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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…