Now, with our track planned out, our adventure across the Top End of Australia was about to begin… so turning Harry Hilux south-west we headed for the Atherton Tablelands and the start of our journey along the Savannah Way.
The Savannah Way is a 3700 kilometre iconic road trip across Australia that includes the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Cairns, the tropical rainforests of the Atherton Tablelands, outback Queensland, the Top End of the Northern Territory, and the Kimberley Region, including the beautiful Western Australian coastal town of Broome. We had followed part of the Savannah Way on our last trip north, and now, over the next couple of months, we would complete the whole journey… from east to west.
Leaving the lovely Daintree Village after a night camped by the mighty river, we made our way back to Mossman following lush green fields, sugarcane plantations and impressive rolling mountains covered in rainforest. Our next destination was Mount Molloy, high on the south-western edge of the Daintree.
About 1 kilometre north of the town we came across a very popular free camping ground at Rifle Creek, the last free camp on the Mulligan Highway heading north to Cooktown and Cape Country. This camp, highly recommended by travellers we had met along the way, was surrounded by lovely trees, had toilets and a cold shower and at only $2 a night, would have been a great overnight stop had it not been so early in the day.
Situated on the northern end of the beautiful highland country of the Atherton Tablelands, Mount Molloy, named after Pat Molloy, an Irish prospector who found copper in the area in the late 1800s, was set in magnificent surroundings and was just a dot on the map with only a fuel shop/mechanics, pub, bakery, post office and a few old ruins from the mining era.
The Atherton Tablelands is an area known as the ‘Food Bowl of the Tropics’, and a region rich with coffee, tea and sugar production, dairy and beef cattle, orchards, nuts, wineries and cheeses and the list goes on! It is also an area of great beauty with breathtaking landscapes; rugged gorges and savannah grasslands, green rolling hills and valleys, lush tropical rainforests, waterfalls and lakes.
Just down the road we came to Mareeba, an important regional service centre and the largest town on the Atherton Tablelands. Like most of the small towns in this area, it also had a history going back to the gold mining days and once served as a railway and communications centre.
Located at the junction of the Barron River and Granite Creek, it is believed that the name of the town is the local Muluridji Aboriginal People word meaning ‘meeting of the waters’ or ‘place to meet’.
After a quick look around our next priority was to search for a car wash. The red Cape mud was already starting to set like rock on Harry Hilux’s underside and we really wanted to give him a good once over!
$44.00 later, and with Harry as clean as we could get him, we headed off again…
The original road to Chillagoe began at Herberton but locals claimed a ‘T’ model Ford blazed a shorter route close to the railway track between Dimbulah and Petford in 1949. Now the road follows the railway line constructed to carry ore from the Chillagoe Smelter to Mareeba.
This road was named as a tribute to the pioneers of the late 1800s, who pushed wheelbarrows stacked with all their belongings; usually a few pieces of metal and hessian for a shelter, a spade, a lantern, a few kitchen things and very little else. More often than not, they had their women and children in tow, the mother often with a babe in arms! Compared to the rough life of these pioneers, our rooftop tent seemed like 4 star accommodation. Now each year a 3 day wheelbarrow race follows the path these pioneers traipsed as they pushed all their worldly treasures!
This trip was well worth it, if not just for the scenery. We passed many of the coffee plantations the Mareeba area is well-known for and travelled through rich farmlands. After the coffee plantations the scenery turned from lush greenery to red dirt, wooded savannah and lots of termite mounds. Occasionally livestock crossed the road and we passed lots of roadkill and the odd road train. The road was well maintained with only the occasional gravel stretch and about 20 kilometres out of Chillago the sealed road turned to all gravel. Still surrounded by red dirt the landscape also changed to incorporate spectacular big rocky outcrops and was an amazing contrast to the lush rainforest region we had just come from!
We finally made it to the bustling town of Chillagoe where it didn’t take us long to find the privately run Information Centre. The amusing thing about this little town was that the locals always gave directions as to how far from the pub we needed to go… the butcher was just down the road from the pub or the police station was just across the road from the pub… obviously the pub was the main focus for this small mining community.
Finally after collecting information about the area, we headed for the caves… and as the ‘caves’ are the main focus here, we decided to sign up for the 1 hour guided tour.
There are over 600 limestone caves in this region and these mazes twist and turn beneath the dry tropical woodland forests that have taken 400 million years to form. Apparently in prehistoric times this whole area was under the ocean, and as a result, when the water receded, the caves were left behind along with many fossils, a reminder of the reef that was once here.
The various geological events that occurred in this region also left the area rich in minerals and it was these minerals that first brought people to this region, which led to the founding of Chillagoe, with the copper mine the major source of income to the area.
Surrounded by woodlands and pockets of vines clinging to limestone outcrops the Royal Arch Cave was a vast system that featured several massive chambers, each with distinct and intriguing features and with a constant temperature of 22 degrees this naturally air-conditioned cave was just right for exploring the narrow walkways and certainly a welcome relief from the heat outside. Picnic Chamber was once a popular picnic spot for the miners and their families in the early 1900’s, largely due to this constant temperature where they could escape the outside heat!
The final chamber in this system was Cathedral Cave, an enormous space with amazing rock formations; stalagmites and stalactites, along with a giant strangler fig growing from the base of one chamber through a crack in the cave roof.
It was really comfortable scrambling through caves in the cool but when we stepped out from the dark hole to daylight, we were greeted with 30+ degree heat… and a surprising myriad of beautiful butterflies!
Leaving the outback town of Chillagoe behind we retraced our steps back through Merriba.
Having visited this area before we were really looking forward to bunking down for a few nights and enjoying the peaceful surrounds and cool waters of Lake Tinaroo but with darkness closing in on us we knew it was too late to book a campsite… so just 23 kilometres out of Merriba we came to Rocky Creek War Memorial Park, a great roadside stop operated by the local council for the benefit of travellers.
For only a gold coin donation to help with the upkeep of the park and its facilities (a donation tin can be found in the amenities block), this park had a large open grassed area and, although not far off the highway, was the perfect spot to pitch our rooftop tent for the night. This very popular park was packed with vans and campers of all descriptions parked up everywhere, but we soon squeezed ourselves in under a lovely tree then set about checking out the area.
Rocky Creek War Memorial Park is also home to a beautiful war memorial where every year on the Sunday closest to VP Day (Victory in the Pacific Day) , returned soldiers, their families and descendants gather to remember Victory in the Pacific and to take part in a dedication and unveiling ceremony.
The site of this War Memorial was originally the WWII Army Hospital and Medical Base and the largest military hospital in the Southern Hemisphere with a 3000 bed hospital, which treated over 60,000 patients. There was a 200 bed camp hospital, an 1800 bed general hospital for the 2/2 regiment, (which is the regiment my dad was in), an 1800 bed general hospital for the 2/6 regiment, a convalescent depot and also the 47th Camp Hospital. The ambulance train came in here with wounded and sick troops that had been offloaded from the ships in Cairns and were returning from service overseas.
According to the map display it was a very, very big area but all that is left now are just slabs of concrete with markers to tell you what was where; kitchen, toilets, ablution block, mess hall etc, and throughout the whole park were dozens upon dozens of granite markers with plaques dedicated to all the companies, battalions and platoons that were either based here, or had some association with the camp during the war. Wandering up and down the paths we were lucky enough to find a plaque for an Elford family member; Lance Corporal Percy John Elford of the 2/3 Australian Pioneer Battalion.
This was quite a nostalgic visit for me. My dad, John Richard Elford, undertook commando jungle training here in the rainforests around the Atherton Tablelands after returning from Borneo, and before being shipped to New Guinea. He was a Corporal in the 2/11 and then the 2/2 Australian Commando Squadron and one of thousands of troops undergoing training in preparation for Papua New Guinea and the Pacific campaigns during WWII.
During WWII the Tablelands area became the largest military base in Australia with camps at Tinaroo, Kairi, Atherton, Wongabel, Herberton, Wondecla, Ravenshoe and Mount Garnet.
Leaving the War Memorial the next day we headed towards the township of Atherton passing through Walkamin and Tolga. These two towns are the centre of the Tablelands with Tolga beginning its life as a simple staging post for miners and timber cutters on the highway between Port Douglas and Herberton. Walkamin was built during the construction of Tinaroo Dam in the 1950s when the Barron River was dammed trapping enough water to create a lake three-quarters the size of Sydney Harbour.
The Tinaroo Range is known as the home of the huge kauri pines and by 1880, a timber industry had begun, with bullock teams used to extract cedar from the area. By the early 1950s, most of the accessible rainforest had been harvested and it had become clear that, despite a few pockets of rich volcanic soil near Lake Euramoo and Kauri Creek, the area was not suitable for farming.
As a result, the government constructed an irrigation lake by damming the Barron River at Tinaroo Falls, with land holders compensated through compulsory acquisition. Most residents departed soon after the lake was completed in 1958 and one reminder of the region’s origins was at the Chimneys picnic area, where two brick fireplaces still stand.
From Tolga we headed into Atherton with our first stop, the bike shop. We had been told by a couple in Seisia that Atherton had a great bike shop and we were quite confident we would have our bikes up and running again in no time! We were after new front forks for my bike and a new seat for Guys after our little mishap in Bamaga when we drove through an undercover area, forgetting our bikes were attached to the roof of our car.
Well, the news wasn’t good… my bike presented a bit of a problem and we couldn’t get any front forks at Atherton, which meant we either had to wait until Darwin, or make a rushed trip to Cairns over the next couple of days… the latter proving to be the best solution if I wanted to ride my bike here. The Atherton Tablelands are a mountain bikers play ground with over 30 kilometres of world-class dedicated mountain bike trails (ranging from beginner to hard-core), that wind through ancient rainforests and scenic back country roads!
We had visited the town of Atherton before, so apart from the bike shop, we really didn’t spend a lot of time looking around, so after a trip to the Tourist Information Centre to book a site at Lake Tinaroo, we were on the road again heading to the Danbulla National Park.
If you are passing through the town of Atherton though, there is one place worth visiting, ‘The Crystal Caves’! On our last trip we explored this museum with helmets and torches along a 240 sq metre fantasy of grottos and tunnels. This impressive display of minerals, rocks and gemstones from all over the world, included an Amethyst Geode standing 3.5m high and was well worth a look!
15 kilometres from the town of Atherton, and sitting on the shores of the beautiful artificial lake, we drove through the town of Tinaroo then continued over the dam wall into the National Park.
Lake Tinaroo is at the very heart of the Atherton Tablelands with over 200 kilometres of shoreline and used for irrigation, water supply, power generation and recreation… and there was certainly plenty of room to spread out.
This was our second visit to this area and Platypus Campground was a very special place for us…one of those campgrounds where you could just pull up stumps and spend a couple of weeks and relax and enjoy the solitude!
We had an amazing 3 days; we checked out the sights, cleaned Harry Hilux inside and out, washed our swag and bikes in the lake (we had been warned the red dust would be with us for a very long time… and they were right, it was in every little nook and cranny), caught up on some washing in our brand new hi-tech washing machine, swam in the lake, read our books, drove down to Cairns to get a new set of front forks fitted to my bike and a seat for Guy’s… and relaxed around a campfire!
We had plenty of company too, lots of critters to look out for during the day with birds in abundance, namely a flock of very, very friendly kookaburra.. and come night, well it was the ones that we couldn’t see that created the biggest surprise.
Signs throughout the campgrounds warned of giant white-tailed rats that normally dine on underground fungi but have also been known to nibble through canvas, fridges and car wiring and even open cans with the assistance of their strong jaws and long teeth. Some people even believe they can read the labels!
We had seen the signs last visit but really didn’t take much notice. We were reluctant to believe that such a small animal could cause so much damage, or they even existed for that matter… that was until campers, a few campsites along the lake, had the wiring in their car chewed through leaving them stranded in their caravan until their car could be towed away and fixed!!
We had never seen one of these mysterious creatures but this visit our wish came true when 2 nights in a row one passed directly in front of our campfire… so when you read these signs, please take them seriously. We know for a fact they are definitely around and they can do a lot of damage!!
As I have said before, it is the people you meet along the way who love to share stories and one couple were more than happy to share a ‘bushies trick’. The ‘trick’ they told us, was to leave the bonnet open and keep a light glowing overnight, as these rats prefer to chew in darkness, and we weren’t taking any chances! So with a magnetic LED light locked onto the engine bay and the bonnet left ajar, the rats behaved themselves and didn’t eat Harry’s electrics or bother us the whole time we were there!!
It only took a bit over an hour to drive back into Cairns and it was a beautiful drive with amazing views down to the coastline and over towards The Daintree.
There are a few ways to get to the Tablelands from the coast, one was the way we had travelled over the Rex Range Road from Mossman then along the Mulligan Highway, which, if you were travelling in the other direction, also continues on to Cooktown and Cape country. Today we were following the Kuranda Range Road, over the coastal range past the cultural rainforest village of Kuranda and on to Cairns. This is the first part of the Savannah Way, or the last, depending on which direction you are coming from.
The purpose of driving down to Cairns was to have my bike repaired, so after traipsing around the city and finally finding a bike shop that could fix my wheels, we headed back to Lake Tinaroo for another glorious night under the stars.
Along the way we called into the small village of Kuranda. Kuranda is a wonderful little town with a lovely feel to it and is well-known for its markets, food and laid back lifestyle, and apparently the best part of Kuranda is getting there… and not by car like us.
We had considered taking the scenic cable car ride through the tops of the amazing Cairns rainforest on the ‘Kuranda Rainforest Skyrail’ when we visited Cairns previously, but Cairns was just a little bit too busy for us, so we decided against it this trip.
Completed in 1891 this rail line is 75 kilometres long and has 15 tunnels and numerous bridges, some with drops off the side of up to 327 metres. The carriages are all heritage style and date back to the early 1900’s.
The drive from Cairns to Kuranda was short… a mere 28 kilometres north to this ‘Village in the Rainforest’ and I highly suggest the 3 kilometre rainforest walk from the centre of town through the rainforest and along the esplanade to the train station. It was truly stunning with the afternoon light and the Melaleuca gums along the banks of the Barron River.
Leaving Kuranda it was then on to Mareeba with the beautiful rainforest opening out into paddocks of coffee, sugar cane and macadamia and mango trees. It truly was beautiful country and was very hard for us to pack up and move on from Tinaroo after 3 days camped at this beautiful lake!
All packed and ready to leave, we still had a few more sights to see before leaving the Tablelands, and while this lake was a recreational centre for camping, fishing and water skiing, the surrounding landscape had its own fair share of accolades, with tropical rainforests, volcanic crater lakes, amazing waterfalls and pretty forest drives… and be prepared to be wowed by the amazing Cathedral Fig and Curtain Fig trees, which are a definite must do.
Before heading west to Ravenshoe we continued 32 kilometres along Danbulla Forest Road, which winds around the lake to Yungaburra where we found the Cathedral Fig Tree. We had visited here before and we loved it, it was such a peaceful place with lots of birds and this area actually has the reputation of being the best place to hear an early morning bird ‘singing’ in the Atherton Tablelands.
Now we were expecting to find a big tree; however, even the second time around it was still the most amazing tree we have ever seen! People had told us if we had ever seen the wonderful movie ‘Avatar’ then ‘the home tree’ is just what it would remind us of… and it certainly did!
From here we continued on to Lake Barrine, a crater Lake, where we took a short stroll to see the Twin Kauri Trees and although they were big they were nowhere near as big as the Cathedral fig. The Curtain Fig was next and it was also a beautiful tree but still nowhere near as spectacular as the Cathedral Fig although they were both very impressive specimens and both around 500 years old.
The Curtain Fig Tree once grew along a tree that fell on an angle, hence the angled root system that was quite impressive. It spans several metres across and the vines drape 15 metres down in the form of a curtain, hence its name. The peace and quiet here and the birds and breeze through the canopy were amazing too, even though it was just a few metres from the road. The Strangler Figs are such a vital part of these rainforests and even though they strangle the host trees, they leave behind a twisting trail of beauty and a thriving ecosystem.
From here was the start of our adventure along the Savannah Way, retracing our steps from our last trip along both unsealed and sealed sections through Ravenshoe, Mount Surprise, Geogetown, Croydon, Normanton and on to Karumba… but before heading off we still had waterfalls to visit!
Starting near the town of Millaa Millaa, some of the best waterfalls in the region are the Millaa Millaa Falls, surrounded by a lush rainforest with a waterfall that cascades into
a pristine waterhole that was the perfect place for a dip on these tropical humid days. This one being one of the most photographed waterfall in Australia.
Cassowaries again! Yes, we finally got to glimpse our first cassowary… not one, not two, but three. They really do exist and they exist in the beautiful rainforest of Mount Hypipamee National Park just 25 kilometres south of Atherton.
After our wonderful surprise as we drove into the National Park, we then set off on a short hike to the Dinner Falls and the crater. Starting at the car park we followed the track to the first of the Dinner Falls three waterfalls. The first was a long cascade fall, the middle a trio of segmented drops while the uppermost fall had a triangular shape as it plunged off the tableland plateau. From there it was only a short walk to the crater, which was well worth a look.
Located high on the southern Evelyn Tableland, in the Hugh Nelson Range, this park is centred around a diatreme or volcanic pipe, thought to have been created by a massive gas explosion. Thousands of years ago, during an eruption, gases trapped under the earth surface burst their way through the crust, creating a gigantic hole in the middle of the mountain. Hypipanmee crater is now filled with water that runs under the mountain in the lava pipe and is evidence of a land once teeming with volcanic activity, a creepy but fascinating place and well worth a visit.
The crater is almost 70 metres across with sheer granite walls and 58 metres below the rim is a lake, which is over 70 metres deep and covered with a vibrant green layer of native waterweed that looked quite pretty, and yet kind of eerie. It was a really, really long way down and with my fear of heights I stood a little back from the edge, even though it was fenced off. I sure wouldn’t like to fall into that big hole… it was a long, long way down and it would be impossible to get out!
Leaving Mount Hypipamee National Park we drove south-west along the Kennedy Highway winding our way through the rainforests of the Herberton Ranges before it opened up onto lush green farm lands and we couldn’t help but feel we were now entering into the ‘real Australia’.
We were heading along the highest road in Queensland, to the highest town with the highest pub and I suppose everything else in the town would be the highest too… and of course Mother Nature turned on her blustery best as we neared the states highest wind farm and yes, you guessed it, Windy Hill, where a great many wind turbines were spinning frantically in the wind, high on the very misty hill in front of us!
Located in the surrounding fields of Ravenshoe (pronounced Ravens-hoe – the reason why I draw attention to this is some people we met called it Raven-shoe), Windy Hill wind farm generates enough electricity to supply approximately 3,500 homes and was built on the extinct Windy Hill volcano where 20 wind turbines take advantage of the constant winds on the volcanos slopes… and boy was it windy, and cold brrrr! It was amazing just how very cold it was through this area having only just driven out of very warm temperatures.
The change in the landscapes never ceased to amaze me and this one was no exception… after leaving the rainforest we had passed through farming plains, over undulating hills and across mountain ranges where we appeared to go through the clouds on the top of a mountain, and then out of the blue (or mist I should say) was Ravenshoe, Queensland’s highest town at 920 metres above sea level.
The ‘Tully Falls Hotel’ is Queensland’s highest pub and we had now visited Australia’s most northern pub on Thursday Island and Queensland’s highest pub, both in the same state!
Ravenshoe is home to the Jirrbal people whose language is the world’s oldest spoken language and at the Visitor Information Centre we were able to browse the Nganyaji Interpretive Centre displaying information and artefacts from these indigenous people as well as the displays on early settlers, the timber industry and the soldiers who were based here during World War II.
It was a lovely little town that was originally a timber milling, mining settlement but today it is the service centre for agriculture, horticulture and timber as well as being an appealing destination for fossickers.
Just 14 kilometres from Ravenshoe along the Kennedy Highway, we found a great free camp at Archer Creek Rest Area on the banks of ‘The Millstream’ where we set up camp on a lovely grassed area beside the creek. It was a nice level, spacious and clean overnight camp area with old but very clean toilets, and although close to the highway it was nowhere near as busy as other highways we had been on. We even managed to find a bit of wood for a camp fire that night and had a nice cooling dip in the stream!
Next morning, and just a bit further down the road, we pulled into Millstream Falls National Park where we turned off and drove a short stretch of dirt road to the car park. From the carpark we could hear the falls roaring in the distance, and plunging over the edge of a columnar basalt lava flow was Big Millstream Falls, the widest single-drop waterfall in Australia.
A separate entrance lead to Little Millstream Falls where we could get a bit closer after taking a steep, narrow track from the car park.
This park was another area rich with WWII history with one of the many training areas that were dotted around the Tablelands. We followed the WWII heritage track to the remains of tent sites, corduroy roads (a type of road made by placing logs, perpendicular to the direction of the road over a low or swampy areas), training and parade grounds and trenches, along with other reminders of the time troops spent here.
Next along the road was Mount Garnet, just a little mining town with streets named after the minerals that were responsible for the life of this settlement. It was one of those towns that one could easily pass through without stopping and to us it looked like nothing more than a couple of pubs, a service station and a few shops and houses in the middle of nowhere… but to add to the economy of the town we did stop to buy a couple of birthday cards at the Post Office!
This was the beginning of the outback for us, as we left behind the fertile, farming plains of the Atherton Tablelands.
Just out of Mount Garnet we came to narrow sealed and unsealed roads, which involved taking more care than usual. Some parts were very narrow with a sealed section running down the middle and loose gravel and steep edges on either side, making passing oncoming vehicles quite difficult, especially trucks!
Our plan of attack was to pull over as far as we could onto the gravel shoulder without slipping off the side, and slow right down to give approaching vehicles the chance to take the full lane, thus reducing the chance of rock damage to our car and the windscreen. This made so much sense to us, and we did it long before vehicles were too close… but obviously it made no sense to some oncoming drivers, as lots (some towing vans), still pulled off into the gravel showering us with stones as they wizzed past. Others, thankful for the chance to stay on the bitumen, gave us the Aussie wave as they passed!
Driving on these outback roads can be quite scary at times, especially with the rough edges and drop offs, but aside from this, many are unfenced and often have stray stock feeding beside the road which are quite unpredictable. There is also the worry of wild goats, cattle or kangaroos, and emus will often pace the car, running alongside, then when you least expect it, and they eventually do tire, they occasionally swerve across in front of the vehicle.
Passing the turn off to the Undara Lava Tubes, we continued on to Mt Surprise.
We had visited the lava tubes last trip, and they had to be one of the most interesting places we had visited. These tubes are part of the Undara National Park, which is home to 164 volcanoes, cones and vents and home to one of the earth’s longest lava flows from a single volcano. They estimate that the flow was 190,000 years ago creating one of the rarest and most fascinating volcanic phenomena on earth. It was a massive eruption and caused lava to flow more than 90 kilometres to the North and over 160 kilometres to the North West. It is estimated that 23 cubic kilometres of lava, at a temperature of 1,200 degrees, flowed from the volcano at a rate of about 1,OOO cubic metres every second. A lava flow this size could fill Sydney Harbour in six days.
We had booked an interesting tour around a number of lava tube sites where the guide took us on a trip along strange pathways and corridors that were truly awe-inspiring and told us some really interesting facts about the geology and geography of the landscape and the surrounding areas; how the east coast of Australia is a long fault line that runs from Victoria along the Great Dividing Range to the very spot we were standing, the last volcano to erupt here at Undara was some 200,000 years ago and the lava flows flowed for 160 kilometres to the west and as the surface of the flow cooled, the higher temperatures inside meant that long tunnels formed through the core creating one of the longest lava tube systems in the world… all this having shaped the geography in this national park and surrounding landscapes.
With guided tour over we then set off on our bikes along the bush tracks of the park to the Kalkarni volcanic crater where we followed a 2.5 kilometre track around the rim!
A further 55 kilometres on we came to Mount Surprise, an old railway town on the Cairns Forsayth Railway line and our first town in the Gulf Savannah. This for many, marks entry into Outback Australia, for us it was back at Mount Garnet. This railway town on the Old Cairns to Forsayth line is an ideal area to fossick for gemstones at nearby O’Briens Creek, or explore the Forty Mile Scrub National Park.
We were looking forward to our visit to Mount Surprise. On our last trip we were given a little surprise of our own when we came across a seed spray machine on the side of the road, which washed our vehicle as we drove through.. not once, but 5 times, and now we were hoping to give Harry Hilux a good clean underneath and get some more of the stubborn red mud off… but nooooo, it wasn’t going to happen this visit. Much to our disappointment it was all closed up and looked like it had been for some time!!
Leaving Mount Surprise we headed for Georgetown. The scenery was changing yet again and it was now becoming a lot drier with hardly a tree to be seen. Black cockatoos were in abundance, hundreds of them flying in formation making a horrible squawking noise as they passed overhead. Along this stretch of the development road we crossed many one lane bridges and pulled over for many roadtrains… we really didn’t want to argue with these monster trucks much bigger than us!
92 kilometres further on we came to Georgetown, a sleepy little town situated on the Etheridge River, which like most rivers up this way, this time of year, was as dry as a bone.
This is the administrative hub for Etheridge Shire and owes its existence to the gold found in 1870 when it was once a busy town with 13 hotels, 4 stores, 4 butcher shops and several hundred miners, mostly Europeans and some Chinese. The ‘Cobb and Co’ also passed through here from the coast, which I am sure, must have been a very long, dusty and rough ride for everyone.
This area was first known as ‘Poor Man’s Goldfield’ because gold nuggets could be picked up from the ground without expensive equipment, not that they had any in those days. The ‘TerrEstrial Centre’ in the centre of town, contained one of the most comprehensive collections of these minerals and gemstones found in Australia; topaz, quartz, spinel, garnet, aquamarine and sapphires and was well worth a visit.
20 kilometres out of Georgetown we made camp at the historic Cumberland Chimney, the remains of a tin mine set up by Cornish miners in the 1800s.
Shy Brahmin cattle wandered in and out of our campsite and beside the chimney was a large lagoon covered with waterlilies, a bird watchers paradise!
It was a huge free camp that stretched out around the lagoon, and although a bit of a hike to the amenities, we camped down near the original dam wall that still holds the water back to form the lagoon.
Heading off the next morning our next stop was Croydon. We were really looking forward to a nice refreshing swim at Lake Belmore and then a nice warm shower. The development road we followed was fairly good with a couple of long sections of two-way highway, interspersed between the single-lane bitumen. The countryside we drove through was true outback with the red dirt, blue skies, huge termite mounds and scrub trees and we couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like after the wet season.
Croydon is the end of the line for the Gulflander railway line from Normanton and has quite a history involving gold mining with lots of memorabilia at the ‘True Blue Information Centre’.
The most striking thing about Croydon was the historical precinct with heritage gas lanterns in the streets and buildings from the late 1800s, many with historical displays. The old Club hotel, built in 1887 was still operating as was the Croydon General Store, built in 1894 and the oldest still operating in Queensland… a step back in time with shelves high and full of stock and good old fashion customer service.
Heading out of town we passed the Chinese temple dig site then continued on for a swim at Lake Belmore. About 4 kilometres from town this picnic area was an ideal spot to pull in for a cuppa and a warm shower but any ideas of a quick swim were soon squashed when we were told not to stand in one spot too long as there were flesh eating mud mites that lived in the mud surrounding the lake. This lake is the town water supply and it was really lovely with clean amenities, but the water level in the lake was quite low compared to last time we visited… hence the mud mites!
Only 24 kilometres short of Normanton was another great camping ground on private property beside Leichhardt Lagoon. This campground was set in a very scenic setting, all-be-it a trifle dusty in places, but we weren’t complaining, we liked it dusty! It had very clean septic dunnies (although occasionally very sensitive and easily upset), and hot showers (untreated tap water from the lagoon), with little resident green frogs… all surrounded by very colourful tin sheds… and for us, quite luxurious ‘bush camping’!
This low-cost campground at $16 a night, is part of a small station where the owners allow people to camp beside the lagoon from April through to September each year.. and as an added bonus if you are there on a weekend, each Saturday night they organise a 3 course dinner at the homestead for a nominal price per head… from memory I think it was around $6.00pp!
Upon arrival the caretaker stipulated that there was to be absolutely NO WATER ACTIVITIES (so that ruled out any swimming for us!), and we even have to sign a waiver to say that we wouldn’t hold the owners of the property responsible for any injury or death associated with our stay… there were, according to their signs, crocodiles and snakes… not to mention other nasties I’m sure.
We camped here for two nights before heading back to civilisation and it was here we met fellow Tasmanians… welcome to our blog Carole and Martin and your friends Vicki and Singh and Lisa and Steve.
It was also here we locked our keys in our canopy, along with all our worldly possessions in the car; thank heavens for new friends, and thank heavens for McGyver!
Luckily we had access to our rooftop tent, but it was a very restless night as we tossed and turned working out a way to solve our problem. When daylight finally broke and we were able to borrow a tool set from Steve, McGyver set about the task of retrieving the keys from the back of the canopy.
First he cut a nice piece of wire from a fence, then unscrewed the vent in the canopy and from the open window in the rooftop tent manovoured the hooked piece of wire through the vent zigging and zagging over boxes and camp gear until he came to the first hurdle, the towels we used as dust seals on the rear doors. Aptly guided by me holding a torch to the rear window it didn’t take long before we were both sitting down to a nice cuppa and our brekkie!
Lesson number 1... do not lock the car and leave the canopy open then forget the keys are sitting on the back drawers and lock up for the night! Lesson number 2… always have a spare key that can be accessed easily should we be so forgetful again!
Aside from our little mishap, this really was a beautiful campground. The lagoon was alive with bird life; sea eagles, cormorants, cranes, pelicans, black swans and ducks to name a few. We could constantly hear the chatter and honking of magpie geese… and of course there were signs everywhere to warn of crocs! We enjoyed amazing sunsets from the viewing platform overlooking the lily covered lagoon and we sat around a campfire of a night. We walked to the Weir and the Norman River, which provides Normanton and Karumba with their water and is a popular fishing spot with the campers and we went on a ‘croc hunt’ along the muddy banks of the river after being told of a huge saltie named ‘Bismark’ who inhabits the area, and although we didn’t spot him, we did see lots of little freshies basking in the sun on the banks of the waterholes. Of a night we fell asleep to the humming of generators and the sounds of what seemed like hundreds of galahs as they settled in the trees for the night. It was such a magic location and I would highly recommend this campground!
Continuing along the dusty red road we knew we were in far north Queensland when we came across a sign that read ‘WELCOME TO CARPENTARIA’… we had finally reached the ‘GULF’.
Driving to Normanton the landscape was just kilometre after kilometre of flat bush for as far as the eye could see, we travelled through dry bushland, with lots of red earth and wide open spaces stretching out in front of us… much the same we had driven through over the past week, we dodged goats and a couple of wild pigs that ran across the road ahead of us, obviously with a death wish and massive kites circled above or feasted on road kill.
Heading through Normanton we passed the replica of ‘Krys the Savannah King’ a reproduction of the original croc that was shot here in 1957 and who, at 8.63m long, with a girth of 4 metres and weighing approximately 2 tonnes, is the world’s largest recorded captured saltwater crocodile.
Normanton is on the Norman River and was first established as a town by William Landsborough when it became the port for the Croydon Gold Rush. There were still numerous old buildings around the town, which dated back to the early settlement and of course the iconic Purple Pub. We only stopped to stock up on supplies at the supermarket then we headed out of town and pulled in just over the other side of the river for a cuppa and to use up some of our internet data before we lost it as we had been out of range for so long.
Making tracks again, we then headed 79 kilometres northwest of Normanton across the flood plains to the even more remote town of Karumba, situated at the mouth of the Norman River and on the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is the only beach in the Gulf Savannah serviced by a sealed road, which only closes sometimes during in the wet season when it floods! The temperature was in the mid 30s, the sun was high in the sky and we were surrounded by red dirt as we drove along, our trip only broken by the heat haze on the road ahead, cattle grazing by the unfenced roadside and groups of brolgas, then before we knew it we had arrived.
Looking at the map I was suddenly aware just how far away from home we really were!
The name ‘Karumba’ is believed to be an aboriginal word meaning ‘spirit of an old man’ and there are no aboriginals in Karumba, because of this spirit!
Famous for its prawn and barramundi industry Karumba is also a fisherman’s heaven and judging by the number of 4WDs and boats in the very large boat parking bay opposite the caravan park… it seemed everyone drove a top of the line Toyota Landcruiser up here and everyone owned a boat!
And of course Mother Nature never disappoints! Karumba certainly has spectacular sunsets, as well as on occasion, the amazing rare cloud formation phenomenon known as the ‘Morning Glory‘, that can only be viewed in the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Gulf of Mexico. The ‘Glory’ is usually seen in the spring months when the ocean temperature is generally cool and the land temperature warm and goes through Karumba before dawn, arriving shortly after first light in the Burketown area. This spectacular rolling clouds travels at up to 60 kilometres per hour and extends as far as the eye can see and although we didn’t get to see it this visit, we did last time we were here… and it was certainly worth getting up for!
The first night we arrived, Sunset Caravan Park was so full we couldn’t get a site until the following night, so we set up camp behind the ‘Point Fuel Service Station’. At only $20 a night this was a great spot too with lovely clean amenities… and very crowded, with lots of campers set up for a long stay.
After organising ourselves for the night we set off on our bikes and headed across the gravel track that links the town of Karumba with the point. The town is actually divided into two parts; one half (the main town) is on the Norman River and the other half, Karumba Point, is the end of the road at the mouth of the river and the Gulf of Carpentaria.
We had been here before so we knew what to expect when we arrived in town, just the basics; a tiny supermarket, a butcher, a hairdresser, a caravan park, a medical clinic and not a lot more… but for us it was more the enjoyment of riding across the now dried up wetlands through a beautiful landscape of mangroves and dusty, dry grassland… despite the fact we both got a flat tyre from the rather nasty three corner jack thorns which meant another trip into town… and would you believe it, in the tiny town of Karumba the service station actually sold ‘puncture resistant tubes’ especially designed for these tracks, at a mere $8 for two… a bargain (but we think the guy got the price wrong)!!
Next day we packed up and moved into the Sunset Caravan Park, our home for the next 4 nights. We had stayed here before and it truly is a tropical paradise in amongst the palm trees… we loved it here and it did not disappoint this time either!
We spent each day riding our bikes in the 30+ degree heat along the 4 kilometre wetlands path to the public swimming pool at Karumba township.
Mudflats, wetlands and meandering saltwater tidal estuaries surround Karumba and are the natural habitat of saltwater crocodiles. From November to April, in the wet season, when these wetlands come alive, they attract not only crocs but also a variety of birdlife including brolgas, pelicans and jabirus.
Sunset Caravan Park was such a crowded park compared to the last time we were here in early Novermber of 2012 when we practically had a choice of campsites.
It seems that every year a group of ‘glamping grey nomads’, usually from the southern states, pack their bags and houses on wheels, hop in their 4WDs and go on a road trip to Queensland in search of a warmer climate… and it seemed many had arrived here in Karumba, some who have been coming back year after year for a number of years!
I say ‘glamping’, as the majority of these nomads make their journeys in style with vans furnished with hot showers, fully equipped kitchens, washing machines and large beds… not like us ‘bush campers’, where our humble abode is a much-loved rooftop tent, a trangia for cooking, a bucket and plunger to wash clothes, a camp shower (a black plastic bag full of water with a nozzle attached that does the job perfectly), and our trusty spade and fold up toilet seat for emergencies… or in some cases an adventure wee behind a tree when there are no amenities available… and we wouldn’t have it any other way!
At low tide we walked the beach across amazing shelves of shells cemented into the sand through some natural process, we crossed the mudflats through the mangroves and watched strange but amazing hand fish make their way across the flats then disappear out of sight, we stood on the shore and watched amazing sunsets and met some wonderful people… welcome to our blog Dee and Aaron!
We rode our bikes along the shore line into town and followed the history trail… the port of Karumba was originally a refuelling and repair stop for the ‘Empire Flying Boats’ and also supported a WWII ‘Catalina Flying Boat’ base for the RAAF with some buildings still standing.
After an amazing few days at Karumba we retraced our route back through Normanton. We hadn’t stopped on our way up but this time we pulled over for a photo of the ‘Big Barra’, the closest we will ever come to catching one of these things in the gulf, and to check the condition of the gravel road across the Gulf Savannah we were about to travel, at the Tourist Information Centre… and did the young Aboriginal guy behind the counter know his stuff. He was amazing and was able to tell us almost to the metre, exactly where every bump, water crossing or bulldust section would be!!
Over the next few months we will traverse three Australian states and territories, lots of national parks and true-blue Australian outback on our incredible drive from one side of the continent to the other.
This next step of this journey would take us across 1350 kilometres of gravel road through the Gulf Savannah, over rugged outback tracks and water crossings, through Aboriginal communities and into the Northern Territory as we pass though Burketown, Tirranna Roadhouse, Doomadgee, Hells Gate Road House, Borroloola, Limmen National Park, Lorella Springs, Roper Bar and then back onto the Stuart Highway at Mataranka.
We love having you on our road trip… so be sure to follow more adventures via our blog page… www.tassiesnowbirds.com
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