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Australian 4x4 Travel - Savannah Way

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Savannah Way, Australia

Savannah Way, also known as Highway 1, technically takes you from Cairns in Queensland to the Northern Territory Border. Many, though, regard the whole trip, from Cairns through to Broome in Western Australia, as the Savannah Way.

Traveling some 3700 kilometers, the route takes you through an amazingly wide variety of scenery and landscapes, gives you the chance to see abundant species of flora and fauna, some of Australia's World Heritage listed areas as well as the opportunity to see and discover much of Australia's history.

Whilst much of the trip can be done on sealed roads, and much of it, therefore, in conventional vehicles, The Savannah Way gives you countless opportunities along the way to divert to some of the countries most beautiful four wheel drive destinations.

The journey can be done in either direction, however we are starting at Cairns and heading west. If contemplating the trip it is best done in the dry season, or autumn and winter. The Savannah Way travels through three states, Queensland, The Northern Territory and Western Australia.

At the start of the journey Cairns has some spectacular destinations, the most outstanding probably being the World Heritage Listed Daintree National Park just to the north of Port Douglass and Mossman, the beauty of the Atherton Tablelands.

Heading west the main route heads out of Cairns through Mareeba, Atherton and Ravenshoe and into the Gulf Savannah Country which extends to the Northern Territory border. However you can start your trip a little off the beaten track by taking the Wheelbarrow Highway from Mareeba heading for Chillagoe and the two million year old limestone caves as well as the 120 year old Tyrconnell gold mine

With the ultimate destination of this leg of your journey being Normanton there are two ways of getting there, first via Highway 1 through Mareeba, Atherton, Ravenshoe, Georgetown and Croydon or along the Burke Development Road that heads north west to Dunbar and before heading south west to Normanton.

The first route is the most traveled and is sealed for the whole stretch. There are some popular tourist destinations along the way including the Innot Hot Springs, outside Mount Garnet, the Undara Lava Tubes, which are the worlds largest lava tubes and the Gulflander Railway.

Also nicknamed the Tin Hare, The Gulflandertravelsfrom Normanton to Croydon and, although the train trip only takes half a day, it is known by train buffs the world over.

Originally constructed in the late 1800's, The Gulflander has won many awards and travels through diverse countryside. On occasions the train stops for morning tea supplied by locals along the way as well as for photo shoots at the Norman River Bridge.

Actually you could say the trip takes two days because it travels from Normanton on Wednesdays and returns on Thursdays. Booking is advisable and can be done through the Cairns Travel centre by phone on (07) 4036 9250.

Talking about train trips, the area is also famous for another world renowned train trip, the Savannahlander that run from Cairns to Forsayth. Being of the 1940's vintage it is a little more modern than the Gulflander, travels further, over 400 kilometers and takes 16 hours over two days.

The second choice of route from Cairns to Normanton, along the Burke Developmental Road, is less used than Highway 1 and it does offer the four wheel driver a potentially interesting trip via the northern fringes of the Staaten River National Park.

There are few facilities along the way and plenty of bull dust although there are some homesteads along the way that will along you to camp, do a little fishing and use their recreational 4wd tracks and, by no means least, you will meet quite a few very interesting people.

Once in Normanton, and the first stage of the Savannah Way trip behind you, it is well worth the diversion to Karumba, a major prawning area, situated at the mouth of the Norman River on the Gulf of Carpenatria. The trip from Normanton to Karumba takes in wetlands abundant in bird life.

Normanton is on the banks of the Norman River and was originally established as a port for Croyden. There are several historic buildings to be seen including the old railway station.

Heading west out of Normanton on the Savannah Way and the next main port of call is historical Burketown. Situated about 25km inland from the Gulf, it is located on the banks of the Albert River. Although the river is tidal, the Gulf is accessible by boat from the town.

Several cattle stations were established in the area in the mid 1800's, including Gregory Downs. When Burketown was established it served as the main supply area and port for these cattle stations. Originally Burketown was intended as a major north Queensland town but in 1866 it was plagued by disease and in 1867 was all but wiped out by a cyclone.

Today Burketown is well known for its Barramundi and holds an annual competition at Easter. During the latter part of the year long tubular clouds roll in and are known as Morning Glory. This type of cloud is only found in two places in the world, here and Mexico.

During the wet season the area experiences heavy rainfalls and often the roads are cut off by floods.

Heading west again on the Savannah Highway out of Burketown and 25 kilometers out of town gives you the choice of continuing towards the Northern Territory border or heading south to Gregory Downs.

The round trip from the intersection until you return to the Savannah Way is all dirt and some of it regarded as not the best with parts of it being closed after heavy rains. It is an interesting diversion though and worth considering. You could end up doing about 300km or more on the diversion against the 70 or so had you just continued along the Savannah Way.

There is a very small population in the Gregory Downs area, mostly involved in the grazing industry, and the main attraction is the historic coach house built in the late 1800's and now serves as the Gregory Downs Hotel. One of the main sporting activities in the area are the Gregory River Canoe Races.

To the west is the Lawn Hill National Park, also known as Boodjamulla National Park, and the spectacular gorges and freshwater pools. Adjacent to the Lawn Hill National Park are the Riversleigh Fossil Fields which are World Heritage listed.

This is a perfect spot to stop for a few days and unwind. Excellent canoeing, fishing, birdwatching, bush walking, 4wd'riving and more, and all in a paradise of a  setting.

From here we head north to rejoin the Savannah Way, either at Doomadgee or further along the Savannah Way and just north of the Corinda Ruins, although this is a longer route. If you plan to go into the Doomadgee settlement you should be aware that it is an alcohol free area, as are some of the other settlements adjacent to the Savannah Way.

Once back on the main road we again head north west towards Hells Gate Roadhouse which is only about 50km from the border and the end of the Gulf Savannah country. Here you will find mechanical repairs, accommodation of varying types, camp sites and supplies, all situated in an oasis setting of lush grass and trees. In addition there is some excellent fishing in the area although some of the best spots are in private property. Permission must be obtained before using these spots.

The Hells Gate Roadhouse is at the gateway to what is known as the Macassan Coast which got its name from the Indonesian fisherman who fished the area for delicacies in the 1700's and who sailed from the port of Makassar.

Once over the Northern Territory, Queensland borderwe travel north west towards Borroloola, running parallel to the Gulf of Carpentaria's coastline.

Just over the border is the Wollogorang Station that used to have supplies and be open to tourists, however this has now been closed to the public so Borroloola is now our next destination. Borroloola is approximately 50 km inland and situated on the McArthur River. Founded in the late 1800's, it has a rich history of mining and
Aboriginal culture.

The Borroloola area is well known for its barramundi, game and reef fishing and mud crabs from King Ash Bay. Charter boats offer additional, excellent fishing off Barranyi National Park's North Island.

King Ash Bay offers camping, large boat ramp, fuel and other supplies. It is the main setting off point for the Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands situated offshore in the bay, of which Barranyi National Park is one.

From Borroloola head west along the Carpentaria Highway towards Cape Crawford, a funny name for an inland town.

In between plan a visit to the Caranbirini Conservation Reserve in the Bukalara Range.

On to Cape Crawford, which is at the junction of the Carpentaria and Tablelands Highways. It was settled by drovers who worked the area in the late 1800's and was named after one of the drovers Lindsay Crawford.

Perhaps one of the most spectacular attractions of the area are the helicopter tours to the Lost City in the Abner Ranges. This is an incredible sight of sandstone columns, weathered for over a billion years, that just tower into the air up to 25 meters high. Helicopter is the only way to make the 10 or so kilometer trip and, once landed
amongst the rocks at the Lost City, a walking tour is conducted through the columns lasting for about 1.5 hours.

The Lost City is an Aboriginal Sacred Site and there is only one tour operator allowed in. This is a "must see" if you are in the area.

Further from Cape Crawford, about 70 kilometers, on Bauhinia Downs Station, is the Poppy Pools. These are hot springs where the water rises more than 5 kilometers underground. The water flows generously all year round and has carved spectacular waterfalls and fed plentiful species of flora. Helicopter tours also go the the Poppy Pools and drive yourself is also permitted.

There are two routes available to you once you leave Cape Crawford, west along the Carpentaria Highway, or Highway 1, to Daly Waters or north along the Savannah Way to Roper Bar.

Heading north out of Cape Crawford towards Linmen Bight for about 100 kilometers brings you to a turnoff east to Lorella Springs Station, about 30 kilometers off the main route. This is an enormous property of over 1 million acres and is a paradise of gorges, rivers, creeks, thermal springs and, at its north east extremity, the coast. Fishing is superb and camping is available.

The next heading along the Savannah Way is to Roper Bar on the Roper River. First discovered in about 1845 it was opened up to river boats in around 1870 allowing paddle steamers to bring supplies to the Overland Telegraph construction crew as well as to the local cattle stations that had been opened up in the area. One of the veterans of that river trade, the Young Australian, lies wrecked about 20 kilometers downstream from Roper Bar.

Now days Roper Town is very small and consists of little more than a police station, store, roadhouse and motel cum caravan park.

The Roper River is yet another excellent barramundi fishing spot but beware of the crocs.

From Roper Bar head west along the Savannah Highway to Mataranka.

The Carpentaria Highway route takes you through Daly Waters, the home to a population of about 30, the oldest licensed pub in Australia and one of the oldest buildings in the Northern Territory.

In the early days of international flights the Daly Waters airport was a stop of point for overseas flights to Australia and, during the second world war, it became a RAAF base.

Whichever way you have gone on the last leg of this trip, Daly Waters or Roper Bar, you will now be heading for Mataranka, a tropical oasis situated on the Roper River and just north of the junction of the Carpentaria and Sturt Highways.

Whilst the town is not that large, Mataranka is on the main Darwin to Adelaide route and well equipped to cater for the traveler and the occupants of the surrounding cattle stations equally. There is a fair amount of Aboriginal history connected to the area as can be witnessed at the Never Never Museum.

The area became well known in the early 1900's when Jeannie Gunn's book "We of the Never Never", based on the Elsey Station south of Mataranka, was published.

Elsey Station was one of the very early cattle stations of the Northern Territory and Jeannie Gunn and her husband Aeneas from Victoria, who owned a third share, moved into the homestead on the property in 1902. In 1903 Aeneas died of blackwater fever.

There is a cemetery near the old homestead in which many of the "We of the Never Never" characters were buried.

Mataranka is also well known for its thermal pool and its relaxing and rejuvenating abilities. The Mataranka Falls and Elsey National Park are also worth a visit whilst you are in town.

From Mataranka and north west for about 100 kilometers along the Savannah Way and you are in Katherine which is a busy tourist town as well as regional supply centre to the many pastoral properties in the area.

You could spend quite some time in Katherine visiting the towns attractions as well as the spectacular countryside nearby.

A must see while you are at Katherine is the Nitmiluk, or Katherine Gorge, National Park where the Katherine River has cut a series of 13 gorges through the sandstone. The park is a little more commercialised than Gregory National Park but, nevertheless, is breathtaking and well worth th visit with attractions to suit most interests including canoeing, swimming, bush walking and photography.

Having left Katherine, and about three hours drive, are the spectacular gorges of the Gregory National Park and its remote sandstone escarpments near Timber Creek. This is our next destination along the Savannah Way. This section is officially called the Victoria Highway and Timber Creek is approximately half way between Katherine
and Kununurra.

Much of the park is four wheel drive only and offers great camping swimming, fishing, flora and fauna. Several of the areas are over very rough tracks and caravans and trailers are not allowed in some parts.

Heading west from Timber Creek, and bordering on the Western Australian border is the Keep River National Park with its, often, spectacular views and scenery. Its character changes greatly between the wet and dry seasons when the one offers raging torrents of water whilst the other often offers up dry river beds along which you can walk to do your sightseeing along the gorge.

Once over the border into Western Australia the next destination is Kununurra. Our final destination is still some way off at Broome but the last leg will see you travel through the region most often referred to as Australia's Last Frontier, The Kimberley.

The region between Kununurra and Broome is a section of its own and is covered on our The Kimberley web page.

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Australian 4x4 Travel - The Savannah Way, Australia

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