We’re hovering in the air like a giant dragonfly. Below us, yachts moored in Port Douglas’ marina bob up and down, waiting to sail off towards the best diving and snorkelling spots on the Great Barrier Reef. A bucket list experience is to fly to one of the reef’s secluded sand cays, where he spreads out a picnic rug with orange juice, croissants, brie and champagne. Breakfast on an isolated sand cay after a swim and snorkelsounds like a wonderful idea to me, but it’s not on today’s itinerary.
Instead, the helicopter heads inland, over a patchwork of farmland towards green hills that unfurl into an expansive landscape of lush rainforest. A waterfall gushes forcefully into a river, which trickles its way through a deep gorge.
I try to peer beneath the rainforest canopy but the tree tops are so tightly woven it’s impossible to make out what treasures lie beneath. I can only imagine tangles of vines wrapped around gnarled tree trunks, moss-covered rocks, shy tree kangaroos leaping from tree to tree and wallabies darting beneath the bushes.
As suddenly as the scenery transformed from aquamarine to emerald, it morphs once more, into shades of sunburnt chocolate. Gently undulating mounds are thinly covered with shrubs, creating a panorama that is a slowly balding cousin of the lush neighbouring landscape we’ve just flown over. Wild brumbies scatter as the helicopter descends for a closer look. Ahead of us, white clouds stand out against the brilliant blue sky, forming a three-dimensional postcard.
The helicopter lands on a dusty landing strip at Tyrconnell mine. We tour the property, where old offices have been turned into a cottage. Inside the cottage, there’s a decent collection of memorabilia from the area’s goldmining heyday. Black-and-white photos, old blacksmith tools, dusty bottles and antique guns come with tales of outlaws, gunfights and the wild times. An orphaned wallaroo has wandered into the main bedroom and hopped onto the bed for a nap. I seem to be the only person who finds this out of the ordinary (and worthy of a photograph), so I deduce this must be an everyday occurrence here.
The wafting aroma of home-baked cookies entices us through the kitchen and onto a large veranda, where we sip on mugs of tea while taking in a landscape of rugged, tree-dotted hills that were once home to 10,000 people searching for gold.
In 1859, an impoverished Queensland separated from the state of NSW with 2 in the bank. Eager to develop the economic potential of the state, the Queensland government focused its efforts on discovering new gold fields. In 1872, the discovery of the nearby Palmer goldfield sparked a gold rush in Far North Queensland. Prospectors traversed rugged terrain, many dying of thirst or starvation, to search for gold. Irish explorer James Venture Mulligan struck gold in a big way in 1873 – his journal reports nuggets the size of eggs lying all over the ground.
When the Palmer goldfields began to dry up, Mulligan moved South to the Hodgkinson goldfield, where Tyrconnell mine now stands. Although the Hodgkinson goldfield was not the richest in Australia, it drew enough explorers to the area to eventually lead to the establishment of the towns of Cairns and Port Douglas.
The once bustling township of Thornborough was where women sashayed down the street in the latest London fashions and social balls were a regular occasion. Every few months, the circus with lions, tigers, elephants, fireworks and freak shows rolled into town. It’s a scenario that requires some imagining when you see the hectares of rugged bushland that now surrounds the mine.
During the 19th century, Tyrconnell was the largest mine in the area, supporting a population of more than 150 people with its own pub, butcher’s shop, post office and cemetery. There were miners’ quarters, a treasury, a blacksmith’s shed and a manager’s house. Quartz was winched out of the main shaft in a one-ton kibble bucket. We explore the 120-year-old battery, which is possibly one of the few working batteries left in the country. Bell fires up the equipment; the water wheel turns, stampers pound up and down making a thunderous racket. All that’s missing is the gold.
Tyrconnell might have been the Gaelic name for Irish county of Donegal (the home of one of the original owners) or it might have been named after the racehorse that won the 1876 Queen’s Plate in Ireland at odds of 100 to 1. In any case, the luck of the Irish eventually ran out.
These days, Tyrconnell offers guests a taste of life in the outback and a dose of gold-mining history. Overnight guest numbers are limited to 12, in three heritage-style cottages (Kylie Minogue stayed here a few years ago) or camping. Cooking utensils, crockery and cutlery are provided, or guests can dine with Bell and Harley in their cottage.
After a hearty country-style lunch, we fly away from Tyrconnell mine towards the clouds, landing on a rocky outcrop on top of Mount Mulligan. Locals often refer to Mount Mulligan – an 18km-long sandstone ridge that dominates the surrounding countryside – as Queensland’s Uluru. We sit in silence, absorbing the stark beauty of the land from our perch in the sky. Like Uluru, the ridge is steeped in Aboriginal tradition and evidence of human occupation found in shelters around the base of the ridge goes back 37,000 years, making this one of Queensland’s earliest dated sites.
The nearby Mount Mulligan mine is a ghost town with a honeycomb of abandoned tunnels, rusting machinery, disused buildings and a cemetery. A coal-dust explosion killed 75 men in 1921 in one of Australia’s worst underground disasters. We land on a flat rock next to a gushing stream and the pilot whips out a champagne glass and presents it to me filled with crystal clear water from the stream. It’s an extravagant way to obtain a drink of water but with a helicopter pilot at my disposal I’m already dreaming up more outrageous requests.