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The Gillies Highway

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It takes me two hours to drive to the nearest ‘big smoke’, Cairns.

Civilised society doesn’t need GOF to be any closer and vice versa.

Midway through the journey there is a section of road known locally as the ‘Gillies Range’ with a steep gradient descending almost 3000 feet from the Atherton Tableland to the hot, humid coastal plain near Cairns. Even though I must have completed this journey at least three thousand times the drive never feels repetitious, and the spectacular landscape and constantly changing weather conditions are awe inspiring and a welcome twice-weekly reminder of just how stunningly beautiful Far North Queensland is for most of the time.

Now, please excuse me for a moment while I deviate and have a chat to my statistically inclined reader.
Everyone else………please feel free to skip the following italicised section.


3000 return trips down the Gillies!!!   (I initially thought I must have made an error on my abacus and added a few too many zeroes.)
This represents more than half a million kilometres, a $60,000  expenditure on fuel, 20 sets of tyres worth $12,000 over the period of 30 years, and 12,000 hours of my life (one year and four months) spent sitting on my arse driving a truck to Cairns and back, listening (?) to Mrs GOF’s wall of words in my left lughole.
At a conservative 100 words per minute that equates to one million two hundred thousand words.  All in all it’s no wonder that;

A.  I was once the most well-informed man on the planet, until in 1985 I was struck down by some dreadful driver’s auditory malfunction which blocked out spoken words and replaced them with random thoughts and beautiful music such as Cavatina and The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.
B.  I have no money left in the bank.
C.  All the bastard mirrors of the world reflect so poorly upon my visage these days, because I’m totally knackered and worn out from driving the Gillies Range.


OK, I’m feeling better now that I’ve purged that bit of my misery.

The 19 kilometre Gillies Range section reputedly has 263 bends as it winds it’s way down the Lamb Range. I’ve not counted them. Please don’t ask me to do it in the interests of historical accuracy….if you have a carful of kids you are welcome to come and tally them all yourself.
Just imagine all the ‘counting fun’ you can have during the descent.
Bends.  Vomit stops.  “Are we at the bottom yets“.
Comprehensive and reliable geographical data is seldom collected without overcoming elements of distraction and difficulty.

The original single-lane track down (or indeed UP) the mountain was completed in 1926. Gatekeepers were stationed 24/7 at the bottom and top gates with a telephone link between the two.  Vehicle number plates were recorded and traffic was permitted to pass either up or down according to a daily timetable.

This system operated until 1957 when the Range was widened to two lanes.

The following pictures do not capture the sweet seasonal aromas wafting up the valley from the Gordonvale sugar-cane mill, or the ferocity of cyclonic winds which regularly buffet this escarpment which is exposed to the South-East trade winds blowing off the Coral Sea.

Nor do they reveal an ancient myth and legend surrounding the Gillies Range;

Young and vibrant hunks of manhood, once they have driven the range 3000 times have been known to suddenly metamorphose into wizened, twitter and bisted old men.

Looking east from Heales Outlook

View East to Mulgrave Valley and Walsh's Pyramid in the distance.

Gillies Highway frog. Good graffiti.

Gillies Range road

Little Mulgrave River

Walsh's Pyramid, Gordonvale.

About GOF

"Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it, depends upon what you put into it." (Tom Lehrer)

42 responses »

  1. Nice pictures. Than frog’s an icon. Someone goes to the trouble of repainting it every few years ans the pains fades. Is the Little Mulgrave picture taken at Ross and Locke?

    • Thanks Mike. The Little Mulgrave pic was at Ross and Locke.
      Re the repainting of the frog… morning we were driving down the Gillies at 4.30 am and “sprung” the artists at work. They had ladders and trestles and looked a little like rabbits in the headlights not expecting to be interrupted at that hour. 🙂

      • Hey GOF, Can you imagine the number of times our cockatoo yelled out, “CAR!!” .. as another one trundled up or down the mountain in the night.
        We had to do it at night for “WH&S” 😉 but a few times, yes, we were surprised by fast moving vehicles, 😳 (it’s a very long run down the ladder, and quite heavy to stash and bob down into the roadside culvert below our big rock, what with all the evidence) after all, some frogs are still endangered, this one by well-meaning graffiti cleanerupperers..

        • Wonderful to find out who was responsible. Thank you for leaving this comment. I really appreciate your artistry every time I drive down the range and I suspect the ‘cleanerupperers’ do too because no attempt has been made to tamper with your good works.

          Oh, and it’s starting to fade again. Time for a repaint. 🙂 If I ‘spring’ you again I’ll stop and congratulate you on your contribution to our environment and the FNQ tourist industry.

        • I’d love to learn more about the painting of the frog and perhaps write about it. It has become an icon and something to look forward to when you are driving the Gillies. Can anyone put me in touch with the artist or could the artist answer the following questions anonymously
          Why a frog?
          When was it first painted?
          Purpose- art, break up boredom of the Gillies?

  2. It’s just beautiful!
    Another place I would love to see and experience!
    Here’s to your left lughole!

    • Far North Queensland is such a contrast to most other parts of Australia Lauri….we’d love to see you here one day.
      I’ll just turn my head the other direction so I can hear everything you say. 🙂

  3. Gorgeous views! That road reminds me of ours, just as narrow and windy, plus ours features double-rows of racing bicyclists to attempt to dodge on blind curves. FUN!

    Love the frog, too.

    • Your part of the world seems to have many similarities to ours Kim.
      Unfortunately many motor cyclists have died on (and off the side of) the Gillies range after behaving like it was a moto grand prix track. There are little memorial shrines dotted alongside the road.

      I love the frog….. it makes me smile every time I pass it….there also used to be the “Bikini Tree” but it died and got destroyed in bushfires a few years ago.

  4. Back in the day…Walsh’s Pyramid has always been my psychological trigger that tells me I’m nearly home. You need to find an old Norton and take Mrs Gof for a ride down & up the range my friend! A vision of Toad from Toad Hall, in a leather cap & goggles, riding his motorbike into a lake just flashed thru my mind.

    • Thanks for your stories and visions Brad. 🙂
      The Pyramid certainly is a local icon. I’ve only ever ridden a posties Honda 110 down the range once……I wouldn’t mind riding down on a bicycle…..that would be fun as long as I didn’t have to pedal all the way back up again.

  5. What a beautiful drive. I enjoyed the statistics section very much. Some would argue there is no such thing as “good graffiti”.

    • It really is a beautiful part of the world…possibly not all that dissimilar to Northern NSW Emjay.
      My thought is that there is a place for some Graffiti in the world….especially when it is as artistic and appropriate to the environment as this example.

  6. Wheeee just went down your highway on google street view, what a ride!… I got seasick just looking at my screen… but I spotted the froggie! lovely place… I wish you could get a leetle bit OFF the road on google street view.. up on a rock or just out on the shoulder where there’s a view… I might have driven on the wrong side of the road actually (ooops)… and nearly ran over some guys doing road repairs at the bottom…

    • I’d never thought of that Drude… fact I am still to discover the wonders of Google street view. Sometimes I wish I had more electricity supply.
      It is an especially beautiful drive after heavy rain when there are hundreds of waterfalls cascading over the cuttings beside the road.

      You discovered a rare moment…..guys ‘doing’ road repairs. In all my trips down there I’ve seen workers sitting in trucks, talking under trees and holding up road signs, but only rarely ‘doing’ roadworks. 🙂

      • Oh right, the actual DOING work… that may have been my imagination as i zipped past… most of them stood around with ‘slow’ signs (with SL blurred out by google for some reason)…. which… made me wonder… over here we let signs hold them selves up and use the manpower for getting the work done… But I imagine manpower costs less around your part of the world.
        I saw all the flood-warning signs… I would be sliiightly skeered in a good downpour in some places there..

        • Australians are very good at holding road signs up Drude. Not just ONE on each side of the ‘roadwork’ but THREE. First one sitting under a tree holding a ‘slow down’ sign. SECOND one holding a ‘caution stop sign ahead’ and the THIRD holding the actual ‘stop/start’ sign. All this ‘manpower’ probably costs $25-30 per hour….each.

          One part of the Gillies Highway neat the bottom regularly floods each wet season to a level of one or two metres above road level.

  7. I’m going to guess you popped at pic every time you needed to stop for a pee on your last trip.

    • Thanks for your faith in my biological functions Rich. 🙂

      Actually we had to plan the photography with some care because there are very few places where you can pull aside in a car to take pictures.

  8. Oh thanks for the tour, GOF. Wonderful. I’m coming.

  9. I hate driving mountainous roads and I always swear, after spending over an hour on a switchback highway, that I’ll never do it again. But I do—partly out of necessity, since I am separated from my son by the Siskiyou Mountains and the Cascades, but also because they are beautiful. Frequent stops are helpful: so is a cooler filled with soft drinks and chilled bottles of water. I also stop for coffee at the various gas stations and shops on the road. I don’t know if the Gillies has Starbucks and Qwik-e-Stop gas stations. But when you say young men come out of the Gillies wizened and old, I believe it. I didn’t have crows’ feet around the eyes until I began driving the mountains.

    • I’m guessing your mountain drive might be considerably longer than ours HG.
      The actual Range section only takes around 30 minutes and the remainder of the road just meanders through some very picturesque country both on the Tablelands and on the coastal plain. The Range is also a World Heritage National Park so no McDonalds or Starbucks.

  10. Yes, there is something special about N.Q., GOF. Thanks for the warning about what happens to vibrant hunks of manhood who travel the Gillies once too often. I must remember to stop at 2,999 trips…

    • There is a remote possibility that something other than the Gillies Highway was responsible for the gross deterioration of at least one young man that I know Snowy. 🙂

  11. Roller skates, GOF. Imagine the thrill! (But the walk up would be a pain.)

    Now I’m off to follow Drude on the Google street view.

    • Yet another innovative GOM suggestion. Thank you. I’ve never strapped myself into roller skates in my life so I’d probably get as far as the first bend before falling over the edge.

      Sounds like I’m missing something with this google street view dooverlackey. Must check it out if I ever get a sunny day again.

  12. Young and vibrant hunks of manhood? delusional, young and vibrant hunks of manhood

    • “Young and vibrant hunks of manhood?”

      I was referring to an acquaintance of mine FD and he’s definitely not delusional except when he overdoses on prescribed medication for his various ailments.

  13. GOF, thank you for subscribing to my blog and i will do likewise for you.

    And i will also add you to my blogroll, because i see that i’m in yours.

    • I’m enjoying your writing, and anyone who calls themselves ‘dribbling pensioner’ just has to have a whole lot in common with me. 🙂

      I ask for understanding from my new friends when I don’t attend to my reciprocal blog responsibilities as diligently as I would like. We only have a small solar electricity supply and during frequent spells of wet weather it is inadequate to power a computer every day.

  14. GOF, do you know if the big bike hike went down the Gillies? We were booked to do the ride 5 or more years ago but Jenz got appendicitis the week before we were due to go. Can’t remember the start point but it ended at Port Douglass. It was said it came off the Atherton Tableland and that you wouldn’t want to ride it in the opposite direction.

    Sounds like we missed a long down hill ride (my favorite direction).

    • I’ve not heard of the big bike hike Peter.
      I know they have a mountain biking track in the hills between Cairns and Port Douglas which attracts international competitors to some events.
      You would enjoy cruising down the Gillies on a bike…most of the 19km would require no pedaling.

      • Liz tells me we would have started at Mission Beach by the way.

        The funniest bit about it was the warnings in the pre ride info pack. There were about 8 things to watch out for. We knew what stingers are but some of the things we had no clue about. I said to Liz if you are going to stop under a tree, keep riding if there is a lycra clad skeleton there.

  15. Oh my, what nice scenery. You captured the aroma and sensory descriptions well. I am very lucky I do not get carsick, but I am afraid of heights.

    • It really is a beautiful part of Australia Amelie. None of our family get carsick either but many people take alternative routes to avoid all the bends and carsickness.

  16. You are right too, it’s frustrating to have such stunning lamdscapes in the confines of pictures.

  17. Michelle Gillies

    I’ve never heard of the “Gillies Range/Highway” and I am sure my family had nothing to do with it (although your description could fit several family members), but thanks for pointing it out. 😉

    • Thank you for visiting Michelle and I apologise for the delayed response due to satellite internet equipment failure. Maybe one day you will be able to drive your own highway. 🙂

  18. The painting was originally a big pair of red lips – the horizontal crack in the rock lends itself to being a mouth.But a philistine Council officer had it sand blasted after a few years. Then to our delight, the frog appeared. May it long live!


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