A primer on the epic 3,500km cross-country route from Broome to Cairns.
The Savannah Way is one of the more ambitious journeys that can be undertaken under one’s own steam in this country.
Bisecting the continent from east to west, the route carves a mighty swathe through the remarkably diverse landscapes of Australia’s Top End.
From the ultramarine and pindan contrasts of Broome, through the blood-red soil and ancient gorges of the Kimberley, across the dire dusty western desert, the open savannahs of the Northern Territory, Arnhem Land and the Gulf Country, the north Queensland outback and finally the lush landscapes of Cairns, this route takes a cross section of the upper quadrant of the country.
To give justice to such a journey takes weeks, not to mention the months of planning and preparation.
Many of the pit stops along this route are worthy of their own dedicated trips. The Savannah Way is merely the thread that binds this bundle of experiences together.
The landscapes are legendary, and the characters that cut today’s well-trodden paths make for some fascinating research.
Take a closer look at one of Australia’s most iconic yet demanding touring routes.
ROPER BAR TO THE QLD BORDER
ROPER BAR is a settlement located on the upper tidal limit of the Northern Territory’s Roper River. About 600km south of Darwin and more than 300km east of Katherine, it’s safe to say it’s a fairly isolated community.
Ludwig Leichardt was the first European to visit this part of the country when he passed through during the mid 1840s whilst on an expedition to Port Essington in the Northern Territory.
The Roper River is widely regarded as one of the best places in the country to fish for barramundi. They grow them big up here too, with plenty of trophy-sized fish well over the magic metre mark being landed by locals and visitors alike over the years.
Access to Roper Bar is via an unsealed track that diverges from the Stuart Highway. While not a sealed highway, it’s a fairly tame, if long and monotonous, drive that’s suitable for 2WD vehicles during dry conditions.
Amenities in the community are somewhat limited, but there’s a general store, roadhouse, motel and caravan park in town that all cater to tourists, the majority of whom pass through during the prime touring months from April to September.
KING ASH BAY is located at the mouth of the McArthur River, about 50km downstream from the township of Borroloola. What this community lacks in facilities, it makes up for with natural gifts.
The McArthur is well regarded as another of the Territory’s richest fishing rivers, with plus-sized barramundi being a primary target for many visiting anglers.
King Ash Bay marks the spot where the McArthur’s rich waters meet the Gulf of Carpentaria, opposite the Pellow Islands.
The King Ash Bay Fishing Club website proudly claims that their small community is, ‘700km from the nearest traffic lights and 1000km from the nearest shopping centre,’ but that’s not to say that visitors aren’t well catered for.
There are fantastic riverside camping facilities maintained by the King Ash Bay Fishing Club that ensure that travellers have everything they require.
There’s a powered campsite located on high ground that’s open year-round as well as another unpowered site located on the riverbank, which is closed during the wet season due to the risk of flooding.
The popular unpowered site is known locally as ‘genny flats’ and the use of quieter generators is permitted here between 7:00am and 10:00pm.
Toilets and showers are located in both camping areas, as are dump points for caravan toilets.
Coin-operated washing machines are available for use in the powered camping area and small campfires are permitted in both areas, so long as they are under control and attended at all times.
Great meals, cold beers and good times are served up every night of the week at Groper’s Bar and Grill, which is open daily from 5:00pm during the dry season and is the social centre of the community.
BORROLOOLA is a township of some 1000 residents located on the banks of the McArthur River, around 50km upstream from its juncture with the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The settlement is situated on the plain between the coastal fringe and the rise of the Barkly Tablelands, on the traditional land of the Yanyuwa people.
The rivers running from the tablelands to the coast regularly flood during the wet season, closing the road east to Queensland and isolating the community for months at a time.
Borroloola is known as one of the country’s most isolated communities, and as such it serves as the main service centre for a vast surrounding area.
The community is the only place for a long while to fill up on fuel, stock up on supplies from the supermarket and general store or enjoy a night with a roof over your head at the local motel or caravan park.
There is even a small airport just outside of town that services flights to Darwin and regional centres.
THE PELLOW ISLANDS sit in the southwest corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria, directly offshore from the mouth of the McArthur River.
The group consists of five islands including Vanderlin Island, West Island, North Island, Centre Island and South West Island. Vanderlin is the largest of the archipelago, measuring some 32km in length and 13km in width at its widest point.
The island group is part of Warralibi Aboriginal Land and all five islands are inhabited at least part time by the local Yanyuwa people.
North Island is home to the Barranyi National Park which offers visitors free camping, drinking water and barbeque facilities. Visitors to the region are able to visit other islands within the group and negotiate a camping fee with the local indigenous landholders.
THE ROBINSON RIVER rises in the Barkly Tablelands and flows north down the coastal plain until it discharges into the Gulf of Carpentaria around 60km east of Borroloola.
The river was visited by old Ludwig L during his 1845 venture to the NT’s Port Essington and named after one of the expedition’s supporters.
A pristine delta is located where the mouth of the river meets the ocean and the Garawa people are the traditional owners of the land, in 1992 the Robinson River pastoral lease covering the river’s delta and surrounding areas was handed back to the Garawa people, after almost two decades of campaigning.
Seven Emus Station is located on the Robinson River and is one of the larger cattle stations in the region. The station is home to thousands of head of Brahmin cattle and is isolated for months at a time during the wet season.
Due to the river’s remote location and relatively pristine condition, the fishing can be exceptional. Barramundi, mangrove jack and sooty grunter are all prime targets that are taken frequently by locals and visiting anglers alike.
BURKETOWN AND BEYOND
HELLS GATE is the name of a roadhouse 50km eastward of the Northern Territory and Queensland border.
The spot takes its name from the gap in the nearby escarpment that the road passes through, which during the droving days of the early 20th century, was as far as the Queensland mounted police would escort travellers.
From that point onwards they were on their own in the wild west, until so far as they could reach the relative safety of regional Northern Territory communities such as Katherine.
The Hells Gate Roadhouse is certainly worthy of a stopover. It’s only open for business during the dry season from April to September and is a great spot to stop for a hot meal and a cold drink or even to spend the night.
The roadhouse is located 180km west of Burketown and offers visitors camping facilities including hot showers, toilets and fresh water. Contact the roadhouse on (07) 4745 8258.
LAWN HILL GORGE is protected by the Boodjamulla National Park and is located in north Queensland just over 200 clicks north of the Barkly Highway and around 100km west of Gregory Downs.
The clear green waters of the gorge form a natural outback oasis and the lush vegetation is in stark contrast to the dusty outback surrounds.
The access track from the Barkly Highway is unsealed and is rated for access for 4WD vehicles only. During the dry season the drive is easy, with the constant corrugations the biggest worry.
The park is one of Queensland’s most beautiful, and is well worth the side trip. The gorge country is spectacular and the park is also home to freshwater springs that bring in an abundance of wildlife.
Camping at Boodjamulla is on the banks of Lawn Hill Creek and there are 20 sites available. Toilets and showers are available for visitors, while fires and generators are not allowed.
Camping permits are required and modest fees apply.
For more information and to make bookings head online to www.nprsr.qld.gov.au