The Savannah Way, which links Cairns and Broome by way of 3,700km of sealed and unsealed roads, is broadly regarded as Australia’s greatest adventure drive.
What to expect
The journey will take travellers through five world heritage sites and no less than 15 national parks, all the while showcasing the Top End’s natural, historical and cultural essence. With plenty of detours and side trips to add in along the way, the trip can range from an intense 4WD challenge to a light off-road touring adventure; the main course leans more towards the latter option.
Image: Camping off the Barkly Highway.
The Savannah Way’s Top End location, regular access to facilities and plethora of natural highlights results in a sublime journey for tourers and grey nomads, while its tangible connections to Cape York, the Red Centre and the Kimberley make it a perfect launching pad for other adventures.
Maps & Navigation
Cairns to Normanton
Crossing the base of Cape York Peninsula the Savannah Way joins several small towns – most of which were born of late 19th century gold rushes. While the road is fully sealed, it is often closed by flooded streams during the Wet.
From Cairns take the Kennedy Highway across the Atherton Tableland, passing through Kuranda, Mareeba, Atherton and Ravenshoe before leaving the rainforest and entering the vast eucalypt woodland that typifies the Gulf Savannah.
About 28km from Ravenshoe, the tiny hamlet of Innot Hot Springs is known for the therapeutic qualities of its thermal pools. The Mt Gibson Fossicking Area, 5km from town, is a good spot to look for gem-quality topaz.
Image: Camping next to the Gilbert River.
After Mount Garnet the highway becomes the Gulf Developmental Road. A highlight along this stretch is the opportunity to explore Australia’s fascinating geological past at the Undara lava tubes. These large, tunnel-like structures – by far the world’s largest of their type – can only be visited on guided tours.
Mount Surprise is the jumping-off point for visits to the O’Briens Creek Gem Field where you can fossick for topaz. In Georgetown the town’s major attraction is the magnificent Ted Elliott Mineral Collection. Even visitors aren’t particularly interested in things geological should stop for a look at this collection of over 4500 specimens of minerals, gem stones and fossils. About 20km west of Georgetown, and right beside the main road, is the historic Cumberland Chimney. This is all that remains of a large gold-recovery plant that contracted to surrounding mines to crush their gold-bearing ore.
Croydon retains a number of interesting relics of its distant boom times, including the Chinese Heritage Trail and the 1887 Club Hotel – the last of Croydon’s original 36 pubs. The mining museum features a fully-restored 10-head gravity crusher. Another good thing to do in Croydon is visit Lake Belmore to try your luck fishing or just relax with a picnic and swim.
Image: The Purple Pub in Normanton.
Normanton is an attractive, strung-out place beside the Norman River and near the junction of the main roads from Cairns to Cloncurry. One of Normanton’s more unusual sights is the life-sized replica of an 8.6m saltwater crocodile, shot in the Norman River by famous croc hunter Krystina Pawloski in 1958. Normanton has a number of interesting colonial buildings and these can be visited along a heritage walk. It is also the home of the historic Gulflander train which from February to December and does a weekly return run to Croydon.
Many visitors to Normanton are just passing through on their way to Karumba, 71km away at the Norman River mouth. Karumba is the major port for the Gulf’s commercial barramundi and prawn fisheries and things go a little crazy in the Dry as hordes of anglers descend on the town in the hope of landing ‘The Big One’. Karumba is also known for the unusual Morning Glory cloud formation, which is seen from mid-August to November.
During the Wet, the vast coastal wetlands between Karumba and Burketown support huge numbers of water birds and shore birds. These mainly seasonal marshes are on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway of migratory shore birds, and form one of the three most important feeding area for these birds.
Normanton to the Northern Territory border
Heading west from Normanton, the country varies from scrubby and gently undulating to grassy and flat, with little to excite the casual observer. However, if you’re at all interested in history you’ll want to stop at the site of Burke and Wills’s Camp 119: this gloomy little spot among stunted coolabahs was the ill-fated explorers’ most northerly campsite.
At the broad Leichhardt River Crossing there’s a seasonal waterfall just down the causeway, and thoughts of a swim in the plunge pool are tempting – until you see the crocodile warning signs! Leichhardt himself crossed the river hereabouts on 10 August 1845. Burketown is the administrative centre for the sprawling Burke Shire, which goes under the intriguing sobriquet of ‘The Land of the Morning Glory’. This refers to a spectacular cloud that often appears in early morning over the Gulf Country in September and October. The town has a couple of interesting historic sites including the old Burketown Pub and the remains of an 1860s boiling down works. Fishing is a popular activity and you can try your luck off the town wharf, or take a charter.
Images: Broad and open campsite on the Gregory River; Kicking up some dust on Gregory Downs Camooweal Road.
Leaving Burketown you kiss the grasslands goodbye and say hello to the scrubby savannah woodland that keeps you company to beyond Wollogorang Station. About 26km west of Burketown you should make time for a detour down to Gregory Downs and out to Adel’s Grove for a visit to Boodjamulla National Park. The park features rugged escarpments and sheer sandstone walls up to 60m high. The permanent water and rocky hills have created a savannah-tropical micro-climate with palms, rainforest trees and water lilies. The scale of Boodjamulla is best appreciated by a combination of hiking up to the rocky plateaus in the early mornings and drifting on the gorge in a rented canoe in the hot afternoons. In 1992 the park was extended to include the Riversleigh World Heritage Site where fossils can be easily inspected by strolling along a self-guided interpretive trail.
About 34km west from Burketown, the Gregory River crossing is one of the track’s gems. Most of the major crossing points en route are disappointingly desolate places, but the Gregory is just what you’d expect of a large tropical river – clear water running between banks lined by luxuriant vegetation, and with abundant bird life and lurking crocodiles.
Image: Emerald waters and red cliffs in Lawn Hill Gorge, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park.
Continuing on another 60km or so the road crosses the broad rocky bed of the Nicholson River, with the large Aboriginal community of Doomadgee on its far bank. Another 29km beings you to the turn-off to Kingfisher Camp on Bowthorn Station.
Despite its name, the Hells Gate Roadhouse is a friendly little place: 51km beyond the Kingfisher Camp intersection. The actual Hells Gate is a pass through some low, lumpy hills about 1km back down the road. From it is 54km to the NT border, where you set your watch back 30 minutes.
Northern Territory border to Mataranka
Beyond Wollogorang Station are some sizeable hills – a rarity in this area. About 17km past the homestead a short climb puts you on top of the range near the now-defunct Redbank Mine. For another 10km or so the track winds about through stony hills, after which it becomes a series of long straights cutting across narrow river valleys. Beyond the hills the vegetation takes on more of a tropical appearance – tall cycads are an unusual feature near the Foelsche and Wearyan crossings.
Image: Camping off Wollogorang Road near the Northern Territory/Queensland border.
Borroloola is best known for barra fishing, with the nearby McArthur River being a Territory icon in this respect. You can catch various estuarine species at the town’s two boat ramps, or take a fishing charter. Also of interest is the museum, which houses displays that tell fascinating tales of yesteryear. During the Dry season the river bank at King Ash Bay is sheer chaos as thousands of anglers come from far and wide to try their luck. The waters around Barranyi (North Island) National Park are excellent for fishing too.
Beyond Borroloola, stop to see the towering sandstone formations in Caranbirini Conservation Reserve on the way to Cape Crawford. Although small, the reserve includes a number of dramatic ‘Lost City’ formations as well as a seasonal waterhole.
Image: Lost City formations in the small Caranbirini Conservation Reserve.
What is reputed to be one of northern Australia’s most spectacular ‘lost cities’ forms part of the Abner Range, near the Heartbreak Hotel at Cape Crawford. The formations are on private property and are only accessible by helicopter (bookings can be made through Cape Crawford Tourism on 08 8975 9611). You can also visit a large thermal pool situated in an impressive gorge. The road from Cape Crawford up to Roper Bar is dirt all the way and crosses hundreds of kilometres of often-rough floodplain country through Limmen National Park. A 4WD vehicle is recommended as it can often be rough with corrugations, bulldust, washouts and rocky causeways.
Image: A crossing of the Roper River along the Savannay Way.
The park includes a number of estuary and river fishing locations including Port Roper, Maria Lagoon, Limmen River Fishing Camp and Rosie Creek Fishing Camp. Stop in at the Nathan River ranger station for information on exploring the stunning Western Lost City sandstone formations. Other features include Butterfly Springs, where a short walk leads to a plunge pool, and the Southern Lost City. A recreational fishing base, Roper Bar is situated on the pandanus-fringed Roper River, renowned for its plentiful stocks of barramundi and saratoga. From Roper Bar simply follow the sealed Roper Highway to Mataranka.
The little township of Mataranka is mainly known as the jumping-off point for visits to the Thermal Pool in nearby Elsey National Park. The pool is naturally heated to a pleasant 34 degrees Celsius – just right for soothing away the aches and pains brought on by the long drive. As well as the famous springs, the park includes the upper reaches of the Roper River that are ideal for swimming, canoeing and fishing. Another popular stop is the Elsey Cemetery, south of Mataranka, to learn about old Elsey Station, which was immortalised in Jeannie Gunn’s novel, We of the Never Never.
Situated at the junction of the Stuart and Victoria highways, Katherine is the hub of the Top End. Just 3km along the Victoria Highway you’ll find natural hot springs on the banks of the Katherine River. The Katherine Low Level Nature Park is popular for fishing, swimming, picnicking as well as bird and bat watching. Knotts Crossing, 5km east of Katherine via the Gorge Road, was the site of the first Overland Telegraph station in the area.
Midway between Katherine and Pine Creek is the access to Leilyn (Edith Falls), part of Nitmiluk National Park. At Leilyn a series of waterfalls plunge into a large pool which is popular for swimming.
In the Katherine Gorge section of the park highlights include well-preserved Aboriginal rock art sites and thirteen spectacular gorges. Canoe hire, cruises of the gorges, and helicopter and light plane flights are available from the Nitmiluk visitor centre. There is a range of walks too, from short walks to the five-day hike from Katherine to Edith Falls.
About 28km southeast of Katherine, regular tours operate daily in Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park to see the spectacular limestone formations. Visitors may also see brown tree snakes, ghost bats and orange horseshoe bats.
From Katherine it is worth taking a detour off the Savannah Way northwest through Pine Creek to Kakadu National Park. Between Katherine and Pine Creek, the isolated Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park features a meandering creek that has formed secluded pools between the steep red cliffs.
Pine Creek is the Top End’s only surviving gold town. There’s a lookout over an open cut, and historic displays at Miners Park and the Railway Station Museum. The Arnhem and Kakadu highways combine to make a scenic loop known as Nature’s Way, linking Pine Creek, Jabiru and Darwin.
Listed as a World Heritage Area for both its natural and cultural features, Kakadu National Park includes vast coastal floodplains, the rugged Arnhem Land escarpment, abundant wildlife and Australia’s most outstanding concentration of Aboriginal art. A tranquil land-locked billabong, Yellow Water is one of the park’s most popular attractions. Fascinating Aboriginal rock art can be seen at Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock. During the Wet season, a 210m cascade of water plunges down sandstone walls into the pool below Jim Jim Falls – a spectacular sight from a scenic flight. Further on, Twin Falls can only be accessed by paddling or swimming up the crystal-clear waters. Road access to both falls is closed during the Wet season.
Image: Twin Falls flowing in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory.
The drive west from Kakadu to Darwin has many attractions that enable visitors to explore the magnificent wetlands. A significant portion of the Mary River floodplain is protected in Mary River National Park, providing excellent opportunities for wildlife observation, photography, fishing and bushwalking. The magnificent Leaning Tree Lagoon and floodplain and wetland areas in Djukbinj National Park provide many bird-watching spots. Another major attraction is the famous jumping crocodiles of the Adelaide River. Cruises board adjacent to the Adelaide River Bridge on the Arnhem Highway. Visitors get a fascinating insight into the region’s animal and bird life at Window on the Wetlands and Fogg Dam is renowned for its wide variety of waterbirds too.
Southwest of Katherine, the Giwining/Flora River Nature Park protects a section of the Flora River and surrounding floodplain and savannah woodland. Fishing, canoeing and boating is permitted, but be aware of crocodiles.
The Victoria River Roadhouse and Timber Creek township provide welcome stopping places on the Victoria Highway. Fishing and boating cruises, as well as scenic flights are available from Timber Creek.
The remote Judbarra/Gregory National Park features spectacular range and gorge scenery and significant traces of Aboriginal culture, European exploration and pastoral history. A few kilometres west of the Victoria River Roadhouse, the Old Victoria River Crossing and the Victoria River Gorge can be accessed and walks are provided. A river access point just upstream from the Victoria River Bridge allows you to launch a canoe or small boat for trips up into the gorge. The scenery is at its best in early morning when high, sunlit cliffs are reflected in the still water. Further west along the Victoria Highway, stop at Kuwang Lookout for a panoramic view of the magnificent Stokes Range.
The major drawcards for the Bullitar Sector of the park are the 4WD tracks. These old stock routes can be extremely rough in places so be well prepared with plenty of fuel and drinking water. Most of the 4WD tracks are fairly long but a shorter trip is the 6km 4WD track in to Limestone Gorge. The old Bullita Homestead today houses interpretive displays on the district’s rich pastoral heritage. Other evidence of the droving days is the ‘Oriental Hotel’. This huge boab is close to the junction of the East Baines River and Spring Creek, so it was obviously a regular droving campsite: hence the unofficial title.
An area of sandstone cliffs and gorges (and enormous boab trees), Keep River National Park offers excellent opportunities for bushwalking and photography. One of the park’s main attractions is a high red escarpment where giant, beehive-like towers of stratified sandstone are reminiscent of the famous Bungle Bungle Range. You can explore this amazing landscape at close quarters by taking the Gurrandalng Walk (2km circuit) from the Gurrandalng Campground, and the Jarnem Walks from the Jarnem Campground. Both walks are best early in the morning. Several sites of Aboriginal significance can be visited. These include Nganalam, a large overhang adorned with rock paintings and ancient petroglyphs.
The Gingers Hill Walk takes you to a rock structure once used for catching hawks – all is explained by on-site interpretive signage. Keep River’s varied habitats also make it a good place for birdwatching. Other attractions include the Cockatoo Lagoon and Big Police Waterhole. All roads in the park are subject to closure during the Wet, and can be badly corrugated in the Dry. The turnoff to the park is east of the NT/WA border.
Great Northern Highway
Kununurra was built beside the Ord River and Lake Kununurra, a man-made dam. For panoramic views of the Ord River irrigation area, head to Kelly’s Knob Lookout. The district has a variety of attractions, and a number of outlets in town display the pink diamonds that are mined at the Argyle Diamond Mine. The best way to fully appreciate the spectacular mountain ranges is on a boat cruise or scenic flight. Often described as the mini Bungle Bungle, the Mirima (Hidden Valley) National Park is a rugged area of ancient sandstone hills and stark rock formations.
Just off the highway, between Wyndham and Kununurra, The Grotto is a popular swimming hole with a seasonal waterfall. If you are into ‘big things’ then don’t miss the 18m long by 3m high saltwater crocodile sculpture at the entrance to Wyndham and the Warriu Park Dreamtime statues. For breathtaking views over Cambridge Gulf, go to Five Rivers Lookout at the peak of the Bastion Gorge (the road is steep and not recommended for caravans).
Image: The Prison Boab Tree near Derby in the Kimberley region.
Heading south along the Highway, stop at the Warmun Art Centre in Warmun (Turkey Creek) to see paintings created using traditional ochre and natural pigments. No drive along the Great Northern Highway could be complete without a visit to Purnululu National Park. The range includes thousands of sandstone ‘beehive’ towers that make up one of Australia’s most distinctive landscapes. The access track is restricted to high-clearance 4WD vehicles so scenic flights are a popular option. The northern section has two major walks, the Mini Palms and Echidna Chasm tracks. The south appears to be one huge ‘lost city’ of sandstone domes and three walks commence at the parking area: Dome, Cathedral Gorge and Piccaninny Creek.
The Kimberley’s most inland town, Halls Creek is ideally placed for stocking up on your journey along the Great Northern Highway. There are a number of attractions off the unsealed Duncan Road, including China Wall, Caroline Pool, Old Halls Creek, Palm Creek and Saw Tooth Gorge.
Image: The Walls of China rock formation.
The little township of Fitzroy Crossing offers a wide range of facilities for travellers. Just 21km from Fitzroy Crossing Geikie Gorge is a long, 30m-deep passage that has been carved through the junction of the Geikie and Oscar ranges. The best way to see the wildlife and gain an understanding of the gorge’s geological features is on a guided cruise (it’s also possible to explore on two walks).
With its boab-lined streets, Derby is the administrative centre for the region’s pastoral and mining industries. It is an ideal base for excursions to the Buccaneer Archipelago and Horizontal Waterfall. From the wharf you can take many tours, including cruises of King Sound. Within the town itself there is plenty to see too, like the botanic gardens, Joonjoo Botanical Trail, the School of the Air and Wharfingers House. Just 7km out of town is the Boab Prison Tree.
Along the last section of the highway in to Broome, fuel is available at the Willare Bridge and Roebuck Plains roadhouses. Broome is known as the southern gateway to the Kimberley region and it is famous world-wide for Cable Beach. There’s plenty of history in Broome, and Chinatown is a great place to start exploring. Myriad tours operate too, including 4WD adventures, fishing and dive charters, pearl farm tours, scenic flights and cruises.