Julatten to Chili Beach – Sun 6th Aug to Sat 12th Sep

Julatten – Sun 6th Sep

Heading north from Cairns you can go along the coast road, or take the Black Mountain road slightly inland through the bush.  With a chance (OK a remote one) of cassowaries, the Black Mountain road was an easy winner.  It is not a difficult drive in the dry but with a little rain the middle section could be tough.

Sadly the cassowaries were all hiding and the track runs through the rainforest so there is not much in the way of views; but it is still much more fun than the bitumen.

The Julatten Caravan Park is an interesting little place, about 30km inland from Port Douglas, with very welcoming owners.  It is primarily a permanent site, but has a couple of powered spots and an unpowered area for those passing by.  Just outside the site is the local garage, where the homemade pies are excellent.

Old Laura Homestead – Mon 7th to Tue 8th Sep

Heading north from Julatten the green fields and trees slowly give way to drier climes, the road passing through Mount Carbine with the local hillside broken into mining tiers, before climbing over the Sussex Range near Palmer River. From the top of the range there are great views of the surrounding area.

15-09-07 Nr Palmer River 1 15-09-07 Nr Palmer River 2 15-09-07 Nr Palmer River 3

From the roadhouse at Palmer River the Development Road turns north west at Lakeland and heads to Laura from where Lakefield National Park can be reached.  The Old Laura Homestead is just inside the park, with a couple of camping spots nearby, booked via the Queensland Parks website.  Site 2 is the pick, enormous and set a short way back from the road; actually it is so big that people who haven’t bothered to book think its OK to pull in and set up, which happened to us on the first night.

15-09-08 Lakefield Old Laura 1

The homestead is a fascinating slice of history.  Set up to provide meat to the goldrush, it was eventually abandoned in the 1960’s before being restored a couple of decades later.  Before it was abandoned the cows were switched to Brahmas as they were more resistance to ticks and had longer legs for moving in the bush.  In the old meat shed remains the metal rack on which joints were hung, and a huge round of tree trunk which still bears the marks of the butchery knives.

15-09-08 Lakefield Old Laura 2 15-09-08 Lakefield Old Laura 3

Just up the road a short way is the New Laura Homestead (no prizes for guessing this replaced the old one…), handily it has phone signal just outside as there is no other mobile coverage in the area.

Coen – Wed 9th Sep

Heading north you can either go through the national park, or backtrack to Laura and take the Development Road.  Local knowledge was the park road was in much better condition, in all it was not a bad surface most of the way through.  Where the road approaches the coast, before bending west, the trees disappear, replaced by grassland with thousands of termite mounds – strange how they haven’t worked out building north / south like the mounds in Litchfield, its certainly hot enough to need it.

Coen is a small town on the road north, offering fuel, supplies, post office and pub.  It is possible to camp behind the pub, or as we did behind the guest house.  Unfortunately what would otherwise be a lovely place was marred by the noisy neighbours.

Archer River Roadhouse – Thu 10th Sep

Pressing northward the roadhouse is only a short drive up the road, however the corrugations made it seem rather more.  The camping here is on a sloping mainly grassed area alongside the roadhouse, best camp away from the generator as it seems to run all night – we had been forewarned.  The large trees dotted around provide plenty of shade, and some fun for the girl.

15-09-10 Archer River Roadhouse 2 15-09-10 Archer River Roadhouse 1

Setting up early, the girls had plenty of time to get though some schoolwork before their friends arrived, the Whitemans who we hadn’t seen for some time but were heading back down from Chili Beach.  Always great to catch up and swap experiences from the road.

The roadhouse offers food, and has a small licensed bar (a hole in the wall with a small fridge on the counter).  Their signature dish, the Archer Burger, is quite a construction and rather tasty, just don’t forget to order fries as they don’t come as standard.

Chili Beach – Fri 11th to Sat 12th Sep

North of the roadhouse, after about 10km, the graders had been active so the road was in good condition to the turn for Iron Range NP and Chili Beach.  After the turn the road, although relatively smooth, rollercoasters through sharp dips; as most dips have rocky bottoms it is not wise to take them too fast.

Along the way the road crosses the Wenlock and the Pascoe Rivers, both have concrete causeways and this late in the season have minimal water.

For anyone heading north after Chili Beach the main route is a backtrack to the development road, a long triangle south then north again.  The logical alternative would be to take the Frenchmans Track, which cuts off the top of the triangle, saving almost 100km.

However it is easier said than done; the first part of the track is narrow and winding across corrugated firm sand, becoming deeply rutted near to the Pascoe River.  There are some great views over the surrounding area

15-09-10 Frenchmans 1 15-09-10 Frenchmans 4 15-09-10 Frenchmans 515-09-10 Frenchmans 6

Approaching the river the track dips steeply downhill to the crossing, it wise to stop and walk down as once you start descending you are committed, as the trail closes in and cuts a path to the river.  The crossing is not overly long, but a car heading the other way reported it as over a metre deep in the middle.  The climb out on the east side is bare and rocky, probably very slippery with wet tyres.

[15-09-10 Frenchmans 3 15-09-10 Frenchmans 2

With the water depth and the rocky climb this was not a short cut for us.

Chili Beach is strung out along the oceans edge just north of Lockhart River on Cape Weymouth.  With its white sand and coconut palms it could be a beach in the Madives, just a shame swimming might get you eaten, lots of crocs around here.

15-09-12 Chili Beach 1 15-09-12 Chili Beach 2 15-09-13 Chili Beach 3

The sites are spacious, but in some places are very exposed to the trade winds which were blowing constantly and strongly from the southeast.  To get shelter from the wind can mean a trade off on how much sun your solar panel will get.

With the strong wind there was the occasional coconut coming down, wonderful to take the top off and enjoy the fresh water and flesh inside, either straight from the shell or baked into a cake.  The bush turkeys are a fan too.

15-09-13 Chili Beach 1 15-09-13 Chili Beach 4 15-09-12 Chili Beach 5

Whilst the beach above the tideline is not wide, it stretches for several km to the south (to the north is aboriginal land, which is private).  Walking the beach there is plenty to see.  Some of the trees have been bent and twisted by the wind and tide, forming fascinating shapes, and there is the chance of finding chambered nautilus shells.  Sadly there is also a lot of rubbish washed in, mostly plastic and a large proportion from Asia.

To the north of Chili Beach is the small settlement of Portland Roads, boating a café and very expensive ice cream.  An interesting place for a short trip out.

Karumba to Cairns – Sun 30th Aug to Sat 5th Sep

Karumba – Sun 30th Aug

Breaking camp we were treated to a flying display by the local kites, swooping on some left over scraps.  At times like these the 200mm lens is just not big enough.

15-08-30 Savannah Way 2 15-08-30 Savannah Way 3

The Savannah Way is 3700km long, stretching from Broome in the West to Cairns in the East.  Relatively speaking we were only covering a short part of it, but it was still a long day in the saddle.  Along the way, although the landscape is predominantly savannah, the vegetation varies from place to place, and the termite mounds come and go.

15-08-30 Savannah Way 4

Fairly soon after Leichardt River the road passes Burke & Wills’ camp 119, the most northerly on their doomed expedition.  From here, 6 months after leaving Melbourne in a blaze of publicity, they launched a desperate attempt to reach the gulf, but never got a clear view.  15 trees were marked with blazes to prove they had reached the north, only few are still alive however the blazes themselves are long grown over.

15-08-30 Savannah Way 7, B&W Camp 119 15-08-30 Savannah Way 6, B&W Blaze Tree

At the eastern end of the Gulf of Carpentaria the road passes through Normanton, a small cattle town, where you can either carry on or turn north towards Karumba and the Gulf coast.  Normanton has not one but two of the ‘big’ things – a 6m Barramundi, testament to the town’s claim to be the barra capital of the gulf, and a crocodile.  The croc was shot in 1957 by Krystina Pawlowks and at 8.6m is the largest ever captured.  The statue is lifesize; this thing must have been terrifying to have swim under your tinny.

15-08-30 Normanton 1 15-08-30 Normanton 2 15-08-31 Normanton, Big Barra

The road to Karumba is mind numbingly flat, traversing the coastal plain with cattle occasionally standing out in the grassland – this area is used for quarantine of export cattle.  More pleasing to the eye are the dozens of brolgas, grouped near any patch of water.

15-08-30 Karumba Rd 2, Brolga 15-08-30 Karumbah Rd 1, Brolga

At the end of the road is Karumba, a small town right on the Gulf of Carpentaria and based pretty much around fishing.  The water here is a brilliant blue, very inviting on a hot day just a shame about the crocs.

15-08-30 Gulf of Carpentaria

Mt Surprise – Mon 31st Aug

From Normanton the Savannah Way heads due east across the base of what, further north, becomes Cape York.  Along the way is Croydon, which is linked to Normanton by a railway built in 1888 to serve the goldrush and on which you can take a two day return excursion, if trundling through savannah is your thing.  The village store here is an interesting stop, one half is a museum of old scales and other shop related things.

There is not a great deal to see along the road, but a stop worth making is at the Cumberland Dam, originally the water source for the Cumberland Mine but now an oasis of bird life.  The mine was registered in 1872, peaking at 11,500oz in 1886 when the mine was conveniently sold to London investors just before production went into decline.  In its heyday the mine was the largest on the Etheridge field, and highly mechanised, but all that remains now is the dam and the old chimney.

15-08-31 Cumberland Wetland 15-08-31 Cumberland Mine 1

Mount Surprise is a tiny little town just to the west of the Undara Volcanic National Park.  The pub is an interesting place, there is not a drop of beer on view – instead the back of the bar is the metal wall of the chiller room, with doors opening up to shelves behind, and the whole thing covered in stickers.

The caravan park here, Bedrock Village, has a Flintstones theme going on, and also one of the better camp kitchen areas we have come across.  The owner is also a bit of a bush poet, with various composures in the amenities covering a diverse range of topics, the cooks revenge is worth a read.

Archer Crossing (via Undara) – Tue 1st Sep

Undara is essentially all about the lava tubes.  The name comes from the local language, meaning ‘long way’,  reflecting that the tubes are the longest in the world.

Formed through the eruption of a shield volcano around 190,000 years ago, the lava flowed down stream beds.  Along the way the exterior of the flow cooled to form a tube through which the lava continued to move.  Sounds simple but in reality requires a fairly specific mix of lava viscosity and slope angle.  Whilst a large part of the tubes have now collapsed what is left is stunning.

15-09-01 Undarra 4 15-09-01 Undarra 6 15-09-01 Undarra 7 15-09-01 Undarra 11

They can only be seen as part of a guided tour.  Originally the tubes were on private land, but when the park was set up, and the land resumed, the owner struck a deal with the government to manage access to the tubes.  Since then a sizeable resort has built up, with various types of accommodation available plus a bar and restaurant.

The tubes were apparently not much used by the local people, no such qualms from the bats.  The local wallabies seem to prefer to stay outside.

15-09-01 Undarra 9 15-09-01 Undarra 2

Several different tours are on offer, with ours being flagged as for the more adventurous; frankly aside from climbing over a few rocks there was little physical challenge.

Unfortunately the morning tour had been full, so by the time we finished in the afternoon a swift change in campsite was needed.  On the edge of the Atherton tablelands the Archer Creek rest area is a lovely little free camp, the lower section of which is right on the bank of the river – no facilities aside from a toilet but a great overnighter.

15-09-02 Archer River 1 15-09-02 Archer River 2

Cairns – Wed 2nd to Sat 5th Sep

Sadly it was time to say farewell to Fifty Toes Walkabout and head into Cairns.  Passing through the Atherton Tablelands the landscape is a riot of green hills and valleys, colours we hadn’t seen for several months, almost too bright for the eyes.

15-09-02 Atherton Tableland 1 15-09-02 Atherton Tableland 2

Heading down from the tablelands, the road is incredibly twisty for about 20km, and at the base brings the first sightings of the sugar cane fields.

Cairns is a bustling town, edged at the sea by a very touristy promenade but with plenty of industry to the landward side.  Newly opened was the Anaconda, perfect for returning one of the girl’s camp beds which had decided to go flat each night.

There are various caravan parks in town, we chose the Coconut Grove resort.  A Big 4, it has the distinction of charging the most per child we had yet encountered, $15 a head.  However for that you get a water park, two bouncy pillows, adult and child specific pools and spas, an adventure park and movies every night.  With Hils flying in from the UK with Bonnie and Charlotte it was a decent base for them to join us at, once they had slept of a bit of the jetlag in a hotel.

Its funny how you meet people along the way.  Just across the row from us was a boy from the same year as Pippa in the distance school.  Not many vehicles make the Defender feel small, but they managed it, travelling in a Unimog – a fantastically capable vehicle, go anywhere and not even notice the corrugations, although at 11 tonnes with a 1000 litre fuel tank it can’t be much fun to refuel…

Gem Tree to Leichardt River – Sun 23rd Aug to Sat 29th Aug

Gem Tree – Sun 23rd Aug

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, its off to work we go.  Funnily enough together with John and Amanda we numbered 7, just not dwarves, as we headed out on Gem Tree’s garnet fossicking tour.  They have their own private area and provide all the kit needed.  Basically you dig up earth, sieve it, discard obvious rocks and then wash the rest before holding it up to the light – any garnets will shine red.

After a very tiring, dusty few hours you regroup back at camp where your garnets are graded, mostly into “show and tell”, the junk ones, but also into any of gem quality – they even offer a service to cut and mount the stones if you wish, for a reasonable price.  It is fair to say garnet mining is not going to make our fortune, but all tremendous fun.

15-08-23 Gem Tree 1 15-08-23 Gem Tree 2 15-08-23 Gem Tree

Urandangie – Mon 24th Aug

Originally the plan was to backtrack up the Stuart Highway and pick up the Savannah way, but time was getting short.  Instead we joined John & Amanda (Fifty Toes Walkabout) in taking the Plenty Highway across to Lawn Hill and pick up the Savannah Way by Doomadgee.

The first part of the Plenty was in surprisingly good condition, with just the odd rough patch.  There is not much out there though, passing through cattle stations along the way.  Plus the odd monster termite mound.

15-08-24 Plenty Highway 2 15-08-24 Plenty Highway 3 15-08-24 Plenty Highway 4

From smooth dirt the Plenty slowly turns stony ahead of Tobermorey, then turning north the bulldust holes begin.  Nothing as bad as the Binns track, but there were times I was once more nervously looking for the engine light….

Urandangie is just a few houses surrounding the pub, population less than ten.  The lady running the pub had retired there, presumably she is not a city lover.  A lovely person though, she gave the kids bread to go and feed the miniature horses in the paddock.  To their delight she also had a handful of baby kangaroos out back – when the locals kill a roo for food, if it has a joey they trade it for a can of soda or a chocolate bar; sounds like a good deal for them, dinner and dessert.

15-08-25 Urandangie 1 15-08-24 Urandangie 1

Camp for the night was just out of town, where there are a couple of free sites along the mainly dry river.  They are a bit dusty but otherwise very pleasant.

O’Shanassy River – Tue 25th Aug

Setting out the next morning it seems donkeys are part of the menagerie, waiting at the pub for their morning carrots.

15-08-25 Urandangie 2 15-08-25 Urandangie 3

A feature of the place is the car bonnets used as signs for creek names etc. with one on the way out solving where skippy had retired to.

15-08-25 Urandangie 6

Driving on towards Mt Isa there is still not much to see, aside from the odd windmill.  However the landscape changes when you reach the highway going north and finally regain the bitumen – steep hills and valleys replacing the open plains.

15-08-25 Urandangie 5

There is no disguising that Mt Isa is an industrial town built around the mine, which dominates the landscape.  For us it was just a quick stop to get supplies.

Today was also brought our first encounter with QLD’s online booking system for national park camping.  All sites have to be pre-booked either online or over the phone to a call centre in Brisbane.  OK you are guaranteed a spot when you arrive, but you have no idea what that spot is like; and if you wait until you arrive you likely won’t have signal to then book your preferred spot.  No surprises the rangers hate the system too, it smacks of centralised money grabbing over providing a service.

A frustrating hour later and 3 nights at Lawn Hill had been booked, more on that later.

From Mt Isa to Lawn Hill is quite a hike, nearly 400km, of which the last 150km is rough dirt.  Setting out in mid-afternoon there was no chance of arriving same day, but that just gave the chance to enjoy one of the free camps along the way.  The O’Shannassy River to the south of Boodjamulla National park, just over 50m from Lawn Hill.  Coming out from the centre this was the first flowing river we had seen for a while, and a lovely little one it is too with some secluded camping spots along the bank whilst the river babbled past.

15-08-25 O'Shannassy River 1 15-08-26 O'Shannassy 1 15-08-26 O'Shannassy 2

Lawn Hill – Wed 26th to Fri 28th Aug

Between O’Shanassy river and Lawn Hill the road crosses the Gregory River, not a difficult crossing but there is a strong flow even this late in the season.

15-08-26 Gregory River 1 15-08-26 Gregory River 2

Just over the river on the left is the Riversleigh fossil site, where some of the fossils on display at Mt Isa came from.  It is well laid out and has useful information boards but to be honest there is not a great deal to see.  The main fossil on view is a shin bone from Big Bird, also known as a Thunderbird; standing 2.5m high and weighing up to 300kg these walked Australia 25m years ago – an indicator of its size is the mass of pebbles next to the bone, from its gizzard.  Other fossils include a cross section of a turtle shell and a crocodile leg. Being set on a hill the site also provides a spectacular panoramic view.

15-08-26 Riversleigh 5, Big Bird 15-08-26 Riversleigh 7

Lawn Hill is based alongside Lawn Hill Creek beneath where it has carved a sheer sided gorge through the sandstone of the Constance Range.  Contrasting the deep red rocks the water is a lovely emerald colour, and even better is free of crocs so makes for some wonderful swimming.

15-08-26 Lawn Hill 2 15-08-26 Lawn Hill 1 15-08-27 Lawn Hill 10

The campsite is divided into sites for caravans / trailers, and sites for tents which each have a car space alongside, and this is where the booking issues arose as the Brisbane call centre had no idea of the sizes of each site.  With no trailer sites available we had booked a tent site, hoping the trailer would fit in the adjacent car space.  As it turned out John and Amanda’s trailer site was so big there was room for both of us – it would have been nice to know that in advance, as my tent booking now served only to prevent someone else enjoying the park.

There are various walks from the campsite.  The upper gorge was sadly closed, as an irritable water buffalo had taken up residence and was a touch jealous of intruders.  However the falls and swimming at the top of first gorge are fantastic.

15-08-27 Lawn Hill 7 15-08-27 Lawn Hill 8 15-08-27 Lawn Hill 9

There are a huge number of archer fish in the water, it is fascinating how high they shoot water to get food; also interesting there is a pecking order as to who shoots first, with the larger fish definitely dominant.

Also great fun is to swim back down the gorge to camp, it is over a km long so tubes etc. are needed for the kids as there is nowhere to get out once you have started; the gorge is sheer both above and below the water.

Heading down the river Lawn Hill also has a deep aboriginal history, the Red Dog walk takes you past not only evidence of the Rainbow serpent but also rock etchings dating back thousands of years.

15-08-27 Lawn Hill 2, Rainbow Serpent 15-08-27 Lawn Hill 3, Etchings

All in all a wonderful place to relax for a few days.

Leichardt River – Sat 29th Aug

Heading east from Lawn Hill is Adels Grove, a privately operated campsite a few km away.  Nearby is a small hill, up a short dirt track off the road, which gives a decent view back to the gorge nestled in the range and only visible by the colour of the rocks.

As ever presented with two routes we will take the rougher one.  There is a dirt road from Lawn Hill via Mt Oscar to near Doomadgee, through the cattle stations along the way.  The magic of the minor route is seeing things the highway misses, in this cases a couple of road trains loaded for market, and then a full cattle drive – sure you can get held up, but its worth it.

15-08-29 Mt Oscar 1 15-08-29 Mt Oscar 2 15-08-29 Mt Oscar 3

Doomadgee is an aboriginal community on the Savannah Way.  For the traveller there is a roadhouse providing fuel and a small shop.  Arriving a few minutes before 2pm it was fortunate we did, there was a funeral in the community that afternoon so the roadhouse had to close at 2pm for “sorry business”.

Heading east along the Savannah Way it is evident where the name comes from, the road slices through unremitting savannah; it is not the most scenic of drives, unlike the night’s campsite.

Draining into the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Leichardt River crosses the Savannah Way to the east of Burketown.  At this time of year the river is split by the road and does not flow, although there is water deep down in its course.  The campsite is up on the wet season flood plain, a landscape of scoured rock gulleys and sand – whilst there is little shelter there is a great view over the river, and of the night sky appearing.

15-08-29 Savannah Way 3, Leichardt River 15-08-29 Savannah Way 4, Leichardt River 15-08-29 Savannah Way 6, Leichardt River