The Savannah Way is known as Australia’s Adventure Drive, connecting Cairns in Tropical North Queensland to the historic pearling town of Broome in Western Australia’s Kimberley, via Australia’s tropical savannahs and the Northern Territory’s Top End.
The 3700km route links 15 national parks and five World Heritage-listed areas. Historic gold mining towns now act as hubs for the outlying cattle stations throughout the northern Queensland stretch and are well-equipped to cater for the expanding tourism industry. Chillagoe and Einasleigh and the like still harbour signs of their mining history, with smelters towering above the surrounding landscape. The abandoned mines are a magnet for fossickers and history buffs alike.
The journey took me from Cairns to Normanton, across vast plains, returning to their green glory as the rains revitalised the earth parched by the dry. Creeks that, for many months, had been dusty lines were beginning to run and billabongs were filling. Cattle, still improving from their long wait for the rain, were feasting on the new pasture that was budding and calves were frolicking in the paddocks.
THINGS TO DO
While the Queensland section of the Savannah Way can be tackled all the way to Normanton on bitumen, there are a couple of alternatives that take in more remote areas of Queensland’s gulf country. Advice should be sought from the local tourist centres before leaving the bitumen.
From Mareeba, your choice is simply to do it on the dirt or the blacktop. With the wet arriving, I chose the bitumen and headed south through Ravenshoe towards Georgetown. Just before getting to the first of the alternative tracks, you’ll come across Undara Volcanic National Park. This worthwhile park has several types of accommodation, supplies, a restaurant and campground. Here, you can visit the famous Lava Tubes estimated to be about 190,000 years old accompanied by a knowledgeable, accredited Savannah guide who’ll direct you though the extensive, fragile system.
If you want the dirty option, head towards Chillagoe. Once there, the alternative route takes you north and through what is essentially station country. It’s all dirt with no real facilities to speak of and, for the fully self-contained, it’s worth the extra couple of days to get there.
At Mount Surprise, another diversion beckoned. The southern unsealed route took us through wonderful pastoral leases and over wide creek crossings waiting for the imminent deluge, to rocky jump ups that gave the casual viewer panoramic views of the gulf savannah country ahead.
This relatively short diversion on the dirt eventually ended back on the blacktop. Both alternative tracks are trailer friendly and, with a well set-up rig, the going is easy, but be mindful you’re sharing these minor tracks with station vehicles so don’t be surprised if a road train barrels down the track towards you.
The next stop was Croydon. It’s a fabulous town that has gone out of its way to make the traveller welcome. From its excellent caravan park to the historic buildings, Croydon is worth a couple of days’ stay. It is also the turnaround point for the gulf’s most famous resident, the Gulflander historic rail.
The local hotel offers amazing value for both meals and drinks and the beer is mighty cold. The general store also houses the town’s museum and it won’t disappoint. It’s a snap shot of our past that’s free to all.
The final leg of our journey took us into Normanton where the gulf track begins. Normanton is a great place to relax and restock supply before tackling the rest of your journey west. You can’t go past the Purple Pub for its unique architecture and the décor but it’s the Albion that seems to capture the spirit of gulf country hospitality. The beer garden is fabulous, and it’s a shady nook that just traps unwary travellers.
All major services are on offer and if fishing is your passion, you’ve finally arrived in barra country. A short run north and you’ll find yourself in Karumba. Hundreds of enthusiasts head there every dry to fill their freezers with this tropical delicacy. But it’s the Savannah Way that gets you there and the communities along it which make the experience so enjoyable.
One of the joys of the drive is in the myriad camping spots along the way. Free camping abounds and the bigger water courses provide a shady spot to stop and fresh water in which to bathe.
Check out the full feature in issue #88 May 2015 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine.