Lava tubes, cascading hot springs, hidden gorges, historic relics and a unique railmotor – Bridget Martin finds diversions aplenty along the Savannah Way between Cairns and Normanton.
Pat beamed as she leant across the crowded counter of the Croydon General Store and Museum. She obviously loved it when tourists asked stupid questions.
But we had a complicated arrangement with a train driver the following day and didn’t want to get it wrong. We wanted to take the historic Gulflander train from Croydon to Normanton, 150 kilometres to the west, but didn’t want to leave our car behind.
A solution was quickly presented. One person drives to the halfway point, Blackbull, where they swap with the train passenger.
“Is Blackbull easy to spot?” my husband had asked.
“Well,” twinkled Pat, “it’s the only building between here and Normanton.”
We should have realised that. After all, no buildings had interrupted the 150 kilometre stretch from Georgetown to Croydon and there had been little by way of habitation in the 92 kilometres between Georgetown and Mt Surprise.
There is a lot of outback along the Savannah Way, which stretches right across the top of Australia, from Cairns to Broome. Our focus was the Gulf Savannah region, that bit of Queensland east of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Having zigzagged up the rainforested coastal ranges, the road suddenly ran straight through a sparse woodland of wiry, drought-resistant trees with wizened, crevassed, black bark, thin leaves and tough names like ironwood and stringybark.
Between them, the pinnacles of termite mounds spiked the landscape. A sparse, yellowed grass struggled to clothe the red earth. From time to time, an unexpected movement broke our trance, as covens of black crows rose to reveal the well-picked carcass of a road kill below.
There is a lot of this along the Savannah Way but, like a necklace stretching across the top of Australia, it is strung with a series of gems, unexpected surprises for the traveller who is willing to seek them out.
At Undara, ancient hollow lava flows have created damp and mysterious tunnels which we explored with a knowledgeable Savannah Guide – a member of a growing organisation devoted to excellence in the presentation of the region’s highlights to visitors.
Live volcanic action awaited us just a little further on, at Tallaroo Hotsprings, where superheated water bubbles up from the earth to cascade down a series of terraces – and finally into a man-made swimming pool, in which we soaked our weary bones.
Further west, a 90 kilometre side trek from Georgetown brought us to another Savannah Guide enterprise. Cobbold Gorge was a completely unexpected treat, a slow and silent trip in an electric boat which squeezes between 30-metre sculpted sandstone cliffs, through a ravine inhabited by a healthy population of freshwater crocs.
Towns are few and far between on the Savannah Way and would be even fewer had not the barely visible speckles of precious metal, peppering the rocks of the region, led to the gold rushes of the late nineteenth century.
Croydon, once the centre for a population of over 30,000 is now inhabited by 250 residents, justifiably proud of their numerous heritage buildings. For just $5 you can join local legend and Savannah Guide, Chris Weirman for a tour of the town.
For Chris the town of 30,000 still exists. A simple hole in the pavement was once the foundation of one of the 36 hotels, long ago ravaged by fire. He knows the whole story.
The well-preserved courthouse was the scene of many a drama – for Chris it is as if they happened yesterday. His passion for the town’s history kept him talking well after the swarms of screeching galahs had gathered to roost and the sun was preparing for another spectacular nose dive into the horizon.
Pat’s General Store in Croydon has a very special charm, not least because it has resisted the supermarket trend. Functioning since 1894, its dual function as General Store and Museum seems entirely appropriate.
Thirty thousand people left a lot of rubbish behind, and every town along the route has its museum stuffed with old glass bottles, Chinese coins, ancient steam irons, faded photos of more populous times and rusting tools of obscure function.
The Croydon Museum has a chaotic appeal all its own. There is no clear distinction between shop and museum. A vast and very ancient safe within the shop turned out to contain postcards; in the museum we found a box of fresh tomatoes.
Next day, the Gulflander railmotor rattled out of Croydon, with yet another Savannah Guide, Ken Millard, at the helm.
While carting supplies to remote cattle stations along the track, Ken prides himself on keeping his passengers informed not only about the history of the area and its railway (it had to be built with metal sleepers instead of timber ones to foil the termites) but also the plants and animals along the way. Frequently, he brought the train to a grinding, screeching halt to show us a bowerbird’s bower, a colony of flying foxes, an abandoned gold mine … he knows every inch of his track.
By early afternoon we pulled into Normanton Railway Station, a Victorian relic. Car and train passenger reunited and we left the Savannah Way for the final 72 kilometres to Karumba, on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Contact: For information on the Savannah Way, contact Gulf Savannah Development, Tel: (07) 4031 1631; website: www.gulf-savannah.com.au. The Gulf Developmental section, Cairns to Normanton (710kilometres), is sealed all the way.
Visit Undara and Cobbold Gorge on detours from the Savannahlander train, leaving Cairns on Wednesdays; ph 1800 620 324.
For more about Savannah Guide enterprises see www.savannah-guides.com.au or ph (07) 4031 7933.
Wilderness Challenge, a Savannah Guide enterprise, visits most of these sites. Tel: 4055 6504; Website www.wilderness-challenge.com.au
Accommodation, camping and tours are available at Undara. Information Tel: 1800 990 992; website: www.undara-experience.com.au
For visits and camping at Tallaroo Hotsprings, Tel: (07) 4062 1221.
Cobbold Gorge has a campsite. A variety of transport and tour options are available. Tel: (07) 4062 5470; website: www.cobboldgorge.com.au
To book a tour of Croydon call (07) 4745 6125 or (07) 4745 6185.
The Gulflander travels from Normanton to Croydon every Wednesday returning on Thursday. Shorter trips and charters are available. Call Normanton Station (07) 4745 1391 or Cairns Travel Centre on 1800 620 324.
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