Cyclone Damien prevented us from anchoring in Whitsunday Islands, where we had been looking forward to a visit to Airlie Beach. Described as a place where “pure white sands meet cerulean waters, swirling together at sandbars to merge into a palette of turquoise, cream, and emerald green hills. Glassy, invigorating, and impossibly blue, the waters provide the ideal oasis for relaxation and idling away a few hours on the beach,” this place will remain a myth to us…at least for this trip! Ever prepared, we sailed on to a new place on our revised itinerary, Townsville, arriving on Sunday evening when virtually everything is closed. Hopeful for a day without rain, we awoke the next morning in Cleveland Bay (no reference to Cleveland, Ohio and/or Cleveland, Tennessee) to yet another foggy, rainy day. Nonetheless, we were promised that the red sandstone monolith of Castle Hill is, was, and always will be in view, rising from the city center. And by the end of the day, the fog had lifted and we did, indeed, get to enjoy a view of this beautiful landmark.
Rather than walking around in the rain, we opted to take an excursion to the charming town of Charters Towers, a 90 mile drive inland through the Australian bush. To our surprise, the bush was not a barren wasteland, but rather a lovely, somewhat bucolic stretch of land dotted by farms, trees, and numerous termite colonies, with habitats as large as three feet high! We learned about “back burning,” the practice of starting small fires along a man-made or natural firebreak in front of a main fire front in order to control burning and wildfire events that have recently taken a toll on much of Australia, and saw the unintended result of blackened bark on the bottom of many trees. And we crossed the Burdekin, Australia’s largest river.
Arriving just in time for a lovely morning tea, we learned that Charters Towers was originally called Charters Tors after mining warden Charters and Tors for the hills in which gold was found. It was proudly known as “The World” during its post-gold rush heyday because it had everything one would need to live a happy, fulfilling life. The people of Charters Towers are justifiably proud of their town, and local folks are more than happy to share bits of information and history. We started our visit with a self-guided walking tour of the town’s beautifully preserved One Square Mile. Doug, of course, found a perfect latte, and enjoyed it as we strolled by numerous historic landmarks, many of which have been beautifully preserved. The Stock Exchange Arcade, where gold prices and claims were bartered, was built in 1888 and now serves as a shopping mall and pedestrian thoroughfare. The World Theater, originally the Australian Bank of Commerce, has been converted into a 660 seat performing arts center and cinema complex showing first run movies. City murals can be viewed throughout town, but the one that caught our eye is the one done by students from a local high school. City Hall is in the center of town, and the Post Office with its impressive clock tower, was built within six months of the discovery of gold in the area. There’s a department store, pharmacy, locally-owned toy store, book shops, grocery stores, bakeries, a railroad station and museum, newspaper, ambulance museum…indeed, everything one would need. There’s even a hotel that’s currently closed, but can be bought for the right price!
We learned that Charters Towers is becoming home to young families seeking affordable housing and excellent educational options and retirees looking for a place to live with beautiful weather and reasonable prices. Housing reflects the distinctive Queensland style architecture, with most of the historic homes being built on stilts to act as a kind of natural air conditioner.
The discovery of gold in 1871 by an indigenous boy named Jupiter Mosman plays a significant role in the history of Charter’s Corners. The gold fields drew thousands of miners to the area, and the vast quantities of gold in the massive quartz reefs led to the need for several crushing batteries to process the ore into gold bricks. Of the original batteries, only the Venus State Battery remains. Over its 108 years of operation, Venus produced over 15.5 tons of gold! Our guide was delightful, and took us on a journey back to the days of the gold rush, regaling us with stories about significant characters, some of whom are reputed to haunt the battery to this day. The iconic Venus Gold Battery is truly a unique, picturesque venue, and we felt very lucky to have been able to take this informative tour.
On our way out of town, we learned that Charters Corners played an important role in World War II. The United States Air Force had its airfield on the site of the present airport, and 15,000 US troops were stationed in the area. During the war, there were 42 bunkers on Towers Hill that were used by the RAAF and USAF to store munitions including bombs, ammunition, and parachute flares. The area around the bunkers offers beautiful views and is currently being developed with walking trails, picnic tables, and a museum.
This day really brings home the reality that just because things don’t go exactly as planned, they can still be wonderful! Weather and virus have seriously altered our plans, but with every change comes the opportunity to experience something new. We had never even heard of Townsville, Australia, and certainly never knew Charters Towers existed, and yet every day of this journey brings us new experiences and new learning…and at our age, that’s a blessing!