Channel the frontier spirit that’s still alive and well in Australia’s north with a coast to coast trip along the Savannah Way. Book-ended by beautiful beaches, this is a 3700 km journey from Broome to Cairns covering red dirt, lush tropical forests and looming rock landscapes that look like something from the Jurassic-era. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to uncover patches of terrain untouched by humans in some of the 15 national parks and five world heritage sites you’ll pass through on the way.
You’ll be considering ditching your day job for the life of a pearl farmer when you take a cruise down the clear azure waters at Willie Creek. This is the spot where Australian South Sea Cultured Pearls are harvested by experienced pearl technicians before they’re crafted into pieces of jewellery.
While you’re sure to find the ins and outs of pearl farming fascinating, be prepared to be gobsmacked by this spectacular tropical eden. The clear shallow waters and golden sandy beaches will have you struggling to imagine a more spectacular workplace. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled though for the farm’s resident crocodile!
Rising hundreds of metres from the ground, these impressive beehive-like sandstone structures are likely to be the most unique natural wonder you’ll have seen in a while. Aboriginal people have revered the area for 40,000 years but it wasn’t until a documentary crew discovered it in 1983 that tourists started falling in love with it’s unique beauty.
Make your way through shady ravines between these red and black-striped domes, you’ll discover Aboriginal rock art, abundant wildlife, and palm-fringed pools perfect for a mid-afternoon dip.
Shelter from the searing sun and explore the underground limestone cave complex at Cutta Cutta Caves National Park. The caves tend to be flooded during the wet season which limits their stalagmite formation but enhances the shimmering stalactites. Keep an eye out for the little brown snakes (very poisonous!) and the endangered ghost and orange horseshoe bats that call this unique humid environment home.
When you’re ready to come up for air, check out the Tropical Savanna Walk. You’ll find out how the local plant life manages to survive and flourish in the unforgiving climate.
Hot tip: The caves are often closed after heavy rain so it’s best to call ahead.
This is a must do for even the most gorge-weary traveller. Spread out over 180,353 hectares, this national park has an array of natural beauty, Aboriginal history and rock art.
Hire a canoe and make your own way down the maze of gorges that make up the Nitmiluk Gorge, or if you’d prefer to keep a safe distance from the crocs that bathe in the shallow waters, take the cruise option.
After a busy day exploring, pitch your tent at the excellent Nitmiluk Caravan Park and spend the night under a carpet of stars.
While there’s not much going on at Roper Bar apart from a couple of stores and a caravan park, it’s the perfect stop to stretch your legs with a walk along the Roper River. Walk around 20 kilometres downstream from Roper Bar and you’ll get to the wreck of the Young Australian. This vessel has been stranded since 1870 when it was used to tow the large sailing river boats that ferried construction and farming supplies into the area.
You should also consider taking your fishing rod with you. The river is renowned for it’s great fishing but do beware of the crocs!
Soak up the friendly and laid-back Outback vibes at this historic pub. It’s the best spot on the Savannah to stop for a frosty glass of beer and classic Outback food such as damper bread and hearty steaks or treat yourself to their famous beef ‘n’ barra BBQ.
The pub usually hosts live entertainment in the evenings but even if you come during the day, you’ll still be impressed by their massive collection of vintage knick knacks and bra collection! (Patrons have been leaving their intimates here ever since the 1980s after, rumour has it, a coach driver had a drinking bet with his female passengers.)
The pub also has a range of accommodation options on offer from motel rooms, cabins and sites to pitch a tent or park the caravan.
Take a flight over the extraordinary Lost City to marvel at the vast series of 25 metre high rock formations that are believed to have been created 1.4 billion years ago. These natural towers, believed to be the oldest rock formations in the world, will have you feeling like you’ve been transported into another prehistoric era. Helicopter tours depart from the air base opposite Heartbreak Hotel near Borroloola.
You’re only option to see the Lost City is by chopper but if you’d rather stay in your car, you can check out the smaller lost cities in Caranbirini and Limmen National Parks.
Spend a night at Lorella Springs Wilderness Park - the spot some say is the best hidden secret you’ll find along the Savannah Way. Located 29 km down a driveway in the remote fishing village of Borroloola, this isn’t just a spot to rest your head for the night. Here you’ll find thermal springs perfect for an after-dinner dip and star-gazing session, and an onsite outdoor bar known for its lively happy hours.
During the day, explore the coastal floodplains, salt flats, glorious swimming holes and rainforests, filled with bird and animal wildlife, on this huge privately-owned 4,000-square km (1,000,000 acre) property. The owners say much of this property remains unexplored so channel your inner-pioneer and go where no man has gone before!
If you’re making a stop at Lawn Hill National Park, make sure you take a detour to check out the nearby Riversleigh fossil site. This World Heritage Listed attraction is one of the top ten places in the world to see fossils, containing more than 250 mammal fossil sites.
The limestone-encased fossils found along the walking trail trace the evolution of Australia’s mammals from as far back as 25 million years ago. You can also visit the fossil centre to see paleontologists at work, trying to piece together the region’s prehistoric history.
If you’re travelling on the Savannah between late September to early November then a stop at Burketown is essential. This is the best place in the world to spot morning glory clouds - a rare meteorological phenomenon caused when two sea breezes collide, causing the clouds to form cylinder-like formations. These “roll” clouds can be up to 1 kilometre wide and sometimes 1,000 kms long. And they roll in a straight line stretching from one side of the Gulf of Carpentaria to the other.
To find out if you’re in for a chance at seeing this surreal phenomenon, head down to the Burketown Pub and ask a local if they’ve spotted any of the tell tale signs that the clouds are on their way.
If you need a break from driving and want the chance to really appreciate the Savannah landscape, take a ride on the Gulflander from the cute Normanton station. This historic train will take you on a three-hour journey from Normanton to Critters Camp (named by the rail track workers for the array of creepy crawlies they encountered when they camped there), or take the sunset tour from Croydon to Golden Gate. Whatever option you choose, you’ll get to sit back and relax as the on board guides entertain you with the history of the Gulflander, anecdotes from the past, and stories about some of the region’s most colourful character. Quench your thirst with billy tea and the damper provided onboard on the Critters Camp excursion, it is some of the tastiest to be found along the Savannah Way!
If you are a fisherman, then you must make a bee-line for the Norman River where barramundi, king salmon, jewfish and bream are up for grabs. The area is also known for its fat and delicious mud crabs.
Take your pick at dropping a line along the bank by the picnic area, or from the old wharf. After you’re done, take a selfie with the 8.63m long Krys the Crocodile - a replica of the largest saltwater croc to be killed in Normanton.
Don’t be put off by the nickname “poor man’s goldfield”, this could be the spot where you come away with a decent swag of gold. Georgetown got its moniker from the gold nuggets that could be nabbed straight from the water’s surface during the Goldrush in the 1870s. Today, the nuggets are a little harder to find at Flat Creek Station, but with a permit and some handy gold-detecting equipment you could come away with a nice bounty. It was only 13 years ago that a Kiwi tourist uncovered a 1.2 kilogram gold nugget at this mineral-rich spot, worth an estimated $AUD 21,000!
From Georgetown it’s a relatively short (for the Outback) 2 ½ hour drive south to the Cobbold Gorge. Reasonably young, this time-softened sandstone gorge is worth the detour. In order to protect this unique landscape you have to take a guided tour, so make sure you book in advance to ensure you get to explore. There are camping grounds in Cobbold Gorge village and there are lovely walks around the area where you can check out the local wildlife - from red kangaroos, butterflies to short beaked echidnas.
Marvel at the sheer power of hot molten lava at Undara Volcanic National Park - home to one of the world’s largest lava tube cave systems. These spaghetti-like caves were created around 190,000 years ago when a volcano erupted violently, exhaling masses of hot lava into the dry riverbed below. The top layer of the lava cooled and formed a crust, while the lava below drained from the riverbed, leaving ribbons of underground tunnels.
If you want to see this natural phenomenon for yourself, you’ll need to book the services of a guide because, the underground cave system is a mind turning maze for newbies and also you need someone to steer you away from the tubes that have high carbon dioxide levels. Staying overnight is yet another adventure as they have some great fun accommodation options, from staying in a train carriage to camping in a swag tent village.
According to local legend, the thermal waters at Innot Hot Springs were once so revered as a health tonic, they were bottled and sent as far away as Europe. Today, you can soak in the waters in one of the park’s six public pools or dig your own private pool in the bank of Nettle Creek.
If the water gets you too hot and bothered, cool down with a walk through the tropical forest to take in the abundant birdlife or try your luck at the nearby topaz fossicking field.
If you have a fascination with engineering take a step back into Queensland’s mining past at Chillagoe Smelters - part of the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park. This refinery was once a hive of activity, treating ton upon ton of mined ore, copper, lead and gold, when the industry was a flourishing beacon of wealth for this small town. Today, all that’s left is ghostly ruins and abandoned machinery dotting the red dirt ground.
While it’s now forbidden to explore inside the ruins (the ground is unstable and it’s full of asbestos and other nasty toxins), you can take in this eerie scene from the viewing platform and read more about its fascinating history.
Spend an evening enjoying a sunset safari cruise before settling in for the night at the elegant Jabiru Safari Lodge. The two-part sunset cruise includes a boat safari on the lodge’s lake then a land safari through the nature reserve. This is your chance to see wallabies, emus and even a rare Wallaroo! After the safari, head back to base for a home-cooked meal while watching the sun set over the lake.
A good way to put the vastness of the Savannah Way and the Aussie Outback into perspective is to take to the skies and watch the sunrise while floating high above the orchards, coffee fields and vineyards of the Atherton
Tablelands in Mareeba - Queenslands prime spot for hot air ballooning. The team at Hot Air Balloon Cairns (operating from both Cairns and the Mareeba Heritage Museum), have been drifting from this idyllic spot for more than 20 years and it’s not hard to see why. Spot kangaroos and wallabies bounding through the rolling hills below while cruising along in the most romantic mode of transport.
If you’ve been struggling to find a decent long black along the Savannah Way then you need to stop in at Coffee Works. This Mareeba institution is known for serving up some of the best coffee around for miles and is also the spot to stock up on their famous Black Mountain coffee beans. Make sure you also take part in a coffee tasting before checking out the fascinating coffee museum!
The drive leading up to this renowned restaurant and hotel will have you reaching for your camera. Vast sugarcane fields, lush paw paw plantations all framed by dense rainforest-covered mountains is part of what makes the Savannah Way such a uniquely-Queensland road trip. After all that awe-inspiring sight-seeing, you’ll be ready for the hearty, homestyle meals served at the Mena Creek Pub. Choose from hearty burgers, steaks or fish and chips (the kitchen here also experiments with kangaroo and crocodile-based creations) and enjoy the friendly country pub hospitality which has made this spot a hit with passing travellers.