So pack up your camping gear, make sure you’ve got a couple of spare tyres, and come hit the road with us…
This was our third trip around Australia or the ‘Land Down Under’ as we Aussies affectionately say, and we would like to share our experiences and provide a brief insight into the history of the places we visited.
It was our longest trip; just short of nine months to be exact, and certainly not long enough… we still have so much more to explore!
We met some amazing people along the way and whether it was a quick chat or a new friendship made, these people all helped to make our journey a truly memorable experience.
After leaving Tassie our adventure started through central Victoria and NSW as we slowly made tracks inland before heading to Sydney to welcome the arrival of our grandson.
After 10 days at Monavale it was time to head off again.
Heading North West we tackled our first dirt road from Wisemans Ferry through the Yengo National Park to Buckett then on to Broke.
Crossing through the Hunter Valley we made our way out to the coast and as we travelled further north we enjoyed the gorgeous winter sunshine as we weaved our way through cities and small towns, tackled a couple of sandy tracks and camped at crowded roadside stops, beautiful beaches and secluded waterholes.
We finally reached Cairns.
We were heading for Cape York and ‘The Tip’ and any trip to ‘The Tip’ kicks off in Cairns. This was just the beginning of an exciting road trip to discovering the Peninsula.
There is so much to discover along this coast. Just a little way offshore is the world’s biggest reef system – the Great Barrier Reef and then hugging the coastline is the oldest rainforest in the world, the 140 million-year-old Daintree that will touch your soul walking amongst mangroves, twisting vines, strangler figs and cycad trees that date back to prehistoric times.
Between Cape Tribulation and Cooktown, we wound our way up the Bloomfield Track… another little test run of a 4WD track.
Some people might say the Bloomfield is not really what you would call a 4WD track and this is probably true, especially compared to the Telegraph Track, but it had a few nice little creek crossings and a couple of exceptionally steep ups and downs. The worst of these were concreted for easier traction but it was a good start to off-roading.
At the end of the track we stopped at a nice little pub called ‘The Lion’s Den’, this is your quintessential Aussie pub and it’s teeming with character and a great place to stop for a beer. From here we were heading for Cooktown via a mountain range called Black Mountain where all the mountains were made entirely of black boulders! It was surreal and very pretty.
If you don’t have the time to drive all the way to the tip of Cape York then try the next best thing, Cooktown, otherwise known as the Gateway to Cape York Peninsula.
We had visited Cooktown on a previous trip and we loved this little town. With so much history in this place, the ‘James Cook Historical Museum’ was a good place to refresh what we had already forgotten about early Australian History from primary school. This is the town that finally stopped ‘The Endeavour’ in its tracks after Captain Cook ambitiously tried to save the vessel by throwing all the cannons overboard onto the Great Barrier Reef.
We made it to the Tip of Cape York via some rugged tracks and some very deep puddles after travelling along parts of the Old Telegraph Track.
Some dream about their trip to the Cape for years, others, like us just go… a track of dirt, dust, mud, waterholes and corrugations…and there were plenty of 4WDers to pull us out if we got stuck – not a hitch, our Hilux performed exceptionally well… and we were so thankful we had spent the dollars for the extras from ARB! You definitely need a winch, UHF radio and compressor on this trip… and our rooftop tent was the bees’ knee!
We finally made ‘The Tip’!
Marked by a simple signpost, there was nothing but blue sky and endless water around us at this far northern Australian icon.
Even walking the final 20-30 minutes from the car park to the famous sign, across jagged rocks, you feel it is Cape York’s last challenge and it is an amazing feeling finally reaching a destination you have always dreamed about visiting.
We have so many great memories of Cape York.
Tackling the Old Telegraph Track, standing on the Tip, a lovely boat trip to Thursday Island where we drank at Australia’s most northern pub and camping at windswept Chili Beach and of course how could we forget… travelling up the Cape with our good friends from NZ… welcome to our blog Louise and Jeremy.
Thursday Island or ‘TI’ to the locals is nineteen nautical miles across the Torres Strait to a magnificent little island inhabited by beautiful people. It was a great day out. The scenery was amazing and the guided tour we took with one of the locals, was very informative as was the amazing insights into the Torres Strait Islanders’ history and culture.
Chili Beach is a beautiful beach fringed with coconut palms. The scenery is superb and although it was really windy due to its location receiving the south-easterly winds, we loved it, rubbish and all!
The road from Seisia where we camped was very muddy. When it rains it really rains on the Cape… as we found out, and the roads turn from good to bad – slippery and muddy in a matter of hours.
The heavens had opened up while we were at Seisia and our white car soon turned red… it was so caked with red mud there was not a headlight, a tail light or the reversing camera to be found under the thick layer.
Our trip south was so different from our journey north where we were covered in red dust… the dust had managed to spread itself everywhere with no crevice or surface spared. It covered the entire car!
Bull dust is amazing stuff. The dust usually kicks up as you drive along producing a magnificent tail behind you. It’s great for spotting oncoming vehicles as you can see the dust trail for kilometres away, especially oncoming road trains but it also gets everywhere.
We were warned by those who had been, that the red dust would be with us for a very long time… months down the track, probably even years. They were right; we are still living with it!
Our Cape York journey was an amazing experience and certainly appreciated by us novice four-wheel drive adventurers. We were prepared for the rough ride and roughing it out with nature and for those enthusiasts out there about to embark on this trek, it is certainly a unique and thrilling adventure
After our exciting trip to the Cape we had one incredible adventure after another.
We travelled back through the Daintree where the country side in tropical Queensland is spectacular, luscious green trees, palms, jungle, sugar cane and banana plantations as far as the eye can see. And that amazing smell, the smell of the sun heating up the rain from the tropical foliage, means only one thing, we were in the wet tropics of Queensland.
Heading west we drove onto the Atherton Tablelands to Mareeba, through lush dairy country, cane fields, macadamia plantations and mango orchards and into coffee country where we finally spotted a cassowary… or two, which was certainly a highlight. These amazing birds had eluded us in the Daintree and we had given up any hope of ever spotting one!
This region is a wonderland of quaint country towns, waterfalls and lakes and we camped at Lake Tinaroo grabbing an opportunity to unload all our gear and wash away some of the red dust from our rooftop tent, bikes and swag! Our car had been through a carwash three times in Atherton…but it certainly didn’t look like it!
Leaving the Atherton Tablelands behind we headed to the outback.
We were now travelling part of the Savannah Way. Australia’s longest drive. Stretching from Cairns to Broome, it covers 3700km. This is an adventure within anyone’s reach and while much of the road is unsealed, and there are some water crossings along the way, but it is entirely achievable.
We had travelled this route previously following the sealed roads. On this trip, our plan was to head to Karumba for a couple of days then head across the Savannah Way following the rough dirt route around the Gulf… a 1350km dirt road from Normanton.
Heading on the next stretch of road would take us through lots of little towns and a couple of free camp spots along the Gulf Development Road, (still part of the Savannah Way).
We dropped in at Ravenshoe Hotel, Queensland’s highest pub, had a look at Millstream Falls, one of the widest single-drop waterfalls in Australia and camped at Archer Creek Rest Area just out of Ravenshoe, Cumberland Chimney roadside stop and Leichhardt Lagoon Station.
Windmills dotted the landscape as we headed out of Ravenshoe towards Mount Surprise. We bypassed Undara National Park, which is home to the world’s longest lava tube systems, as we had visited it last trip.
Mount Surprise is a railway town on the Cairns to Forsayth Railway and is the first town within the Gulf Savannah when approaching from the east. This is a gem-fossicking town and sits on the edge of an immense lava flow from an ancient volcano to the southeast.
Next stop was Georgetown to see the extensive mineral collection at ‘TerrEstrial’ information centre, then about 20km out of town we stopped at a free camp that in the gold rush was the township of Cumberland.
The Cumberland Chimney and the dam, built by Cornishmen to provide water to the mill and batteries, are the only reminders of the Cumberland mine, which in its day was the largest and most successful of the gold mines on the Etheridge fields.
The Chimney was built in 1889 to disperse smoke from the large steam driven engines powering the batteries that crushed the gold bearing stone and the winding gear that lifted the stone from 1000 feet below the surface as well as the tramway that carted stone to the battery.
On top of gold production there were also 400 miners and families living here. Shops were numerous and the “butcher, baker, and the candlestick maker” could make a good living at Cumberland. 1885 saw a Police Station built and a Telegraph office set up. The settlement was proclaimed a township in 1889. When gold petered out the township died, although there were spasmodic attempts to use the battery until 1934. Today the lagoon is a haven for bird life and it is a great free roadside stop.
There were lots of gold mining towns in this area in its heyday and the old gold mining town of Croydon, with its kangaroo sculptures, old post office, and ‘true blue’ entrance to the visitor centre added some interesting features to the streetscape as we drove through.
Onwards to Normanton yielded a wonderful surprise when we stopped in at Leichhardt Lagoon campground for the night.
We were just 24kms south east of Normanton when we came across this lovely campground. On private property and part of a small station, it is a large camp area located about 800 metres off the highway in a natural bush setting, near the crocodile infested Norman River. There were plenty of shady places to camp in a very scenic setting … and it was very dusty – but whose complaining, we were pretty used to the dust by now!
It was here we met up with some lovely Tasmanians and their friends travelling in the opposite direction… welcome to our blog Carol and Martin, Stephen and Lisa and Vicki and Shing.
It was also here where Guy proved his skills as MacGyver when we locked everything we owned…our phone and keys, everything in the Hilux.
We had locked the car and left the canopy open while we enjoyed an evening around the campfire with our newfound friends!
We then sat the key on the drawers in the canopy, had a cuppa and shut up for the night… the little click warned us to the automatic locking system. The canopy locks automatically when shut if the cabs already locked. Oops, thank heavens for the rooftop tent, at least we had a bed for the night… not that we slept!
Friends of our Tassie friends to the rescue… we borrowed a screw driver set from the early risers, cut some wire from an already broken fence, screwed the vent out of the canopy and while Guy laid in the rooftop tent and manovoured the wire through the hole to the rear of the canopy I directed with a torch from the outside. Piece of cake! This was to be the first of only a few mishaps on our trip!
Next destination Normanton. Normanton marks the end of the bitumen for another 700km on the road we are about to venture to the Queensland/ Northern Territory border.
Normanton was established on the Norman River by William Landsborough and was the Port for the Croydon gold rush. This town was a nice surprise as we were really just expecting another outback town, but this town has old buildings to go with its history.
A replica of an estuarine crocodile, Krys the Savannah King, that measures in at 8.63 metres and was shot near Normanton in 1957 stands proudly in the centre of town and this along with the Purple Pub and the historic Gulflander train (that operates half-day trips between Normanton and Croydon) are the main attractions to this town.
We then pressed on to the Barramundi capital, and one of our favourite spots, Karumba.
Karumba is at the mouth of the Norman River and the centre of the Gulf’ prawning and barramundi industries, so guess what we promised ourselves… prawns and barramundi! You couldn’t come to Karumba if you didn’t enjoy them!
We spent a few days at Karumba Point riding our bikes across the Muttonhole Wetlands to the township of Karumba, swimming a few laps in the local pool then riding back to the point again. The Wetlands were full of birdlife, Brolgas in particular, and it was so good to see so many and know that they are doing ok. They are an amazing bird!
Karumba is the only ‘beach’ in the Gulf serviced by a sealed road. It was originally a refuelling and repair stop for the Empire Flying Boats and during the war a base for the WWII Catalina Flying Boat Squadron.
Packed and fuelled (the car) we headed out of Normantion a few days later.
On the outskirts we stopped to drop our tyre pressures as we were back on dirt…. long roads of red dust to come and lots of it.
As we rolled along we crossed our first creek crossings and a few river crossings, including the Flinders and Bynoe Rivers.
The Savannah Way, can be completed by choosing a number of different routes so preferring the road less travelled we headed west, skimming as close to the Gulf as we could, following the Gulf Track through Bourketown, Hells Gate, Borroloola and Limmen National Park visiting Lorella Springs.
Our drive to Burketown included a stop at the Burke and Wills Camp 119.
A short 2km deviation in off the road brought us to the spot where early explorers Bourke and Wills made camp.
It was at this camp that their party launched its last attempt at reaching the Gulf. It was not successful and they returned to this camp and then headed back south. Only one in their party survived and that was King. There are still trees at the camp that have the “blazes” (or marks) that were made by the party.
As we continued on we crossed many more rivers and creeks, most of them were dry, but we were afforded an amazing display of Brolga’s at Leichhardt Falls, obviously awaiting the start of the wet season.
The Leichhardt Falls were just a trickle, but a pleasant stop for a cuppa.
The next river we crossed before Burketown was the Albert River, with very little water to be seen, but the span of the bridge was close to 200 metres. The riverbed was a bed of sand with paperbarks and other shrubs on higher areas. We couldn’t help but think how awesome it would be to see these rivers during the wet.
Then came Burketown with its few shops, and of course the obligatory pub. Burketown is very small but had a great feel to it. It once boasted the oldest pub in the Gulf until it burnt down a couple of years ago but the thirsty travellers will be happy to know the pub has been rebuilt!
We were looking forward to a nice soak in the Burketown artesian hot spring, which turned out to be a mound of minerals, a bit like a miniature volcano, pouring out mineral rich boiling hot water! Instead we headed off to find a campspot.
Most visitors to Burketown come for the fishing but there’s a better reason as far as I’m concerned – if you’re here at the right time of year from late September to early November, early risers may be treated to the phenomenon called Morning Glory.
These spectacular rolling clouds travel at up to 60km per hour and extend as far as the eye can see, appearing in the hours before dawn. And believe me it’s worth getting up for!
We didn’t actually experience it in Burketown but we did in Karumba a few years back and it was an eerily, amazing experience. More adventurous people even cloud surf Morning Glory in gliders!
After camping overnight at the boat ramp car park just north of Burketown we headed off on the drive to Hells Gate Roadhouse. This was our final stop in far North Queensland, 50km east of the Northern Territory/Queensland Border. Situated on Cliffdale Station, its name comes from the name of the small gap in the escarpment, through which the road passes, one kilometre south of the roadhouse.
The name of the gap originated in the early days of settlement of the Gulf, when the police contingent, then based at ‘Corinda’ on the Nicholson River, would escort settlers and travellers to the ‘portals of Hell’s Gate’. From that point onwards, they were on their own until they reached the safety of police protection at Katherine, in the Northern Territory.
When one considers that in those days travellers were on foot, or at best, mounted on horses; there were no 4WD’s or two-way radios and added to this, the lands were largely unexplored and considered very dangerous, it would well have seemed the gateway to hell.
From Hells Gate, we travelled 320km of dusty and corrugated road all the way across the Queensland /Northern Territory border and beyond to Borroloola along a vast dustbowl of nondescript road that had bulldust holes big enough to swallow our Hilux whole.
This imaginary border line divides the tropical north and the Gulf country from the semi arid lands that stretch south to the deserts. After travelling through savannah grasslands in Queensland we were now in true ‘cattle country’, passing vast, isolated cattle stations along the way.
The towns we passed through are mostly ‘communities’, Indigenous towns that had only very basic facilities. Borroloola, being one of these towns was an interesting experience but we were pleased to pull into Borroloola, as we were low on fuel.
Borroloola is an indigenous Community and the main destination and service centre for travellers along this section of the Savannah Way. This town was founded on the site of Ludwig Leichardt’s crossing of the McArthur River and is one of Australia’s most isolated Communities.
This part of the Savannah Way or ‘Coast Track’ follows the path of cattle drovers of the late 19th century who followed a well-worn Aboriginal path as they moved herds from northwest Queensland to stock the new stations of the Northern Territory and the Kimberley.
After a night in Borroloola we headed off on the next leg of our journey through the Limmen National Park.
The road conditions did not improve, in fact maybe a few spots were a tad rougher, it was consistently corrugated and the monotony of this section was only broken by the numerous creek and river crossings and the surprise ‘dips’. Dips vary from slight undulations to massive drops into a trickle of water or a deep creek, you had to be very cautious when approaching anything that resembled a dip.
Lorella Springs, on the outskirts of the National Park, was next on our map and after bouncing in on the 30km track we were surprised to find a lovely homestead come restaurant, booking office and an oasis of shady trees through which hot springs flowed; all bordered by a beautiful backdrop of granite cliffs.
Once purely a cattle station, Lorella Springs is now a million acre wilderness park. This was a real outback adventure for us! It is one of the most remote and most isolated areas of Australia!
Here we got to experience the amazing natural wilderness of the Gulf of Carpentaria, the magic thermal springs, wildlife and birdlife in their natural environment, challenging 4WD tracks to remote places on the 10000 sq kilometre station, a row up a croc infested river, an amazing sunset from the escarpment at the back of the campground, the best outdoor toilets and ‘donkey’ showers and the freshest drinking water ever… it was absolutely beautiful.
Bouncing our way back out along the long ‘driveway’ from Lorella Springs we re-joined the Nathan River Rd where we continued on further into the National Park to ‘The Southern Lost City’. This was quite amazing, a sort of a mini bungle bungles. There was a well-marked 2.5km trail we followed around and between the giant sandstone pillars that according to the guide information should take about 1.5 hours.
I think the time estimate depends on how often you stop to take photos and we stopped often!!!!
The walk took us between the pillars, formed about 1.5 billion years ago, to the top of the escarpment where we had magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.
Butterfly Springs, further along the track, where we camped had a lovely waterhole under the cliffs, which provided safe swimming and was only a short walk from camp…and yes there were butterflies. If you waved your hands around under the cliffs lots of butterflies fluttered all around you!
The next 130km through the Limmen National Park felt extremely isolated and remote as we headed for Roper Bar. We crossed the Bight River at Burketown Crossing then the Cox, Limmen, and Towns water crossings.
It was getting late in the day when we decided to pull in to Tomato IsIand.
Tomato Island is right on the Roper River and is a home away from home for many dedicated fishermen from down south during the winter months.
Next stop was Roper Bar and we headed straight from here to the Stuart Highway and Mataranka then on to Katherine.
After a couple of nights at Edith Falls we headed to Pine Creek, then into Kakadu where we camped at Gunlom and Jim Jim Falls. We had frequented these locations on a previous trip so it was a quick stop over before heading into Darwin for a week of R&R and the chance to explore Darwin on our bikes again.
After staying a week in Litchfield National Park swimming in beautiful waterholes and under cascading waterfalls we drove the shorter but more challenging Reynolds River Track camping by beautiful waterfalls and crossing flooded rivers.
The Gibb River Road and the beautiful Kimberley!
Further West the famous Gibb River Road proved a test for most 4wders and caravaners. It was corrugated, rocky, dusty, very hot and remote.
At some of the remote stations where we camped there were beautiful waterholes where we could cool off and great lookouts that gave stunning views of the Kimberley.
Originally constructed in the 1960’s to transport cattle from outlying stations to the ports of Wyndham and Derby the road is now one of the last true Aussie adventures for the keen 4WDer.
Rocky ranges and dusty, barren plateaus dominate the Kimberley region. It is the size of Victoria and the Gibb River Road is 660km of dirt road with only about 80kms sealed at the Derby end. It was another place you could call a last frontier although it felt a little bit wilder than Cape York and was certainly more empty, nowhere near as as many people… but we fell in love with it regardless.
We were worried about getting a puncture as people we had passed or anyone we spoke to seem to have had one.We only had one spare tyre but an extra will certainly be on our list next time we travel! We were just hoping the tyre repair patches some campers had given us at Kununurra would suffice for the moment if the worst should happen.
We called in at Drysdale River Station where lots of travellers leave their towed accommodation whilst they travel to the Mitchell River National Park and Mitchell Falls. Kalumburu Road was in very poor condition, and the minor road (87km) into Mitchell Falls much worse. Almost every car was a casualty either limping out or taking the easier option on the back of a tow truck.
Once again the Hilux did us proud, handling it all with ease ensuring we didn’t have to do any digging or winching. Thank goodness for Old Man Emu suspension from ARB!!
Silent Grove was a great campground and the walk to Bell Gorge in the 540 million year old King Leopold Range was spectacular. Our last camp on the road was Windjana Gorge about 20kms off the main road. Camp sites in the National Park were large and flat with a great view of imposing black cliffs, an ancient Devonian reef, 350 million years old.
The gorge walk, normally a 7km walk, had been shortened by a kilometre due to wet season damage and to manage weeds, but it was still a lovely walk with the walls of the old Devonian reef towering above us. Trickles of water were running through what would be a good sized river in the wet season and lovely trees, vines and grasses lined the edges. There were lots of birdlife and bats as well as a large number of freshwater crocs in the water and a couple sunbaking on the opposite sandbank.
A further 35kms down the road in the direction of Fitzroy Crossing is Tunnel Creek. This is a 750m long tunnel with the creek currently in the form of pools running through the tunnel. We took torches and cameras and waded through and luckily it was not too deep (only mid-thigh for me), as through the shadows we could easily see the silhouette of freshwater crocs as their green eyes stared back at us. We had been to Fitzroy Crossing and out to Geikie Gorge on a previous trip so we didn’t continue in that direction any further.
Our journey along the remote Gibb River Road ended at Derby.
We had visited Derby on one of our previous trips and it hadn’t changed at all. Derby is 220kms north east of Broome and situated on King Sound.
It was the first town settled in the Kimberley and is quite a large town with a main street lined in Boab trees!
Seven kilometres out of town we visited the old ‘Boab Prison Tree’, where young male aboriginals were once held prisoner.
A striking tree with a massive hollow trunk it was hard to imagine what it would have been like for these men; to be chained to a tree, at times being crowded into it, in 40-degree temperatures. White settlers believed that by taking the young male aboriginals from their tribes it would reduce trouble between the aboriginals and pastoralists.
Derby also has the highest tidal variation in Australia; reaching up to 11 metres. The water is a dirty brown due to silt from the Fitzroy River and outlying mangroves surround the port area; a perfect camouflage for crocodiles!
We had now come to the end of our journey across the Savannah Way and after a week of bodysurfing, riding and walking beautiful Cable Beach in Broome…
…we visited, Cape Leveque on the Dampier Peninsula, a remote peninsula in the far north of the Kimberley.
It is undoubtedly a never-to-be-missed place to visit if you happen to be in the Kimberly region and is only a few hours drive from Broome.
Cape Leveque has been on our top five must do list since we started planning this trip. Along with Cape York, the Gibb River and the Oonadatta and Birdsville Tracks.
The road travels straight up the centre of the Dampier Peninsula and is 106kms of sandy, corrogated road. The last 115 kms at the top is all sealed and in good condition.
A quick stop to adjust our tyre pressures and we set off. We had heard that the road was in poor condition but it was not nearly as bad as many we had already been on this trip. Parts of it were very wide while other parts quite narrow with the sides sloped up like a skateboard rink. There were pockets of bull dust and some corrugations but it wasn’t too bad. If we had not pulled off and travelled into Gnylmarrung campground we would never have seen the coastline over the entire distance of this road. The road to Cape Leveque was a long, straight road up the middle of the peninsula with lots of scrub on either side.
Our first camp on the way up was at Gnylmarrung campground on the eastern side of Beagle Bay. Owned by a beautiful Aboriginal couple Alphonse and Delma Cox, it certainly was one of the best campgrounds we had stayed in.
On arrival a sign asked us to toot 3 times and then Alphonse raced out, jumped in his car and led us off to a camp spot.
The bay was beautiful and at high tide the water was crystal clear with beautiful swimming and snorkelling – Alphonse assured us it was safe!
The narrow road into Kooljaman Resort at the top of the peninsula was only about 3kms but pocketed with deep soft sand. This was a camping oasis. On the western side there were amazing red cliffs and the sight of the red rock faces hitting pristine white beach sand was a picture that had to be seen, as were the sunsets. Wow, this place was everything we imagined and more although swimming at the northern beach left a lot to be desired. Being bashed about by waves and rolled over on coral balls was not an enjoyable experience and the water had a milky look to it so you couldn’t see the bottom.
After leaving Broome for the second time we watched the ‘Staircase to the Moon’ at Dampier, snorkeled Ningaloo Reef and Coral Bay, hand-fed kangaroos, helped the CSIRO Marine Research team tagging and weighing turtles at Ned’s Beach in Cape Range National Park, (one turtle weighed in at 125kg. She was approximately 100 years old), we bathed with emus and rode our bikes along outback tracks… and I lost my Apple watch down a longdrop… it was the only thing we caught on the fishing rod in all our travels!
We travelled inland to Tom Price & Karijini National Park where we trekked and swam at many beautiful gorges.
Heading south east of WA, we travelled through the mining towns of Newman, Meekatharra and Lenora to Kalgoorlie then back over to Laverton before heading across the Great Central Road.
The Great Central Road… the Outback Way from Laverton to Uluru
This road to Alice Springs is a direct route along the Outback Way over the Great Central Road. Eventually this road will be sealed from Perth right through to Cairns. Thanks to this direct route, we reduced the distance to the east by about 1000kms in preference to heading south and travelling the Nullarbor Plain. This has to be the longest shortcut… and the longest Geocaching track!
The girl in the Tourist Information Centre in Newman introduced me to Geocaching and after downloading the app we had some great fun hunting for the treasures. I was continually checking my iphone to see if there were any caches nearby. There were, several… and it was Guy’s job to go into the bush hunting for them.
Geocaching is a treasure hunting game where you use a GPS to hide and seek containers with other participants in the activity. A cache or geocache is a hidden container housing a logbook, pen or pencil and trinkets for people to exchange. One thing we did learn though, don’t try to get to the cache “as the crow flies”. Crows actually FLY, they don’t have to deal with bushes and rocks and hills etc.
Officially they are registered on the geocaching website (www.geocaching.com). I bought a pack of Australian Cards, and a card for a different place in Australia was my contribution when I found a cache… if I could fit one in to the cache container! The treasures travel all over the world so download the ‘Geocaching’ App from the App Store and try your luck… let your adventure begin, it’s lots of fun for adults and kids, especially to alleviate the boredom on a long road trip. HAVE FUN!!
Back to the Great Central Road.
We had a pretty wet and wild time crossing this road from WA to Uluru in the NT (another long trek of mud, sweat and beers – 1126 kms of dirt), and we had to turn back on our first attempt 150km in because of flooding and dangerous road conditions.
To cross this road we needed two Aboriginal permits. We had three days to cross the road, we weren’t allowed to detour off the road, we weren’t allowed to take photos of Aboriginals, and it was $1000 fine if we ventured into an Aboriginal Community! We love these 4WD roads and love to take the roads less travelled to discover the lesser known attractions and places in the outback of Australia and this was certainly ‘Outback Australia’!
The road was closed twice while we were on it and the last roadhouse where we camped on the WA side went into lockdown because two Aboriginal mobs in the local community had an altercation.
The road to Uluru was amazing with caravans of wild camels and herds of wild horses grazing freely and a beautiful sunset as we approached ‘The Olgas’. The road was very wet and muddy and still obviously closed as we exited at the T-junction at the Olgas… I had to get out and move the witches hats and the ‘Road Closed’ sign!
A town like Alice…
The Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks were closed for ten days because of heavy rains so we decided to head north 199km along the Stuart Highway and wait in Alice Springs for them to open.
Alice Springs hadn’t changed much since our last visit. Lots of Aboriginals just hanging around in groups in the town and along the Todd River. It didn’t give the town the best feel, but there was a highly visible police presence, both on the road and in the Todd Shopping Mall. At every liquor outlet there was an officer stationed either inside or outside the door, obviously to reduce the poor behaviour we had seen on our ride in to town from the caravan park.
We had visited all the sites around town and the West and East MacDonnell Ranges on a previous visit, so, apart from riding our bikes around the town in-between showers; our time was spent up dating my diary, catching up on some washing or just relaxing with a good book.
As one day turned into two then three and the Oonadatta and Birdsville Tracks were still closed our first alternative was to head north and cross the Plenty Highway but with a clear forecast for the next few day ahead we decided to head south… our second alternative if all else failed, was to take the long way through South Australia!
Leaving Alice was another big drive as we headed south along the Stuart Highway towards Marla and the start of the Oondatatta Track.
Late in the day we pulled into a great roadside stop to set up camp for the night, right on the Northern Territory/South Australian border. We had now crossed into 6 states since leaving Tasmania earlier in the year.
… the Oonadatta Track and Birdsville Track
The Oodnadatta and Birdsville are two of the most famous outback tracks in Australia and we were quite excited about crossing them.
The Oodnadatta follows the Old Ghan Railway line from Marla to Marree and along the track are many ruins and reminders of the railway line from years past. It also passes by the 5,300km-long dog fence and the southern edge of Lake Eyre. The main towns on the track are Marla, Oodnadatta, William Creek and Marree.
‘The Pink Roadhouse’ at the small town of Oonadatta is a real eye catcher along the Oodnadatta Track… probably because it is pink but we definitely had to stop and have a look around this legendary roadhouse. This was our first camp on the track, right behind the roadhouse… and we were eaten alive by mosquitoes, a result of all the flooding in the area! Oonadatta is also the birthplace of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
The Oonadatta Track was a sparse and arid landscape. We followed it through deep-red gibber plains covered with saltbushes where only mound springs (an unusual natural feature where water seeps to the surface from the Great Artesian Basin); the ruins of railway sidings and low sand ridges bought variety to the surrounding flat and barren landscape. This was the true Australian Outback!
After Oonadatta we came to William Creek. William Creek is Australia’s smallest town with a population of only 12, but it is located on the world’s largest cattle property. At 32,500 sq km, Anna Creek Station is about the same size as Belgium. This is where the scenic flights over Lake Eyre depart.
That night we set up camp at Curdimurka Railway Siding, just a stone’s throw from Southern Lake Eyre. It is the most impressive siding along the old Ghan railway line as it’s the only one that’s still in one piece and up until a few years back this isolated place came alive every two years with some 1000 people when it held ‘The Curdimurka Outback Ball’. Apparently this was a big event and people would fly in from all around the country to dance the night away then camp in the dust after the party. The Ball raised money for the Ghan Railway Preservation Society, an organisation that preserves what is left from the old Ghan railway line.
We set up camp at the back of the siding and wandered over to the old water tower before settling down with our books. Whichever direction we looked there was nothing between us and the horizon except the scorching sun and that night we were privy to the most beautiful sunset!
It was an eerily quiet campsite that night, the silence only broken by a pair of white cockatoos squawking, and the wind as it whistled behind the old building.
Local Aborigines believe that a giant snake named “Kuddimuckra” lived at nearby Lake Eyre. They avoided travelling along the shores of the lake, and when many viewed the approaching Ghan for the first time they fled.
The detour to see Lake Eyre, the largest and most spectacular of the salt lakes in Australia, took us along a rough, corrugated 70km dead-end track. It was a barren place surrounded, as far as the eye can see, by gibber plains…red rock. The term ‘gibber plain’ is typically an Australian term used to describe an extensive plain that is covered with loose rocks.
And then there was Lake Eyre… a lake stretching out across a flat, vast landscape. It looked like a massive inland frozen sea, the salt so white it looked like ice…the tricks the salt pan played with our eyes, it led us to believe the lake was full of water!
This massive salt lake is 144km long and 77km wide, and is the lowest point on the Australian mainland at minus 15.5 metres below sea level.
Most of the time Lake Eyre is a dry salt expanse and even after the heavy rains we found it hard to tell if there was any water in the lake. However, every 10 years or so it fills after heavy rainfall in far Queensland and the Northern Territory. When this happens this usually dry lake bursts to life, becoming a major breeding ground for waterbirds from all over Australia. The lake has only filled to capacity three times in the last 150 years. Interestingly enough it has its own yacht club at Marree.
From a distance, as we travelled towards Marree, our eyes caught a glimpse of something unusual on the horizon and as we drove closer, the vista became clearer… and then we were there. It was a paddock on the side of the road filled with two big planes, a huge dog and sculptures made from windmills, bits of old rusted metal and general junk. One sculpture was set up as a music tree, another a dream catcher, a spinning car, and on the horizon we could see ‘Dottie the Dingo’ who has since been named the ‘Big Dog’ by the locals. The dog’s body is an old water tank from the days of steam trains, and its head is a classic Chrysler. Quite amazing actually!
Marree was next and for us the start of the Birdsville Track and the end of the Oodnadatta Track.
There is only a roadhouse with a shop, a hotel and a population of around 80 people but this sleepy little hamlet comes alive in July when it hosts the annual Camel Cup.
The railway line was in service here from 1883 until 1980 but there are only a few old buildings, some tracks and some old locomotives remaining to remind us of the railway connection to Adelaide.
From Marree we headed up the Birdsville Track. This track is well travelled, being a supply route to the stations along the way and still fulfilling its original role as a major stock route, bringing animals from as far away as Queensland to markets in Adelaide.
The romance of the drover leisurely pushing a herd of cattle south has long since gone. This outback icon covering 520kms, was founded in the 1860s for droving cattle from Queensland to the railhead at Marree. Over the years it’s been a legendary mail route but much has changed since mailman, Tom Kruse, plied the Birdsville Track during the middle of last century. Now massive road trains come rumbling down the track throwing up masses of dust behind their trailers.
Although the road is dirt all the way from Marree to Birdsville the Birdsville Track could be travelled in a conventional vehicle… if the conditions were right. The same could be said for the Oonadatta Track. However, like all outback tracks, conditions can change quickly, especially after rain as they did for us, and a 4WD is preferable if you find yourself in a “sticky” situation.
We crossed the legendary Cooper Creek where it crosses the Birdsville Track on its final run to Lake Eyre then 204km north of Marree we pulled into the very quirky ‘Mungerannie Hotel’ for a nice cold beer then booked a shady campsite beside the Derwent River wetland. This outback watering hole is almost halfway along the Birdsville Track.
Next morning it was time to head north to Birdsville. The quality of the track was not too bad, other than a few big puddles, tyre ruts from a road train that had been made in the wet weather that we tried our best to avoid for most of the track, and a stony section about 140kms south of Birdsville where we slowed down to about 60km… all in all, we actually had a good run.
Birdsville is the typical outback town very far away… from everywhere. The coast is over 1000kms away. It is well known for it’s remoteness, the Birdsville races and it’s historic Pub.
The Birdsville Hotel is one of the classical, historic Outback Hotels built in 1884 and still provides accommodation, food and ice cold beer… and I should imagine comes alive when the Birdsville Races come to town.
The town lies between the dunes of the Simpson Desert and the Gibber Plains of Sturts Stony Desert… and there were still 12 cars waiting to be recovered from the Simpson after the heavy rains when we passed through.
Sturt first explored the area around 1845. In the early 1870’s Matthew Flynn built the first depot, which was named Diamantina Crossing. Later on in the 1890’s it was renamed Birdsville and became a major service centre for the pastoralists and even though it is still a service centre, tourists and 4WD enthusiasts have taken over in the place of the drovers.
Finally, after crossing these iconic roads we headed east from Birdsville, through Quilpie, Charleville, Roma, Chinchilla, Toowoomba, Warwick and Beaudesert to the coast and Coolangatta.
Retracing our steps along the coast we headed to Narabeen just out of Sydney where we spent a week with family before…
… pointing our Hilux towards home and following the road through Canberra, Mount Kosciuszko and Beechworth…
…to Station Pier.
We experienced all weather. Winter as far as Sydney, then beautiful days and freezing nights as far as Townsville. 40+ degree-days on the Top End, strong winds, amazing storms and lots of road closures… and our rooftop tent withstood it all.
It was such an exciting adventure to live and we loved every minute of it. The natural beauty of this country of ours, it’s history, it’s stories, it’s people, the wildlife and the rugged outback are so amazing.
After a fantastic adventure we returned home safe and sound… lots of dirt roads, red dust, sand and water crossings… all without a hitch!
Thank you again ARB!!
I cannot speak highly enough of the after sales service we received from these guys in Launceston. They called us on the road, arranged for our car to be checked in Albury and have given it a complete overhaul since we returned home.
Our Toyota Hilux performed pretty well too…
Hopefully by reading our story your journey will be as memorable as ours. To the Aussie explorers who are on the road or to those new adventurers, who are about to start their own adventure, stay safe and have the time of your life… Australia is an amazing country!
If you have any questions about our trip, or about to head off yourself and have a blog we can follow, please drop us a message as we would love to follow your journey!
I would also like to acknowledge the Visitor Information Centres of the individual towns we visited in each state. These centres and their websites provided us with valuable information.