The Savannah Way through the Gulf of Carpentaria is an epic adventure through remote areas in the footsteps of ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills.
On February 9, 1861, ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills left Camp 119 on the Little Bynoe River, 26km east of what is now Normanton, to make a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria in order to become the first Europeans to cross Australia from south to north.
They did become famous, but for all the wrong reasons: Burke and Wills were unable to travel through the mangroves only 5km short of completing their mission. Upon returning to Camp 119 with fast diminishing food and water, they had no choice but to try to reach civilisation down south. Three rescue missions were sent to find Burke and Wills, but through unfortunate circumstances and poor leadership both men died on the return journey.
On our adventure through the Gulf of Carpentaria we weren’t faced with quite as challenging conditions, but the trip through the Gulf Savannah will take you through rocky river crossings, past endless savannah woodlands and into historic mining towns.
It is a journey into Australia’s past, with stories of courageous explorers and persevering Australian bushmen and women who made – and make – a living in these remote areas.
Our trip began in the remote Top End town of Borroloola, where we faced emergency repairs. Our alternator was on its last legs and it would have been foolish to venture further into isolation without fixing it. Can you believe our surprise when the local mechanic’s shop had exactly the right alternator on the shelf? Add to this that a friendly mechanic was willing for my husband Chris to use his workshop and only charge $60 for assisting him for three hours. Talk about country hospitality!
After leaving Borroloola, we drove through golden savannah woodlands without meeting another car for about 100km. We had to negotiate a number of river crossings, but most were shallow. We’d been warned about the Calvert River crossing as it is a deep and rocky obstacle with steep embankments on both sides.
When we got to the Calvert, I decided to wade across with the camera because there was no way I was going to sit inside the car while crossing – and we needed to prove that we actually went through. At its deepest, the water was waist high and I did get a little worried about any lurking crocs eyeing me for lunch, but I made it to the other side safely. Chris is an experienced off-roader, so he had no trouble getting through, apart from almost getting stuck on a rock just before exiting the river.
Once we were through, we quickly checked the car and trailer for any damage, but it looked like we’d got through scot-free. We decided to have some lunch after all the excitement when a Toyota ute rocked up carrying locals from the Calvert River Station. They asked if we’d got through the river okay because they pulled out eight vehicles early in the season after they got stuck in the middle with no way of winching themselves out. Apparently the flood waters washed away a lot of the rocks in one section of the river and the council had to fill it up before it was safe once more to attempt the crossing.
After lunch we pushed on to Hell’s Gate Roadhouse; an interesting place with a fascinating history. Back in the 1800s this area was feared by travellers as there was no law west of Hell’s Gate. The Queensland Native Police only guaranteed travellers’ safety as far west as Hell’s Gate, after which they were on their own. Overlanders who moved thousands of cattle from Queensland to the Northern Territory, in order to feed the goldminers in Pine Creek in the NT and Hall’s Creek in WA, were heavily armed and conflict was inevitable on this frontier. It is said that many cattle were speared along this treacherous road across the Gulf of Carpentaria, in addition to the loss of human life.
From Hell’s Gate Roadhouse we drove to Burketown – aka the barramundi capital of Australia – situated on the Albert River. The savannah grasslands to the south were hailed by early explorers as the Plains of Promise. Established in 1865, it is the Gulf’s oldest town but, sadly, Gulf fever (thought to be typhoid) decimated the population and forced its evacuation in 1866 to Sweers Island, until re-establishment in 1882. The Albert Hotel was built in the late 1860s and is the oldest building in the Gulf. Even though the town is only 25km from the coast, Karumba is the only beach accessible via a sealed road. From Burketown you can travel to Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park and marvel at this oasis in the middle of savannah country; it is certainly worth making the 200km trip there.
After travelling through such remote areas, it was a treat to arrive in Normanton, the major service centre in the Gulf Savannah with three supermarkets and, of course, the famous Purple Pub. Established on the Norman River by explorer William Landsborough, Normanton was the port for the Croydon gold rush. The railway line between Normanton and Croydon was built for this reason and today you can still ride the legendary Gulflander. An innovative sleeper design allows seasonal flood waters to flow over the line to lessen flood damage. Most of the rail and sleepers are the original ones laid between 1888 and 1891 – testament to the ingenuity of the design.
A visit to Normanton is incomplete without seeing the replica of Krys the Savannah King, claimed to be the largest recorded saltwater crocodile (8.63m) captured in the world. Krystina Pawlowski is the female croc hunter who reportedly shot the massive croc on MacArthur Bank along the Norman River in July 1957. However, the locals will tell you that today an even bigger croc frequents the waters of the Norman River.
From Normanton it is a 71km drive to Karumba, the perfect place for spectacular sunsets over the Gulf of Carpentaria. This is a fishing Mecca where, during winter, the population swells significantly when fishing enthusiasts travel to Karumba for the plentiful barramundi. Make sure you pay a visit to Ash’s Cafe where you can buy one serving of fish and chips for five dollars; let me tell you, it is good stuff!
When travelling from Normanton to Croydon (150km), visit Leichhardt Lagoon on the way (25km from Normanton). This campground is only 400m from the Norman River – home to barramundi, red claw yabbies and freshwater prawns as well as fresh- and saltwater crocs. Camp facilities include toilets and hot showers so you don’t have to rough it. Croydon is also worth spending time in.
This small outback town has only 250 residents, but in 1900 it was the fourth largest town in Queensland, boasting 36 hotels. Croydon was established in 1885 with the discovery of gold that created a booming centre, which has been well-preserved in the many historic buildings, including the police sergeant’s residence (1898), police station and gaol (1896), courthouse (1887) and town hall (1890). For a great barbecue lunch, drive to Lake Belmore and stop at Diehm’s Lookout for a fantastic view over the town.
From historic Croydon, it’s only a short drive to Georgetown, home to the Ted Elliott Mineral Collection, housed inside the TerrEstrial Centre. Georgetown is the administrative centre of Etheridge shire, a vast region shaped by intense volcanic activity that has endowed it with rich deposits of mineral and gold. The Cumberland Chimney (20km west of Georgetown) is testimony to the region’s mining past and stands as a lone relic from a crushing plant built by Cornish miners.
Altogether, we travelled about 1000km through the remote Gulf Savannah in far north Queensland. We watched outback sunsets, met friendly locals and learned about the Australian pioneers who founded the places we visited. To travel through the region makes you realise that we live in a country that has so much to be proud of.
The Savannah Way through the Gulf of Carpentaria started for us at Borroloola, NT, and took us via Hell’s Gate, Burketown, Normanton, Karumba and Croydon to Georgetown, in far-north Queensland.
There is plenty of camping available along the Savannah Way. The longest stretch of road without a campground or caravan park is from Borroloola to Hell’s Gate Roadhouse (306km of dirt road and multiple creek/river crossings).
WHAT TO TAKE
The 4X4 and off-road trailer/caravan need to be in top condition. The Calvert River crossing (between Borroloola and Hell’s Gate Roadhouse) can only be done in a high-clearance 4X4 fitted with a snorkel. Carry spare fuel, tyres, drinking water, fan belt, radiator hoses, fuel filter, etc. Recovery gear is mandatory in these remote areas.
SUPPLIES AND FACILITIES
You will need to stock up on all supplies before you leave Borroloola; aim to be completely self-sufficient in terms of food and drinking water. Groceries and fuel are available in Borroloola, Burketown, Normanton, Karumba, Croydon and Georgetown. You can also refuel at Hell’s Gate Roadhouse.
The unsealed sections of the Savannah Way, from Borroloola to Burketown and Burketown to Normanton, can be rough in places, depending on when the road was last graded. The Calvert River crossing is challenging and rocky, especially when you are towing. Adjusting tyre pressure is crucial to avoid flat tyres.
CONTACTS AND INFORMATION
For information about the different campgrounds and all other forms of accommodation along the Savannah Way, visit savannahway.com.au or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Burketown: 07 4745 5111 or burkeshirecouncil.com
Normanton: 07 4745 1065 or carpentaria.qld.gov.au
Karumba: 07 4745 9582 or carpentaria.qld.gov.au
Croydon: 07 4748 7152 or croydon.qld.gov.au
Georgetown: 07 4062 1485 or terrestrialgeorgetown.com.au
MAPS AND GUIDES
Hema’s Top End and Gulf map will do to get around.
RESTRICTIONS AND PERMITS
No permits are necessary to travel along any sections of the Savannah Way.