Not sure of what was ahead of us our next off-road adventure would take us across a road less travelled to Karumba on the far north Queensland coast.
The Burke Developmental Road was originally constructed to service the beef industry and for us was a great drive past many cattle stations and million of acres of savannah woodland country.
With no fuel for another 590-kilometres we filled up at Chillagoe, and with an open mind we hit the dirt.
We passed the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park sign where visitors can take self-guided tours of the ‘Archways’ and the Bauhina and ‘Pompeii’ caves or take an organised tour of the 3 limestone caves – ‘Trezkinn Cave’ where a steel catwalk encircles a huge mass of limestone with the ’chandelier’ – a spectacular cluster of stalactites bathed in spotlights; the ‘Royal Arch Cave’ features a labyrinth of passages and ‘Doona’ Cave with its false floors is home to delicate growths of cave coral.
Next came the historical ghost town Mungana, another abandoned mining settlement that sat among the spectacular limestone bluffs that surrounded us.
Mungana was the railhead for the Chillagoe Railway and began its life in 1896 as a mining camp for the Girofla and Lady Jane Mines, the largest on the Chillagoe field. With the growth in mining it soon had a school, churches, hall, police station, hospital, library, post office, market gardens, rifle range, racecourse, butcher, baker, draper, café, general store, and 5 hotels but sadly this little town declined in 1914 when the mining company that owned it went bankrupt.
It was revived in 1919 when the Queensland Government took over ownership… and with this ownership it soon became a household name with the ‘Mungana Scandal’ making headlines when it was alleged that 2 Government ministers owned shares in the mines before the purchase by the Government.
It closed again in 1926 but lingered for some time as the railhead for the large pastoral and mining region. With the end of train services in 1958 it declined further and had become an abandoned town by 1965. It is now the State’s first heritage-listed Archaeological Area.
We wandered around the scattered remains where the hamlet once stood and could only imagine how rough and tough life must have been in these mining-railway towns.
Leaving the ruins, we drove on through Rookwood Station, Marble Creek, across the Walsh River crossings and past the Wrotham Park sign.
Wrotham Park Station is a 6,000,000-hectare property running about 70,000 Brahman cattle and once had a 5-star lodge that was moved lock stock and barrel of (boutique) beer to Mary River in the Northern Territory in 2010.
Quite a distance in we were amused when we passed a sign telling us there was ‘Bulldust for the next 250-kilometres’ – we had already been driving through it for the best part of 150-kilmetres and had quite often been engulfed by fine dust that seemed to lingered in the air each time we were passed by a cattle truck.
Other signs were also constantly reminding us that ‘camping, shooting and fishing’ was an offence on the station properties and to do so would encounter heavy fines. At first there were signs that were hand painted on corrugated iron sheets but as we travelled further on, they became more official, some with the certified Queensland Police crest stamped in the corner.
A little further on we passed the Palmerville Road, 1 of 2 turnoffs that headed north to Palmerville, Palmer River Goldfields, Fairview and the Penninsula Development Road.
After Wrotham, the road west continued over another dry Walsh River crossing, past the Gamboola Station turnoff over the Lynd River Crossing then Highbury Station sign flashed past.
We could see cattle in the distance and our first thought was they were being mustered towards us then it soon became apparent it wasn’t a motor cycle mustering but a lone cyclist, slowly but surely making his way east.
We stopped to fill his water bottles and have a chat then after waving him goodbye we made tracks passing a few more signs and crossing over the Great Dividing Range before eventually coming to the Shire Border sign welcoming us to Carpentiaria and the Outback by the Sea.
This was the most northern point of our trip and from here it was a straight run through to the Kowanyama and Koolatah turnoff, the southern entrance and second track to the Palmer River Goldfields.
Here the road turned a sharp left passing Dunbah Station and the country changed considerably in appearance with the road becoming narrower, we crossed our first water crossing, termite mounds made an appearance, we passed a few dead cars and the land, although still quite dry, seemed to support a lot more cattle.
We were now just over half way between Chillagoe and Normanton and with the sun setting on the horizon we ignored all signage and pulled in 6 or so kilometres down the road from Dunbar station.
The turning bay we chose (made by heavy machinery that graded the road) was an ideal spot, a lovely clear sandy, rocky patch of ground quite close to a waterhole and surrounded by termite mounds.
We set up only the basics for the night then as darkness fell, we were lulled to sleep by the bush noises and cattle trains as they thundered past into the night.
The howling of a dingo woke us to an early morning sunrise but it was impossible to determine where the noise came from as the tall grass camouflaged any sightings!
Packed up and continuing on we couldn’t help but notice a lot more cattle train carnage resulting in a feast for many eagles who took flight only moments before becoming roadkill themselves. They then circled high on the thermals until it was safe to land again.
We passed over a couple of dry water crossings and tributaries at Staaten and Gilbert Rivers and through more station country, each station was clearly marked by a cattle grate and a large sign naming the station.
Soon the road became wider, better graded, and finally sealed as we approached the T-junction that either turned right to Karumba or left to Normanton. We could finally mark the Burke Development Road off our map.
The Burke Development Road is an isolated section of road with nothing but properties, no campgrounds or camping, no toilets and no shops or fuel… just bulldust, corrugations and magnificent Cape York scenery – and our crossing proceeded without mishap contrary to what we had been told.
A bit over 71-kilometres north of Normanton is the chilled, beautiful fishing village of Karumba, the only town in the Gulf Savannah where you can see the ocean.
This is one of our favourite spots and we spent the next week riding our bikes along the walking track from Karumba Point to Karumba township through wetlands that are famous for birdlife… and crocs in the wetter part of the year, beach combing, wandering around the town and just lazing arond watching sunsets… for such a small dot on the global tourism map, Karumba is a unique part of our planet – especially for those who love fishing!