Mid 2015 we got to enjoy and experience far north Queensland, and in particular the Cairns and Atherton Tableland regions. In fact we had to extend our stay there because there was just so much to see and do- but the highway was calling our names and as much as it was sad to say goodbye to the East Coast, we were keen to explore parts of the Gulf Savannah Country and the NT.
We left from Atherton mid-morning with a plan to reach the Cumberland Historic mine site to camp for the night. The road towards Ravenshoe treated us to some great views over the tablelands. It was peak nomad season and we found ourselves in a long convoy of other caravanners heading in the same direction. We arrived in Ravenshoe, known for being the highest town in Queensland. What a great example of a friendly little country town. The streets were lined with caravans and motor homes and the influx of travellers wandered about the town checking out the shops in the main street- it was around lunchtime so needless to say the local bakery had quite a line up out the front!!
Our stop was only brief but Ravenshoe is a town we’d love to get back to some day and spend a few days, mainly to see more of the steam railway and to visit the Millstream Falls.
We continued out of Ravenshoe on the Kennedy Highway for around 100k’s before turning on to the Savannah Way. We soon came across the Undara Volcanic National Park- famous for having some of the longest lava tubes on Earth. It would be a shame to pass by and not call in and check them out and do a tour. It was simply amazing walking through the tubes and trying to imagine how they formed.
Not too far out of Georgetown, we reached our camp site for the night. The Historic Cumberland Mine site and the adjacent Cumberland Dam. The site once hosted a small town that came to life shortly after gold was first found nearby in 1872. Although a large amount of gold was initially found at the site, the town didn’t last long and the mine soon went bust when it became too difficult to obtain enough gold to make it viable. Many of the services such as the police station, 4 hotels, post office and school closed down and by 1930, very little was left at the site. Today, the square brick chimney from the battery is all that remains however the dam that was constructed for the towns water supply provides a haven for bird-life and a great backdrop to camp for a peaceful nights sleep. We awoke early to the sound of birds frolicking on the water, and just in time to get some great sunrise photos over the dam.
We made a stop at Croydon to top up with fuel and to look around the Croydon Railway Station. The southern terminus for the famous Gulflander train that travels down from Normanton.
Roughly the halfway point of the Gulflanders journey, known as Black Bull Siding was our next stop. A basic rest area with a public toilet and a sheltered area with tables and bench seats. Someone told me recently that this stop was where the Gulflander train stops to ‘water the horses’. I took that literally and actually thought that may have been the case due to its remoteness and lack of water about (although I didn’t see any horses), but I soon cottoned on that he was referring ‘tongue in cheek’ to the place where the passengers were able to hop out, wander around and have some refreshments….
We arrived mid afternoon at Normanton, home of the Purple Pub. Just to confirm, yes, it is purple, along with purple tables, purple chairs – the lot!! But not just home to a purple pub, Normanton is also home to ‘Krys’, an actual sized statue (8.64m) of a saltwater crocodile believed to have been found in the Normanton River back in 1957. It was HUGE! We of course took some time to have the mandatory photos taken beside it- the kids thought it was great, however it did give them a nervous feeling being camped so close to the river that night.
We headed to the Normanton Railway Station early the next morning to see the Gulflander train leave from the terminal, full of passengers. The Gulflander train is known as the train that goes from ‘nowhere to nowhere’, it travels around 150kms down to Croydon and back mainly as a tourist attraction and is said to be one of Australia’s most worthwhile and memorable train journeys. The crew act as tour guides and will stop the train and to talk about places of interest along the way. Be sure to check the Gulflanders website.
Next stop- KARUMBA, right at the bottom of the Gulf of Carpentaria and a real ‘hot spot’ for those who LOVE fishing. We had heard so many great things about this place and was told that it was always busy during the peak season and bookings for the caravan parks are strongly advised. Unfortunately because our trip across had no firm plans or set dates apart from a final destination, we made no bookings (which is a shame, because we loved the look and feel of Karumba). Here, we enjoyed some of the BEST fish & chips we have ever eaten, Barramundi at that! The serve was so huge, that the 5 of us barely finished it. We sat along the shore and watched the keen anglers wet a line as we ate our lunch and were surprised by just how many boat trailers were lined up and parked along the main street flowing back from the boat ramp. Some people had told us that unless you like fishing then you may get bored here, but I could easily enjoy a few weeks here without even wetting a line, simply just to enjoy the atmosphere and friendly vibe (and the fresh seafood of course). Such an oasis! Will be certain to lock in some bookings in advance for next time we visit!
It was time to leave the smooth surface of the bitumen and swap it for the corrugations and rocky stretches of the Savannah Way to Burketown and then on to Borroloola. Unfortunately, the first 50kms of the Savannah Way out from Normanton was temporarily closed due to roadworks so we had to detour along the Burke Developmental Road for the first part and turned off to follow a side road which joins back up to the to the Savannah Way near Inverleigh Station.
The unpredictable road conditions meant we had to lower our speed considerably and we were running lower tyre pressures. But, apparently even some of the most reputable tyres are vulnerable to a bit of bad luck. We found that out first hand when we heard a loud POP!, the rear of the vehicle dropped and all we could hear was a scrapping sound hitting the rear wheel arch as we abruptly came to a holt. In a hurry to inspect the cause of the noise, we opened the car doors just in time for the dust to catch up to us, filling the cab (yeah, not the smartest move). Verdict: A completely disintegrated, near new $400+ tyre….. tears almost welled in my eyes but at least there wasn’t any panel damage and the family was safe- it was just a tyre! We pulled further off the road onto a flat area, went about fitting our spare tyre and continued towards Burketown (another 200 odd kms with no spare tyre). A great example of how 2 spare tyres can come in handy. It was a bit of a nervous drive for the rest of the day but was offset with some fantastic Aussie bush scenery, shallow water crossings and plenty of wildlife to take our mind off the tyre issue.
We made it safely to Burketown (The Barramundi Capital of Australia), a nice little town to spend the night. We had a great camp site along the banks of the Albert River. We got a new tyre fitted by the local mechanic first thing the next morning and we grabbed a freshly baked Barramundi Mornay Pie from the bakery too- do yourself a favour and try one. Yummo! The locals here were very friendly and very helpful which always leaves a positive lasting impression when you visit somewhere new.
We went on to visit the Burketown Bore along the main street before packing up and once again setting off to cover some more km’s. The Burketown Bore was drilled by the QLD government back in 1897 and supplied water for travelling stock. When the local meat works opened, it was hoped that there would be a population boom, but it just never happened. Initially, the water from the bore was said to be suitable for adult cattle to drink but later the CSIRO determined it was unsuitable for pretty much anything, not even watering the garden due to its high mineral content. You can see how the minerals have stained the bore’s casings and surrounding pond a red and green colour. A very interesting spot to stop in and take a look at. But be careful- its HOT!
We headed towards the Northern Territory border and arrived at Hells Gate Roadhouse in time for lunch but it was only a quick stop- it was hot and the flies were a little too friendly. It was not too far down the road from the roadhouse where we started seeing some amazing rock formations and escarpments out our car windows. They rose from the ground abruptly and in some places the rocks were almost rectangular and stacked like bricks and the colours were vibrant red, yellow, orange and black. Simply nature at its best! A few more creek crossings past a landscape of lush shrubs and green, grassy plains contrasted by red dirt, we set up camp for the night near Calvert Creek in time for yet another glorious Top-End sunset. This was the steepest of creek crossings and we nearly needed low range to pull out and up the other side.
No phone, no internet reception, no TV….. our kind of paradise! We were loving the Gulf Country and it was definitely meeting our expectations and lived up to its reputation.
A rather early morning awakening thanks to what I first thought was a small barking dog from the caravan parked up from us, only to discover it was actually an owl in the tree above- the likeness of its ‘hoot’ to that of a small dogs bark was uncanny. Today’s destination was Borroloola. A few hundred km’s more of rocky, corrugated road made well and truly worth the effort thanks again to the beautiful scenery. Borroloola is known to be one of Australia’s most remote towns and one with a very sad and unfortunate history that stemmed during early European encounters. Today, Borroloola is a thriving township that welcomes visitors to the town with open arms. When we arrived, we were just in time to watch the NAIDOC Week march through town, which included a welcome to country by the traditional owners, dancing by some of the local youth and a very moving flag-raising ceremony. We could not have timed it better.
Borroloola is a popular stop for travellers due to it being the gateway for many popular fishing camps including Lorella Springs, King Ash Bay and other various fishing ‘hot spots’ along the McArthur River. Make some time to have a look through the old police station if you can!
Here, we said good bye to the Savannah Way (and the millions of corrugations) as we left Borroloola and opted for the Carpentaria Highway bound for Cape Crawford for the night. We passed the massive McArthur River Mine site along the way and gave way to numerous road-trains- many fully loaded with cattle. We booked into the Heartbreak Hotel at Cape Crawford which offers great caravan and camping facilities. We stayed a second night which gave us a chance to clean some of that red dust out of our vehicle. Many people stay here as base to explore the Lost City or take a scenic helicopter flight which leaves from right next to the camp ground.
Our trip across the top ended (well, this story does) at the famous Daly Waters Pub, an easy 300kms drive from Cape Crawford. We had been to this iconic pub before but the quirky charm of this place will never cease to amuse me.
The Savannah Way website (www.savannahway.com.au/) can offer more information on road conditions and what can be experienced. Proper planning should be carried out before heading off on this type of adventure. Limited fuel, limited food supplies and limited services (and basically no phone reception) should all be taken into account during your planning stage.
Step outside the ‘norm’ and take a road less travelled!
Where to stay:
Ravenshoe Steam Railway Caravan Park- Ravenshoe
Normanton Tourist Park- Normanton
Sunset Caravan Park- Karumba
Burketown Caravan Park- Burketown
McArthur Caravan Park- Borroloola