I’ve come to love the far north Queensland area, from Cape York across through the Gulf and especially discovering new areas with history attached. On a recent trip, I was pointed towards an area that sounded pretty cool to explore off the Bourke Developmental Road in the Mareeba Shire. Finding the old town or at least the turn-off for Lappa wasn’t that easy as there’s nothing left from the old mining days, if it wasn’t for a prior chat with a local I would have totally driven straight past.
The sign was marked for Mt Garnet on the top of a rise, this was the turn for Lappa. A short way up the road was the main area of Lappa and the historic Espanol hotel built in 1901.
Turn back the clock to January 1891 when Phil Hamlin and his party discovered Silver after they crossed the Featherbed Range a few miles to the north, a dozen claims were set up and the town's name was changed from Wadetown to Lappa. ( other reports say the town was called Lappa Lappa ).
Lappa was just an isolated settlement until the rail line was built in 1899 on route to Chillagoe from the coast, and soon there was a junction at Lappa for the rail to head south to Mount Garnet. The town didn’t last long and soon fell into disrepute, leaving only the hotel, an old house and a station behind.
Today, the old hotel is jam-packed and full of memorabilia and souvenirs from travellers and locals. Sadly it doesn’t operate these days but you are welcome to bring a carton and be memorised by the amount of gear in the old pub.
Just next door in the old house lives an interesting character who looks after the pub and is known as the Yappa from Lappa. He has collected a lot of the memorabilia in the pub, can spiel yarns from the days gone by and also help you empty your carton. The old house was the Almaden church built in 1900 and moved to Lappa in 1940.
Across the paddock from the pub is the old rail house that’s been restored after the rail line ceased to operate when the huge mines closed at Chillagoe, the rail lines were once privately owned by entrepreneur Mr John Moffat based at Irvinebank.
Today the rail line only sees the Savannahlander stop every Wednesday en route from Cairns to Forsyth and passes back every Saturday.
HEADING TO MT GARNET.
The directions I was given were to follow the old rail trail which was originally a camel track built by Abdul Wade and is today a popular 4-wheel drive and mountain biking trail to Mount Garnet after the line closed in 1961.
Now while It’s only a 55km trip along the Mt Garnet road, the trail goes through magnificent ranges with views of the isolated countryside and where the road crosses or goes near old sidings you’ll see old frangipani and mango trees that are visible through the scrubby timber. It's a pleasant drive with no real obstacles all the way down to Mt Garnet but keep an eye out for old stone bridges and narrow rock cuttings that are now heritage listed.
Mount Garnet is a sleepy little village that’s easy to pass through without stopping, and there’s not much there except for a couple of pubs, service stations, a few shops and houses in the middle of nowhere. An amazing spot to look at is the beautiful Warrumu Swamp on the eastern edge of town, which can be alive with hundreds of black swans and impressive displays of water lilies year round. Locals reckon the swamp never dries up even in the worst droughts, due to underground springs that feed clean water up through the ground.
Copper was found in 1883 and the first lot was transported across to the coast by camel, but when a branch line came down from Lappa the smelted Copper was moved more efficiently and quickly back out for sale to be shipped around the world. Huge deposits of Tin were found, and in 1928 a massive coal-fired dredge was transported to Mt Garnet, ten years later the company moved to an electricity-driven dredge but in 1986 Tin prices collapsed and mining stopped.
LEAVING MOUNT GARNET.
My next stage of this trip was westward for 22km and onto the Ootann Road and up towards an old rail siding of Fossilbrook and eventually to Mount Surprise.
Again these are pretty decent dirt touring roads and I think I only encounter a couple of locals in their 4wds. About 65km up I swung a left onto the Gingeralla - Fossilbrook Road and it was another 30km where I found the abandoned Fossilbrook siding.
Once an important stopover to collect livestock, drop mail off and even collect passengers, the only relics left at Fossilbrook today is a raised concrete siding, cattle yards and an old water tank that looks like it was used for mail drops.
The narrow gauge line sits on low-profile metal sleepers that help combat termites and reduces wash away in flood times. Fossilbrook survived from 1885 until the mines ran dry, it had a school but closed in 1926, and Fossilbrook now only has a population of local station owners. This is remote and isolated savannah country.
Springfield Road was my way out to the Gulf Developmental Road and onto Mt Surprise. Passing through private stations, across dry riverbeds and covering a very dusty 45km back it wasn’t long before I hit the tar.
Today Mount Surprise is a pleasant stop along the never-ending gulf road, but this place had so much to offer over 100 years ago. Ezra Firth took up pastoral land back in 1864 and continued to grow his wealth for many years. When he came to the area it’s said that local Aboriginals saw him and other white people on a passing dray while having a feast. They ran away after seeing them and that night the Aboriginals lit small fires across the nearby mountain and apparently that’s the town got its name - Mount Surprise.
As in most outback and isolated towns, if the railway went through there was always a hive of activity and this place was no different with a busy hotel and post office building across the road from the former rail station.
Today, it’s a quiet place where tourists make up most of the population year-round exploring the beautiful highlights around the area.
In town the rail station is the highlight for most travellers where there’s a comprehensive museum showcasing a stack of memorabilia for the area's past, there are the restored buildings, rail relics, and info boards all set in amongst a cool green park.
The 90-year-old Savannahlander rail motor ( or Silver Bullet ) passes through and stops at Mount Surprise several times a week taking passengers further afield or day trips across the savannah landscape.
Nearby to Mount Surprise there's heaps to see and do including; the ancient Undara lava tubes claimed to be some of the largest in the world all part of a link of 164 volcanoes that formed over 190,000 million years ago.
There’s also the Forty Mile Scrub NP that was also created as part of volcanic action where this ancient rainforest has been left virtually untouched since being formed. Rare plants and animals call this home and is regarded as the most concentrated and greatest of its kind in Australia. There’s been links within the forest to India and Burma that were once connected before the continental drift.
For the fossickers, there’s O’Brien’s and the Agate Creek Gem-fields. Both are different in their own ways but great to find coloured rock pieces. Gems from these areas are known as world-class for their clarity, size and colour.
They include thunder-eggs, clear and smokey quartz pieces plus amethyst. If that’s not enough, there’s also Cobalt and Copperfield gorge just a short drive away where you can marvel at basalt formations, explore water holes and possibly see a freshwater croc.
Even tho most of the history has gone now, this remote and often hostile area has so much to see and do, I would nearly say something for the whole family to enjoy.
My starting point Lappa was 200km west of Innisfail. Mount Surprise and Mount Garnett are also inland from Innisfail in far north Queensland. After leaving the beautiful Qld coastline and passing through affluent lush rainforest areas, the landscape surrounding these historic places is regarded as harsh and isolated.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
There’s a plethora of rail history to explore, including driving the rail trail, a historical mine trail, free camping along the way through to riding the Savannahlander Train on parts of the northern line. It’s a harsh county in these areas with beautiful pockets of landscape features. The pubs at Mt Surprise and Mt Garnet have an array of history within the buildings. Ride the Savannahlander train and explore the rail history. Nearby to Mount Surprise there are ancient lava tubes, rare forests, gorges to explore and gem finding nearby.
This is remote and harsh country. Now while there are a few signs and cattle stations along the way, there’s no phone service for the trip between Lappa and Mount Garnet and the loop up via Fossilbrook. Use a good mapping GPS and you’ll be able to crisscross through the area exploring the old relics.