On the outside slate grey bluffs known as karst push out of the red earth, like an outback Mordor.
Inside, about 50 metres below the ground, a network of large chambers and passages are loaded with stalactites and stalagmites and other mesmerising limestone formations.
The caves are in Chillagoe-Mungana National Park, on the doorstep of the township of Chillagoe.
Two options for exploring the caves give the best of both worlds:
The full Indiana Jones experience of a self-guided tour or being shown around by a park ranger for local knowledge peppered with the odd dad joke.
Look out for a variety of animals including bats, birds, quite large spiders and snakes that call the grottos home. The cave dwellers include at least six species of bat, the spotted python and the white-rumped swiftlet.
The caves were formed 400 million years ago from an ancient seabed and coral reef and are among the most spectacular in Australia. It’s estimated there are between 600 and 1000 caves dotting the Chillagoe-Mungana area.
But the caves are just part of the Chillagoe story. For a tiny place it has a big number of attractions.
Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park offers walking tracks from 500 metres to nine kilometres.
One of the easiest at 440 metres is to Balancing Rock, a precariously perched outcrop of limestone that just demands a selfie.
And along with the photogenic beauty of the outback itself, within Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park are the ruins of the State Smelters that processed copper, lead, silver and gold in the first half of the 20th Century.
In its day the smelters and associated industries supplied 1000 jobs. The ruins with their towering brick chimneys and mountain of slag demonstrate the importance of the mining industry in Queensland’s west more than 100 years ago.
Reaching much further back, Chillagoe also has significant indigenous rock art. There are two sites, Mungana (about 15 minutes out of town) and Wullumba (near Balancing Rock) and the galleries are estimated to be about 35,000 years old.
Chillagoe Museum is a good starting – or end – point for a visit to Chillagoe, capturing the area’s geographical, historical and cultural attractions within its walls.
Chillagoe township is three hours’ drive from Cairns, and 110 kms west of the Atherton Tablelands. The journey can be made in a 2WD vehicle. To really make the most of your experience, plan ahead and book some accommodation for the night.
Taking in the magic of the caves, the historic echoes of the smelter ruins, a quick dip in the local swimming hole or a slow beer at the pub make Chillagoe the perfect destination or detour.
Written by Tanya Snelling. Originally published 23rd February 2018