The Track


GRADING: AWD (with caution)

TIME: Three days minimum.

DISTANCE: 1,346KM, Normanton to Mataranka 

LONGEST DISTANCE WITHOUT FUEL: 524KM, Cape Crawford to Mataranka; 316KM Hells Gate Roadhouse to Borroloola

BEST TIME OF YEAR: June to October.

PERMITS AND FEES:   Camping fees apply for both Elsey and Limmen national parks.

MAPS: Hema's 'Top End & Gulf'


The entire Savannah Way stretches for approximately 3,700km from Cairns in Queensland across the Northern Territory to Broome in Western Australia. This drive has been designed to allow visitors to explore just a section or the entire route and our trip focuses on the leg between Normanton and Mataranka . 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 & Wills’ Camp 119 and the Leichhardt River crossing. Leaving Burketown you kiss the grasslands goodbye and say hello to the scrubby savannah woodland that keeps you company to beyond Wollogorang. About 34km 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, inhabited by abundant birdlife and lurking crocodiles. Call into the Tirranna Springs Roadhouse, 1km before the crossing, for some local fishing tips (if you have time, make sure to detour to Boodjamulla National Park – see Track 37). Continue on another 60km or so before the road crosses the broad rocky bed of the Nicholson River, with the large Aboriginal community of Doomadgee on its far bank. Despite its name, the Hells Gate Roadhouse is a friendly little place – travellers need to remember there are no facilities between here and Borroloola (316km — see map on next page). The actual Hells Gate is a pass-through some low, lumpy hills about 1km back down the road. From here it is 54km to the NT border, where you set your watch back 30 minutes.

Beyond Wollogorang Station are some sizeable hills – a rarity in this area. About 17km past the homestead you enter a steep-sided valley before 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 with a sparse cover of white-barked gums, after which it becomes a series of long straights cutting across narrow river valleys. The vegetation improves beyond the hills, taking on more of a tropical appearance – tall cycads are an unusual feature near the Foelsche and Wearyan crossings. Watch out for large concealed rocks in the Wearyan. Beyond Borroloola, stop to see the towering sandstone formations in Caranbirini Conservation Reserve on the way to Cape Crawford. The road from Cape Crawford up to the Roper Hwy is dirt all the way and crosses hundreds of kilometres of oftenrough floodplain country through Limmen National Park. (See Track 39 for more details.) This section is the track’s most interesting and varied in terms of scenery and driving conditions and features impressive ‘Lost City’ formations that in themselves make the long drive worthwhile. For the last stretch to Mataranka just follow the sealed Roper Hwy. 


Normanton, the major business and service centre in the Gulf, has many historical buildings. One of the town’s most attractive old buildings, the Normanton Railway Station is also home to the Gulflander railmotor. Every Wednesday the Gulflander leaves Normanton for Croydon: it returns on Thursdays. During the dry season, fishing enthusiasts flock to Karumba – the centre of the Gulf’s lucrative prawning industry. A major access point to the Gulf, Karumba is also known for the unusual Morning Glory cloud formation: seen from mid-August to November. Keen historians will want to visit the site of Burke & Wills’ Camp 119: this gloomy 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 from 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 has a couple of interesting historical 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. Borroloola is well serviced, with fishing charters, and hire boats available. Fishermen come for the much-prized barramundi, reef fish and mud crabs on the McArthur River or at King Ash Bay. Also of interest is the museum, which houses displays that tell fascinating tales of yesteryear. The headquarters of the King Ash Bay Fishing Club is on the McArthur River 43km by road downstream from Borroloola. During the dry season, the river bank here is sheer chaos as thousands of anglers come from far and wide to try their luck. The small Caranbirini Conservation Reserve includes a number of dramatic ‘Lost City’ formations as well as a seasonal waterhole. You can explore this area on the 2km Barrawulla Loop Walk or take the 5km Jagududgu Look Walk, which leads you to a lookout with fine views of the massif. 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. Limmen National Park includes a number of estuary and river fishing locations as well as sandstone formations. The little township of Mataranka is mainly known as the jumping-off point for visits to the Thermal Pool in nearby Elsey National Park. Developed during WWII as a recreation area for the defence forces, the pool is naturally heated to a pleasant 34°C – 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. 


Now part of the Savannah Way, the Gulf Track roughly follows in the footsteps of Ludwig Leichhardt, who passed this way on his epic journey from Brisbane to Port Essington in 1844 and '45. The original Gulf Track ran from Lake Woods near Burketown to Abrahams Billabong near Mataranka. Pioneered by the drover George de Latour in 1873 it became the route by which cattle from Queensland were walked to the Top End and Kimberley in the 1870s and ’80s. Drovers attempting it were faced with a daunting task – the terrain was harsh and the feed was poor. In the early days at least, once they left Burketown the drovers were going solo until they reached Roper Bar. In 1885 a store was built at Burketown Crossing (present-day Borroloola), just in time to greet would-be diggers heading for the newly discovered goldfield at Halls Creek, in the Kimberley. Many were on foot and illprepared for the rigours of the journey, so it’s probably fair to say that by 1890, when the great cattle drives and gold rush were over, the track had become lined by many unmarked graves.