For 3700km from Cairns to Broome, the Savannah Way cuts a rugged, remote path across golden savannah grasslands, through rocky sandstone escarpments and alongside wild waterways that nurture barramundi and provide sanctuary for some of Australia’s most intriguing wildlife. The route’s dusty red tracks might deter some travellers, but the uncrowded riverside camps, secluded waterfalls and lily-fringed lagoons commonly waylay travellers seeking solitude and that perfect fishing spot. Of the dozens of superb destinations to enjoy along the way, these five are my favourites.
A day’s drive west of Normanton, NT, where the Savannah Way hits the dirt, a long causeway snags the Leichhardt River before it plunges over the edge of a broad, arcing falls. In the right season there’s a dramatic flurry of whitewater to enjoy from a camp high on the river’s shady banks where 4WD travellers set-up their offroad caravans, campers and tents amongst pandanus palms and eucalypts.
These rustic bush camps provide nothing but grand views and there’s plenty of birdlife to enjoy. You might even spot some Aboriginal grinding slits on the exposed river bedrock near the causeway. The odd crocodile sighting means the deep pools beneath the falls are off limits for swimming, but it’s here that you might catch a barramundi or two.
Considered to be in near-pristine condition, the Leichhardt River winds for 621km from Rifle Creek to the Gulf of Carpentaria and contains prehistoric fossil remains, including an unidentified ancient marsupial unearthed in 2011.
Location Cross the Leichhardt River causeway 150km west of Normanton (77km east of Burketown).
Camping: Secure some shade along the river’s high northern bank (no facilities, pets permitted).
More information: www.carpentaria.qld.gov.au or www.savannahway.com.au
Winding east for more than 1000km between Arnhem Land and the remote wild lands of Limmen National Park, the Roper River’s translucent emerald waterway is barramundi central for self-sufficient travellers with a tinny in tow.
The river bears the name of John Roper, who was part of the 1845 expedition team led by Ludwig Leichhardt. They crossed the river at Roper Bar on their year-long, 4800km-long overland journey from Jimbour in Queensland’s Darling Downs to Port Essington on the Northern Territory’s Cobourg Peninsula.
Today, a couple of faraway riverside campgrounds attract annual wintertime pilgrims who spend time wrangling fish, talking fish and barbecuing their impressive daily catches to perfection. At Roper Bar, pet-friendly Leichhardt’s Caravan Park offers unpowered bush sites with solar hot showers ($15/adult; $10/kids and seniors). You can launch a boat, top up food and fuel supplies and the park permits pets on leads and generators.
Within Limmen National Park, the camp at Munbililla is a great option. It has a sealed boat ramp and facilities that include hot showers, free gas barbecues, drinking water and a fish filleting area ($12/person; $20/family). If you are chasing seclusion, the camp’s nearby bush sites cost even less. If you go, time your visit over the dry winter months and stock up on fuel and supplies in Mataranka or Borroloola before hitting the dirt.
Location From Mataranka, NT, follow the Roper Highway east for 173km to Roper Bar, then turn south to reach Limmen National Park.
Road conditions: Limmen’s rough, corrugated roads and flooded causeways pose no technical difficulties, but rain may close the park anytime from December to April.
More information: www.nt.gov.au, www.ntlis.nt.gov.au/roadreport, www.roperbar.com
Breaking up the journey between Katherine and Kununurra, this tiny town has a fascinating historical past that dates back to 1855 when a stroke of bad luck for explorer Augustus Charles Gregory put Timber Creek on the map.
While leading the Northern Australia Expedition – the first full-scale land exploration of the Victoria River region – Gregory’s supply ship, the Tom Tough, snapped its keel on an arduous journey up the Victoria River.
To tackle the repairs, planks were cut from the tall paperbarks that flanked Timber Creek and, at the team’s basecamp, a famous boab inscribed with team’s expedition dates is today the famous ‘Gregory Tree’.
You’ll find the Gregory Tree signposted just off the highway between Timber Creek and Big Horse Creek, a national park campground where a boat ramp provides easy access for barramundi chasers (pick a neap tide from late March to late May).
Timber Creek’s Police Museum is worth a tour for its intriguing local artifacts, and the view from Policemans Point often includes a couple of estuarine crocodiles lazing on the muddy flats of the Victoria River. At sunset, drive to the top of the escarpment that overlooks Timber Creek and check out the Nackeroo memorial, which honours 600 bush commandoes who patrolled the far north’s rugged coastline from 1942 to 1945.
Location On the Victoria Highway, 287km south-west of Katherine.
Camping: Big Horse Creek Campground (7km west of Timber Creek) provides unpowered sites, a boat ramp, wheelchair-accessible toilets, firepits, and permits pets on leads.
More information: For powered sites, try Timber Creek’s Wirib Tourism Park (www.wirib.com.au) or the Circle F Caravan Park (www.timbercreekhotel.com.au)
From Kununurra to Wyndham, WA, this little-travelled detour off the Savannah Way traverses magical territory, leading to hidden waterholes, secluded, lily-covered lagoons and an idyllic free camp on the Lower Ord River. Strictly 4WD, the 250km round trip takes about three days (or longer if you’ve got a boat on board).
Close to Kununurra, make stops at Valentines Springs, Black Rock Falls and the more picturesque Middle Springs where you can swim and camp on the waterhole’s grassy edge. Further north, Mambi Island camp is the best choice for boaties. It has grassy, shaded sites stretched alongside the Lower Ord, and a concrete boat ramp that provides easy access for barramundi hopefuls.
About 13km north, Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve safeguards 36,000 hectares of lagoons and grasslands, including the spectacular Marlgu Billabong where a boardwalk and birdhide get you close to vast flocks of migratory birds that congregate over the dry season.
You can take a walking tour through the ruins of Wyndham Wireless Station atop Telegraph Hill, and just south of Wyndham, the endless flaxen grasslands studded with boabs are a photographer’s dream at sunset. Back in Kununurra, don’t miss a trip to Mirima National Park to watch the day’s first and fading light ignite chiseled sandstone outcrops, deep gorges and flat-topped mesas.
Location Kununurra is located 40km west of the NT border. The 4WD journey to Parry Lagoons begins 18km west of town. Take the signposted turn to Valentine Springs and continue for 125km to regain the bitumen 20km south of Wyndham.
Camping: Free-camp at Mambi Island boat ramp (toilets only) or enjoy power and hot showers at Parry Creek Farm (south of Marlgu Billabong).
More information: www.visitkununurra.com or www.mainroads.wa.gov.au
BUNGLE BUNGLE RANGE
It’s the allure of these famous tiger-striped ‘beehives’ rising 300m above scorched spinifex plains that entices 4WD travellers along the rugged detour into Purnululu National Park. Well worth the offroad effort and failing to disappoint, these orange and black-banded domes are widely regarded as the world’s most remarkable sandstone cone karst formations, but it’s their magical appearance at sunset that makes memories.
Throughout the park, walking trails delve into striking red gorges and boulder-strewn chasms, leading to hidden waterholes and cavernous amphitheatres where vivid green Livistona palms flourish. Don’t miss a trip into Echidna Chasm at midday to watch the blazing Kimberley sun send down fingers of light that dance across this chasm’s flaring, 200m-high rock walls.
Camping: Bush campsites at two locations cost $12/adult, $2.20/child (5-16yrs), $8.80/concessions.
Facilities: Bore water, pit toilets and picnic tables (no pets or campfires allowed).
Fees: $12/vehicle entry fee, closed November to early March.
More information: www.dpaw.wa.gov.au
Thinking of caravanning up North? Read about our top three North Queensland campsites.