Touring Australia’s north region in the wet season is a unique time to visit as Monica McInnes discovered during her roadtrip from reef to gulf following the Savannah Way.
It’s one of life’s great conundrums – a camping roadtrip in the wet season. I mean – really? Do we want to do this? And, do we really want to tackle the Savannah Way of all routes when there is a high probability of being isolated for days or back-tracking from flooded rivers or damaged roads?
Despite concerns about flooding and getting our feet wet from either torrential downpours, or the high humidity, we embarked on our adventure from Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef, to Karumba and the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland’s north. It was an adventure we won’t forget.
We had been watching the weather closely, paying particular attention to the Gilbert River between the towns of Georgetown and Croydon. It had been flooded, but its status varied throughout the day. We must have been the first calls to the relevant councils that morning asking about the river. “It has gone down overnight and we are expecting it to be re-opened in a few hours,” replied the Etheridge Shire Council employee.
It was time to move westward.
There was light rain in Cairns as we packed up our camper making sure we had plenty of supplies in case we became isolated for a few days. Water and fuel tanks full, we let family and friends know our plans via social media. Okay, we also let a real person know, not just the cyberspace junkies!
We wound our way around the Gilles Range Road and up into the Atherton Tablelands. Our first stop was by chance at the Avenue of Honour in Yungaburra on the shores of Lake Tinaroo. It is a memorial to those who lost their lives in Afghanistan. Each was individually honoured, along with military dogs. Interestingly, the memorial follows the funeral procession of one of the region’s sons, Commando Benjamin Chuck who was killed in a helicopter crash in 2010. His silhouette stands proudly at the entrance to the memorial. The living memorial features Illawarra Flame trees which, when in bloom from November through to early January, are a spectacular backdrop for Remembrance Day services. There are rocks from Tarin Kot under the wings in the main memorial area, and one tree in the avenue faces towards Afghanistan, some 10,000 kilomteres away.
Not quite as far from here is a short waterfall circuit near the town of Millaa Millaa. The recent rain guaranteed decent water at the falls, and they didn’t disappoint. We drove the circuit on Theresa Creek Road and stopped off at all three waterfalls. First was the ever-popular and arguably most photographed waterfall in Australia – Millaa Millaa Falls. It’s 18-metre single drop, is easily recognised. Even in dreary weather the brilliant blue of the Ulysses butterfly flittering by will lighten your day. Zillie Falls was next. We had a vantage point at the top of the falls to watch the water cascade over the precipice. My favourite discovery was the magical Ellinjaa Falls – a short walk to the creek below led to a glorious waterfall with refreshingly cool water to wade in.
Still on the waterfall trail our next stop was the Millstream Falls National Park. And, just as we pulled into the empty carpark the heavens opened! Umbrellas up, we headed down the short bitumen path to see Australia’s widest, single drop (albeit short!) waterfall. It was impressive nonetheless, with large volumes of water rushing over the ledge. The park was used by the Army during the Second World War and a one kilometre walk takes you past some well preserved relics.
After a bite to eat inside the car we were back on the highway and passed by the gemstone town of Mt Garnet, once famed for its namesake. We turned onto the Gulf Development Road and drove through another gem mining and fossicking town – Mt Surprise – before storms we had been tracking front, left and right collided in a deluge above us. In the poor visibility we dropped our speed, and peeled our eyes for oncoming vehicles and washed out shoulders.
From my window I marveled at the speed at which the water was flowing along the cracks and ravines on the hardened earth. Then, like a well-rehearsed orchestra, the rain stopped just as quickly and abruptly as it had started.
On our approach into Georgetown we called the council to check the status of the Gilbert River. It was open, so we pushed on to Croydon. Together with the Einasleigh River, this is the largest river system in Australia’s north, intersecting the Gulf Development Road about halfway between Georgetown and Croydon. Approaching the single lane bridge at a crawl, we wound down our windows to take in the sights and sounds of this powerful and swollen river. The flattened grass on the banks testified to its earlier height.
Another hour down the road we pulled into Croydon – and we had struck gold with this historic little town. A goldrush saw people flock here and its history is well-preserved in both the Visitor Information Centre and heritage buildings throughout the town.
We checked into the pleasant Council-run, caravan park, which offers a 10 percent discount to veterans and gave the local pub a quick call to check if it was doing dinner. My query about the dress code was met with a chuckle – “this is Croydon mate, just so long as you have something on your feet, you’ll be right.”
The old pub was built in 1887 and has seen its fair share of excitement over the years – even a ghost in the laundry according to a newspaper clipping from the time. But the barmaid who lives above the pub doesn’t believe that one. “Nah, I’ve never seen any ghosts and we sleep right next door to the laundry room,” she smirked.
The next morning we woke to a bright blue day – such a welcome change from somber skies. We popped into the Visitor Information Centre to learn more about the town and were taken across the road to view the original Police Station, Jail, Sergeant’s Home, the Town Hall and Court House. Look out for the two original street lamps outside the Town Hall. We grabbed a cold drink and snack from the ‘frozen-in-time’ General Store before heading to Normanton.
Just a couple of hours later we were driving into the town famed for its massive crocodile – ‘Krys’. Legend has it that in July 1957 on the Norman River, Polish immigrant, Krystina Pawlowski, shot the 8.63-metre saltie square between the eyes. It remains the world’s biggest saltwater crocodile ever killed. The life-size replica is of dinosaur proportions!
Also hard to miss is the Purple Pub – the local watering hole sans crocs. It was closed for lunch the day we were there, so we called in to the local snack-bar-cum-corner-store opposite. Eating our lunch streetside, a local man was on for a yarn. He told us about his health and the weather. We learned this was only half the rain the area needed and predicted that Walker Creek would be getting up and it would be “touch and go” if we got to Karumba.
Undaunted, we checked the official road status with the council and set off on our final leg to the Gulf.
The drive to Karumba was a real treat. After waving to some locals fishing in the Norman River, we moved through the Muttonhole Wetlands filled with birdlife. They swooped, they soared, some perched on fence posts and tree stumps, while others looked at us inquisitively as we sped by. There were egrets, black cockatoos, eagles, kites, magpie geese, brolgas and cranes. The area is a haven for migratory birds from Asia.
Soon we came to Walker Creek where the water was lapping the small bridge. We hoped it would be like the Gilbert River, which peaks and drops quickly and often. But we would need to seek local knowledge at Karumba.
Situated at the mouth of the Norman River as it spills into the Gulf of Carpentaria, Karumba’s claim to fame is its seafood. Barramundi, mud crabs, salmon and prawns are all local Gulf residents. As we drove into Karumba, boats moored in people’s front yards signalling the off-season. We smelled the seawater before we arrived to look out across the Gulf. We spoke to a worker at the Sunset Tavern, as we admired the view. She told us that Walker Creek was fed by the Gilbert River and once it’s up it can stay that way for days. “Once we were cut off for about two weeks when Walker’s went over,” she recalled. It wasn’t what we had hoped to hear. The manager at the Sunset Caravan Park sang from the same hymn sheet.
And so it was decided. We would have to backtrack quickly before continuing our journey home.
Despite our heavy hearts at not eating fresh seafood and watching the sun dip into calm waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria, we were not disappointed with our decision to take the wet season’s roads less travelled. Our brief encounter with the Savannah Way was captivating. It was teeming with life – birds, native animals, stock, flourishing flora, and brimming waterways. We saw storms roll-in, clouds grow dark, rains falling in the distance, rainbows arching, and glimpses of blue sky peeking through grey clouds. And best of all, the townsfolk welcomed their unexpected arrivals with open arms. It was a grand time to visit and we are so glad we did.