26th September The Savannah Way
The epic Savannah Way stretches from coast to coast, from Broome in Western Australia to Cairns in Queensland through the heart of the outback. The rugged outback adventure takes us from Darwin to Cairns, driving 2700kms, and takes just over four days. A month on, given the torrential rain, it is likely some of these roads have now been closed.
Waking up to hazy skies, the temperature is 26C already. It doesn’t take too long to pack up our camp and so we manage to leave at 8am heading east 565km to the Heartbreak Hotel, Cape Crawford, along the Savannah Way, expecting to arrive at 3pm.
Along route, we pick up supplies for dinner tonight and continue on past large areas of burnt out trees, with wisps of smoke still visible and warning signs stating ‘high risk’ of fire in the area. An unusual speed sign on route reads ‘we like our lizards frilled, not grilled’.
The highways are never ending, seeming to stretch into forever, and clear, passing another car once every few kms. We cruise at 110km/hr within the speed limit of 130km/hr. The road is surrounded by dry landscape with skinny gnarled looking trees which have been scorched by the sun, and birds of prey circling overhead.
We see plenty of road kill on route, lizards, snakes, birds, and wallabies but so far no live wildlife. We pass through a remote town called Never Never, an aboriginal area in the heart of the outback, spanning the lengths of the Roper River. It now feels as if we are the only ones out here, on a never ending road through the territory. Or so we think… a few minutes later, between Katherine and Daly Waters we see a woman walking down the road alongside an animal which is carrying lots of camping gear! From a distance we think it is a large horse, but no, as we come closer, it’s a camel! The nearest town is 50km away! It’s a very strange sight! She looks like she is just going out for a casual stroll with her camel!
The sun catches the road ahead, making the surface look like glass or water.
After filling up at the petrol station at Daly Waters for an extortionate rate of $1.92/L we turn left onto the Crawford Highway taking the classic outback route, the Savannah Way. It is a further 275km from here to the Heartbreak Hotel. A massive lonely bull stands in the middle of the road, when it spots us it darts back into the bush.
The road then turns into a single lane road, and we pass no less than two cars in the space of two hours. We spot a few wedge-tailed eagles, amongst the largest eagles in the world.
Rocks are thrown up from a speeding road train and cause small cracks in our windscreen. We quickly learn they don’t move over and don’t slow down for anyone.
We finally arrive at Cape Crawford and the Heartbreak Hotel but it’s deserted and a car has just pulled in and turned back around. It certainly lives up to its name as the driver of the ute tells us it is closed! We are close to heartbroken, but carry on another 90km on dry deserted roads to the town of Borroloola and the McArthur River camping grounds, reaching the site at 4pm.
Camp set up, the atmosphere here is in stark contrast to Katherine, very peaceful with just a few other caravans in the grassy grounds and mainly older people camped out. Pasta is on the menu for dinner and then we settle down for the night. It feels cooler, which is bliss, so we are able to use our sleeping bags for the first time.
27th September Bush Fires!
It is a long journey ahead of us today aiming to reach Lawn Hill National park 500km away on dirt tracks.
The famous Hell’s Gate Roadhouse is on our route, but we had read it closed its doors in 2007.
We wake up to a misty and grey morning, spray fills the air. Breakfast is warm crumpets with butter and coffee. Setting off, we cross the McArthur River which is popular for fishing, coming to a dust red corrugated dirt track, driving through the mist. It’s a colossal 380km to the next fuel stop!
The mist still has not lifted, and in places is starting to get denser. Driving cautiously, a pickup truck screams past us into the mist, we’re barely able to see his rear lights just a few metres ahead of us.
The mist finally clears and we are back bathing in the sunshine, driving through the forest and wilderness of the outback.
In a dip at the bottom of a steep hill is our first river crossing; unsure of how deep the water is and the possibility of crocodiles lurking, we cross cautiously and make it without too much problem.
Around the corner is another water crossing, but this time it’s much shallower. The rocky red track continues. A few metres on and there’s another DIP sign with a huge waterway at the bottom.
Before crossing the Robinson River, there are crocodile warning signs and at the far end it looks as though the water is fast flowing, we wouldn’t like to be stuck in this one!
Crossing number eight is rocky and steep and it looks like the perfect territory for crocodiles!
A huge white bird crosses the road in front of us; as we approach it walks off on its lonesome into the bush.
The road continues for miles with barely a soul in sight.
We come to the Queensland-Northern Territory border; we were expecting some sort of border post and possibly quarantine, for fruits and vegetables. However, when passing all we find is a ‘welcome to Queensland’ sign and not much else.
We notice that on the Queensland side, the road seems more corrugated and bumpy and most of the creeks have dried up.
Further down, the road becomes dry with large sandy patches, which makes keeping up speed difficult. The road conditions deteriorate with the sand becoming increasingly deeper.
We come to a set of road works, after which the dirt track is as smooth as tarmac.
Pushing on, the famous Hells Gate Roadhouse is ahead of us and we are quite surprised to find that it is open. It was the last outpost of police protection for settlers heading to Katherine and the scene of ambush as Indigenous Australians tried to protect their lands.
We turn off the main Savannah Way from Doomadgee stopping at the general store where we buy a bottle of coke for $5.65 (usually $2) then across a dried up waterway towards the Boodjamulla Park (Lawn hill National Park) at 3pm.
The road again is a corrugated dirt track, covered in small rocks. The road opens up to a large plain, bordered by hills on either side.
Within an hour, we see a big plume of smoke then another and another maybe 5-10km in the distance. Bush fires are raging and we seem to be driving towards them! From now on we keep a close eye on the direction of the road and the direction of the smoke. We wonder if we’ll be told to leave once we arrive as it’s not safe…
A series of chained gates are next on route, which mark the start of national park land. We pass a cattle ranch with women riding on horseback. One of them points the right way down the track.
Suddenly there’s a river crossing, which looks fine. However as we pull out in to the river we notice that to get to the other side, we actually have to drive for 20 metres further up the river. There’s no route around it as it’s surrounded by forest and we’re also unsure of the depth. Given it’s the height of the dry season, we take the risk. In fact, we have no option but to cross, hoping the snorkel will work and get us through safely.
From here it’s 14km to Adels Grove along the wide gravelly path, passing a police car going in the opposite direction.
It is definitely an adventure to get here, having to drive through lots of different terrain, including gravel, sand, water, tarmac and mud, all the while keeping one eye on the unpredictable raging bush fires!
A group of three wallabies appear out of nowhere and hop across the road in front of us; it would be very difficult to stop in time if they were any closer to the car.
Finally we reach Adels Grove around 5.30pm. Surprisingly there are quite a few people around and we set up camp by the creek in a shaded area under tall white gum trees. To our disappointment, we are told that the national park is closed due to the fires. All the Park wardens and people camping out there had been evacuated! For now, the campsite at Adels Grove is safe, we hope.
Asking if the creek waters are safe for swimming we are told ‘There are only freshies in there, so it’s perfectly safe for swimming. It’s the salties you’ve got to be careful of! Groups of school kids go in there all the time!’
The creek waters at the base of the camp grounds do look inviting, betraying the possibility of sharing the water with crocs!
Adels Grove is named after the initials of the botanist Albert de Lestang, who in 1920 converted the area into an experimental botanical gardens and exotic hideaway. In the 1950’s a fire swept through, destroying everything.
Walking to the shower blocks at night is an obstacle course, trying to dodge all the humungous toads!
The night eventually got surprisingly cold and morning arrives to be told that the park is still closed. An accidental fire had jumped across a fire break and was now spreading towards the park. Last night they had been trying to beat back the flames at the ranch we had passed yesterday not far from here.
We leave the grove heading towards Gregory; we are stuck behind a road train which leaves such a trail of dust that visibility of the road is virtually zero.
Reaching Gregory, there are a few vans camped out down by the river.
We head to Burketown, the ‘barramundi’ capital of the world, and the thought of Barra burgers is making us very hungry, apparently there is a caravan in town which sells them. We take the long Development Road driving through grassy plains, eventually turning back onto the Savannah Way and pass Poison Gully!
Arriving in Burketown, we find it to be deserted, just a large caravan park, a police station and a 130 year old pub. It seems as if it was not meant to be, as the caravan selling the barra burgers is closed until 5pm and the other food store is out of fish and chips!
Stopping for fuel, Martin asks the kid at the counter, who is in his school uniform and looks about 12 to pay for a couple of drinks and pump number 1. The kid looks thoroughly confused and after a few seconds deliberation, tells him it’s next door for fuel payment!
We buy the cheapest ice-cream in the store, still costing £1.50; it’s shockingly tasteless, reminding us of the chocolate ice-cream in the Neapolitan tubs which nobody ever wanted!
Eagles and falcons swooping over the road into the treetops is a common sight. Just past the town we spot three massive vultures catching some shade under the branches of a tree. By the time we turn the car around, there is one left, who quickly flies into the treetop, it looks intimidating, its huge wingspan must be at least 2metres.
Slightly further on and Martin spots a group of four gigantic bluish birds with long legs and beaks and huge wings, near the road in the grassy plains. As we come closer, they fly off at a snail’s pace in unison, almost hovering mid-flight.
After Leichardt Falls, which unfortunately are not flowing due to it being the height of the dry season, the road turns back into a corrugated dirt track and we turn left, back onto the Savannah Way. It’s another 165km to Leichardt Lagoon camping where we plan to spend the night.
The long straight road is visible from the top of the hill stretching all the way to the horizon. On route, we spot the Australian icon, our first kangaroos taking shade under some trees! When they spot us, they bounce away and turn back to check us out, another sits watching us with its head and pointed ears in the air. It’s amazing how quickly they jump! They are perfectly camouflaged and are quite difficult to spot among the brown grassy plains.
Further on are another group of three large birds; they fly for a few seconds when we get too near, landing not too far away.
We see signs for the Burke and Wills historical site; the two explorers had camped here and led an expedition in 1861 to travel from the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a journey they did not survive.
As it’s getting late, we decide to stop at the town of Normanton, setting up camp near the Purple Pub. The young boy at the campsite is a character, insisting on taking me down to the site in his golf buggy! The largely Indigenous-populated town is quiet, just a couple of people on the streets, hardly a car on the road, a handful of deserted shops and a pub. We treat ourselves with fish and chips, as neither of us feels like cooking tonight. The barramundi is delicious, but not quite as good as the fish and chips back home!
Not sure exactly what it was, but there was definitely something big nosing around our little tent last night! We leave sleepy Normanton and head towards Cairns on the Gulf Developmental Road.
An eagle suddenly flies towards the side of the front of the car and the open window; it’s a close call as we narrowly miss hitting it and consequently sharing the car with it!
We pass through the tiny town of Croydon where a gold rush brought a few thousand people in the 1880’s and produced over 760,000 ounces of gold. Then it’s onto Mount Surprise, which appears suddenly on the horizon, and Bedrock Village camping grounds. This is the location for the Undara giant lava tubes, which we may visit from Cairns. On entering the town, we see a free wash down bay and go through three times in an effort to get the layers of red dust off the car! Setting up camp for the night, we get peckish and decide to treat ourselves to a pizza, it’s just a shame Martin then drops most of it on the dusty ground!
30th -14th October
We leave the dry harsh outback in exchange for the subtropical ocean air of Cairns. The landscape suddenly gets greener, hillier and cooler; it’s also a much more acceptable temperature of 26C. We decide to spend a couple of nights in a central campsite, but located in the centre of town it’s really crowded. We manage to escape the crowds by eating out and catching a movie (Johnny English) at the cinema, a treat, as we hadn’t been to the movies for over a year!
Luckily we find a hotel deal just outside of town and relax before flying to Sydney to meet the parents!
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Martin & Nicole