There isn’t much for passing travellers to see in the way of memorable landmarks in the Burdekin district of northern Queensland. The flat alluvial plains are planted with a blanket of swaying green sugar cane and seem devoid of anything eye-catching. But there’s one feature that sticks in the minds of most travellers who pass through this area. It’s a combination of natural and man-made landmarks and, being right on the highway, is impossible to miss.
The magnificent Burdekin River and the equally impressive bridge that spans its width are local features that all travellers remember. At 1.1km in length the Burdekin River bridge, or the Silver Link as it is known locally, was Australia’s longest bridge when it opened in 1957. And the river it spans is Australia’s fourth largest by volume of water flow and second only to the Murray River in terms of economic value.
Dams and weirs along the Burdekin’s length provide irrigation waters for the sugar cane and small crop farms that cover the fertile delta like a patchwork quilt. Water is the lifeblood of the district and it’s not hard to see why tourist brochures proclaim that the ‘bountiful Burdekin’ was built on liquid gold.
A great way to appreciate the impressive size of this life-giving river is to walk from one side of it to the other. Pull off the highway on the northern side of the bridge, where there’s plenty of room for caravans, and climb the steps to the footbridge that clings to the side of the main road bridge. This scenic stroll provides an unusual and exciting perspective to this massive river, especially when it is in full flood.
The bridge walk is a great introduction to this quiet, rural district, which is so often bypassed by RVers. But, like so many country areas, the Burdekin has attractions and benefits that can easily justify a week or more of laidback exploration. The attractions are predominantly linked to the local history, culture and natural features and many can be easily appreciated at next to no cost on relaxing, self-drive excursions.
Situated around 85km south of Townsville, the Burdekin consists of two main towns: Ayr and Home Hill, located either side of the river – and a number of smaller townships scattered across the district. The district’s population is a little over 18,000, meaning these centres are large enough to offer most of the services travellers might need.
The first stop for visitors should be the local tourist information centres. In Home Hill, the Burdekin Gateway Information Centre is located in the old railway station in Railway Avenue, which is right beside the Comfort Stop. If you’re travelling from the north, the Burdekin Visitor Information Centre is located in Plantation Park on the southern outskirts of Ayr. This picturesque, shady park is huge, with plenty of space for the largest of rigs and an ideal spot for a morning tea or lunch break.
There are three caravan parks in Ayr and Home Hill and a number of smaller parks and camping sites at local beaches and fishing spots. There is also the Comfort Stop in the heart of Home Hill where travellers can stay for 48 hours for free.
While other spots along the north Queensland coast are usually packed solid in winter, travellers can usually count on getting a site in the Burdekin and often at a lower cost. Powered sites range from $21 to $30 per night.
Fishing is the reason most long-term visitors come to the Burdekin, with some having returned to the same spot each winter for decades. The huge Burdekin River delta is made up of dozens of sheltered estuaries ideally suited to the small car-topper boats many RVers carry.
Some of the fish species on offer include whiting, bream, flathead, mangrove jack, cod and grunter. Thanks to the local restocking group, barramundi are becoming even more prolific in local waters and are a likely catch, even during winter. In fact, one visiting angler said he had better barramundi fishing in Burdekin estuaries last year than he had on an earlier trip to the Gulf. Crabbing is another popular pastime for visiting anglers, with many enjoying a steady supply of tasty mud crabs.
Unfortunately, tides can be a challenge for boating in the Burdekin, with most creeks so shallow they are un-navigable at low tide. Seek a bit of local knowledge when you arrive and then work your fishing times around the tides.
For those with larger boats, bluewater fishing is good around Cape Upstart and on the shoals off Alva Beach, especially in winter when schools of Spanish mackerel migrate along the coast.
There are a number of caravan parks and camping spots ideally suited to visiting anglers. Many are right on, or close to, the water with boat launching facilities nearby. Popular parks are located at Alva Beach, Groper Creek, Wunjunga and Molongle Creek.
For competitive anglers, the Burdekin Barra Rush fishing competition is held in the first half of the year with the exact date depending on the prevailing weather and tides.
Thanks to the underground aquifer replenishment scheme, the Burdekin district boasts an abundance of swamps and lagoons as well as drier habitats, which attract a huge variety of birdlife. Horseshoe Lagoon near Giru and Lilliesmere Lagoon near Kalamia Sugar Mill are two easily-accessible bird-watching sites.
Lookouts are few and far between on these flat plains, but Mount Inkerman, 12km south of Home Hill, is definitely the best. The 2km-long road to the summit is sealed, but it’s narrow and steep and not suitable for caravans. The view from the top across the patchwork of sugar cane farms to the Burdekin River and coastline is well worth the drive. Barbecues and picnic tables at the summit allow you to enjoy the view over lunch or a morning cuppa.
Just north of Mount Inkerman, and not far from the highway, is Charlie’s Hill. This low hill was the site of an early warning radar station that operated during the later years of World War II.
While diving is not for everyone, one of the world’s top wreck dive sites is just a 30-minute boat ride from Ayr’s Alva Beach.
In March 1911, the SS Yongala ran into a severe cyclone off the Burdekin coast and disappeared almost without trace. The fate of the ship and its 122 passengers remained a mystery until 1958 when it was discovered 12 nautical miles off Cape Bowling Green to the north of Alva Beach. The 109m-long wreck lies in 28m of water and attracts all kinds of sealife, including giant groper, turtles and manta rays.
Ayr and Home Hill are ideal bases from which to explore the historic gold mining town of Ravenswood and the Burdekin Falls Dam. These destinations can be combined in a long day trip or you could break up your drive with an overnight stop at the dam’s caravan park or a night in a ‘haunted’ Ravenswood hotel.
Ravenswood leapt from the rugged landscape in 1868 when gold was discovered, but began a slow decline in 1917 when the boom ended. However, the historic town received a new lease of life in 1995 when modern mining technology saw it re-established as a gold mining centre.
The Burdekin Falls Dam is about an hour’s drive beyond Ravenswood on a good bitumen road. The dam was completed in 1987, opening up more farming opportunities in the lower Burdekin and, in dry times, providing a guaranteed water supply to Townsville.
The most scenic route to Ravenswood is via Clare, but this does involve a stretch of gravel road which is not suitable for caravans and may flood after heavy rain. An alternative, fully sealed route is via Woodstock and the Flinders Highway.
If you fancy a more restful day, embark on a casual tour of attractions such as the Burdekin Theatre Complex, Zaro Cultural Gallery and the Silver Link Interpretive Centre.
So the next time you’re heading north, stop for a few days, a week or a month. There’s far more to the Burdekin district than just a river and a bridge.
- For fishing and tides information, visit www.burdekin.qld.gov.au
- For caravan park information, visit www.gropercreek.com.au; www.alvabeachtouristpark1.net.au/; http://ayr-silver-link-caravan-village.qld.big4.com.au/ or www.caravanparkphotos.com.au/ayr_burdekin
Originally published in Caravan World #510, January 2013.