Over the rainbow
At the end of a long and winding dirt road northwest of Mareeba, a unique and often hidden piece of Far North Queensland history lies all but untouched.
Once a bustling mining town and population centre at the height of the north’s gold rush, the towering red cliffs of Mount Mulligan now stand as an enduring reminder that nature will outlast anything us humans can throw at it.
Originally known as Ngarrabullgan to the local Kuku Djungan Aboriginal people, the 122m sandstone bluffs are a significant part of Australian indigenous history, known as the birthplace of the Rainbow Serpent (one of Australia’s most significant Aboriginal dreamtime stories) and as one of the most sacred sites in the country.
The mountain is attributed to being home to Queensland’s oldest Aboriginal sites, with evidence of human occupation stretching back 37,000 years into the last Ice Age and the largest collection of archaeological finds in the state dating before 4000 BC.
The Federal Court of Australia recognised the Djungan people’s native title rights and interests over 182,000ha of land in the area in August, ending years of campaigning by elders to return management of the lands to its original indigenous inhabitants.
However, the indigenous history isn’t the only thing Mount Mulligan is noted for – the area holds a significant, if grim, piece of Australian pioneering past as well.
Given its western name in 1874 by a band of prospectors searching for gold in the Hodgkinson River Basin led by James Venture Mulligan, the area became a busy township after 1910 when one of the region’s major coal mines of the day began operation, providing electricity to residences and businesses across the Tableland region.
However in 1921, disaster struck when an underground explosion ripped through the mine shafts killing all 75 miners, which at the time was most of the town’s population.
While the mine reopened two years later and continued operation until 1957 when a hydro-electricity scheme in the area eliminated the need for coal, the disaster still hangs a shadow over the town as the worst ever mining disaster in Queensland history.
These days, while still recognised as a gazetted township with 55 citizens, according to the most recent data from the 2006 census, all that remains of the area’s rich past is Thornborough Cemetery (housing the graves of some of the miners from the disaster), a couple of occupied houses, an iconic chimney stack and the overgrown remains of the mining operations and electricity generator.
A walk through the township is like visiting a ghost town from a western movie, with many of the rusted tools from the mine still where they were left when it ceased operation more than 50 years ago.
Truly a place that time forgot, the only sign of life in the region is the 28,000ha Mount Mulligan cattle station and homestead, home to about 2300 Brahman and free-range cattle owned by Gordon Pringle and his team of stock hands.
Gordon and his team welcome travellers to the homestead and offer a range of activities to keep you busy during your stay, from authentic cattle mustering via horse, motorbike and helicopter, to more relaxed activities such as bird watching, bushwalking, swimming, gold fossicking, horse riding, quad bike tours, fishing and Landcruiser tours.
A range of accommodation options are available, from airconditioned bunks and rooms, through to luxury safari tents, meaning a comfortable stay in what can be a hot and dry environment during the peak winter season.
Due to the dirt roads, the area can be inaccessible during the wet season and 4WDs are recommended year round.
However, the station does offer a series of tour packages via Port Douglas and Cairns, making a trip to the area painless for those who don’t have access to their own vehicles.
In addition, it’s only a short drive to another iconic Far North Queensland natural wonder, with the Chillagoe - Mungana Caves National Park located about an hour further west.
It features spectacular limestone caves, small galleries of Aboriginal rock art and another historically significant mining site, this time without the disaster attached.
Whatever your reason – be it the amazing history, rugged outback terrain or simply to cast your eyes on one of the country’s most spectacular mountain ranges, a visit to Mount Mulligan is worth every kilometre of the drive.
Steeped in history, myth and spirituality, it’s an authentic slice of Far North Queensland before we became a major population and tourism centre, and a reminder to us all that some of the most special places in the region aren’t necessarily included in normal tourism brochures.
Mount Mulligan is located about 160km by road northwest of Cairns and about 50km north of Dimbulah.
Take the Burke Development Rd to Dimbulah via Mareeba and turn off on to Stephens St. At 29km, turn off to the Tyrconnell Mine (5km) and Kingsborough (7km).
The old Thornborough Cemetery is located on the right just past the intersection, followed by Mount Mulligan Station.
It should be noted that all but the first 6.5km of the road into Mount Mulligan are unsealed dirt roads.
4WD access is recommended at all times of the year.
For more information about Mount Mulligan Station, visit mountmulligan.com
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Mount Mulligan holds huge importance in Aboriginal history and was also once a booming coal town. photo // Tourism Tropical North Queensland