The Savannah Way June - July 2015
Over 12 months previously we had made arrangements with son Ben to share a camping and fishing holiday at the Lorella Springs Wilderness Camp some 220 kms south of Roper Bar and 170kms north of Borroloola. It was to take place during our grand childrens' long mid year school holidays in July 2015 while their mother was overseas in Europe. However, as with all the best laid plans, ours began to unravel before it got started on account of our son's work commitments' associated with a large joint military exercise planned over the Top End at the same time.
Still wishing to spend some time with the grand children we instituted Plan B which involved travelling up to Darwin to see them before proceeding alone to Lorella Springs - a pity as it was an ideal time in which to grab some time together before the boys grew too old for camping trips with grandparents. We had also agreed to assist an old friend who had recently purchased a house in Einasleigh in the remote Central North of Queensland (approximately 400 kms west of both Townsville and Cairns) and who now needed to sell it. Fortunately, Einasleigh lay roughly along our intended route to Darwin. We were also lucky that another mutual friend of the house seller (Neil Macdonald) had agreed to accompany us as far as Einasleigh and help out with the general clean-up of the property.
We initially drove straight to Townsville while our other friend dropped off to Hamilton Island to briefly see his son. Before travelling to Einasleigh the next day we took the opportunity to see if any agents in either Townsville or Charters Towers would be interested in selling the property - they were not - they recommended selling privately through our own sign.
Our route to Einasleigh took us north through Charters Towers and then to The Lynd and Greenvale where the Three Rivers Hotel is situated. This pub was made famous by a song composed by Stan Coster and sung by Slim Dusty about the trials associated with building a train line to take nickel ore from near Greenvale to from Townsville early in the 1970s. In actual fact the song was written well before this hotel was built and really refers to a construction camp mess hall built at the time for the railway workers.
We pulled into Einasleigh at 1630 after 70 odd kms of gravel corrugations. The house at Einasleigh quite surprised us – it being approx 140 m2 Steel framed Hardiplank clad with plenty of shaded veranda spaces, 2 double bedrooms and large open plan kitchen living area. It also came with two sheds, a bore and 5 000gallon water tank – it had a grossly overgrown kangaroo grass , heavily laden citrus trees and town power.
We had to quickly set up camp before dark which involved getting the generator going for lights, refrigeration and water supply (toilet and shower) thru a demand pump. Despite the heavy jackets being worn by the locals at the nearby pub – we failed to place an eiderdown on our bed and hence froze all night – we had forgotten how cold it got inland - irrespective of our sub-tropical latitude.
Exhausted Labourers with a local friend at days end
While chatting to the publican, I learnt that most of the town knew what our friend had paid for the house and were eager to learn of the new re-sale price. At the time of our visit the pub was accommodating a party of 6 Chinese geologists who are snooping around ways and means to extract the very commercial load of copper very close to the Copperfield Gorge NP.
Next morning we got up early (too cold in bed) and had a quick breakfast and got into the slashing with our brand new Brush Cutter attachment to Maria’s Ryobi (petrol) pole saw. The spear grass and and strangle vine was over knee height and much tougher than I had expected and the block I reckon in excess of 1200m2. We worked solidly until 1300hr when we stopped for lunch. I was buggered and beginning to get a little asthma from the grass seeds and dust. Maria had sprayed weed killer on all the overgrown paths and garden beds - I even think she gave the veggie garden a spray as well.
Einasleigh has no mobile phone coverage and no public pay phone and so you must rely on the good will of the publican or the manager of the caravan park to use their phone ($2 donation). Maria rang Neil and to our delight found that he had decided to arrive at Einasleigh a day earlier and so would be available to assist the next day with the outstanding slashing and raking……plus bring Maria some gardening gloves to relieve her torn hands and some more fuel and drugs for me. Neil eventually arrived after dark about 7pm quite dangerous in these parts with all the unfenced roads and wandering cattle, kangaroos etc.
The next day Neil manned the brush cutter while I raked and piled up the dead grass into massive piles. – we should have burnt it but that would have necessitated obtaining a permit – too much hassle. That evening at the pub we chatted to Rosco who works on prawn trawlers out of Darwin and who was interested in the property.. We also identified a man to paint a For Sale sign and also a woman to give the house a spring clean. We also got the name of a chap who would be prepared to keep the place mown. All the work had taken 2.5 days and we felt pretty comfortable with the outcomes and positive about a quick sale to Roscoe once he gets to negotiate directly with our mate's son when he reaches Darwin in 2-3 weeks time.
The next morning we once again set off for Darwin but on this occasion. I initially thought about taking the dirt road shortcut down to Normanton but the consensus in the Pub was that the road was in a hell of a mess and I would be better off taking the longer but sealed journey over to Normanton and then down to Cloncurry. At any rate we drove hard the first day and got to Normanton where we re-fuelled at a record price of $1.88/lt and then on to almost Cloncurry (about 900kms) - we found a camp behind the recently burnt down pub at Quamby.
The next day we used our last Jerry can of fuel and made it into Mt Isa where we again re-fuelled ($1.34/lt) car and 2 x Jerry cans to ensure we made it across to the 3 Ways. All along this section of the trip we encountered countless mounds of road kill (kangaroos, pigs, emus, bustards) all well attended by crows and Wedge tail Eagles.
We got into 3 Ways at about 5pm and found their camping facilities quite poor and expensive. We decided to try for Mataranka the next day but on arriving at 2pm found it full and so we had to push on to Katherine where we booked into Knots Crossing Resort where we got our own leaking En suite. Unfortunately it was Territory Day and hence cracker night – we got an ear full.
We rang Ben to advise of our ETA tomorrow and to prepare a clear way. We eventually rolled into Darwin about lunchtime and found Darcy home but seemingly unaware of our coming. We then got onto Ben who in turn got onto Tom so as a car could be removed from driveway to let us park the van in their back yard – so after nearly 3911 kms we had made the journey again.
During our two week stay in Darwin we took Darcy out a couple of times; including to the circus.
At the Circus
For a 12 year old, Darcy has very keen interest in varying fields from natural history, electronics but his over-riding passion remains with computer games of which he appears to have an unlimited supply. One hopes his enthusiasm and spontaneity can be successfully channelled into some exciting career. We also took time out to meet up with some old friends at the Darwin Trailer Boat Club. Members of our old punting club had quit meeting at the Parap Tavern and taken their patronage to the Buff Club over in Stuart Park. We met with Russell Trimble and wife Dianne, Mick Holdstock and Jimmy Roberts who was over from Vietnam for the Darwin Cup Carnival but Richard O'Sullivan was still overseas during our visit.
Trips were made to some of Darwin's culinary icons of Parap Fine Foods, Parap and Rapid Creek Markets and, of course, the Chinese Food Emporium on Bagot Road.
We also had some good conversations around the dinner table and I found time to mount the Python skin I had sent Darcy earlier in the year. Ben appears to be relishing his new responsibilities arising from his recent promotion and we are very pleased to see his career flourish.
Oh yes and we came across a new art gallery in Dashwood Place off Daly Street run by an aspiring independent political candidate (Carol Phayer) who had this sign outside of her gallery.
We eventually packed up and headed out of Darwin with the usual mix of sadness and regrets that we had not got around to meet more friends while up there but also confident that this was no longer the town that we had once lived in and enjoyed. At Katherine we re-fuelled and purchased a cooked chook for lunches and then set sail for Roper Bar. The last 50 kms of the Roper Highway remain unsealed and pretty rough and corrugated.
Roper Bar today is little changed
We had not travelled on this road since 1987 when with the Tutty and Stapleton families we travelled to the Gulf of Carpentaria's coast at the NT/Qld border pastoral station of Wollogorang . We had my father with us at the time and it remains one of the most memorable family camping trips we ever took.
The caravan park at Roper Bar is about 1 kms downstream from the actual crossing and is well shaded with clean but basic ablutes….it seemed populated with a mix of local and interstate middle-aged fisherpersons – no kids. Fuel at the store was a massive $2.20/lt but the camping is only $20/night. One resident advised that the fish were only biting on Cherubim and would not touch lures. The Roper River was crystal clear and brought back many fond memories. With the benefit of hindsight we should have camped here for a week - it was a very laid back and picturesque place.
Camping Ground Boat Ramp Killing field
Familiar piece of bush camping equipment Cook preparing dinner
The Roper River downstream early in the morning
The next morning we packed early and set off for our 297km drive to Lorella Springs Wilderness Camp and quite early came upon this sign
We passed the new fishing camp of Tomato Island which looked pretty up-market and was probably about 50kms downstream from the Bar and opposite the Ngukurr township across the river. We had heard that new bridges are about to be built over the Roper and Wilton Rivers providing all weather access to both Ngukurr and Numbulwar communities….the Roper Store and Caravan Park are currently up for sale. We also passed the Limmen River fishing camping ground which has been an NT favourite for over 50 years.
We made a small detour into the Southern Lost City reserve and found it much like the other at Litchfield NP and best appreciated from the air.
Then we tackled the 29 km access road into Lorella Station. It was a shocker full of corrugations, wash outs, bulldust and nasty dry creek crossings - took us 50 mins. Now Lorella nestled in the Tawallah Ranges promised hot thermal springs, adventure hikes and 4x4 trails as well as fishing in the Rosie River. Unfortunately, it has been a very dry Wet Season so most of their springs were dry and the access roads to them reduced to kms of bulldust and very rocky dry creek crossings. We lost a steel guard from our van's water tank and ripped out the electric brake connections which I later managed to repair.
The station is littered with signs imploring guests not to forget to collect wood for their campfires but more importantly for the Donkey Shower facilities. Their ablution facilities despite flushing toilets were most primitive and at $40/night a little bit of a let down. The fishing contrary to their advertising was only available at the coastal camping spot some 80kms from the homestead along a very rough track – there was no facility to launch a boat anywhere closer – however, they did have a supply of kayaks and canoes in those billabongs with water in them. the Camp also has a number of self-contained air-conditioned cabins.
The homestead bar includes a bar with beers for $7 and wine $8 with a $1 reduction during Happy hour between 5 and 6 each evening. Most guests appeared aggro about the access road and many had suffered mechanical damage like us (Electrical brake wiring torn out as well as ripping off the metal guard in front of our van’s water tank). We spent our second day bush bashing our way around 7-8 sights but not being overly impressed with any. At least we were able to use our generator at the main camp ground which probably covers about 20 acres.
So on the third day with little fuel left to play with we headed out to Borroloola – they do sell fuel but at a prohibitive price of $3/lt. On our last night we headed for happy hour and I got an opportunity to speak to Peter Walker who first managed to take over the leasehold of the pastoral lease in 1987. After having all of his improvements on the adjacent Nathan River block destroyed by a cyclone and then having the lease compulsorily acquired for the new Limmen National Park.
While we admittedly visited Lorella after a couple of very bad wet seasons, the place did not live up to expectations nor with the glossy advertising brochure and website. It may appeal more to tourists from southern states who were unfamiliar with Top End offerings and we saw quite a number of happy southern campers hiking around the dusty tracks in search of some elusive bird or swimmable spring fed pool. Many of the more middle-aged visitors were content to swim around the homestead spring and frequent their bar.
During our chat, I advised Peter of my earlier connections with the NT Lands Branch and that during that time back in the late 1970s Lorella, like so many others in the Gulf Region, had been bought by an overseas speculative company based in London on behalf of a number of sporting celebrities including the fashion model ?Jean Shrimpton and some professional basketball and golf players from the US. They did nothing on the lease.
His sons now run the Station - the only pastoral pursuit appears to be an annual muster of scrub bulls with the tourist wilderness camp being their main income earner. We only saw a handful of cattle on the property during our stay.
Our 200km drive to Borroloola was uneventful except for the last 20 kms of dirt where we caught up with 3 x road trains of bore drillers. We got into town about 1230hours only to learn that the pub had been closed down some 7 years earlier and that the only take away beer was mid-strength at $50/carton. We had some luxurious showers in the camp ground and had to settle for a very ordinary take away meal for dinner….too tired to cook. I had fond memories of having a couple of cleansing ales at the old hotel and amusement when Dad unsuccessfully pleaded with the licensee to be able to purchase some take away wine......now its just a restaurant.
With the hotel having been closed some years ago, there was a constant stream of locals buying mid-strength beer from the local supermarket @ $50/carton. Borroloola still attracts a fair number of tourists travelling through to the fishing camp at King Ash Bay and also taking their chances on the notoriously bad stretches of road along the Savannah Way to Normanton in Qld. However, there is also a more pragmatic reason for the tourist numbers and that is the price of fuel which at $1.65/lt compares more than favourably with the price at Roper Bar and Cape Crawford both over $1.95.
Now last time we travelled on this stretch of the Savannah Way was back in 2011 when we travelled to Darwin for son Ben and Sarah’s wedding and the road was atrocious. This time we encountered a couple of graders at work only 10kms out of Borroloola and could not believe our luck to find that they were just finishing their work along the entire length of the road to the Qld Border – some 260kms away – we flew along. Stopping at the Robinson River crossing for a beer for morning tea and then lunch and an ice cream at Hells Gate where the fuel was $1.96/lt.
A beautiful 270km stretch of road
We had to negotiate shallow water crossings across the Wearyan, Foelsche, Robinson and Calvert Rivers and finally the Settlement Creek at Wollogorang where we estimated a herd of nearly 1000 head of cattle had been mustered into yards in readiness to be trucked out to Darwin or Mt Isa - a great sight.
Maria negotiating the Robinson River where we stopped for 'morning tea' as we had done so many times in previous years
I had forgotten what a lovely drive it is travelling through the Calvert Hills with its alternating timber and savannahs, especially as many of the local native shrubs were in flower. The only negative aspect of this drive was the complete ignorance shown by many southern drivers travelling on this gravel dirt road who failed to slow down when approaching other vehicles and who did not drive with their lights on so as to be more readily seen in the clouds of bulldust that accompanies their travels.
After Hells Gate the road was 70% sealed all the way to Burketown. We were warned at Hells Gate to be vigilant about mobs of brumbies roaming across the road but saw none and instead large herds of fat cattle feeding on the Mitchell grass.
Travelling through the Doomadgee Shire one saw many locals about in new council vehicles but then on the boundary of this dry community – huge middens of beer cans and wine casks where the locals had had a party outside of the drinking confines of their community.
We eventually pulled into Burketown (500kms from Borroloola) at about 5pm having lost half an hour when crossing the border. We tried the local and only caravan park but were only offered a site in their overflow area and so instead opted for one of their Dongas at $75 for the night.
Quite a number of other campers were being turned away and referred to the overflow area down at the dusty showground and on discussing this later with one of them I was not surprised to hear the sentiment that he did not like using formal caravan parks or national parks as they all cost too much money which they needed instead for fuel - hence the popularity of the free camp spots dotted around the country and often hogged by grey nomads for days on end - who just sit there visiting and doing nothing other than, watching daytime TV, walking their little balls of white fluff (small yappie little dogs) and/or chatting to a budgie in a cage!
All the Burketown park's trees were alive with perching Galahs who made quite a din at sunset and thousands of Corellas had decided to roost around the town's swimming pool....making quite a spectacle.
In 2013 the old pub had been burnt down and in its place now stands a new very modern complex which offers quite good meals and wine list.
The Burketown Pub and its 'Code of Conduct ' for patrons
We eventually scored a powered site on day 2 at $35/night ($210/wk). Our initial task was to clean out the dust we had accumulated after nearly 800kms of unsealed roads.
The park is populated primarily by local Queenslanders keen on catching Barra but who eschew the crowded conditions that exist in the more popular places such as Karumba or the genteel comforts of Lawn Hill Park. There appeared to be a lot of regular visitors to the park which is quite well shaded and has a handy local general store on site. The park has a range of fully self-sufficient cabins as well the dongas we stayed in initially.
During our three day stay, we toured the surrounding boat launching sites on the Herbert River as well as the picturesque causeway over the Nicholson River near the entrance to the now closed Escott Barramundi Lodge & Fishing Camp.
Boat Ramp on the Albert River 6kms from town and approx 30kms from mouth
Alcohol restrictions in and around the Albert River
Causeway over the Nicholson River 15km out of town on route to Escott Station (you are allowed to put a boat in here despite it being the source of town's water supply)
Burketown consists of a Pub, Servo/Mechanical workshop, Bakery/Butchers, General Store & Post Office, Library with Free Wi-Fi for pensioners, a beaut local Fishmonger. It gives off a good honest feel with few pretensions – we especially liked the down to earth travellers knowledge of fishing in outback Australia exhibited by our fellow campers here. While here I rang Neil MacDonald to let him know that he and Les Furber should seriously consider joining us here next year in about August…..we also bought 3kg of local Barra fillets to take home. There is now a sealed road to the town coming from south via Longreach, Cloncurry and Gregory Downs.
The rest of our trip home involved retracing part of our outward journey East as far as Georgetown and then on to Mt Surprise where we stopped for the night a distance of 600kms. We then had a very pleasant journey through the verdant Atherton Tableland. We had decided to pursue the Savannah Way to its Eastern end at Cairns as we wanted to re-visit Bruno and Maria Maloberti (www.nqgoldcoffee.com.au) (our coffee suppliers) in Mareeba to discuss varying our regular order from grounds to beans.
We then drove down to Cairns down the picturesque Kuranda road. We rested up in Cairns Rusty's Market and shop selling good quality men's batik shirts (Reef City Mens Wear in Shields Street). I also was able to do some internet banking at the City library as well as book some plane tickets to Melbourne for the following month.
After a look at Mission Beach Markets and then Murray Falls near Cardwell , we camped at the Bowling Green NP just south of Townsville.
Cardwell with Hinchinbrook Island in background
Next day instead of overnighting in Marlborough we drove straight home to some creature comforts after nearly 6 weeks away. However, one must seriously question the cost effectiveness of driving to Darwin as the $1500 fuel bill would just about pay for two return airfares - we'll see.
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