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Saturday April 7, 2012

Echoes of the gold rush

The Tyrconnell Historic Gold Mine in northern Queensland, once a magnet for prospectors dreaming of striking it rich, is a heritage destination where visitors can stay in style while learning of the mine’s quirky history and enjoying the views.

YOU can get there in real style, flying by helicopter across the wide savannah east of Port Douglas and Cairns, or you can do it at a more measured pace, by road, via the Atherton Tablelands’ town of Dimbulah.

However you travel, a visit to the Tyrcon­nell Historic Gold Mine and on to Mount Mulligan is a trip that no visitor to northern Queensland ought to miss.

While the road trip is entirely possible by conventional vehicle, a 4WD vehicle takes all the worry out of the trip, allowing time to take in the astonishingly varied landscapes that the area has to offer.

Awesome: Spectacular rock outcrops on Mount Mulligan Station.

When Irish explorer James Mulligan discovered gold near Tyrconnell on his way back from the Palmer River in 1873, his claim that gold nuggets were lying “like eggs on the ground” sparked a gold rush. Gold miners flocked in droves to the area just north of Dimbulah, and the township of Thornborough soon boasted 1,500 residents and 22 pubs.

Thornborough is a little quieter nowadays. But just 5km up the road at the Tyrconnell Historic Mine, managers Andy Bull and Cate Harley are thinking of rebuilding the old pub that once graced the township. And their plans don’t stop there!

The now heritage-listed Tyrconnell Historic Gold Mine was resurrected in the 1980s – and its hundred year-old ore crushing plant is still in daily operation. Visitors can tour the mine and learn of its quirky history, stay in style at the Tyrconnell homestead, or make camp under the trees, enjoying spectacular views of nearby Mount Mulligan.

On this occasion, I was highly privileged to tag along on a Skysafari trip to Tyrconnell and Mount Mulligan, departing from the outskirts of Port Douglas. As our pilot Brad King revs up our 240hp Robinson Raven series R44 helicopter,its whine turns into a smooth hum, and lifting off is like a breathtaking feat of levitation.

A lotus-strewn lagoon on Mount Mulligan Station.

We head out over the super-scenic Mowbray Valley, past the Mowbray Falls and then fly above the Hann Tableland National Park, where the vegetation changes abruptly from the rainforest of the coast to sparse mallee, ti-tree and ironbark over massive granite boulders. Soon, the ruins of the old Kingsborough Gold Mine announce that we’ve reached gold-mania country.

Following James Venture Mulligan’s announcement of his astonishing assay results (up to 50g of gold from a one-tonne bucket of quartz ore), 11 townships and 300 separate gold mines sprang up in the area. Eventually, over 10,000 miners made their way along the “Wheelbarrow Way” from Mareeba, all hoping to strike it rich.

The Tyrconnell Gold Mine gets its name from the Gaelic name for County Donegal, in Ireland. The mine’s landmark minehead is still standing, as is the steam engine first installed in the 1880s. In its heyday the gold-crushing plant operated 24 hours a day, using a full tank of water every hour – which caused a considerable strain on water supplies during times of drought.

Over the 68 years that the mine was in operation, over 50,000 ounces of gold were extracted.

Old mine derrick at Tyrconnell Historic Gold Mine.

The Tyrconnell Gold Mine was fully operational right up until 1942, when 10 families were still making a living from the mine. Then after a Japanese air raid on July 31, 1942, when eight bombs were dropped near Mossman, the remaining families at Tyrconnell decided to flee. The mine lay dormant for over 40 years, but the former manager’s cottage and two other cottages are still standing, and have been finely refurbished in period style, providing excellent accommodation, with top quality catering to match.

When Andy Ball’s family moved to Tyrconnell in 1984, they re-opened the old gold mine and worked it for around five years. The workers at the mine were paid not in cash but in gold bars. The company owning the mine then made the Ball family an offer they couldn’t refuse; but when the company subsequently went bust, Andy Ball and his family moved back to the mine once again.

The emphasis then shifted from mining to conservation, with tourism being an integral part of the conservation effort.

Andy’s partner Cate Harley, with a background in conservation, quickly realised that full-scale mining and tourism were not exactly compatible, because of the high levels of cyanide used in gold processing. So it was decided that they would re-open the ore-crushing plant using water instead of cyanide, and to run the plant only for demonstration purposes.

Nevertheless, this still comes across as utterly authentic. As the pounding thunder of the big steam hammers falling on lumps of gold-bearing quartz reverberates across the valley, you’d swear that you were right back in the 19th century, when fortunes were speedily made and just as quickly lost.

About 30km northwest of Tyrconnell, the spectacular sandstone outcrop of Mount Mulligan, some 18km long, rears out of the surrounding countryside. In this case, flying by helicopter over the outcrop is a real buzz, as the chopper swoops and glides like an eagle above the needle-like pinnacles jutting out from the monolith.

By road from Tyrconnell, the trip is 37km to Mount Mulligan via the near-deserted village of Thornborough, where only the ruins of the old Canton Hotel stand as a reminder that this was once a thriving settlement. At Mount Mulligan, we land right on top of the escarpment, from where there are stunning views of the Hodgkinson River valley, far below.

From the top, it feels like riding a flying fox as we plunge down to the Mount Mulligan homestead, which lies on a reedy billabong running off the Hodgkinson River.

Mount Mulligan Station is now owned by cattle magnate Gordon Pringle, who raises over 3,000 Brahman cattle here. But sadly, Mount Mulligan is also remembered as the scene of one Australia’s worst mining accidents. On Sept 19, 1921, a huge explosion took place in the Mt Mulligan coal mine, killing all 74 miners and a manager who was underground at the time.

The noise of the explosion was clearly heard in Thornborough, 20km away. The mine was later closed and its infrastructure demolished, only a memorial cemetery remaining to commemorate the disaster. Nowadays, Mount Mulligan is an abode of peace and calm.

And it’s here that all visitors have something in common. That is, whether you’ve arrived by road or by helicopter, the hardest challenge is just making the effort to leave!

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