GULF TREK - December 2015
A Savannah Way trip, with some interesting diversions.
This suggested itinerary around the Gulf of Carpentaria takes in part of the Savannah Way and the old Gulf Track. It’s a great way to travel between North Queensland and the Northern Territory.
This trip can start at Charters Towers, Townsville or Ingham and it finishes at Mataranka, on the Stuart Highway. How long it takes depends on what side trips you make: to Karumba, Lawn Hill National Park, Cape Crawford, Lorella Springs and Limmen National Park.
It’s possible to tow a high ground clearance caravan on this trek, but you’ll be more flexible if you’re pulling only a camper trailer or single-axle crossover van behind your 4WD.
From Charters Towers or Townsville the first really interesting spot is at the Oasis Roadhouse that boasts the smallest – 1.2-metres-wide – bar in Australia. The camping there is very ordinary, however, so stop before or after it.
For those leaving Ingham there's a brilliant climb past Wallaman Falls and Blencoe Falls; then through the Valley of Lagoons.
Next is the sprawling town of Einasleigh, whose main claim to fame is that almost nobody’s heard of it.
Einasleigh was a copper mining town in the 1800s and sits on the eastern edge of the Newcastle Range, on the banks of the Copperfield River. It is set among some unusual scenery with surrounding flat-topped hills and the equally unusual Copperfield George.
The nearby pub is home to a museum quality, miniature furniture collection and the main annual event is the Einasleigh Races and Rodeo, which is held around Easter.
Gold was discovered at Croydon, inland from Normanton, in the late 1800s. A railway line was laid between Normanton and Croydon, to ship gold from the mine to the Norman River port.
The rail line is interesting for its revolutionary use of mud-filled, hollow steel sleepers, instead of traditional wooden sleepers on top of gravel ballast. The design worked well in this flood-prone country and the line still functions to this day.
The Gulflander, a three-car rail motor train, does a regular run each way once a week: from Normanton to Croydon on Wednesday morning and the return journey on Thursday. Those who want to do the excursion in one day can catch the train and a return bus.
Croydon has many old buildings, including the Oldest Store in Australia.
Normanton is located upstream from Karumba, on the Norman River, and once served as a port for cattle and gold mining.
There are many historic buildings in the town and there are several hotels and a council run caravan park. There are launching ramps in town and a large expanse of water to travel.
Karumba is a worthwhile side trip from Normanton. The area is home to numerous birds and is a birdwatchers paradise. Parrots, finches, honeyeaters, herons, birds of prey and brolgas are very common. On one visit we came across a dozen brolgas feeding in a pond right beside the main road.
Karumba is on the coast, with savannah grassland, meandering wetlands and coastal mangroves stretching up to 30km inland. Dolphins, crocs, dugongs, sharks and all manner of fish and marine life abound in the Gulf waters.
Mutton Hole Wetland, located between Karumba and Normanton, covers 9000 hectares of the Gulf Plains bio-region and is listed in the National Estate.
The Morning Glory, rolling-cloud phenomenon adds further fascination for visitors. These cloud formations generally pass through Karumba before dawn and arrive shortly after first light in the Burketown area – usually during September and October each year
Our favourite place to stay in Karumba is at the Karumba Point Sunset Caravan Park, where the helpful staff will give you the good oil on catching your first ‘Barra’:
Barramundi are found in coastal areas and estuaries, but spawn only in estuaries. They inhabit a wide variety of habitats including tidal rivers, freshwater lagoons, and coastal foreshores.
When fishing for barramundi, a 6-15kg braided mainline on a bait-casting outfit is a good setup. The most common method for catching barramundi is employing hard-bodied lures with a slow, twitching retrieve with occasional hard twitches. Anything from minnows to shads or rattling lures can be successful. Other methods include live bait rigs and trolling with diving minnows.
Barramundi fishing is usually best at early morning, late afternoon or night. Estuaries and tidal flats tend to be the places that large females inhabit, so look for places where food might aggregate, such as eddies or draining creek mouths and cast to these.
The best time to be fishing is when the tide is coming in or going out and the barramundi are forced into the tidal flats.
If you are fishing in freshwater where you are more likely to find the younger males, look for cover and cast to features such as snags and drop-offs.
Our mate Daryl Beattie is a great fan of barramundi fishing in The Gulf, as you can see.
From Karumba it’s a matter of retracing your steps back to Normanton and then heading for Burketown on the Savannah Way gravel. Take care on bulldust patches and take it very slowly at creek crossings.
Just before the Bynoe River crossing, you can take a left turn to the historic camp site of Burke and Wills. There are some good camp sites around here on the banks of the Bynoe River, but this is now ‘croc country’, so don’t set up close to water and don’t stay in the one place for more than two nights.
Even in the Dry Season the river crossings have water in them and most are very stony, with holes and large rocks. Don’t walk these crossings – it’s croc country, remember - but drive at less than walking speed.
At the Leichhardt River causeway is an excellent camping spot beside the river bed. The Leichhardt Falls are usually down to a trickle at the end of The Dry. From there the road is sealed to Burketown.
Burketown was established in 1865 by Robert Towns, a Sydney-based pastoralist who also established Townsville. Burketown was named after Robert O’Hara Burke of Burke and Wills Expedition infamy, and served as a port and supply centre for Towns’ properties in the Gulf country.
Burketown became something of a wild-west town, with gun-toting people dishing out bush justice. The arrival of police led to Aboriginal tribe massacres, but karma arrived in the form of typhoid fever that killed a like number of white inhabitants.
Today, Burketown has a hospital, motel accommodation, camping facilities and food shopping. There are historic buildings in town and boat ramps on the Albert River that leads to The Gulf at Kangaroo Point.
From Burketown there’s a side trip to Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, via the Gregory Downs road turnoff about 26km west of the town. You can rejoin the Savannah Way by travelling north from Lawn Hill, through Kingfisher Camp. Missing Doomadgee is no great loss.
From Hell's Gate roadhouse – good camping, fuel and very limited supplies - the road heads north-west towards Wollogorang Station. There is Gulf access on this property, but the station was sold to a Chinese billionaire in June 2105, so we’re not sure what the position will be with future tourism.
The Calvert River crossing is usually the deepest and rockiest on the road, and has turned quite a few travellers around. The water is usually clear enough to where you’re going, but the bottom consists of large rocks, rolled into confusion by heavy rains. This is a slow, careful crossing.
The Robinson River crossing is a picturesque spot and a great camp site.
There are also camping facilities at Seven Emu Homestead, which is a much more picturesque destination than the town of Borroloola. However, this town is a handy refuelling stop and has a supermarket.
From here our trek heads south-west to Cape Crawford where there’s fuel, grassy camping, a pool and some accommodation. The gravel road north leads to great camping at Lorella Springs and the amazing rock formations in Limmen National Park.
Munbililla (Tomato Island) is on the Limmen National Park side of the Roper River; just across the water from Ngukurr. This informal campsite has suffered from hygiene and firewood supply issues over the past few years and has just received a $1.5 million upgrade.
Tomato Island has been refurbished as a 50-site, non-powered, grassed camping area, with a solar powered ablution block, rubbish dump and manager’s residence. The Yugul Mangi Development Aboriginal Corporation in Ngukurr is managing the site.
Next stop is the refurbished campground on the Roper River at for fuel and an ice cream at the Roper Bar store. From here it’s an easy run to the bitumen and, 100km further on, Mataranka, on the Stuart Highway.
You’ll enjoy our Gulf Trek!
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