Travels 2011 - Gulf of Carpentaria
We collected Harry Stapleton at the Cairns airport on 12 July and eventually tore ourselves away from the hedonistic Cairns for Karumba and the Gulf on 15 July 2011. Before doing so we had to attend to some pretty important logistical details like having two new tyres fitted to the vehicle to replace the seconds we had scrounged in Weipa. The car had also to be serviced and finally we had to attend to the victualling for the trip across to Darwin. We again followed our practise of cryovaking steaks, bulk rump, chicken breasts, pork chops, pork spare ribs into meal size bundles and stacking them carefully into the WAECO's freezer. We also treated ourselves to a boned shoulder of lamb for the camp oven and a 2kg slab of corned silverside which, once cooked, would provide cold meat for lunches.
The crovak machine has been very useful and the rolls of plastic film used in them @$15 a pop are very affordable. Every long term camping trip should utilise one. They are also handy for one's fishing catch!
I drove out of Cairns and up the hill to Kuranda and Mareeba when Harry took over to drive through thick cloud and fog for almost three hours through the mountainous terrain surrounding Ravenshoe (Qld's highest town in terms of altitude) until we got to the Undarra Lava Tubes NP which was crawling with tourists of all shapes and sizes and chattering like Corellas whilst consuming over-priced ice creams.
We had originally planned to visit both the Lava Tubes at Undarra ($47 for 2hr tour) and the Cobold Gorge ($73 for 3 hour boat trip) but have recently discovered that both destinations require one to join a private tour at a very hefty cost - so we gave them a miss. So instead we took ourselves back onto the gravel roads and headed to Einasleigh and Forsyth. Now Einasleigh is on the route of the Savannahlander Train which stops in the town right opposite the historic Einasleigh pub so as the punters can stretch their legs and explore the impressive Copperfield Gorge in the centre of town.
The Gorge represents the SE boundary of the Undara lava field and the Copperfield River has cut through a lava fissure to create this impressive feature. We luckily met a local at the pub who advised us about an ideal free campsite perched right up on top of the gorge and it turned out to be an excellent location. The publican turned out to have grown up in norlane in Geelong - small world!
The pub plus the miniatures constructed by the owner some years previously
Mural in the pub Harry 'the Axe' at our gorge top camp
Copperfield Gorge just up stream of the confluence of the Copperfield and Einasleigh Rivers
Copperfield Gorge with the two new bridges over it
Next day with Maria still at the wheel we wound our way out of this hilly broken country to savannah grasslands in and around Georgetown and then onto Croydon where we lunched at the nearby Belmore Dam. While we stopped for a breather in Georgetown the Savannahlander train pulled up enabling us to gawk and take a couple of quick snaps.
We then headed out across the Gulf savannah towards Normanton where we had intended to pull up at Leichhardt Lagoon Camping Area (Camps #254) but found the over-crowded self-styled 'generator land' wanted to charge us $10/head for use of their rough bush toilets. We decided instead to head for the scrub and pulled over in a deserted byway for nothing. However, the otherwise scruffy site did have one redeeming feature it was right alongside the Savannahlander track and I was able to take some great sunset shots looking down or up the track.
Next morning after a brief glitch with the camper's winding mechanism we decamped for Normanton where we stopped and did a walk around their historic precinct which proved most informative.
Big Barra and Big Croc
Excellent signage throughout the historical precinct
Gulflander Train - various period models
We then crossed the Norman River and drove the last 80kms into Karumba and our pre-booked powered site. The Gulf Country Caravan Park turned out to be very crowded and the sites small. Lots of Victorians and NSWelshmen with a scattering from elsewhere.
I have long wished to visit Karumba and had idealised it in my mind. Not surprisingly, the reality of the town bore no resemblance to my fictionalised town. It was really quite scruffy and small. The town is divided between the commercial port just up stream of the Norman River mouth and the more touristy area about the mouth itself where there are two huge over-crowded caravan parks and a tavern. Karumba proper serves as a port for the Gulf live cattle export trade, as well as for the large Century Mine which transports its ore concentrate from its mine site near Lawn Hill as a slurry down a 304km long pipeline to its processing plant at the Karumba wharf. However, originally, the town served as the base for the Gulf prawn fishery, which still exists. There is the excellent Raptis Seafood Restaurant where you can get an excellent serve of barra, chips and salad for $13. However, you can buy fresh barra up here for $18/kg or King salmon for $10/kg (minimum of 10kg lots).
Karumba Boat Ramp
Karumba Point Boat Ramp and tavern
Maria and Harry plus 'a stranger' in the bar
Because the wind kept blowing the entire time of our stay in Karumba, Harry and I decided to try a game of golf on the local course which, despite its sand scrapes wasn't too bad.
Our stay in Karumba was further compromised by a retired English couple from Mandurah WA who twice sought to close down our post dinner conversations with requests for complete silence after 2000 hours. This became quite intimidating until we learnt from two other nearby happy campers that the same couple had complained about the noise from everybody prior to our arrival - so we ignored them. However, the bad vibes in the cluttered caravan park together with the blowy boating conditions helped us to decide to leave a day early and seek a refund from the over-booked caravan park - only to be told that we were only eligible for 50% - a pox on their house!
At any rate we were all glad to leave this sterile and dormant retirees caravan fest and head for more challenging camping adventures further west along the Savannah Way. Nevertheless, I would have loved to have experienced this town back in the 1970s when it was a real raging frontier prawning hub with not a smug nomad in sight.
The road out of Karumba through Normanton to Burketown (a distance of approximately 300kms) is sealed for about 50% of the way and the gravel sections have been pretty well graded with minimal corrugations. Burketown on the Albert River is another town claiming to be the Barramundi capital of Australia . However, it also claims to be the spiritual and climatic home of that curious long rolling cloud formation known as the 'morning glory'.
Albert River crossing Harry & JWB at Burketown Pub
There are severe alcohol restrictions in this town which prevented Maria from replenishing Aboriginal settlement of Doomadgee - a relatively tidy settlement which also had no ice. However, like other Aboriginal settlements in North Qld , this one also had loads of horses roaming around - are the wild or semi-domesticated we didn't know. While Doomadgee is a self-prescribed dry community the road leading into it is littered with beer cans and boxes.....same, same as in a lot of NT settlements. We eventually pulled up for the night on the banks of Gregory River which had water flowing over its 100m wide concrete causeway. We celebrated our progress west with a fine dinner of crispy fried Atlantic Salmon with apple mash and greens.
Gregory River crossing
Next day we set our sights on crossing the NT Border - a distance of only 150kms but of mostly gravel roads. The road this time was a little more corrugated with patches fine bull dust to cough on. We re-fuelled at Hells Gate roadhouse ($1.88/lt) and on chatting to the proprietor discovered that the name Hell's Gate referred to the 19th C overland droving practice of having to pause here while the Qld police cleared your herd for movement across the NT Border when the monitoring of their droving activities was transferred to the NT Police based in Katherine - a hell of a long way away.
Hell's Gate also at last sold us some ice. Now the road west of Hell's Gate across the NT Border and up to the Robinson River crossing became very stony and rough - the worst we had experienced since some sections of the Cape York road. At any rate we soldiered on with Harry doing the best job he could given the shitty road - I actually felt sorry for the caravan being put through all of this, with stones being constantly flicked up and belted into the underneath of our vehicle and van. This stretch of the road actually takes one over the Calvert Hills. We also had to pull over to let the odd Road Train come through in a cloud of dust.
Harry and Maria at the border
We paused at the NT Border for a celebratory beer and pushed on to the Robinson River where we camped in its river bed after crossing its rock strewn causeway. We all recalled the last time we camped here in exactly the same spot nearly 25 years prior. This time we shared the crossing camping area with three others. It had taken us most of the day to travel from Doomadgee to the Robinson River - a distance of about 370kms.
Robinson River crossing
Our next destination was thankfully only 60 kms away at the Seven Emu cattle station (www.sevenemustation.com.au) which only this year had opened its gates to tourists who wished to camp, fish and generally experience a little bit of isolated outback station life.
Robinson River - Seven Emu Homestead Crossing
Seven Emu is approximately 110kms east of Borroloola. The property has been run by the Shadforth family since the mid 1950s when an Aboriginal stockman named Willie Shadforth got lucky with some bets he made on successive Caulfield and Melbourne Cups and bought this property. I remembered meeting Willie a couple of times during my years in the Pastoral Lands Branch of the Department of the NT back in the late 1970s. At any rate Willie's son Frank and family now run the show and manage to turn off enough cattle each year to keep the place going. However, Frank has wisely decided to diversify and has built an initial 3 bough shelters on the 75m cliffs above the Robinson River about six kms from his homestead and about about 40km from the Gulf coast. Each shelter is provided with a steal fire pit, a pile of fire wood, a sheltered pit toilet and a 200lt drum of fresh drinking water (all this for $50/vehicle or $500 and stay as long as you like!).
On arrival Frank could not have been more welcoming and we chattered about the old days and Harry was able to share some stories about his days in both Lands and later with Dept of Primary Industries (Weeds Branch). Frank later gave Maria and I a ride in his cut down Toyota 'Bull Catcher' ute down to where we could launch the boat. The river is navigable in both directions and is marginally tidal where you camp. He told us there were plenty of barra in the river and all you had to do was catch'em.
Soon after erecting the camp we launched the boat and Harry and I embarked on some tentative trolling up stream while Maria tried casting from the bank. We caught nothing, but the river is alive with bait fish which are being chased by bigger somethings. Overnight, you could hear the barra smacking the water below and Maria claims to have seen many pairs of red eyes in the inky black waters below the camp.
Sunset over the Robinson below camp Sunrise with mist over the Robinson
Maria demonstrates our 'ensuite' pit toilet
Our Camp was literally perched on top of the cliff
Boating on the Robinson River near our camp 35 km from coast
Due tyo the poor fishing to be had below our idyllic camp we went and saw Frank and asked him for directions to the mouth of the River. Frank, never one to be overly responsive, gave us the barest of details but no mud map and so off we went. At about 10km from the coast we missed a vital turnoff to the Coast as well as to the Calvert River. However, we did come across a series of camp sites in the tidal reaches of the river which were beautifully mangrove-lined and in fact a group were already camped there and been there a month just catching mudcrabs. Next time around, I would prefer to camp at these tidal camps where there is plenty of shade as well as quite serviceable mud boat ramp for boats up to 5m in length....the track to these camps is 4x4 but nothing too tough.
We all helped to prepare a beef curry and bread baking one day and later witnessed this fantastic sunset
After three nights here we decided to head off for greener fishin fields up towards the Roper River. However, on reaching our first nominated campsite some 40 kms past Cape Crawford we found that our camper's winding cable mechanism had broken and we were unable to raise it from its folded state. We had no option but to drive back to the Heartbreak Hotel at Cape Crawford and book into one of their very expensive and dirty dongas ($30/bed). We could at least be thankful that the breakage had not occurred in a more remote section of the road up to the Roper River.
After a very restless night of worrying about the camper and some unwelcome nocturnal noises from one very heavy snorer in our room we left the Heartbreak Hotel at sparrows and headed west across the NT until we hit the Stuart Highway and then headed north. Eventually pulling up in Hayes Creek in another, but this time far cleaner, donga for the same price. En route we contacted the Darwin family and arranged for temporary shelter in Darwin in their tent - trust it don't rain!.
On reviewing these notes, I do seem to have paid an extra-ordinary amount of attention to the Gulf's road conditions and river crossings. In defence of this approach, I would simply say that these are the single most important determinants of an adventure holiday for one of a certain age and one with limited resources both physical and financial to tackle the challenges thrown up. As mentioned in the previous chapter on Cape York, there are many young couples and folk around who can afford to undertake any challenge at whatever cost and get away with it. We on the other hand must balance our resources to ensure we optimise our trip outcomes without bankrupting our lifestyles.
This said, we would dearly have loved to have completed the NT section of the Savannah Way by proceeding through to the Roper River via the Cox and Limmen Rivers but our camping gear would not hang together any further. However, we do believe it has performed a wonderful job by getting us this far and are confident of it getting us further down the track.
To this end, mention should be made here that friends Dianne and Des from Yeppoon have suffered a small setback in their nomadic travels and we will be meeting up with them in Darwin tomorrow to review future travel strategies over the odd drink. At this stage it looks as though we will be in Darwin for longer than originally planned.
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