This is fair dinkum country, far beyond the squared pavements of the coastal cities; so remote, so devoid of the clamours of urban society that the weight of the sky falls heavily on the eyes and you can almost hear the bark peeling off the trees. In essence, you become part of the minimalist landscape. The small former mining towns out here have little more than a pub and a few houses, but the landscapes are incomparable sweeping grass plains, scrubby forest and intricate networks of seasonal rivers and tidal creeks that drain into the Gulf of Carpentaria. There are just two seasons that define Savannah life: the Wet (December to April) and the Dry (May to November).
Savannah ‘stock’ are laconic and generous people who don’t hesitate to wave to travellers driving around with self-sufficiency on their towbars. Indeed, driving is the best way to see the Gulf Savannah but don’t expect a gentle meander through the suburbs during the Wet, dirt roads turn to muck and sealed roads can be flooded, and mobile phone service is unreliable at best. This is Australia’s quintessential outback, a true frontier, which also just happens to have some of the planet’s best fishing and enviable weather for six months of the year. For more information visit www.savannahway.com.au
Getting there and around
(13 13 13) has services travelling between Cairns and Normanton, Burketown and Mornington Island; and between Mt Isa and Normanton and Burketown.
(1300 4739 46863, 07-4036 9250; www.transnorthbus.com
) runs a service from Cairns to Karumba via the Tablelands and onto Mt Surprise, Georgetown, Croydon, Blackbull and Normanton. This service departs Cairns on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays at 6.30am, arriving in Karumba at 6.15pm. The Karumba to Cairns service operates on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday departing at 6.30am and arriving at Cairns at 6.15pm.
Car and motorcycle
There are two main roads into the Gulf region. The Savannah Way (or Gulf Developmental Rd) takes you from the Kennedy Hwy, south of the Atherton Tableland, across to Normanton on 450km of sealed road. The Burke Developmental Rd (Matilda Hwy) runs north from Cloncurry to Normanton (378km sealed) via the Burke & Wills Roadhouse, but it’s mostly single-lane traffic and driving requires good concentration. Road trains (the length of 10 cars) have right of way that means you pull on to the shoulder of the road and, if necessary, stop. Pick up a copy of outback Queensland: Survive the Drive
) at visitor information centres for more information.
Other Savannah roads are unsealed so seek advice on road conditions, fuel stops and what to carry with you (plenty of water!). The RACQ (1300 130 595; www.racq.com.au; cnr Mulgrave Rd & Aplin St) in Cairns is an excellent source of information.
The Queensland Rail
(1300 131 722) Gulflander connects Normanton and Croydon (economy seat $58, 3½ hours) each Wednesday at 8.30am (arriving in Croydon at 1.30pm) and returns every Thursday at the same time. This service operates from early February to early December (weather permitting).
The historic Savannahlander conducts four-day tours (07-4036 9250, 4036 9341; www.savannahlander.com.au) along its traditional route from Cairns to Forsayth between March and mid-December (weather permitting) with coach connections to Chillagoe, Undara Lava Tubes and Cobbold Gorge. Rates vary depending on the accommodation and tours you book so, call for details.
The Savannah Way
Undara Volcanic National Park
The massive Undara lava tubes the world’s longest molten rock tunnels, running up to 160km underground are one of inland Queensland’s most fascinating natural attractions. They were formed around 190,000 years ago following a three-month eruption of a single shield volcano. The massive lava flows drained towards the sea, following the routes of ancient river beds, and while the surface of the lava cooled and hardened, hot lava continued to race through the centre of the flows, eventually leaving enormous basalt tubes.
You may only visit the tubes with Savannah Guides
(08-8985 3890; www.savannah-guides.com.au
), who run full-day tours (adult/child $100/50 including lunch), half-day tours ($65/35) and two-hour introductory tours ($35/17), from the lodge.
Undara to Croydon
The side trips to tiny towns are what make this stretch across the Savannah woodland so memorable. Mt Surprise is 319km south west of Cairns and 393km east of Normanton on the Gulf Development Rd; here you’ll find the region’s oldest building, the Old Post Office Museum
(07-4062 3126; adult/child $2/50c), which has a small and quirky display of local history items. This is also a centre for gem fossicking, and local businesses can give you tips, tools and a licence to dig for the semi-precious stones.
You can take the 150km Explorers’ Loop southwest from Mt Surprise to the old gold-mining townships of Einasleigh and Forsayth. Spectacular Cobbold Gorge is 45km south of Forsayth, but can only be explored on a guided day with Cobbold Gorge Tours (1800 669 922, 07-4062 5470; www.cobboldgorge.com.au; day tour adult/child $110/55). Tours include a boat cruise, agate fossicking, croc spotting, barbecue lunch and swimming.
The loop finishes at Georgetown (population 300), back on the Savannah Way. There are several places to stay, two supermarkets, a good bakery, a public swimming pool (free entry), fuel, and mechanical and tyre repairs. There’s internet access at the Terrestrial Centre (07-4062 1485; www.etheridge.qld.gov.au; Low St; adult/child/concession $10/3/8; 8am-5pm Apr-Sep, 8.30am-4.30pm Mon-Fri Oct-Mar), which also has information on Mt Surprise, Einasleigh and Forsayth. Internet is $4 an hour.
For a while there in the 1880s, everything you touched turned to gold in Croydon. Once the ‘Vegas’ of the Gulf Savannah, it was crammed with bars and 8000 budding millionaires but the riches ran dry towards the end of WWI and the town became a shadow of its former self.
Croydon’s information centre (4745 6125; cnr Samwell & Aldridge Sts; 8am-5pm Mon-Fri Nov-Mar), museum, craft shop and internet cafe ($2.50 per 30 minutes) are housed in the historic police station alongside several other restored buildings. The centre conducts one-hour walking tours (4745 6125; adult/child $5.50/free; tours 8am, 10am, 2pm & 4pm).
Normanton to Northern Territory
While driving the unsealed, isolated, dusty stretch from Normanton to the NT, keep in mind that mad, ill-equipped explorers such as the doomed Burke and Wills walked
twice these distances in summer. You can visit Camp 119
, the northernmost camp of their wretched 1861 expedition. Its signposted 37km west of Normanton.
If you make it to Burketown, give yourself a clap. European settlers were no match for this feisty place and died in droves; check out the cemetery. These days, it’s a favourite hangout for cattle and travellers who have read Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice, part of which is set here. From late September to early November you can see the extraordinary natural phenomenon known as ‘Morning Glory’ incredible tubular cloud formations extending the full length of the horizon that roll in from the Gulf of Carpentaria early morning. It only occurs here and in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Doomadgee Aboriginal Community (07-4745 8188), 93km west of Burketown, has a retail area and welcomes visitors, but village access is at the discretion of the community council. Further along is Hell’s Gate, the last outpost of police protection for settlers heading north to Katherine in pioneer times. It was the scene of many ambushes as indigenous Australians tried to stop their lands being overrun.
Burketown to Camooweal
You may not have planned a stop at Gregory Downs
, but chances are you’ll find the pristine Gregory River, its banks covered in luxuriant, ancient rainforest, too beautiful to pass by. It’s 117km south of Burketown on the sealed Wills Developmental Rd, which becomes the Gregory Downs Camooweal Rd. Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park is a two-hour drive inland from here on a mostly well-graded, unsealed road.
The friendly Gregory Downs Hotel (07-4748 5566; firstname.lastname@example.org; s/d $75/85), at the main turn-off to Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, has motel-style units and fuel. It’s possible to camp free on the riverbank, but there are no amenities.
Billy Hangers General Store (07-4748 5540; 8am-6pm Jun-Oct), opposite the pub, is crammed with goodies.
Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park
In arid country some 100km west of Gregory Downs lies this prehistoric oasis of gorges, ancient rainforest, crystal-clear green waters, creeks and tropical vegetation that indigenous Australians have enjoyed for perhaps 30,000 years. Remains of their paintings and camp sites are everywhere, and you can visit two rock-art sites.
In the southern part of the park is the World Heritagelisted Riversleigh Fossil Field. Some of the fossils are up to 25 million years old and include everything from giant snakes to carnivorous kangaroos.
Getting there and away
The national park is 100km west of Gregory Downs, although the easiest route for 2WD vehicles is to come via the Burke & Wills Roadhouse. If you’re coming from Mt Isa, the last 230km after you leave the Barkley Hwy are unsealed and often impassable after rain, and a 4WD vehicle is necessary.
Campbell’s Tours & Travel (07-4743 2006; www.campbellstravel.com.au) in Mt Isa do a three-day safari (adult/child $660/330) out to Boodjamulla and Riversleigh on Tuesday and Friday (April to October), with accommodation and meals provided at Adels Grove.