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Gulf Country - Travelling the Savannah Way

Roper Bar to Borroloola 
Borroloola to Doomadgee 
Doomadgee to Normanton 
Normanton to Cairns 
Useful information 
 

Roper Bar to Normanton via Borroloola (1162km)

The Savannah Way follows the Gulf of Carpentaria across the top of Australia, roughly tracing the line cut by explorer Ludwig Leichhardt during his travels in 1845.
The name is a fairly recent one - it has been known in the past both as the Great Top Road and the Gulf Track. 'The Savannah Way' actually refers to a route that stretches from Darwin to Cairns - part of the trek described here is called the Leichhardt Track!

The Queensland and Northern Territory governments recently launched a joint promotional campaign for the Savannah Way, in association with improvements to the main part of the track that now see it able to be easily covered in a conventional car - as long as it's dry of course. Whatever its name, this is a long but rewarding trek with stunning tropical scenery, vast areas of the savannah woodland that give the route its name, wetlands and unusual rock formations. When the barramundi are biting - in the west season - it's a magical place to fish.

The route is passable to all vehicles (including caravans) during the dry season, generally late April to early October. It is also navigable during what's called 'the stormy season' from October to January. It is advisable to take a 4WD or high clearance vehicle, although it may pose problems for some caravans at this time. The stormy season lives up to its name - roads are often cut for a day or two following torrents of afternoon rain, but if you're not in a hurry it has its rewards.

Contact the Visitor Information centres along way for advice on road conditions during this time. It's best not to attempt the route from January to March in any vehicle, because you might get stuck for many days or even weeks.

You won't need any permits to travel along the Savannah Way. Generally, you can camp along rivers and creeks but if you're planning to set up camp away from the road, ask permission from the relevant landholder if possible.

As all rivers in the region are inhabited by both saltwater and freshwater crocodiles, it goes without saying that you should avoid swimming in them. Most areas where they're likely to be lurking are signposted, but be careful.

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Roper Bar to Borroloola (372km)

Roper Bar to Borroloola

A small community, Roper Bar is situated at the tidal reach of the Roper River, at the place where Leichhardt first crossed it.
The Roper is a good base for people who want to go fishing, and the general store is the last place where you can stock up on fuel (leaded, unleaded, diesel and LPG), food and water before Borroloola. Open daily, 9am-6pm, the store also offers a camping area and local touring and fishing information. Note that alcohol is not available at Roper Bar and is prohibited in the surrounding Aboriginal communities.

The road heading out of Roper Bar is good, graded two or three times a year and wide enough for two cars. It winds south then north through a series of ranges, past the Aboriginal community of Ngukurr (no facilities) and over various creeks before arriving at the ruins of St Vidgeon Homestead. Not far from the ruins is the beautiful Lomarieum Lagoon, a small paradise with plentiful birdlife and carpets of waterlilies. This is a lovely place to stop and boil the billy or set up camp for the night.

Eighteen kilometres from here, a road leads off to the right to Borroloola. Take the turn or you'll end up at Port Roper, an Aboriginal community on the Limmen Bight that you'll need permission to enter.

As you head south, you enter the newly proclaimed Limmen National Park. It's worth stopping to have a look at the advisory signs explaining what you can see and do here, because most printed touring information won't have up to date details.

There are many places where you can camp and fish in Limmen. Towns River is excellent. You can camp near the causeway, or take a left turn on the south side of the river, which leads to a campground.

The track gets a bit rougher south of Towns River on the way to Butterfly Springs, a beautiful oasis where hundreds of thousands of butterflies shelter from the sun in the cool shade of a rocky outcrop. Camp here among the fern leaved Grevilleas, and have a swim (it's safe) in the natural pool.

South of Butterfly Springs, take the left turn for the eight kilometres drive to the Lost City. A one hour walk circumnavigates this spectacular rock formation, which is similar to the famed Bungle Bungles in WA.

South of the Lost City is another left turn to Lorella Springs, 29km east along a rough but reasonable single lane track. Lorella Springs is a privately owned campground with facilities plus a natural hot spring. It also has an access track to the Gulf itself, and is a popular camping sport for fishos.

You'll come to a T-intersection about 100km from Nathan River - right to Cape Crawford, left to Borroloola. Turn left. In 50km you'll join the sealed Carpentaria Highway and from here, it's about 30km to Borroloola.

Back in the 1880s, the outpost of Borroloola had a reputation as a bit of a redneck town, peopled with all sorts of strange characters who worked at the port and on the surrounding stations. Today, the town is a fishing port and regional centre for local properties and mines.

Facilities include a hotel, various forms of accommodation, fuel, mechanical repairs, general stores, boat hire, police, medical centre, post office and banking agencies.

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Borroloola to Doomadgee (398km)

Borroloola to DoomadgeeOverall this stretch is a good, wide, earth-formed carriageway. You'll need to take care at the creek crossings - some of them can be particularly nasty after rain. This is genuine Gulf Savannah country, and there's a lot of it.

For the first 100km or so, the road is reasonably straight and runs through densely timbered areas. The first river of any note that you'll cross is the Wearyan; about 15km further, just past the Foelsche River, you will come to a T-intersection where you should turn right to Wollogorang. The Robinson River is about 35km further on. Some of the stations around this part of the Gulf allow camping and fishing on their land and in their rivers. All they ask is that you report to the relevant homestead upon arrival. Ask around at Borroloola for details.

After crossing the Calvert River, the country changes. The track winds up through a small range, then catches you unawares as it plummets into the valley on the far side. Once in the valley, it's only about 10km to Wollogorang. Wollogorang Roadhouse is now closed.

The section of track between Wollogorang and Doomadgee recently had huge amounts of money spent on it in upgrading and is now a fairly decent bit of road, although potholes can still take you by surprise after rain.

After crossing the Queensland border, follow the Burketown signs and bear right. Burketown to Doomadgee is 93km with 45km sealed in 4 sections.

It's 54km from the border to the leafy Hell's Gate Roadhouse, where you'll find fuel (leaded, unleaded and diesel), basic accommodation, camping out the back (with powered sites, showers and a laundry) and a limited licensed restaurant.

From Hell's Gate, it's 81km to the Aboriginal community of Doomadgee. 25km of this road sealed in 2 sections. You can buy food and fuel supplies - it's open Monday and Wednesday to Friday, 8am-4.30pm, Tuesday, 10am-4.30pm and Saturday, 11am-12.30pm.

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Doomadgee to Normanton (325km)

Doomadgee to Normanton

However before you reach Doomadgee, about 50km east of Hells Gate, is a right turn on to a rough but pretty 4WD track that will eventually take you to Lawn Hill National Park. Kingfisher Camp is located 42km from the turnoff, near Bowthorn Homestead, where accommodation is no longer available. Kingfisher Camp, on the bank of the Nicholson River, is a pretty spot, with plenty of room to spread out, grassed shady campsites, clean facilities and a launching ramp for easy access to the river. Boat hire is also available.

It's 135km from Kingfisher Camp to Adels Grove, the main camping area at Lawn Hill National Park. If you prefer to take an easier route, stick with the Savannah Way and follow the road south from Doomadgee, or go via Gregory Downs.

Lawn Hill is a serene place on the eastern escarpments of the Barkly Tableland. The park is a highlight of this trek and shouldn't be missed. It offers a well designed campground beside Lawn Hill Gorge; alternatively, campsites, a restaurant and accommodation are available 10km north at Adel's Grove, a homestead just outside the park's boundary which also has supplies, tours to the nearby Riversleigh Fossil field and fuel (leaded, unleaded and diesel). Canoes are available for hire in the campground at Lawn Hill Gorge. It's also worth taking one or more of the walks which start from the campground. The walk around the Island Stack, above Lawn Hill creek, is a beauty.

Back on the Savannah Way, about 5km out of Burketown is the turnoff to Escott Lodge, a cattle station offering accommodation, meals, camping facilities, fuel (leaded and diesel only) and fishing activities in which you can participate. It's an easy journey from here to Burketown, a small but important administrative centre for the region. It has the usual town facilities including banking agencies and a hospital. Accommodation is available at the pub, the caravan park, or a cabin/motel style complex.

If you want to hole up for a few days and do some fishing, head out of Burketown, past the hospital, on the track to the Albert River. It's only a short drive to the river itself, where camping is permitted on the banks and there's a boat ramp. Offshore, Sweers and Mornington Islands are also popular fishing spots. Enquire at Burketown about air charters to both places.

Burketown to the Leichardt River (72km) is sealed but from the river to Normanton is unsealed. Whilst during the dry season the road is open to conventional vehicles, during and just after the wet it is definitely 4WD only. In periods of heavy rain, it closes due to flash-flooding at numerous creek and river crossings. Note that there are no petrol facilities in the 228km between Burketown and Normanton.

The major points of interest along this part of the Savannah Way are about 70km out of Burketown. Near the turnoff to Floraville Homestead, there's a monument to explorer Frederick Walker, who died here in 1866 whilst searching for Burke and Wills. Just past the turnoff are the Leichhardt River and Falls, a pleasant spot with good campsites. Swimming is tempting but the waters are croc-infested, so it's probably best to paddle (carefully) in the various small ponds lying around. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for the falls to dry up during the dry season.

From here, follow the signs to Normanton, across numerous grids and past the turnoffs to Wernadinga and Inverleigh Homesteads. The Flinders River crossing is 28km from Inverleigh, shortly followed by the Bynoe and Little Bynoe Rivers. A track leads a little way off the right to a campsite, Camp 119, where Burke and Wills stopped on their way back from the Gulf in 1861. From here, it's another 37km to Normanton.

Lying at the junction of the Matilda Highway and the Burke and Gulf Developmental Roads, Normanton is the largest town in the district, catering for outlying properties and communities and servicing a flourishing tourist trade. There are numerous pubs in town as well as accommodation, supermarkets, police, a hospital and a bank. One of Normanton's claims to fame is as the terminus of the Gulflander, a passenger train that operates once a week between Normanton and the old gold mining town of Croydon. It's a terrific trip worth taking.

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Normanton to Cairns

The Savannah Way from Normanton to Cairns is sealed as is also the Normanton/Karumba road.

If you're heading on to Cairns from Normanton, you basically have two choices as to routes - the Gulf Developmental Road and Kennedy Highway via Croydon and Georgetown (700km) or the Burke Developmental Road via Dunbar and Chillagoe (772km).

The former is completely bituminised with fuel facilities en route, making the run a fairly easy one and suitable for conventional vehicles.

There are many attractions along both of the roads to Cairns including the Undara Lava Tubes and some magnificent national parks.

Undarra is worth visiting. It has several types of accommodation, supplies, a restaurant and camping ground. You can only visit the famous Lava Tubes on a tour from Undarra. Here, you'll be accompanied by a Savannah Guide, an accredited guide who has been properly trained and knows all there is to know about the area.

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Useful information 
Road service   13 11 11
National Parks Qld Queensland (Lawn Hill)  (07) 4748 5572 
Savannah Way info The Savannah Way
  Savannah Guides  
National Parks NT (08) 8973 8888 
Police Borroloola  (08) 8975 8770 
  Burketown (07) 4745 5120
  Doomadgee (07) 4745 8222
  Normanton (07) 4745 1133
  Roper River (08) 8975 4644
Road Conditions NT 1800 246 199
QLD 1300 130 595
Services Adel's Grove  (07) 4748 5502
  Escott Lodge (07) 4748 5577
  Hell's Gate Roadhouse (07) 4745 8258
  Kingfisher Camp (07) 4745 8212
  Undarra 1800 990 992
Tourist Information  Croydon (07) 4745 6125
  Katherine Region (08) 8972 2650
  Gulf Savannah Tourist Organisation (07) 4051 4658 

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All information quoted on this site is correct as at October 2005 however the information could change without notice and National Roads and Motorists' Association Limited cannot accept responsibility for any consequences whatsoever.

Images courtesy of Queensland and Northern Territory Tourism.

All information quoted on this site is correct as at October 2005 however the information could change without notice and National Roads and Motorists' Association Limited cannot accept responsibility for any consequences whatsoever.
All information was correct at the time of writing but may change without notice.

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