The aptly named Savannah Way starts in Cairns and goes all the way to Broome, WA. We joined it at Ravenshoe on our way to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
After the lush countryside with abundant flowing rivers and waterfalls, it was time for the great tropical grasslands that surprisingly (to me at least) cover a quarter of Australia. That’s 1.9 million square kilometres of Savannah with a climate that’s essentially a long harsh dry season followed by an intense wet/monsoon season. It makes for a somewhat uninviting: space with sparse vegetation and sunburnt bleakness, which is perhaps exaggerated this year because “The Wet” never really arrived last year.
One aspect about the local vernacular that I find very endearing is the elastic concept of what constitutes a “town” around here. Elsewhere, a settlement with a couple of hundred people would be a village at best. But I suppose when there are hundreds of kilometres of nothingness to its neighbour it’s perhaps only polite to call it a town.
There’s not much to them but they’re interesting to visit, if only to get a sense of their amazing isolation. Once we got our head around it, it didn’t seem strange to see a commuting helicopter parked out the back of a modest house, right next to a horse paddock.
That was in Georgetown – a quintessential sleepy little ‘town’ (population 254) with no notable features, except for a very modern visitor centre, and – most welcome for us hot, sweaty and dusty travellers – a community swimming pool. Utter bliss!
Next up was Croydon, which was quite a centre in its day, supporting the burgeoning mining and cattle industries. The town attracted thousands of mining hopefuls in the 1880s and boasted one of the biggest gold strikes in Australia’s history. That strike had the most unlikely beginning: a massive gold vein that actually emerged above ground in the backyard of the local hotel where the vein’s visible end – a sizeable lump of gold – was sitting on the surface until somebody literally tripped over it! You can just imagine it … you’d never feel happier stumbling in drunken stupor.
The town was by all accounts very prosperous. In line with the Antipodean practice of measuring a town’s size and prosperity by the number of hotels it supported, I can report that Croydon in its heyday had 38 watering holes. That’s 37 more than today.
While the town (population 220) is a sleepy shadow of its former self, it’s doing an amazing job of preserving its rich history and making it accessible. Croydon is virtually an open-air museum with many restored historic buildings complete with engaging interpretive displays.
The magic of the big nothingness
We got a first taste of the Outback last October, when we drove our Truckie from Darwin (where we purchased it) to Brisbane. We knew that we would like to spend more time in this unique environment. So, these past weeks, we took the opportunity to camp in various places in the midst of it all, pondering life, the universe and everything.
For us recovering city slickers, the whole experience is quite profound; the sense of aloneness, one’s insignificance and vulnerability (of sorts) in that big nothingness with its almost overpowering peaceful silence, interrupted only by sounds of nature and, of course – the friendliest representative of Australian wildlife – the bushfly.
Apart from said bushfly and its permanent entourage of hundreds, there’s something decidedly Zen about not just hearing one’s thoughts, but sensing the space that surrounds them.
And that was before we opened the wine!
There simply is nothing quite like it, and we found it tremendously enjoyable, even if it brought out some whacky behaviour at times.
On several occasions, we started acting as if there was a bizarre need to blend into the surroundings … not wanting to be noticed, that type of thing. At one point, just after dusk, we’d even started whispering to each other, which is hilariously bonkers given that we were at least 100kms from the nearest anything.
When suddenly the most almighty sneeze (a real doozy!) escaped me, it reverberated in a most unusual fashion thanks to surreal acoustics around us. It had the bloke looking at me genuinely upset for breaking the silence, especially in such an uncivilised manner.
It was a good thing I managed to control my, ahem, flatulence.
Since I started doing Yoga (in June), I’ve become rather addicted to the outdoors Yoga experience and often wondered what it would be like in the total remoteness of the Outback. Well, I can testify that it’s a worthwhile experience; I have great sessions once I overcome the gazillions of flies that promptly arrive to practice with me. However, one time towards the end, while enjoying the well-deserved relaxing “Corpse Pose”, I became aware of recurring shadows through my closed eyes. I opened my eyes to see a bunch of eagles circling over me … so low, they barely cleared our truck. We were actually making eye contact! As you can imagine, the relaxation came to an abrupt end.
It may well have been that they were watching me trying to get into pretzel-like poses and figured it looked like a creature about to depart this life. After all, the flies had already arrived. It kinda felt like I was on the eagle tasting menu, and I didn’t like it one bit.
Would you believe it, I’ve now started to keep my eyes open at all times. Around here you never know who hasn’t eaten in a while.
Cattle, cattle everywhere
Along the Savannah Way, it’s difficult to ignore the ubiquitous cattle stations with often bony looking beasts. After not seeing a blade of green grass in several days of driving, I would have sworn that the land is at best highly marginal for it. But blow me down, this is fair dinkum cattle country. Apparently it makes sense (of sorts) in context of nearby markets in Indonesia and Malaysia courtesy of (controversial live) exports from Karumba, in the Gulf.
Thus here you’ll find some of the largest cattle properties globally, some larger than countries.
Yes, another superlative, though perhaps not a case of ‘bigger and better’.
You can’t help but feel sorry for the many drought stricken farmers but given that droughts are a fact of life around here I fail to see the point in persevering with cattle farming. The overall costs (environment, personal health, animal welfare etc) seem exceedingly high. What’s on the other side of the ledger? For what it’s worth, the refrain one hears is “cattle is where the money is”. However, current rock bottom prices being paid for starved cattle (as little as $20 a head!) do little to support this notion.
So, to this outsider (whose opinion is based on little more than observation and common sense), this cattle business seems rather unpalatable.
The Gulf of Carpentaria
The Gulf of Carpentaria has held a fascination for us ever since we saw it from above on a flight to Darwin. We’d often wondered what it is like ‘down there’. Well, now we know: seriously remote, very hot, flatter than a pancake, and extremely spacious; there are very likely more crocodiles than people, along with untold colonies of underfed midges, mosquitoes and other suckers. The landscape is dominated by wide estuaries, mangroves and salt pans, much of it with prolific birdlife.
Having been in glorious outback isolation for a couple of weeks, we were looking forward to get to Normanton, the main centre of the Carpentaria Shire, 75km from the sea. Goodness knows what we expected to find, because there’s really not a hell of a lot there. Some government services, a tourist centre cum library, two general stores with petrol pumps, some industrial/fishing facilities, a railway, and ultra-wide roads – that pretty much sums it up.
It’s the regional centre yet still only has a population of 1100. And there’s only one other town in the shire – the nearby seaside town of Karumba (pop 600). The shire, however, isn’t exactly little – at 65,000 km2 it’s the size of Tasmania. I told you it was spacious!
Karumba itself is a cute little town where everything is about the sea. There’s an active prawn and fishing industry, and at this time of the year scores of fishing enthusiasts come to town making it feel a whole lot bigger and giving it a subtle buzz. They pretty much occupy every space at the caravan parks. It’s Barramundi that they’re after.
We mentally backtracked to our stay in Bundaberg, where Jim and Jen regaled us with tales about their frequent extended fishing trips to Karumba. Our ears pricked up, but it wasn’t until they served us some fabulously delicious Barra – caught in Karumba and frozen for later delectation – that we were hooked. It truly was the best Barra we’d ever had. And since both of us have a culinary soft spot for nice seafood (actually … any nice food really) we decided there and then, that we’d have to visit the place where the best Barramundi comes from.
Mind you, we were also looking forward to another, somewhat more banal, ‘attraction’ in Karumba – a sunset over the ocean! After a couple of years on the eastern seaboard it was rather a nice thing. Karumba, we decided, does sunsets rather well. We celebrated the occasion with Barramundi and chips, and a cold beer. We’d heard that Ash’s was a legendary fish ’n chips place in town. It turned out to be true. Seriously good and fresh fish with the thinnest of batter, fried crisply in quality oil and nicely drained. Perfect in every respect!
Things that go ‘bump’ in the night
Throughout our travels, we’ve had a few night-time experiences that gave us a bit of a fright. Well, me mostly. The bloke seemingly doesn’t mind unidentified noises outside our truck, or inside for that matter. I, on the other hand, can be of the panicky persuasion, especially when we’re in splendid isolation, in the middle of nowhere, where axe murderers lurk outside … and rats, or mice threaten the peace inside. The fact that neither scenario has as yet eventuated does little to stop my lively imagination.
A while back, camped in the middle of a forest and way beyond any habitation or cellphone coverage, we were spooked in the dead of the night by something powerful outside; whatever it was, it violently rammed the ladder of our truck and came back for another couple of tries, causing enormous noise (metal on metal), like we were under attack. As you can imagine, that’s not a nice way to awaken from your slumber. Suffice to say, it took us a while to gather our senses. Well, the bloke’s senses mostly, as my mind had taken temporary leave of absence; it was busy examining a variety of scenarios, all of which had us dying a ghastly death one way or another. In my mind I was still bleeding to death, when the bloke reasoned that it was “just some animal”, most likely a wild pig. And since there was nothing to see from our windows, and no further noise was to be heard, the bloke ‘closed the case’ and, inconceivably, went back to sleep.
That pattern repeats at times, though recently it’s been mostly identified as birds on the roof (Don’t mock me until you’ve heard the noise of some jolly big helicopter impersonating bird landing less than a metre above your head!), or Wallabies noisily inspecting our spacious undercarriage.
In Karumba we had one instance that scared the beejeezus out of me and robbed me of my night’s sleep. We’d just enjoyed our day on the oceanfront – I was busy collecting seashells, watching out for crocs, taking photos, watching out for crocs, spotting birds in the mangroves, and of course looking out for crocs. At night, I suddenly awoke to a rustling noise – inside(!) the truck. I instantly identified it as some sort of rodent and shook the bloke awake. He didn’t seem to appreciate being woken, and reminded me that no rat, mouse or anything of that kind could get into the truck. The ‘floor’, he reminded me, is a metre off the ground. He had clearly forgotten about those little marsupials we’d seen, that looked like rats but jumped like fleas on steroids. I remembered them well, with their little rodent heads and long naked tails. They belong to a category of animals that I don’t like, regardless of their name. So, in my mind some kangaroo rat had jumped into our truck and was gnawing and scratching itself through our belongings in one of the top cupboards.
Having explored everything – except the innards of said cupboards – the bloke inexplicably wouldn’t have a bar of it. And while he couldn’t tell me what animal actually made the noise, he flatly dismissed my rat theory and, in no time at all, he was snoring peacefully while I was gripped by (possibly irrational) fear and didn’t sleep all night.
After a glum breakfast I was starting to wonder where I might find a divorce lawyer, when the bloke takes me aside and tells me that he’s found the source of the noise. He points to my recently collected shells in their plastic container, and advises me that I’d inadvertently also collected a crab the size of a thimble, which scratched and rattled the container as it tried to escape its prison!
As my friends and family know, my love of food is legendary. I love almost all kinds of food. There’s just one dish that I find hard to swallow, regardless how often it’s served. Maybe one of these days I’ll get used to eating humble pie.
What’s the story, Morning Glory?
We’d heard about and were hoping to experience the amazing meteorological phenomenon of a spectacular early morning “roll cloud” formation happening in the Gulf, particularly in Burketown in springtime. It’s known as “Morning Glory” and is a sight to behold – one or more self-perpetuating massive cloud rolls, like a gigantic cigar, roll in from the sea, extending from horizon to horizon. The eastern Gulf of Carpentaria is the only location in the world where Morning Glories are predictably observed; the only other place where they occur is the Gulf Mexico.
Such is the intensity of this unique rolling cloud that thrill seekers, including the Red Bull team, come from far afield to ride the wave in hangliders and ultra-lights. They liken it to riding a tsunami – a once in a lifetime experience for many. For some it’s the last ever experience, as the dedication of a mural in town suggests.
We purposely stayed in the area for 5 days, going to bed with the chickens so we would be up before sparrow’s fart. Alas we only witnessed one Morning Glory that quickly fell apart and another one that didn’t amount to much at all. All the same, we got a great sense of this amazing phenomenon and experienced the very intense wind squalls that come as suddenly as they disappear.
Apparently there is still insufficient understanding about what goes into creating these wonders. The cloud itself is described as a manifestation of the moisture that is caught in the updraft along the leading edge of a solitary wave. However, what causes this solitary wave is still largely not understood.
Exhilarating (and scary) moments in Burketown
Apart from the meteorological phenomenon, there was little else we expected to experience in Burketown.
The town is very small, even smaller than the other small Outback towns we’d visited, and separated from its nearest towns by long stretches of gravel road. From Normanton, for instance, it was 220kms, 130km of which is a gravel road with varying corrugations, some of them capable of shaking your dental fillings out.
Since there are more of those sorts of ‘roads’ in store for us, we were happy to stay a while and get a bit of a feel for Burketown. Given the size and isolation – very much a recurring theme around here – there isn’t much to the town. Half a dozen service providers and a hospital that is barely as big as your average suburban house.
Burketown has a colourful history reminiscent of the “Wild West” where everybody carried a pistol. In response to the seeming lawlessness, a successful shopkeeper had to be able to “ride well, shoot well and be an able pugilist”. Those early days were clearly not for the faint hearted.
Nowadays the dangers, for tourists at least, are lurking in nature itself as we found. We were camped on an elevated bank along the river’s edge where we were advised free camping is allowed and where we figured it was safe. One evening just as we about to have dinner, a rather large croc appeared right in front of us in the river. And while one has to expect croc encounters – after all, they do live in rivers around here – it made our hearts skip a couple of beats when we actually came face to face with this reptile at such close range. As we watched it silently glide up the river we spotted another, smaller one lurking on the opposite bank.
Just a few days earlier, while taking a photo at the Leichhard River, a croc submerged itself right in front of me. I hadn’t noticed it until then! Both those sightings were at rather close range and produced concentrated primal fear which was felt by every single cell in my body.
Enough about crocs.
We also wanted to experience the vast salt pans which extend past the town out to the ocean. Once we enquired about driving out there, we were told it had to be undertaken with extreme caution and you’re supposed to advise the police. It’s deceptively easy to get lost out there, and there is the added danger of getting caught out by the incoming tide. The land is so low that the tide doesn’t so much come in from outside, as it rises from below the ground.
Once we ventured into the salt pans ourselves (with a compass, and plotting our path with odometer readings) we realised how easy it would be to get lost; there are no roads to speak of, just vehicle tracks going in all sorts of directions. After 10 or so kilometres, there is just flat featureless land in any direction, as far as the eye can see; apart from the constant mirage ahead, that is. Quite an experience!