Enchanting Outback landscapes, otherworldly caves and a 65 million-year-old hot spring are just some of the highlights of North Queensland's remote Talaroo area, writes Jessica Wynne Lockhart.
For hours, I've been driving though a vastness that typifies the Australian Outback, red dust flying up in my rear-view mirror. I cross countless dry creek beds, slowing only for loose stock, flocks of rosy-breasted galahs and the occasional kangaroo. Termite mounds flash past my windows like shrapnel scattered across the landscape.
When my turn finally comes, about 300km southwest of Cairns, I nearly miss it. There's little signage to indicate that at the end of the road is one of Tropical North Queensland's most anticipated and newest tourist attractions, Talaroo Hot Springs.
"New", however, might be a bit misleading. Although Talaroo officially opened its doors on April 1 this year for its first full season, the springs have been in operation for 65 million years.
It's also not the first time a tourism venture has been launched at Talaroo. In the late 1980s, a pool was built so visitors could soak in the healing thermal waters. But where the former iteration fell short, says Jimmy "JR" Richards, is that it lacked the Aboriginal perspective and history that now defines the experience.
"Back then, it really was just a hot springs to them," says Richards, an Ewamian elder and cultural adviser for Talaroo. To the Ewamian people, the springs were culturally and spiritually significant; a place to give birth and heal ailments.
But in the early 19th century, displacement of the area's Aboriginal people by European colonisers meant that most of this knowledge—and the Ewamian language—was lost. It wasn't until 2012, when the 31,500ha Talaroo Station was bought on behalf of the Ewamian people that the story could be reclaimed. Since then, archaeological digs have uncovered stone artefacts and the remains of a carnivorous kangaroo megafauna in the springs, while biologists have identified an endemic species of snail.
Talaroo is in the Gulf Savannah, a 1.9 million sq k, ecosystem that stretches from Cairns to Broome. Although characterised by dense grass and open eucalypt woodlands, it's far from empty, flat or boring.
Just north at Chillagoe, is a network of around 560 limestone caves, many that have been tagged only within the past few decades. Likewise, it wasn't until the '90s that the nearby Undara lava tubes—massive cylindrical caves formed from an eruption 190,000 years ago— gained attention when Sir David Attenborough visited and declared them to be one of the most unexplored geological features on earth. To date, only 69 of an estimated 300 lava tubes have been found.
Back at the hot springs, Talaroo's new campground, cafe, private soaking pools and Aboriginal-guided tours are just the beginning. Plans are also underway for glamping sites and Richards hopes there may be an opportunity to tell the story of Aboriginal stockmen, as working on cattle stations used to be the only way for people to retain a connection to their ancestral lands.
After I'm done soaking in mineral-infused rainwater that's carbon-dated at 20,000 years old, I walk down to the Einasleigh River to search for axe grinding grooves in the hard granite rocks. The waterway—which was once where the Ewamian people camped, fished and held ceremonies—is calm and cool, with emu and wallaby tracks littering the sand.
"The springs itself is our foundation—and from that, other things can grow," says Richards. "Our ultimate goal is to have our young people come back out to country to connect and have meaningful employment and something to be proud of. This is here for our future generations."
On a 90-minute guided walking tour of Talaroo Hot Springs, you'll learn more about Australia's only known tiered hot springs and their significance to the Ewamian people. Every tour concludes with a soak in the healing waters. Tours depart daily during the dry season and cost AUD$35 (NZ$38) for adults and AUD$20 for children 5 to 15.
Powered and unpowered campsites are available at Talaroo, starting at AUD$32 per night. Don't have a motorhome or a tent? No problem. Visit Talaroo on a day trip from Undara Experience, where you can sleep in award-winning refurbished railway carriages (complete with en suites) for AUD$188 per night. Tours of the nearby lava tubes are an additional $60.50 for adults; AUD$32 for children.
For more, see queensland.com