs, grapes, grass seed, legume seed, lettuce, longans, lychees, macadamias, maize, mangoes, mixed vegetables, navy beans, passionfruit, paw paw, peaches, peanuts, pineapples, pumpkins, sorghum, sugar cane, sweet potato, ti tree, tomatoes, native trees and watermelon. Often this produce is for sale on the side of the road.
(5km/R) Many tobacco drying sheds with unique H shaped chimney tops are still standing but since the cessation of the tobacco growing industry are now used only for storage.
(8km/R) Coffee bushes growing in a field next to the road mark the location of the North Queensland Coffee Gold Plantation. Stop off and you can follow the coffee story from plant to cup and make sure you hear all about the famous ‘Maloberti shuffle’.
(10km) Wonderful flat expanses of granite greet you as you pass through Granite Gorge, the home of the Mareeba Rock Wallaby.
(12km) Away to the left and at the base of a distant range is the Arriga Sugar Mill.
(25kmL) As the Walsh River is crossed, on the left, the Savannahlander Rail Bridge can be seen. This was constructed in 1899 from steel obtained when the Brisbane Storey Bridge was rebuilt.
(32kmL) Mutchilba was created as a workers camp when the Tinaroo irrigation scheme was under construction in 1956. It has a General Store with fast food, Post Office, public phone and fuel.
(44km) Dimbulah has all the usual services including a restored railway station/Information Centre and a park with picnic facilities and clean public toilets. Dimbulah was a significant tobacco growing area and later growing Tea Tree for the oil. Just beyond Dimbulah is Eureka Creek – a great picnic location with no facilities. From here the landscape immediately changes with awesome panoramic views of Wooded Savannah created from years of fires lit by the aboriginals. Termite mounds abound with sightings of Wedge Tailed Eagles as they eat the road kill. This is cattle country with the average station being about 2,000+sq kms.
(74km/R) There is a historical marker at Emu Creek where the Kennedy expedition camped in 1848. The next settlement on the Wheelbarrow Way is (76km) Petford (public phone only), originally named Wadetown and a watering hole for the miners that worked the area. Take extra care here as there are often horses near the road and unlike cattle, they are very unpredictable. On the western side of Petford you may spot a Bustard/Plains Turkey.
A little further is the Cycad covered (80km) Lapper Range. At the (82km) top are the remains of the 100+ year old Lappa Pub. This is the site of a soak (spring) where camels watered on their journeys from the advancing railhead to the Chillagoe area in 1900. Later a branch line ran from here to the South, now this track is a captivating 4WD/dry-weather route to Mt Garnet with some interesting stonework and stunning panoramic views.
There is a historical marker showing the Kooboora cemetery at 91km/R. The last remains of the very significant, now abandoned Kooboora tin workings.
(98km) The Bismark Pass gives a great view of what lies ahead. The local calls this Top Cat Pass because of an interesting rock on the right as you enter the cutting.
(107km) Almaden lies in the middle of a granite belt with graceful boulderous granite hills scatted about. Almaden was established as a railway workers town in 1907. Now nicknamed ‘Cow Town’ and known for the oasis like beer garden and home made pies at the Railway Hotel. From here there are sections of well-formed unsealed road.
(110km) The turn-off the Mt Garnet/ Mt Surprise is unsealed and often closed during the wet season. A large green tree frog can be seen on the right of the road.
(115km/L) The first of the marble quarries is a great example of the industry. There are about forty of these pits, all producing different colours and crystal size. Blocks surround the pits to prevent cattle wandering in for a drink and getting stranded in the mud.
(123km) A cattle grid is the property boundary of Chillagoe Station. In front, red volcanic skarn signals the beginning of the heat zones that converted the Chillagoe limestone bluffs to marble, simultaneously depositing rich surface loads of copper and lead. The marble bluffs that follow are dark grey from algae and support unique vegetation protected from bushfires for many thousands of years.
(140km) A cattle grid acts as a town fence to keep cattle out and like opening a book, Chillagoe appears with a chimney of the now abandoned smelter on the horizon. The Chillagoe area is one of richest mineral deposits in the world. Chillagoe Cabins is located first on the right. This is the end of the Wheelbarrow Way – hope you enjoyed it!
Great Wheelbarrow Race 2023