Words and pics: Chris Whitelaw
The Whitelaws take in the territory tropics, rocky outcrops and station country along the eastern end of the Savannah Way.
Read on to discover the best things to see and do on the Savannah Way.
The Savannah Way crosses 1500km through the Northern Territory, with more than 600km on unsealed, 4WD-only roads.
After smoko beneath the paperbarks by the Bar, we set off along the Nathan River Road, which follows the south bank of the Roper River, and soon entered Limmen National Park (NP). The park encloses 1.236 million hectares of some of the most remarkable country in the Territory’s Top End. Eucalypts dominate the sparse, tropical savannah landscape of woodland and low quartzite ridges. During the dry season, the network of shallow creeks that cross the floodplains shrink to isolated billabongs and lagoons. We diverted briefly to one of these, Lomarieum Lagoon, near the ruins of St Vidgeon Homestead. This small paradise, with plentiful birdlife and carpets of waterlilies, presented as a beaut bush camp but it was still early in the day and we decided to press on to Towns River, further down the track.
Conveniently located about halfway between Mataranka and Cape Crawford, the bush camp beside the Towns River is a beautiful location by any measure and a handy waypoint to break the testing gravel road along this section of the Savannah Way. The very popular camping area is just south of the river crossing, on a broad sandstone platform that drops several metres sheer into a long stretch of water lined with reeds and rushes. That evening, as the sun dipped below the forest on the far bank, we set up our camp chairs on the ‘verandah’ to watch a spectacular sunset so typical of the Gulf Country. Next morning, a gentle dawn light filtered through the mist to reveal a mirror-smooth river and several fellow campers making ready their tackle and tinnies for a day of barra fishing. After a last, lingering coffee overlooking this tranquil tableau, we hit the road for what turned out to be an action-packed day.
On leaving Towns River, the Nathan River Road becomes rougher as it continues through Limmen NP and leads to a host of opportunities for bush camping, fishing and sightseeing, all within the span of about 100km – Maria Lagoon, Limmen River Fishing Camp, The Four Archers (a spectacular rock formation) and Limmen Bight River Crossing camping area.
A popular waypoint and camp is Butterfly Springs, a small oasis named for the masses of common crow butterflies that shelter from the sun in the cool shade of a rocky outcrop to one side of the billabong. The waterhole here is also one of the few places where it is safe to swim in the park but, this late in the season, it had dwindled to a stagnant pool. Still, we had the whole camping area to ourselves for morning tea among the fern-leafed grevilleas before moving on to the ‘Southern Lost City’.
Both the Southern and Western ‘Lost City’ were created by the compaction of sediments in a shallow sea 1500 million years ago. Tectonic forces raised the sandstone plate out of the sea, causing it to fracture, and over millions more years weathering eroded the cracks and carved out the chasms and deep-red sandstone pillars we see today. We took the 2.5km walk from the campground through the Southern Lost City and marvelled at the forces of nature that wrought such a spectacular landscape. The Western Lost City is only accessible by 4WD vehicle and a key from the Nathan River Ranger Station is required to unlock the gate at the start of the 28km access track (it is recommended that you call prior to your visit as the Ranger Station is not always attended).
A little way beyond the Southern Lost City, we turned off to Lorella Springs, a huge tract of land – one million acres – that extends from the Savannah Way 110km north-east to the Gulf, where it occupies more than 100km of coastline. It was once a cattle station, part of the even more vast Nathan River pastoral lease known as The Valley of Springs and first settled by John Costello in the 1880s. But, over the years, adverse market conditions and the sheer enormity of the station’s hostile terrain made it uneconomical to continue pastoral activities on a major scale. Today, the Kingdom of Lorella offers tourists a truly remote, wilderness experience of 4WDing trails, birdwatching, bushwalking, swimming and fishing, mellowed by creature comforts that include a natural thermal spring pool, a licensed bar and restaurant, hot water showers and safari-style accommodation for those who don’t bring their own. We spent three days enjoying all of this and couldn’t help wondering about those parts of Lorella that, even after so many decades of occupation, remained unexplored wilderness.
A further 56km of rough track south of the Lorella Springs turn-off brings the Nathan River Road to a T-junction, from which a left turn leads to Borroloola (77km) and a right to Cape Crawford (45km). We took the latter route out of sheer curiosity to see a town with such a name more than 100km from the ocean and, of course, the fabled Heartbreak Hotel. In deference to King Elvis, we played his song on the car stereo, quite loudly in order to hear it above the rumble and clatter of the Savannah Way beneath us. The hotel was easily found on main street Cape Crawford, at the junction of the Tablelands and Carpentaria highways, and was a real oasis, surrounded by lush gardens, bougainvilleas and a shady expanse of actual lawn. This friendly roadhouse offers fuel, motel-style accommodation, a restaurant, bar, beer garden with pool and a caravan park. The town itself consists of little else so, after enjoying the hotel’s hospitality, we hit the highway to Borroloola – the first bitumen we’d seen in more than 400km.
Located within the ecological transition zone between the tropical north and drier inland, the 1200ha reserve preserves a number of unique habitats, including a sandstone escarpment, a semi-permanent waterhole with surrounding riverine vegetation and areas of open woodland. As the afternoon was still young, we ventured into the reserve along a couple of the formed walking trails – a short (150m) walk to a birdhide overlooking the Caranbirini Waterhole, a 1km (return) track to a lookout with spectacular views, and the Barrawulla Loop Walk (2km) through impressive ‘lost city’ sandstone formations that towered up to 25m over the trail.
Barely 50km from the Gulf of Carpentaria, it is one of the most remote towns in Australia and, for eastbound travellers like us, it is the last place to prep and provision before passing through Hell’s Gate to Queensland’s Gulf Country. With a population of nearly 800, it is a thriving community dependent largely on tourism and the provision of services to local cattle stations and passing wayfarers. At the turn of the century, Borroloola had a fierce reputation as a wild and lawless frontier town of some disrepute, a magnet for criminals, vagabonds and ne’er-do-wells. Today, however, the town is renowned, domestically and internationally, as a mecca for fishing enthusiasts who come for the barramundi, mud crabs and prawns in the shallow mangrove estuary of the McArthur River and the pristine Gulf waters of nearby King Ash Bay. Visitors also enjoy the delightful Old Police Station Museum for a fascinating glimpse into the town’s colourful past, and the Waralungka Arts Centre for a display (and sales) of artwork by the many renowned local artists.
Having been stationed in Borroloola for three days to do a few running repairs to our rigs occasioned by the rigours of the Nathan River Road, we geared up and set off along the Savannah Way (Wollogorang Road) for Hell’s Gate Roadhouse, 315km away to the south-east. We had received mixed reports about the quality of this track and we were somewhat apprehensive about whether we’d get through unscathed. Friends of ours had shredded two tyres when they travelled this road a few weeks earlier. As it turned out, the road had been recently graded for almost its entire length and our fears went unrealised.
For the first 100km or so, the road was reasonably straight, running through densely timbered plains and crossing several major rivers flowing to the Gulf – the Wearyan, Foelsche, Robinson and Calvert – each providing a scenic pause, to picnic or fish, in the long and dusty journey. Along this stretch a couple of cattle stations – Seven Emu and Manangoora stations – offer remote bush camping and fishing for self-sufficient 4WD travellers.
Beyond the Calvert River, the country changed noticeably as it climbed a small range, wound through Echo Gorge and some rocky outcrops (containing Masterton’s Cave and Redbank Mine), then on to Wollogorang Station at the border. Graders were busily at work on the road around Wollogorang and there were long stretches of fairly decent, if somewhat dusty, track.
About 50km inside Queensland we arrived at leafy Hell’s Gate Roadhouse, which is part of the 1500sq km cattle property Cliffdale Station between the spectacular eastern escarpment of the Barkly Tablelands and the rugged floodplains of the Gulf of Carpentaria. ‘Hell’s Gate’ refers to the small gap in the escarpment through which the road passes 1km south of the roadhouse, earning this sinister sobriquet because of the perceived dangers posed by hostile Aboriginal tribes to 19th century European travellers.
The roadhouse was opened in 1986 to assist travellers in remote north-west Queensland to build a better understanding of the pioneering spirit of the Australian bush. Sadly, the roadhouse no longer offers full services to wayfarers; camping (unpowered) is available with toilets and showers, but meals and other accommodation are no longer provided. Fuel is sometimes available and you should phone ahead to check. We were lucky and, with fuel tanks brimming, we resumed our journey down the Savannah Way, if only briefly, toward the Aboriginal community of Doomadgee. From there the Savannah Way continues east to Burketown and, ultimately, Cairns but we took a southbound fork across Lawn Hill Station, towards Adels Grove and another outback icon, Boodjamulla National Park...but that’s another story.
The best time to travel on the Savannah Way in the Top End is during the dry season from April to October. Remote areas travellers should be well-prepared and self-sufficient.
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