Have road, will travel. We’re keen roadies, so when it comes to understanding the heartbeat of a sprawling state like Queensland, we rent a camper van, gear up, and head off on our road trip. Not knowing quite what might be around the corner never daunts us. We’re intrepid adventurers, perhaps like you?
All of the nearly 3,000km circuit described here was suitable for our 2WD camper van. Next time? We’ll rent a 4WD to tackle most roads, flooded or clear, and gain access to remoter areas.
Cairns-Kakadu-Lawn Hill-Burketown-Cairns road trip
We rented our camper van in Brisbane, and drove north along the Sunshine Coast to Cairns. From that coastal city, our back-of-beyond roadie adventure kicked in.
Turning west on the Savannah Way, we drove to Mareeba, Atherton, Ravenshoe, Georgetown, Normantown and Karumba – a distance of 800 km. From that northern coastal town, we backtracked 70 km to Normanton, then west to Burketown – another 230 kms, via Leichardt Falls. (A visit to Burketown Pub, “Australia’s Greatest Outback Hotel” was de rigeur, naturally.)
From Burketown, we drove the Wills Development Road south to Gregory (120 kms), then west another 100 km on a gravel track to Lawn Hill Gorge.
Leaving Lawn Hill taught us about many explorers swear by 4WD: we were forced to backtrack – something roadies so hate to do – because a road was flooded and we didn’t want to risk it in our 2WD camper.
We returned to Gregory to make our way south to the Barkly Highway along the Gregory Downs-Camoowealla Road – an extra 90 km of unsealed road.
At the Barkly Highway, we continued on our road trip west to Perth. However, returning east to Cairns is straightforward: drive 255 km east through Mount Isa on Barkly Highway to join the Flinders Highway. From there it is ~770 kms to Townsville, and ~350 kms more north to Cairns.
Cairns to Mareeba: Atherton Tablelands
Waving goodbye to the Pacific and our snorkelling experiences on the Great Barrier Reef, we headed off on our road trip inland, first passing through the Cairns Highlands, then entering the undulating hills of the Atherton Tablelands.
Dairy cattle grazed in lush grassy paddocks and almost at every turn, breathtaking views captured our fancy – a pastoral contrast from the coastal, ocean landscape of the Sunshine Coast.Further on, we entered the java region of Oz, where more than 70 per cent of the nations’ coffee crop is grown. So a stop in Mareeba’s Coffee Works may be necessary for the driver…
Plan to visit the superb Mareeba Heritage Museum – also home to the “i” (Australia’s Visitor Information Centres). Exhibits are wide-ranging, affording a good overview of the history of Queensland.
Here we learned about Aboriginal life prior to European contact and settlement, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) involvement in Gallipoli, the waves of immigrants and types of agriculture, and much, much more – such as the ant-bed shovel.
Before roads and wifi, this region was “out back of nowhere”, so it’s fascinating to see the wireless station both made and used right here.
Communication was important as this and the telephone party line exhibit demonstrates. Many artefacts can be touched, a feature fascinating for more than youngsters.
Wildlife: Granite Gorge Nature Park
Birding and wildlife watching is superb around Mareeba, so we camped at Granite Gorge Nature Park, north of Mareeba to experience the northern savannah (grassland) wilderness.
The park’s rare, endangered Unadorned Rock Wallabies – cute smaller cousins of kangaroos – can be fed here (staff provide macropod pellets so you can feed them this specially formulated, appropriate food).
Walking tracks (paths) here are adventurous and some can be rugged because the boulders are immense: leaping from one to another can be awkward. Happily, there are tracks designed for all levels of walker. Be realistic about your capabilities – and have fun.
You’ll likely be awakened by the crazy “laughter” of kookaburras, but watch for birds like tawny owls at dusk, and during daytime koels, and many parrots and finches.
Ravenshoe to Georgetown
From Mareeba, via Highway 1, we checked out Windy Hill Wind Farm – the first wind farm in Queensland, built in 1996.Wind turbines are controversial all over the world, but as a renewable energy source, they’re likely here to stay. This farm`s viewing area shows their sleek industrial design to full advantage.
West and southwest took us to Forty Mile Scrub National Park, on the McBride Plateau. This is a landscape of volcanic flows, and the park was created to conserve a remnant of dry rainforest, grassy woodlands, and the headwaters of three creeks.
Bottle (baobab) trees grow here, as do other rare species such as white bean, white cedar, and fig trees. We particularly appreciated seeing our first baobabs outside of a botanic garden: their chubby trunks lend them their common name.
Camping roadside is what we love to do, and out here, camping for free beneath a canopy of stars was awesome.Nearby, Undara Lava Tubes – where lava once flowed from volcanic eruptions – make a fascinating stop. We pressed on, travelling through Mount Surprise (a road stop with two petrol stations straddling the highway).
The settlement was a railway town and is the first Gulf Savannah town travellers from the east like us meet. Although you need a permit, fossickers can search for gems: perhaps you will find topaz, quarts, cairngorm and others.
Next stop: Georgetown, a centre for the Etherton Goldfields located on the Etherton River – it was a dusty dry bed when we passed through on the Gulf Developmental Road. In fact, throughout the outback, it’s astonishing to see road signs marking flood levels, because the landscape seems devoid of water.
While driving, we kept our eyes open for wildlife and here, despite the “seeming nothingness” as usual there’s actually tons to see.
Brolgas were roadside, with grown-up chicks: these large crane-like birds are sacred to Aboriginal peoples, and many legends and artwork featuring of these birds exist. Romantically perhaps, their name means “native companion.”Another common sign alerts drivers to road trains. These are large trucks, sometimes 53 (or more) metres long. They travel at daunting speeds and we learned the protocols of driving off-shoulder (and sometimes stopping) while they pass.Normanton to Karumba
Now we’re seriously in the grasslands, destination Karumba on the Gulf of Carpenteria. We’re conscious of the luxury of driving in the laborious footsteps of doomed explorers, Burke and Wills, who perished trying to reach the Gulf. Their Camp 119 lies about 30 km southwest of Normantown, our next destination.
Normantown is a cattle town on the Norman River. Exploring, we discover a statue of Krys. At 8.5 metres long, it’s the largest saltwater crocodile ever seen – shot by Krystina Pawlowska in July 1957 in the river. It’s a daunting size, and as we approach Karumba, a timely reminder to tourists who wish to swim, that Aussie crocs are both fresh- and saltwater.Undaunted, we pressed on to Karumba. The capital of Gulf Country, here we were astonished by sprawling camper van parks largely occupied by semi-permanent residents. Aussies are inveterate roadies and retirees among the tribe are dubbed “Grey Nomads.”
The moniker is apt, because many retired folks sell their homes, buy a lux camper van, and escape winter by hunkering down in places like Karumba. Here, they fish, play cards, jog, and generally enjoy a relaxed life.
Travellers like us seamlessly interweave into the rhythm, appreciating Karumba’s fabulous sunsets. Anglers will want to try fishing for delicious barramundi in the Norman River which boasts the largest such fish ever caught, at 6 metres.South to Lawn Hill
Via Normantown, we continued along the Savannah Way to Burketown. Talking of Grey Nomads, we discovered they are a fount of knowledge – much the same as at International Hostels, they are serious travellers, not tourists. Take time to strike up conversations, and like us, you may discover out-of-the-way but delightful, non-touristy stops.
That’s how we found Leichhardt Falls, where veteran roadies not only welcomed us for supper, but showed us how to dine on crabbies. Resembling small lobsters, these crayfish were easily caught with inexpensive, small nets – and were delicious.The Falls is astonishing: in June the broad river had shrunk, exposing a dramatic set of stepped waterfalls which we could only imagine as churning whitewater during wet season floods (November through April).
Our Grey Nomad pals also taught us to be wary of tranquil-looking “swimming holes.” They showed us crocodile tracks and then, I gasped: “There’s one!” Basking in the sunshine, a croc slowly opened and closed its jaws. Although not a Krys in size, it was good enough warning for this keen swimmer to stay out of the water…
Now to Burketown… a town Wikipedia describes as “isolated”. Its claims to fame are the annual Easter Barramundi fishing competition, celebrating the town being the barramundi capital of Oz. Here too find the Burketown Pub, where fisher folks growl about “the ones that got away” – and compete regarding sizes and weights of ones which didn’t.
Don’t miss the Burketown “i” which has astonishing photos of the flooding of Musgrave and Burke streets.
Gregory to Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill Gorge National Park)
Population 40. That’s Gregory, in a nutshell, so seemingly, it’s “just another back o’ beyond service stops” for petrol and supplies. But of course, there’s a story: the town grew up as part of the Gregory Downs Station – “stations” being Aussie for ranches.
The homestead was located in town and this cattle station was one of the Gulf Country’s first pastoral properties.Another important thing: the Gregory River is perennial, meaning it always has water. That’s critical for wildlife, so we weren’t surprised to find all sorts of critters, such as wallabies and wallaroos through to a host of birds.
Boodjamulla – the Aboriginal name for Lawn Hill Gorge National Park – is testimony to how crucial water is to life. After having travelled from Cairns to Karumba to this parkland oasis, roadies well know the vast stretches of dryland. And, we’ve seen the flood signage marked on stretches of dried, baked riverbeds. So, Boodjamulla is indeed a sanctuary, where the welcome of the Waanyi peoples serves to remind us that these are sacred, special lands deserving of our respect as we explore.
And explore we did. We camped at forested sites where a boobook owl surveyed us from its lofty perch. We canoed upriver to explore the gorgeand yes, saw freshwater crocs basking along the shore.Despite their presence, I couldn’t resist a dip – so in we both plunged, flirting with disaster. Happily, the cooling waters soothed our souls and we clambered out on the docks, refreshed.
We hiked, we sketched, and we luxuriated, appreciating shaded serenity. It was hard to leave: the contrasting colours of red rock, turquoise waters, green rushes and trees, and a blue sky spoke to our hearts.
Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) to Cairns
Leaving the park presented us with our first flooded road, forcing us to turn back and backtrack rather than risk getting bogged.
Backtrack we did to Gregory, then made our way south on the road more suited to 2WD vehicles. At the Barkly Highway we turned west, to the Northern Territories, and our final destination of Perth.
On a previous trip, we’d driven a station wagon east on the Barkly Highway through Mount Isa, then joined the Flinders Hwy beyond Cloncurry to bring us to Townsville – nearly 1,000 kms of good road.
Townsville is fantastic, and a super way to return to ocean life. Acquaint yourself with marine life at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, or take the ferry to Magnetic Island. We did just that, so we could first identify marine life before we snorkelled, off-island, to see the fish and coral.
Enjoy being a roadie, to get to know the back of beyond, and the characters who make Australia rock!