Over the next few months we will traverse 4 Australian states and the Northern Territory, travel through lots of National Parks and conquer the true-blue Australian outback on our incredible drive from one side of this continent to the other… and back.
Today we start another epic adventure into the unknown… a journey into Australia’s past, where courageous explorers and persevering Australian bushmen and women opened up this country. Our journey will take us to remote Burketown, Tirranna Roadhouse, Doomadgee, Hells Gate Road House, Borroloola, Limmen National Park, Lorella Springs, Roper Bar and then back on to the Stuart Highway to Mataranka.
The Savannah Way can be completed by choosing a number of different routes but the track we have chosen to tackle over the next week will take us along the toughest route of all… a 1350 kilometre rugged outback track full of bulldust, corrugations, water crossings and Aboriginal communities in the most isolated part of northern Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Like Cape York, the roads along the ‘Gulf Track’ are very corrugated and at times very sandy, and we knew the air pressure we ran in our tyres was very important. Ideally, when on sandy and rocky terrain, tyres should be much lower than for normal bitumen, and for us the magic figure was 24 PSI on the front and the rear, which proved to be just right… for safety as well as fuel economy!
We were both excited about heading across this remote part of the country and as it was my turn to drive first up, I started off around 80 kilometres per hour and soon settled into the drive with the speed gradually creeping up to 85-90… thus acquiring the title of ‘lead foot’.
You have to have your wits about you on these roads with the many bends and dips (many not signposted), which makes it difficult to see any vehicles coming from the other direction, the only indication something is approaching being the large dust ploom ahead!
Around 39 kilometres west of Normanton we pulled into Burke and Wills last camp, ‘Camp 119’. On February 9, 1861 the ill-fated explorers left this camp on the Little Bynoe River to make a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria in order to become the first Europeans to cross Australia from south to north, and this adventure certainly made them very famous… albeit for all the wrong reasons!
It was from this camp that their party launched its last attempt at reaching the Gulf but when unable to travel through the mangroves only 5 kilometres short of completing their mission they were forced to returned to Camp 119. Without food and water they had no choice but to retrace their steps south in an attempt to reach civilisation, but through unfortunate circumstances and poor leadership, both men died on the return journey. Only one of their party, King, ended up surviving.
Walking out to the monument in 37-degree heat with full water bottles, comfortable shoes and the knowledge that we could return to an air condition car, was a blatant reminder of just how tough these pioneers did it out here in these unforgiving surrounding with the only reminder of their existence, a memorial, a few trees that had ‘blazes’, or marks made by the party and a sapling that now grew in the place of the ‘Dig Tree’ where provisions had once been buried, with instructions to ‘dig’ carved into the trunk of the tree, in the remote chance of Burke and Wills’ return.
It is amazing who you meet on the road, and it was here at Camp 119, in this remote area of Queensland, we came across a contingent of ‘Variety Bash’ cars and their very friendly crew! This procession of pre-1980s cars, decorated for all occasions, had driven across parts of rural and outback Australia with their next destination, Normanton… and just to put you in the picture I have researched a little history on how this bash started from my good friend ‘google’…
… the term ‘bashing’, probably short for bush-bashing, was used in 1985 by businessman, adventurer and philanthropist, Dick Smith, when, along with a few mates, he set off on a drive to the outback in his 1964 EH Holden, which he had purchased for about $800 second-hand. Equipped with a surfboard on the roof-rack and hundreds of kilometres from any surfable waves, he was joined by 52 other vehicles and around 200 participants All vehicles had to be built pre June 1966 and not have any performance modifications and as those were the days before mobile or satellite phones we would hope they had their own crew of mechanics along for the ride!
This drive was eventually called the ‘Bourke to Burketown Bash’ and went from Sydney to Bourke, in far western NSW, and then on to Burketown here in far north Queensland. All the ‘Bashes’ now go to and from places in Australia, which start with the letter ‘B’, passing through lots of other towns along the way… but amid all this fun and colour is a much more serious cause – raising money for the ‘Variety’ children’s charity.
I have alway thought of Dick Smith as the hero of the day. He has worked hard for his place in life, contributed so much to his country and always donated to worthy charities! Just putting smiles back on the faces of sick and disadvantaged children and those with special needs, I couldn’t think of a more worthy and entertaining cause than this annual ‘Bash’!
Leaving ‘Camp 119’, we continued on along a well-formed dirt road crossing grassy savannahs with not a hill and hardly a tree to be seen… just grassy plains of uninterrupted horizon and a shimmering reflective haze before us.
A few hours later after negotiating corrugations, a few sandy sections and a couple of river and creek crossings we rolled into a lovely free camp at Leichhardt Falls, a bit over 70 kilometres from Burketown, on the almost dry Leichhardt River.
Approaching the river we crossed a long causeway that took us over the rocky base of the mostly dry river, then following a dirt track we drove out over a rocky plateau stretching over an area with lots of campers dotted throughout, obviously a very popular overnight camping spot and also a good place to park and explore the river and falls.
Standing looking towards the falls and the width of the rock bed we could only imagine what this river would be like in full flood. The falls were just a trickle at this time of the year but it was still a pretty amazing place with the river bed of sand banks and paperbark and other shrubs on higher slopes. An amazing display of brolgas, obviously awaiting the start of the wet season, also greeted us.
Be warned though… if you are planning on setting up camp here, crocs are most certainly found on the top of these falls as well as below, so don’t go camping right on the water’s edge! And remember… NO SWIMMING no matter what anyone tells you! If there are croc signs, there are crocs but obviously the young couple splashing in the shallows couldn’t read!
We had already decided not to camp here as it was just a bit too crowded for us. Aside from this there were no amenities, not a lot of trees and the ground was too hard to dig… so after a cuppa and a walk to the crater like hole where water fell over the edge down into the river, we headed to Burketown.
We were told the best part of the road from here on into Burketown was bitumen so we sat back and enjoyed the savannah country rolling by in the comfort of a smooth ride.
Coming into the remote town the first sign we saw was ‘Welcome to Burketown, the Barramundi capital of Australia’ and surprisingly enough not the first town we had driven through that had this ‘claim to fame’… and I guess it will not be the last!
Burketown was a pleasant surprise as we were not expecting much, but it was a lovely little town with a few houses, a couple of shops, a caravan park, a nice little park, a police station, a school, a pub, a big council depot and, surrounded by shady trees, a great Visitor Information Centre, which was a good place to start our tour of the town. There was also the Burketown artesian hot spring that we were really looking forward to soaking in… but instead it turned out to be a mini volcano, spewing out mineral rich boiling hot water, so hot we could have made a cuppa!
Burketown is on the Albert River, 25 kilometres from the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Established in 1865 it is the Gulfs oldest town with companies such as the Dutch East India Traders Company established here. Immigrants chasing gold, pastoral pioneers, cattle drovers and cattle rustlers all mingled with, and were kept under the watchful eye of the mounted police in this pioneer outpost… that was until a number of tragedy’s struck.
In 1866, ‘Gulf Fever’ forced the evacuation of the town and after re-establishment in 1882, the river silted up and changed its course, effectively putting Burketown (the Port for the Gulf), on an un-navigable watercourse.
Today Burketown survives mostly as a service centre for the pastoral industry and during the dry season attracts lots of ‘southerners’ who migrate here as a base for chasing Barra.
Burketown is also the other place on the Gulf to witness the phenomenon of the ‘Morning Glory’. We had witnessed a ‘Glory’ in Karumba a few years back and it really was worth getting up early for, just to see this peculiar cloud formation roll in out of the Gulf very early in the morning.It was an amazing experience and a little eerie… just before the cloud we experienced really strong winds then just as quickly as it came in, it had gone, rolling off into the distance. Apparently it rolls through Karumba before making its way on to Burketown.
That night we pulled in at the boat ramp, 25 kilometres from town on the Gulf of Carpentaria and it didn’t take us long to figure out that things weren’t working too well in the ablutions department, in fact they were non-existent with a wire fence surrounding them. Not really sure if we were meant to be camping here, and reluctant to move on as it was late in the day, we set up camp anyway and made the decision that should the need arise, we would make a rushed trip back into town…other than that it was an adventure wee under the cover of darkness!
Just 10 other nomad vans had set up for the evening (obviously self-contained), many having been to this area a number of times, so consequently we spent some time chatting and collecting information and making notes on things to see and do and campgrounds to stay at. It is at these camps where we usually picked up the best travel tips and advice and it was this information, from kindred spirits, that was worth a million brochures.
When the last generator turned off later that night, we settled down to enjoy the solitude and silence. We had watched a beautiful sunset from the boat ramp that evening as we watched fisherman coming and going. Our plan was to be out early the next morning!
Directly north and approximately 30 kilometres off the coast of Burketown is Sweers Island. Sweers is mostly famous for fishing but has a lovely resort, golden beaches, forests, mangroves and rocky cliffs to explore.
It also has a rich history where you can walk in the footsteps of the traditional owners, the Kaiadilt people. It was named in 1802 by Matthew Flinders during his voyage of circumnavigation, in honour of Cornelius Sweers, one of the councillors of Batavia, who had originally authorised Abel Tasman’s journey of 1644. In the mid-1860s, the little town of Carnarvon was established on the island as an alternative to Burketown, mostly to support shipping and communication through the area but it also drew settlers away from Burketown during the major outbreak of Gulf fever.
Leaving Burketown the next morning we kissed the grasslands goodbye and said hello to the scrubby savannah woodland that kept us company for quite a way. We passed the turnoff to Gregory Downs then about 27 kilometres from Burketown we passed Tirrana Roadhouse sitting on the shores of the Gregory River. We were told it had a lovely campground with good clean amenities, which would be a handy place for a stop over at $10 a night.
It took us a couple of hours to do the 60 kilometres to Doomadgee and as we approached the causeway we came to a big sign warning of alcohol prohibition, then came the pile of litter, it lay everywhere on the sides of the road… mounds of cans glittering in the sun along with other rubbish strewn around, then beyond the sign the area was clear again.
On the far banks of the Nicholson River was the large Aboriginal community of Doomadgee. The Waanyi and Gangalidda people are recognised as the Traditional Owners for this surrounding region.
Crossing the causeway it was easy to see the river bed was home to quite a few Aboriginal families with little shanties set up along the rock edges, then we came to Doomadgee Roadhouse. In the middle of nowhere this little mini mart obviously serviced the surrounding communities that were not visible from the main highway.
Doomadgee is an Aboriginal Community that was originally set up on the coast by Missionaries, but after a cyclone in 1936 it was moved to its present location on the Nicholson River. Apparently it has had a very colourful and violent past, which would explain why people told us to drive straight through and not to stop!
The book ‘The Tall Man’ by Chloe Hooper is well worth a read. It is the story of Palm Island, the tropical paradise north of Townsville in Cleveland Bay, where one morning Cameron Doomadgee swore at a policeman and forty minutes later lay dead in a watch-house cell… a story of where two worlds clash!
With towns much more spaced out, we had been doing a lot of driving. That is to say, I was doing the driving most of the time while Guy navigated… with a sure hold on the hand grips! Either you love driving these rough, bumpy roads or you don’t… and I was loving it with Guy actually not getting a look in for most of this journey!
There was really no way of getting away from all the corrugations and it was hard to find the optimum speed to handle them and make the ride a little smoother… too slow was a really bumpy ride and the faster we went over the actual surface of the corrugations meant the less control… then came the bulldust and long sandy stretches so our speed varied continually from anything between 20 – 80 kilometres.
We really had to concentrate harder and watch for those unpredictable dips (where they forgot to put the warning signs up), and braking hard was out of the question… but the good news was, the road didn’t get any worse, and although it was consistently corrugated with the monotony only broken by the numerous creek and river crossings we really enjoyed the ride!
Hell’s Gate Roadhouse eventually appeared. This remote roadhouse is quite well-known and sits on the edge of the Barkly Tablelands and we were really looking forward to pulling in for a break and reading about its bloody history that gave this famous landmark its name.
This remote roadhouse sits on the dusty roadside looking out towards a silent airstrip. A witty sign reads the ‘International and Domestic Airport’ and as we pulled in to refuel we realise we weren’t completely on our own as a number of rogue cows gazed at us somewhat inquisitively… so this was what ‘Hell’s Gate‘ looks like!
This part of the Savannah Way or ‘Coast Track’, follows the path of cattle drovers of the late 19th century as they moved herds from north-west Queensland to stock the new stations of the Northern Territory and the Kimberley. The drovers followed a well-worn Aboriginal path, but with this activity came confrontation. The local tribes, which once occupied this land, became displaced and defeated and over a single decade entire tribes of men, women, children and babies were massacred by police, drovers and station workers of that era.
The name ‘Hell’s Gate’ comes from the small gap in the escarpment through which the road passes just south of the roadhouse. It originated from these early days of settlement of the Gulf, when a 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.
In those days, travellers were on foot, or at best mounted on horses. There were no 4WD’s, mobile phones or two-way radios, and added to this, these remote lands were largely unexplored and very dangerous and I’m sure for many, including the Aboriginals (who had been the sole occupants of this land for so long), it would have seemed the ‘gateway through hell’.
The Hell’s Gate portal was actually a pass across bumpy low hills about 1 kilometre down the road and it was then a further 54 kilometres before we finally left Queensland behind and crossed into the Northern Territory, setting our watches back 30 minutes.
A big sign with the familiar bird flying into a big red sunset greeted us with a big welcome message and looking behind to the Queensland side there was a much smaller sign, faded and old, stating to those that were travelling in the opposite direction that they were ‘Welcome to Queensland – Burke Shire’!
With a change in states, also came a change in road conditions and the corrugations went from bad, to worse, to sandy, rocky and very bumpy. The termite mounds changed from short, round and fat to slender, tall and pointy, and on one side of the road there are hundreds of mounds standing on desolate, black ground where fires still smouldered. The other side of the road was bushy and dry!
The road in places resembled more of a track than a road and we were seeing some really isolated and amazing parts of this country. The river and creek crossing were more frequent, each one unique and although the stations were few and far between we knew we were in big cattle country as there were literally hundreds of head of Brahman cattle grazing around the water holes or at the water crossings. As we reached one water crossing a magnificent Brahman bull stood just to the side, so close that we could have touched him from the open window. I quickly pulled to the side of the track and grabbed the camera to get a couple of snaps.
It was dry and dusty country and you could see a vehicle coming from kilometres off by the trail of red dust it left behind! You wouldn’t want to visit these parts unless you were prepared to get really dirty and we were covered in red dust from head to toe. Each time we got out of the car we would inevitably brush the side of the car or be engulfed in red dust by a passing car. We were eating it and sleeping in it… it was in every nook and cranny and our once clean car, well it was no longer clean!
There were big dips descending into some of the crossings, which were very steep, and only one wide river warranted a walk to the other side to check the depth, the Robinson. Mindful of any crocs that may be lurking we were thankful of the crystal clear water and although a little deeper in places, the crossing wasn’t too bad.
Signs warned of dips but in some places they were only a small bump, others that didn’t have signs, were on us before we knew it, but luckily we were going slow enough to slow down quickly.
With bowsers few and far between we were pleased to pull into Borroloola as we were starting to run low on fuel but it was also nice to book into a caravan park and wash some of the red dust off!
Borroloola is an indigenous Community and one of the main destinations and service centre for travellers along this section of the Savannah Way… especially those wanting to do a little barra fishing, with King Ash Bay close by!
The town was founded on the site of Ludwig Leichardt’s crossing of the McArthur River and is one of Australia’s most isolated Communities in the Northern Territory. Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt, a Prussian scientist, is remembered for his long journey in 1844-1845 from the Darling Downs to Port Essington, an early settlement in the far north of the Northern Territory.
In the local Indigenous languages of Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Marra, Gudanji and Binbingka, Borroloola would be written as Burrulula and the name belongs to a small lagoon just to the east of the present day caravan park where we stayed.
At the turn of the century Borroloola was known as a ‘frontier town of total disrepute’ when drovers moving cattle between the Kimberleys and Western Queensland established a trade in rum smuggled from Thursday Island. This inevitably attracted some interesting characters and became known as a centre for criminals, murderers and alcoholics… a reputation it only lost when the town became a virtual ghost town in the 1930s.
Borroloola is now run by the Indigenous Community who operate the main supermarket, fuel stop and take away and had not been described to us as a fantastic place to stop. Keen to find out for ourselves, we rocked up at the local caravan park, set up camp on a dusty site overlooking the very dry McArthur River, then set off to explore with the supermarket our first port of call… and it says a lot for a place when the local shop sells t-shirts that say ‘Happiness is Borooloola in my rear vision mirror’!
There wasn’t a lot to do in this little community but we eventually obtained a key to the museum from the lady at the caravan park and read up on the town history. The Museum is housed in the old Police station and had some really interesting articles about the eccentrics the town attracted during the rum trade period, most with quite fascinating names like ‘Redbank Hermit’, ‘Death Adder’, ‘Freshwater Admiral’ and ‘Hermit of Borroloola’ otherwise known as Roger Jose. A curious character who was apparently the brother of the Dean of Adelaide and in 1916 he walked to Borroloola from Cunnamulla in Queensland. He lived in a shed at the rear of Tattersalls Hotel until a cyclone destroyed it in 1938 then he rolled a damaged 1000 gallon corrugated water tank from the hotel to a site on top of the hill and, with his Aboriginal companion, lived in it until his death in 1963.
Leaving Borroloola next morning we headed off along the Nathan River Road. We had stocked up on fuel and food for this journey as we knew there would be no services between Borroloola and Roper Bar. We had even started buying slabs of bottled water as we had been warned of the high mineral content in the water across the Top End!
180 kilometres along the road we came to the turnoff to Lorella Springs. So many people have told us we really should call in to this station as it was such a beautiful place… so we decided to drive the 30 kilometres off the main road to see for ourselves.
For the first couple of kilometres we dodged road works and from then on in the track was quite corrugated with sandy stretches, rocky patches and a water crossing.
To entertain us along the way we were accompanied by signs posted in trees, the first advertising ‘Ice cold beer’, not much further along ‘hot tea and coffee’, then ‘big screen tv’, and as we turned into the drive they become more comical ‘1,000,000 bumps to go’ and ‘are we there yet?’…
It was a beautiful campground and at $20 a person a night it was the ideal spot to set up camp for a couple of nights and check out the drives around the property.
There were no creature comforts out here (not that we were used to any), which was the best part for us. Happy hour was in a tin shed come licenced bar every evening at 5 o’clock, there was a workshop if you needed to do repairs on your vehicle and petrol at $3.00 per litre if you were desperate! The campground was really large with basic tin shed amenities, running water, donkey showers (heated by fire), a nudie camp on the far end of the campground, a beautiful escarpment to view the sunset, thermal springs to soak in and the freshest drinking water we had tasted (considering we had been drinking bottled water for some time)!
This was a massive wild adventure park for us. Located 15 degrees south of the equator it was certainly a unique cattle station with over 4,000 kilometres of virtually untouched coastline, river systems and waterways, huge chasms and gorges formed millions of years ago and over 50 thermal springs… and one of the most remote and most isolated cattle properties in Australia!
No matter which track we took we got to experience the amazing natural wilderness of the Gulf of Carpentaria; magic thermal springs, wildlife and bird life in their natural environment, challenging 4WD tracks to remote places on the station.
We rowed a little tinny up a croc infested river for a bit of croc spotting… however, we did quicken our pace just slightly after discussing the theory that crocs lay in wait and watch for days before striking!
We were hoping no one had paddled up this river recently (which was highly unlikely), and that there weren’t any hungry crocs around! And the drive out to the coast (Gulf), which is about 90 kilometres one way along really rough 4WD tracks was well worth it with camping at Rosies Camp.
We had to sign out every time we left on a drive, advising which direction we were going (we really had no idea!), and our estimated time back, (that also goes for camping out near the Gulf)… and if we didn’t come back, then they guaranteed us they would send out a search party! They had helicopters and planes so a search party was never very far away.
Even the animals on the property were relaxed… the emu thought he was a chook, and the chooks drank at the bar! It was amusing to see them lined up on a bar stool at ‘Happy Hour’ as if waiting for a beer!
But be warned… if you come to Lorella Springs it may be very different from how we have seen it! We were told by a road train driver that big changes were coming! Apparently a new road was being built to service a new mine and a camp to cater for 80-100 workers was to be built on the Lorella Springs property. The main highway and the tracks on the property are all to be upgraded and 19 bridges are planned to be built to accommodate the big machinery and trucks.
Bouncing back out the 30 kilometre drive way we reluctantly said goodbye to Lorella Springs and re-joining the Nathan River Road we headed for Limmen National Park.
We had heard so much about this National Park from a young couple we met at Chili Beach on the Cape York Peninsula who were tour guides and ran regular tours through this part of the country.
Much of this gulf country has only recently been included into a new National Park so we were expecting that many of the free camping spots we had been told about would now probably be ‘closed’ or ‘controlled’ by the parks. It was a beautiful part of the country and well worth the kilometre after kilometre of dirt road just to experience the amazing landscape.
Crossing the Nathan River we continued along a rocky and heavily corrugated road and then out of nowhere, bulldust holes suddenly appeared, so big they threatened to swallow us up if we dared to cross… and then they turned into sandy stretches of road. We crossed a few more river crossings, the Bight, Cox and Townes, as well as many creeks and other smaller rivers with not much water. A bit sad really as there was no challenge anymore!
This wild, remote and rugged national park has ‘lost city’ geological formations of spires and columns of stratified sandstone, great bushwalking tracks and we could swim at Butterfly Springs in the southern part of the park.
Our next stop was nearby Nathan River Ranger Station where we picked up the key to the locked gate, which would give us access to the 4WD track leading to the Western Lost City. This trip takes around 4 hours and the key must be collected between 7-10 am. 28 kilometres further on, after crossing a few rivers, including the Limmen Bight River we finally came to the ‘lost city’ and the car park.
The sandstone land forms were formed 1,500 million years ago when the land rose up from the sea and cracked open. Erosion over the years has widened the crack so that pillars and arches remain… very fragile looking rock columns of sandstone!
After returning the key it was time for lunch so we headed for the Southern Lost City just along the road. As we drove down the track toward the campground, we were confronted again with these amazing brick like rock formations not unlike the Bungle Bungles (see 2009 Aussie Trip), but taller and skinnier. After a cuppa and bite to eat, and in the heat of the day, we set off along a really well-marked trail, which took us through giant sandstone pillars before following a rocky ridge where we were privy to amazing views across a valley to the other lost city.
After emptying our water bottles at the top of the escarpment we then made our way back down through more pillars to the car park. The information board at the beginning of the walk told us the 2.5 kilometre circuit would take about 1½ hours to complete, but that really depends on how often you stop to take photos… and we stopped often.
We had contemplated camping here as there was a great campground but decided instead to move on to Butterfly Springs where there was a waterfall and pool in the middle of this very dry country fed by groundwater from the hills… and a beautiful place to spend the night and have a wash!
Butterfly Springs was a lovely campground where we had a choice of campsites. We set up camp under the rocky escarpment and had a lovely night camping in the National Park. Unlike Queensland National Parks, we didn’t have to pre-book here so we deposited our camp fees ($3.30 per person) in the box provided and set off to explore and cool off in the waterhole!
Nearby signs explained the flora and the fauna of the area and the swimming hole was magnificent although, at this time of year, the waterfall, which feeds the pool, was just a trickle. This didn’t stop us from donning our cossie and cooling off in the shallow water and although a tad cooler than the thermal pools at Lorella Springs, we had a lovely swim.
We swam a short distance to the falls where we watched a couple of large water monitors basking in the sun on the rock face then we swam to a nearby overhang to see where Butterfly Spring gets its name. Once disturbed there were literally 100s of butterflies (common crow butterflies) everywhere and they were wonderful… just a shame I didn’t have my camera!
More river and creek crossings, including the magnificent Limmen Bight River requiring another walk across to check the bottom and the depth! Here water cascaded over rocks and across the causeway to the smaller river on the other side and again we could only imagine what this river would be like in the wet.
Just a bit on was a great camp site with drop toilets, fire places and big tables… and although not mentioned in the camps book we certainly noted it in our book and marked it as a favourite on our CamperMate App!
We were now only 199 kilometres south of Roper Bar and our next destination was Tomato Island (Munbililla). 4 hours later, after a few stops, we pulled into this very popular campground at the north-western corner of the Limmen National Park on the Roper River.
This was a place where lots of campers congregate and stay for months at a time to fish for barramundi and it wasn’t any wonder it attracted such a large crowd… it had a resident caretaker, free gas barbeques, fire pits and a near new amenities block, better than most caravan parks we had stayed in, mobile reception from the tower located at the Ngukurr Aboriginal Community just across the river… and all for $6.30 each per night. The more up market the amenities in the National Parks, the more expensive the campground but this was 4 star camping compared to Borroloola Caravan Park at $25 a night.
The day had been very hot, probably one of the hottest we had yet and with all windows open in a desperate attempt for at least some breeze through the night we were surprised when we woke in the early hours of the morning to a damp rooftop tent and bedding… the campground and surrounding area was engulfed by fog and it was so surreal, yet quite amazing, to wake to a cooler morning this far north!
Now we all know that the Northern Territory is where Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee became a legend… well, there are more of these intriguing characters right here in this campground and when they start telling colourful yarns of their outback adventures, they never allow the truth to get in the way of a good story. We came across quite a few fun-loving Territorians who just wanted to have a joke … and they particularly loved to stir up the tourists especially with their crocodile stories – being that we were camped right on the Roper River! To some, these locals might seem a little rough around the edges, but let me tell you, if you ever need their help, they would give you the shirt of their back… or the fish out of their bucket!
We watched dinghy’s cruise in and unload their catch for the day while others launched from the boat ramp. 2 jabiru strutted along the edge oblivious to the commotion going on around them and while we sat and chatted to some fisherman a couple of brolgas flew overhead and landed on the opposite side of the river.
One of the things we loved about this remote area was that we had been a week without phone or internet and we had really settled in to reading books and relaxing! Kites soared in the sky, birds called from the trees and dragonflies buzzed around us as they darted backwards and forth across the water… and as we sat in the warm sun with the breeze coming in over the water (cooling for a change), and a book and a wine in our hand… I couldn’t think of anywhere else I would rather be at this very moment!
Leaving Tomato Island next morning, St Vidgeon Ruins was just up the road… just a few relics of an old building and sadly no sign to explain the history. Behind the ruins we followed a track that led to a magnificent lagoon covered in water lilies and bird life, Lomarieum Lagoon… another campground not mentioned in the camp book.
Along the next stretch of road as we made our way to Roper Bar we passed many great bush camping spots and a few discarded vehicles… the first we had seen on this remote road and probably not the last. Other than these, the traffic was non-existent, and still fuel was a long way between pumps.
Roper Bar is an historic crossing of the Roper River once used by drovers and bullock wagons moving supplies to stations in the area and now supplying a few communities including Ngukurr. Pulling in to the store we were surprised to find it had every conceivable item you could imagine; clothing and shoes, hardware, tools, food, magazines… you name it they had it! It was nothing more than a tin shed with a building attached and a camp ground at the back, a campground with a very basic amenities block, no power and an open air laundry area that had no washing machines but 4 troughs with 2 taps between them. At $10 each a night for the average person it wasn’t that cheap compared to the flash Tomato Island campground, but on the up side… it was half price for seniors!
Turning north at the Roper Bar intersection we headed along another narrow gravel road towards Ngukurr where we found a campground on the Roper River… again not in our camps book, it obviously another very popular place for keen fisherman, as it was full!
After heading back to the intersection we continued along the Roper Highway following the gravel road for another 30 kilometres before we hit a one lane sealed road for the final 160 kilometre dash to Mataranka… albeit quite a few road works along this stretch making it almost as rough as the road we had previously travelled.
We passed the entrance to another Aboriginal community where again a huge pile of empty beer cans lay discarded at the gate… obviously a good place to discard any evidence of extracurricular activities before entering the community, although I’d have thought they would have been concealed them in a far less conspicuous place!
We had passed a few signs along the road indicating that alcohol was prohibited in most areas and no-one was permitted to enter an Aboriginal community with alcohol or heavy fines apply as well as the risk having your vehicle confiscated.
As we continued on the sky began to take on a hazy, grey hue that appeared to be smoke, which actually turned out to be a couple of tractors cutting grass and sending plooms of dust into the air as they dragged slashers behind them.
It wasn’t long before we came across blackened ground where not a tree or a blade of grass could be seen… only hundreds of termite mounds standing erect all pointing in the same direction like tomb stones in a cemetery creating an eerie picture in the smoky haze.
Burning off is a way of life up here and it wasn’t unusual to pass fires burning along the side of the road, in fact we had passed numerous fires on this trip across the Gulf, and also Cape York for that matter!
Within minutes after inflating our tyres and turning off on to the Stuart Highway we reached Mataranka and we were back in civilisation, well almost!
Mataranka is a small community on the Stuart Highway with only a store, a couple of service stations, a café, motel, caravan park, pub and council offices come post office/museum and it is probable that the word ‘mataranka’ means ‘home of the snake’ in the language of the local Yangman Aboriginal people.
Our plan was to head into the Elsey National Park and 12 Mile Yards (Jalmurark) campground on the banks of the Roper River, but with a lot to do in this National Park, we decided to visit Mataranka Homestead first up. This is where the replica of the house used in the film ‘We of the Never Never’ is located and it was well worth a another look.
This country we are about to travel over the next couple of weeks will take us to Katherine, Pine Creek, Kakadu, Darwin, Leitchfield and back to Katherine before heading west, and it is all country we covered on our first ever trip of Australia in 2009.
Many people will be familiar with the classic Australian novel, ‘We of the Never Never’, which was written in the early 1900’s by Jeannie Gunn then made into a movie in 1982. This autobiography tells of her experiences living at the remote homestead with her husband Anneas who was station manager. The story tells of her struggles as the first white woman in a hostile land and how she befriended the Aboriginals. She lived there for only 12 months, returning to Melbourne after Anneas died and although ‘her heart was always at Elsey’, she never returned! The replica of the homestead, built for the movie, is now a famous tourist attraction.
A short walk from the homestead and car park took us along a boardwalk to the Rainbow Springs thermal pool swimming area where set amongst the tall palm trees we joined hoards of other people in the river pool, most floating around on noodles or just sitting by the side chatting and enjoying the constant 34°C temperature. Last time we visited we practically had this pool to ourselves, but this time it was just a little too popular for our liking, so after a quick dip we headed off to explore the area!
Located on the Little Roper River, 30.5 million litres of spring water flows through this pool per day, out into the Waterhouse River and into the Little Roper River. A short walk soon brought us to the very spot where these thermal pools get their name, a hole in the ground about 3 metres deep and about 10 metres wide with a sign indicating that water flowed from this very spring.
Moving on we headed out to the campground at 12 Mile Yard, an old stockyard used periodically when mustering occurred in the area.
The campground had obviously been upgraded since out last visit and now appeared to be divided into two different areas with more camp bays, tables and fire pits and really great amenities.
After setting up camp and paying our fees ($6.60 per person), we then enjoyed a nice leisurely stroll and it didn’t take long to find our first treasure when near the amenities we came across a pile of white shells in the scrub and soon realised it was a bower bird nest! Just as we noticed the white tissues and other white materials decorating the entrance and exit, the male bird came flitting in and about the branches above us.
Our walk to Mataranka falls (Korowan) on the Roper River was hard going, traipsing along a sandy track 5 kilometres both ways, but it was worth the effort and good to stretch our legs after sitting in the car as we rattled and rolled along the Gulf road over the last week. We had walked this track on a previous trip.. in fact we had bravely attempted to ride our bikes but gave up after the first 10 metres!
It was so hot after our walk last time I had opted for a quick dip in the river, much to Guy’s disgust. Swimming used to be allowed here but since there has been a change in the crocodile policy it is no longer permitted. Now there were signs everywhere saying there was no swimming as croc inhabited the waters and the 3 pontoons that once floated in the river had now been dragged to shore… so this time we opted for a cold shower instead!!
That night we sat around the campfire and listened to the curlews… a cry almost like a small child screaming, we were privy to a large python in a tree by the water’s edge and a shooting star and all was quiet except for the tip tapping of the keys on my laptop, having FINALLY caught up on the last week of blogs!
It’s times like these, relaxing around the campfire with a nice glass of wine that has given us time to reflect on how different our lives had become over the last 12 months. No more stress or the bustle of working life… just a life of adventure!
We loved our trip across the coastal Gulf and if you plan on following in our footsteps, be aware of how desolate and remote the area is, and how rough the tracks can be. However, if you’re well-equipped and have accurate information about the area, then the drive is truly rewarding.
We have been in a most beautiful part of Australia, harsh and full of surprises. We are so lucky to be travelling this enormous country, sharing in its amazing rich history, and the countless natural wonders… and we still have almost half the continent to see!