From the ocean to the outback – Karumba to the Gregory River…

A bit over 71-kilometres north of Normanton is the chilled, beautiful fishing village of Karumba and the only town on the Gulf Savannah where you can actually see the ocean.

This is one of our favourite spots where 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), at least in the wetter part of the year, beach combing, wandering around the town and taking in the sunsets.

We stayed at the ‘Karumba Point Holiday and Tourist Park’ this time instead of the ‘Karumba Point Sunset Park’ where we usually stay… the reason being, ‘Karumba Point Sunset Park’ could only offer us the same unpowered spot as last trip with dirt, tree roots, lots of shade meaning we would struggle for solar and an area so small we struggled to put up our rooftop tent on the cramped site, let alone have privacy.

The campsites at ‘Karumba Point Holiday and Tourist Park’ were a little cheaper, more spacious, close to a great camp kitchen and although there was still gravel and dust everywhere, we didn’t feel so boxed in and really enjoyed the friendly atmosphere.

As I have said many times, it is the people you meet on the road that make the journey so enjoyable and we certainly had some great laughs in the camp kitchen, enjoyed a meal at the Sunset Tavern, ate fresh local fish and chips at Ash’s…  and sat on the beach and toasted the sun setting over the ocean with some lovely people – welcome to our blog Roger and Peter from Victoria and Susan and Greg from Sydney!

Karumba’s history dates back to the 1870s when a telegraph station was built during the gold mining boom in the Gulf.

Initially the settlement was known as Norman Mouth being at the entrance of the Norman River and the Gulf waters. The name changed to Kimberley in 1876 for a short time, but with the confusion with the Kimberley region in Western Australia it changed… this time to Karumba – a name used by the local Aboriginal people.

In the early day’s road access to this part of the world was very primitive with only a punt ferry that crossed the Norman River at Normanton. From there it would take several hours via a bush track to finally reach Karumba, hence, sea transport became the most reliable means to reach and ship stock out of this tiny village.

In 1937 the Flying Boat service operated by Qantas and BOAC established a base in Karumba to accommodate and refuel the Short Sunderland Aircraft on their routes to London.

The port also served as an RAAF Catalina base during World War II with the Catalinas operated from Karumba into the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), New Guinea and Timor.

After the war the base was taken over by a Melbourne identity, Rene Henri, who established the first fishing and hunting business, which he named ‘Karumba Lodge’.  

By the 1950s Karumba was fast becoming a popular spot for people eager for a fishing adventure in the Gulf of Carpentaria.  There were also the crocodile hunters who pursued these prehistoric reptiles for their valuable skins.

The next owner was Reg Ansett of Ansett Airlines who used the Lodge as a base for their ‘Station Run’, delivering mail and goods to cattle stations and flying barramundi to the booming centre of Mt Isa. Float planes were used on the river until 1976.

Over the years, the Norman River was bridged, then followed a formed road that was finally sealed in 1978 thus improving road transport to the area with trucks eventually providing a faster service to the fishing and cattle industry. 

By the 1960s and 1970s Karumba had become the centre for the Gulf fishing industry and even today still supports a commercial-industrial centre… a barramundi farm, a prawn processing plant and MMG Century Mine loading facility.

This once small, sleepy outback town also caters for a large influx of tourists and is a very popular fishing destination for many anglers from all over Australia who arrive each winter to try their luck in the waters of the Gulf. 

After a week of enjoying what Karumba had to offer our journey took us back to Normanton, another small township in the Gulf which, although basically only a refuelling stop, has a few sights that are worthy of a look.

Lovely old buildings line the main street… the old jail and courthouse and the famous Normanton Railway Station but of course the Purple Pub and ‘Krys’ the big croc, take centre stage.

At 8.64-metres long this monster croc is a replica of the largest croc ever shot by Krystia Pawlowski in the 1950s and of course I couldn’t miss an opportunity to have a photo taken in the jaws of this monster reptile!

Officially known as the ‘National Hotel’, the ‘Purple Pub’ in the main street is a typical country pub and a very popular tourist attraction with its colour being its only claim to fame… and you guessed it, it’s painted purple! Obviously, it doesn’t take much to be famous and the most photographed building in the small town of Normanton – just a publican with a bit of initiative, a tin of purple paint and a paint brush!

This little town also rose to fame in the setting for Neville Shute’s novel ‘A Town Like Alice’. It is said that the town of Normanton and some of the characters who lived here were what inspired Shute to write the novel. This little-known fact is well documented on information boards close to the ‘big croc’ and although never mentioned in the novel, it is well recorded in the ‘The Bobbi-Jo Blake Collection’ that the title is a significant clue!

Train enthusiasts will also love an experience on the historic and legendary Gulflander, otherwise known as the ‘Tin Hare’, which was originally built to connect the once bustling river port of Normanton with the rich gold fields of Croydon. Today it still connects the 2 small townships as a popular tourism icon.

This 1950s train is a working tribute to the early pioneers of the Gulf of Carpentaria and ventures through countryside steeped in pioneering history and heritage that most of us will never see as its journey carries tourists through small outback spots like Critter’s Camp, Haydon, Blackbull, Ellavale and Golden Gate, from the wetlands and grasslands to the arid Savannah.

After stocking up on groceries, visiting the butcher shop (this butcher shop has the best sausages), and fuelling with diesel it was time to hit the road again… but we couldn’t leave town without backtracking to get a photo of the ‘Big Barra’ that stands proudly at the entrance of the local caravan park. Normanton can actually claim ownership of 2 of our ‘Aussie Big Things’.

Our journey from Normanton wouldnow take us along the ‘alternate Savannah Way’ following the gulf  to Burketown where we planned to turn south and head to small outback township of Gregory, then west to the recently fire devastated ‘Adeles Grove’, which borders the beautiful ‘Lawn Hill National Park’ we had heard so much about.

‘The Savannah Way’ travels along sealed roads from Cairns in Queensland to Broome in Western Australia and is said by many to be the ultimate road trip in Australia, stretching an amazing 3,700-kilometres.

For us the detour via the ‘alternate Savannah Way’ at Normanton would take us part way to Burketown along a track that was extra special for us a couple of years back and we couldn’t wait to tackle it again – read all about our Gulf Country crossing at https://tassiesnowbirds.com/2018/08/04/gulf-country/

With Hema Maps set on our first destination we stopped briefly 36-kilometres from Normanton at the site of ‘Burke and Wills Camp 119’, the most northerly camp on their ill-fated journey.

Turning down a dirt road we travelled around 2-kilometres to a visitor carpark near where a small monument stands, and pulled in under what limited shade there was from stunted coolabahs that surrounded us.

It was here on our last trip we met with friendly participants in the ‘Variety Bash’ but this time our only visitors were unwelcome and annoying flies… and tour buses and caravans with heavy footed drivers creating clouds of dust as they arrived and left, contributing to interesting textures and layers in our sandwiches!

This monument marks the site of ‘Burke and Wills Camp No 119’, which was occupied on Saturday 9 February 1861 by expedition members Robert O’Hara Burke, William John Wills, John King and Charlie Gray. 

It was from here on the following day that Burke and Wills left to attempt the journey to the Gulf of Carpentaria only to return again on Tuesday 12 February. All 4 abandoned the camp the next day for the return journey home to Melbourne via Coopers Creek and Depot No 75, but unfortunately during the return journey all died with the exception of King who survived with the assistance of a friendly local ‘Aboriginal tribe’.

After devouring our gritty sandwiches, we left ‘Camp No 119’ and made our way further along the road through country that varied from scrubby bush to grassy flat plains with little to excite us.

The depressing flat station land still showed signs of the devastating floods earlier in the year with grasses snagged in the wire fences and animal hides hanging from barbwire… there was no escape for these poor creatures on this now dry, flat barren land with not a hill in sight or hardly a tree to be seen!

Finally, after our first creek crossing, we arrived at Leichardt Falls, a free campsite adjacent to the Leichhardt River.

We had marked this free camp on our map last trip and it proved a great spot to pull into for a night… or 2!

It was lovely to be back bush camping again and with our camp set up, we sat back and enjoyed the peace and tranquillity over a nice cold beer as we soaked up the timeless scenery surrounding us before setting off to explore.

Our camp was right on the rocky but very sandy banks of the river only 90-kilometres from Burketown on land that was in complete contrast to the country we had just driven through… sand dunes now seemed to stretch forever and the Leichhardt River and falls were only a short distance from our camp.

The build-up of these sandy banks was quite evident compared to our previous visit and according to a guy from the Burketown Council this was the result of severe flooding earlier in the year when floodwaters reached an amazing 10.5 metres.

We only had to look several metres into the trees to see debris stuck in the branches and know how high this river rises and we could only imagine what it must be like during the wet season when it was completely full of water – and then some. 

By day we spent our time lazing in the protected rocky cooling waters of a very shallow waterhole at the top of the falls from where little more than a trickle plummeted over a 10-metre wide cliff before steadily flowing on its merry way to the Gulf, and although the shallow waters of this river looked tempting above and below the causeway there was definitely no swimming as this was croc country… and there were plenty of signs to remind us!

As evening fell everything quietened down and a chilly breeze rose causing us to huddled around the comforting warmth of our blazing campfire then as the nocturnal fauna slowly awakened, we snuggled down in our rooftop tent with our dog-eared books to read and listen to the soothing sound of the waterfall before dreaming away the night under a sky full of stars.

We originally thought it would take only a day or two to drive to Burketown from Karumba and then down to Adeles Grove, but how wrong were we.

After passing through much the same outback scenery of red dirt, blue skies, huge termite mounds and bush scrub we had been travelling through over the Burke Development Road, it was the free camps that had us lingering for an extra few days.

After 2-nights at Leichhardt Falls we continued our journey towards Burketown where we would leave the Alternate Savannah Way and instead head along the Wills Development Road to the small township of Gregory.

On the outskirts of Burketown, we passed over the Albert River bridge then pulled in at the roadside stop to top up with water. All that was open in this little town was the bakery and the pub…  everything closes in these little communities on a Sunday!

Burketown is the administrative centre for the sprawling Burke Shire which goes under the intriguing nickname of ‘The Land of the Morning Glory’ after a spectacular rolling cloud that often appear early in the morning over the Gulf Country.

This unique cloud formation is a hang gliders delight. They love to surf this cloud wave as it rolls in across the sky but it only happens over a few weeks in spring so it is a rare sight indeed. It can be up to 1000-kilometres long and Burketown is 1 of only 2 places in the world it can be seen. We were lucky enough to see this amazing phenomenon in Karumba a few years back.

This town has a couple of interesting historic sites also, which once included the old Burketown Pub (it burnt down) and the remains of an 1860s boiling down works… but fishing for barramundi is what attracts tourists to the area, or it is a passing through point to Gregory Downs or the wider alternate Gulf Savannah gravel road to Doomadgee, Hells Gate Roadhouse, Borroloola and beyond.

The 92-year-old Burketown pub was burnt to the ground in a fire deemed by police as ‘suspicious’ and was the last of around 26 pubs that used to be in the township.

While in town it is worth checking out the artesian bore which was established in 1897 and comes out of the ground from a depth of 702.3 metres at 68 degrees Celsius at a flow rate of 707.19 litres per day… and with 598 mg/litres of salt. 

This bore was expected to supply good stock water but to no avail as it wasn’t any good for human consumption or for irrigation as it contained too many minerals so it now flows out into a wetland area.

The next part of our journey would take us south to the tiny township of Gregory on the Gregory River.

Called the Ngumarryina by the traditional owners of the river, the Waanyi Aboriginal people, the Gregory River is the largest, and one of the few permanently flowing rivers in northwest of Queensland and we were looking forward to swimming in the tranquil and crocodile free waters.

So far, we have mostly seen dry, sandy riverbeds but here there were some really nice free camping spots close to the babbling, clear waters.

This little piece of paradise was also a natural attraction for many grey nomads in their big caravans and motorhomes and it helped to have a 4WD and a rooftop tent as we were able to tuck into a secluded space right on the river bank beside the peaceful waters of this little outback oasis.

For the next part of our journey join us on the outback road to Adeles Grove, the spectacular Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) Gorge National Park and Miyumba (Riversleigh) World Heritage Fossil Fields as we experience some more of Australia’s outback best kept secrets.

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