Cairns to Karumba: The Classic Adventure
Cairns to Karumba on the Savannah Way
-Exclusive Story and images by John Maddocks
The cow stares at me and I stare back. Finally this huge, prime example of a Brahman cow decides to move, and I’m grateful. Grateful that it’s going to amble off the road and grateful that I didn’t hit its bovine bulk at 100 kilometres an hour. On this remote far north Queensland road the results could have been catastrophic.
Fortunately I’ve been warned, as graphic road signs alert me to the dangers of cars meeting cows head-on. On this part of the Savannah Way between Cairns and the Gulf of Carpentaria town of Karumba, the main dangers are cattle, kangaroos and 50-metre long road trains.
Travelling on the Savannah Way has always been an ambition of mine, so I’m excited by the prospect of adventure long before my cow confrontation. The fun begins as my snappy, agile Hyundai SUV climbs the steep Gillies Range south of Cairns, which is renowned for its 263 sharp bends in only 19 kilometres of road. Soon I’m traversing the magnificent Atherton Tablelands, where I stop at a quaint teahouse beside gorgeous Lake Barrine. Lake Barrine is part of the Crater Lakes National Park and I stretch my legs on the 6-kilometre track that winds among magnificent giant kauri and red cedar trees.
I overnight in a luxurious pole cabin set on the side of a volcanic crater at Mt Quincan Crater Retreat near Yungaburra, 70 kilometres from Cairns. As I sit in the spa absorbing fantastic views of the surrounding plains and the peacefulness of the setting, the only sounds are the breeze moving through the milky pines and the distant lowing of cattle in the fields below.
Next morning at nearby Herberton Historic Village I wander through an amazing collection of over 50 period buildings housing antiques and memorabilia of pioneering life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The detailed presentation of everything from farm machinery, printing equipment and vehicles to toys, radios and frocks is quite outstanding. My favourite exhibit is the 1926 Citroen rail ambulance, which is still in working order.
From Herberton I travel through the attractive town of Ravenshoe towards Undara. On the way I call in at the Innot Hot Springs, whose healing waters reach 78 degrees Celsius. Bottled mineral water from these natural springs was exported to Europe until the early 20th century.
The outback is like a treasure hunt: you travel for hundreds of kilometres through empty, expansive countryside and suddenly come upon a unique and fascinating attraction. The Undara Experience is a good example. One hundred and ninety thousand years ago a massive volcanic explosion caused lava to spread over 160 kilometres in one direction and more than 90 kilometres in another, creating one of the planet’s longest lava flows.
As the lava flowed down riverbeds, the outer layer cooled to form a crust while the hot lava beneath flowed on, forming enormous tubes, or tunnels. When the thin crust collapsed in places over the years, massive caves were revealed beneath.
Visiting these impressive tubes is truly memorable. The vast ceilings of blue, white, brown and orange are reflected in the crystal clear water at the base of the tubes, where the roots of giant fig trees penetrate for many metres. In one spot an incredible arch towers overhead.
On Undara’s Wildlife at Sunset tour some of the area’s residents appear, including a variety of kangaroos and wallabies. The most attractive are the aptly named pretty faced wallabies, which have distinctive white markings along their jaw lines. After viewing a spectacular sunset from a rocky knoll, we visit Barker’s Cave to see some of an estimated 250,000 tiny ‘micro bats’ that inhabit this tube. Our guide goes down to the cave ahead of us to check that there are no brown tree snakes hanging from nearby branches. These snakes position themselves at the tube’s entrance and lash out at lightning speed to catch the tiny bats as they fly out.
After spending the night in a restored turn of the century railway carriage, I enjoy an outdoor bush breakfast. Cheeky kookaburras watch the tourists eating and occasionally dive down to try and steal food.
An hour or so later I reach Mt Surprise, a favourite venue for gem fossickers. Topaz, quartz, spinel, garnet, cairngorm and aquamarine can all be found here. Another 90-kilometres on I arrive at Georgetown (population 250), home of the award-winning Terrestrial Centre, which contains over 4,500 mineral specimens in a myriad of arresting colours and shapes. The standouts are agates, which are formed by bubbles in lava filling with minerals, and those on display here are the most striking in the world.
On the way to Georgetown and beyond I find myself travelling from time to time on what is known locally as ‘ribbon road’. This is single lane sealed road with wide dirt verges, so I have to move onto the unsealed section when another vehicle approaches. This is rather daunting when the other vehicle is a road train that throws up a dust storm as I pass.
This section of the outback is very different from other remote areas of Australia. Unlike the red dirt of the Territory or the sandy deserts of Western Australia, the Savannah region is softened by grasslands stretching to the horizon in every direction.
After some challenging driving I arrive at Croydon, where I check into the rambling Croydon Club Hotel, the last of 36 hotels that flourished during a gold rush at the end of the 19th century. Croydon is best known as a terminal for the 120-year-old Gulflander Railway, which travels between here and the river port of Normanton, 150 kilometres to the east. Originally built to transport gold, the railway is sometimes described as going from ‘nowhere to nowhere’ because it has never been connected to the Queensland rail network. Today the railway’s apparent pointlessness seems to add to its charm as a tourist attraction.
The Gulflander railway station at Normanton is noteworthy for its Victorian architecture. Normanton also has a number of other eye-catching colonial buildings as well as the bizarre ‘purple pub’ on the main street. A replica of Krys, the largest crocodile ever shot, is not to be missed. Krys is in the Guinness Book of Records as being 8.63 metres long and having an estimated weight of 1.8 tonnes.
At last I arrive in Karumba for my first visit to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Karumba is a barramundi fisher’s paradise and the boat landings are always busy. It is also the base for a large prawning fleet, which is preparing to head out to sea during my stay.
In the evening the Ferryman sunset cruise gets off to a dramatic start when our guide Allison places some baitfish on a platform at the front of the boat. Allison has done this to attract black kites, which dive to seize the fish in a spectacular display. As we cruise the shoreline we see white-bellied sea eagles, Brahminy kites, striated herons and jabirus. Several large saltwater crocodiles laze beside the mangroves. It is the legendary Gulf sunset, however, that steals the show.
Next morning I’m up early for a fishing trip on a charter boat. My fears of being revealed as a novice are quickly allayed when I find that others on the trip are equally unskilled. Our clumsy efforts turn out to be a lot of fun and I even manage to catch 5 fish. I spend the evening celebrating at the relaxed Sunset Tavern.
On the return journey to Cairns I check out Cobbold Gorge, located on the huge Robin Hood cattle station, which is 90 kilometres from Georgetown on a largely unsealed road.
A tour of the gorge covers geological, botanical and historical points of interest. On the surrounding escarpment we are shown some fascinating plants, including a black tree orchid and the deadly gidee gidee, which was used by Aborigines to stun fish and catch them. We also see hundreds of common crow butterflies, which avoid predators by producing poisonous compounds to make themselves unpalatable.
Later we board small, quiet electrically powered boats to enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of this steep, narrow gorge. Several freshwater crocodiles bask on rocks, numerous fish species swim in the water and we see kingfishers and bush stone curlews.
When I resume my drive back to Cairns I encounter relatively few vehicles. Compared to tourist routes leading to Kakadu, the Kimberley and Uluru, this part of the Savannah Way in Far North Queensland is the road less travelled. But in terms of scenery, natural wonders and attractions, it should definitely be added to the outback ‘must do’ list.
For more information visit www.queenslandholidays.com.au
Captions: (Image credits: All Images by John Maddocks).
Sections of single lane ‘ribbon road’ feature on parts of the Savannah Way.
Normanton’s legendary Purple Pub is always busy.
The 120-year-old Gulflander train still operates between Croydon and Normanton.
This graphic road sign warns drivers of possible hazards ahead.
Cattle dogs stop traffic on the Savannah Way.
The statue of the huge saltwater crocodile called Krys in Normanton’s main street.
An eye-catching bush stone curlew on the banks of Cobbold Gorge.