Inland from Cairns where golden Savannah grasslands flank the Gulf of Carpentaria’s croccy fringe, a remote travel route shoots west, luring offroaders beyond the bitumen with the promise of crowd-free camping and mud crab dinners.
Etched with pandanus-fringed waterways, towering spires and rejuvenating thermal pools, the rugged landscape between Karumba and Katherine offers the seclusion and adventure that many caravanners seek, making this journey one of the best in the north.
You might end your day stoking a campfire on the limestone banks of a deep, emerald river or nestle the caravan into the afternoon shade of paperbarks close to a translucent waterhole.
You’ll need at least a week to explore Leichhardt Falls, climb Hells Gate at sunset, and explore the flaring stone wonderland at Caranbirini Waterhole. So fuel up, stock up and get ready for adventure.
When you finally turn your back on Karumba’s big blue sea and start heading west across the Savannah, passing brolgas dancing across the grasslands, an historical spot barely 25km out of Normanton begs discovery on the banks of the Little Bynoe River.
Known as Camp 119, it was from this spot that Aussie explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills made their final push to the mouth of the Flinders River to successfully complete their astonishing cross-country traverse from Melbourne to the Gulf back in 1860.
The return journey was disastrous for the pair, thwarted by hardships and mishaps that cost both men their lives, but their story still resonates in the Gulf Country town that bears Burke’s name. Before you reach Burketown — the Gulf’s oldest settlement, 200km away — set your sights on Leichhardt Falls.
In the right season there’s a dramatic flurry of white water as the Leichhardt River takes the plunge, tumbling over the edge of a sheer rock amphitheatre to create a broad, arcing falls. The distant, deep waterhole at its base is too far away to fish, so anglers seek out shallow pools upstream for their barramundi dinners.
Flanked by gums and pandanus palms, Leichhardt’s rustic riverside camping area provides nothing but grand views, but there’s birdlife to spot and some Aboriginal grinding slits on the exposed river bedrock near the causeway.
Mud Crabs & Morning Glories
Popular with anglers, Burketown lies another 80km west, and is famous for exactly two things: superb barramundi fishing and the spectacular Morning Glory clouds that sweep across the Gulf from August to October.
Catching a Morning Glory is a bucket-list sight and, when conditions are right, these 2km-long tubular cloud formations roll in at first light, spanning the sky and attracting gliders who ‘ride’ the Morning Glory like a surfer catching an ocean wave.
Famed as the barramundi capital of Queensland, Burketown’s Albert River is where campers set pots and their lines, hoping to snare fat mud crabs and reel in catches of mangrove jack and barramundi, and from the river mouth 25km away, perhaps a queenfish or coral trout, too.
Burketown’s traditional Gangalidda Garawa owners charge $35 per vehicle to camp by the river ($50 for two nights), payable at the Burketown Visitors' Centre.
ONE HELL OF A TRIP
Beyond Doomadgee, the Savannah plains’ stout trees gradually give way to bulging sandstone buttresses and crumbling canyons, and the dramatic landscape known as Hells Gate, 60km east of the NT border.
The Hells Gate Roadhouse provides the final fuel top-up before you reach Borroloola, 300km away and, just west at Hells Gate, rugged 4WD tracks lead to bush camps with breathtaking sunset views.
For early Aussie settlers heading west, Hells Gate marked the point where police escorts left them to their own devices, forcing them to brave the high country across the NT border all alone and leaving them vulnerable to the fierce Indigenous tribes rumoured to roam beyond.
Today, the route west is a scenic one that climbs the Barkly Tablelands and dips across translucent, pandanus-fringed rivers on a lonelier run through pastoral, mining and Aboriginal land. A handful of magnificent waterfront camps on the Wearyan, Robinson and Calvert rivers might well waylay your arrival in Borroloola, perched on the edge of clear, fish-filled pools.
What sets the Calvert River apart from all other waterfront camps is the stunning limestone tufa waterfall that stretches 100m along its eastern riverbank. The fragile tufa is constructed from layers of calcium carbonate deposited by the lime-rich water, and agile rock hoppers can climb to hidden spa pools above the waterfall, out of sight.
Dunking yourself in the Calvert’s shallow cascades is a delicious experience indeed, and while there’s nothing more than a roadside pull-off for your vehicle, this spot is a lovely find. If you stay, listen for the dingoes that roam the high cliffs at night.
From the Calvert River, Borroloola is around 175km away, but the waterfront campsites tucked amongst the pandanus on the nearby Robinson River are worthy of a night, shaded by lofty gums alongside translucent pools. There’s barramundi to catch and birdlife to watch and, according to our neighbour on a recent trip, tiny freshwater crocodiles as well.
BACK ON THE BITUMEN
Claiming the ‘barramundi capital’ title on the NT side of the border, Borroloola magnetises boating anglers who launch their tinnies and follow the McArthur River into King Ash Bay to fish the Sir Edward Pellew group of offshore islands. In town, the McArthur River Caravan Park is a friendly spot to rest for a night, while anglers favour the King Ash Bay Fishing Club downstream for its good family rates.
There is power and showers at Cape Crawford’s Heartbreak Hotel, 95km from Borroloola, and another 25km west, a free waterfront camp at Little River Rest Area that is popular with waterbirds.
En route, don’t miss a walk through Caranbirini Conservation Reserve where sandstone spires and fascinating ‘organ pipe’ formations tower above a permanent oasis at Caranbirini Waterhole. You might spy brolgas, green pygmy geese and all kinds of ducks from the hide perched on the pool’s edge, or flocks of tiny double-barred finches that rise from the spinifex grasslands on the easy Barrawulla Walk (2km/1-hour return).
Turning north onto the Stuart Highway, few travellers can resist relaxing with cold ales at the NT’s oldest watering hole, Daly Waters Historic Pub. This uber popular camping destination once frequented by drovers on the overland cattle drive from Queensland to the Kimberley, remains a popular travellers’ rest and in the cool winter months there is barely a free stool at the bar.
Daly Waters began life as an Overland Telegraph Line repeater station in 1871, pulled its first beer 22 years later and in the 1930s Qantas planes dropped by en route to London, making this Australia’s first international airport.
Used as a refuelling point for the 1926 London to Sydney Air Race and later by World War II bombers, the old airport has been converted to a museum by the National Trust with extensive historic displays.
A LONG HOT SOAK
An hour and half on the Stuart Highway and a short walk through the world’s largest stand of livistona rigida fan palms brings you to Mataranka thermal pools at the headwaters of the Roper River. Simmering away at around 34C, the plunge pools are filled by nearby Rainbow Springs at a rate of 30.5 million litres per day and are oh-so-relaxing!
Freshwater crocodiles sun themselves downstream of the thermal springs, and Mataranka’s vast colony of little red flying-foxes creates a stunning sunset spectacle when they depart their daytime roosts in numbers of up to 250,000.
The campground at Mataranka Homestead provides a convenient base for daily soaks in the plunge pools, and a short drive away, more affordable bush campsites at Jalmurark Campground in Elsey National Park provide hot showers and fireplaces.
Close to Mataranka, Bitter Springs lures snorkellers who drift in its warm, mineral-rich current, floating downstream past freshwater turtles and schools of tiny fish. On a frosty winter’s morning, Bitter Springs is sheer heaven and easy access makes this an adventure for all ages.
Katherine Hot Springs, 105km north, offers yet another chance to experience the gloriously tranquilising effect of a 32C current flowing through monsoon forest into the Katherine River. Handrails and stone steps provide easy access to the springs, and you can picnic on the stream’s grassy banks in between dips.
The hot springs is one of the top things to do in town, after a trip to Nitmiluk National Park to paddle a canoe or join a boat cruise through world-famous Katherine Gorge. Walkers can hit the high trail along this massive canyon’s rocky rim, and if you do, set out early to catch an unforgettable sunrise over this simply stunning gorge.
Travelling from Karumba to Katherine you’ll clock up around 1440km, most of it on the bitumen. Frequently flooded causeways and unsealed sections from Normanton to Borroloola make this a journey for offroad caravans only, although conventional rigs can detour via Mount Isa and rejoin the route at Cape Crawford.
- Time your trip during the dry winter months (June to August) and check road conditions before setting out
- Hema’s Top End and Gulf (1:650, 000, edition 6) covers the region
- Carry plenty of fuel, water and spares (including tyres); drive to the conditions and light campfires only in designated fireplaces and extinguish after use.
- Freshwater and estuarine crocodiles inhabit rivers, creeks and lagoons across this region so play it safe and if in doubt, stay out of the water.