1,700km (one way)
Car or Camper
Cairns to Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park
The Savannah Way is an epic, two-state, one-territory, 3,700km journey across the top of Australia. You can take a section of the drive in Tropical North Queensland between Cairns on the coast and Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park close to the Northern Territory border – a distance of about 1,700km.
Leave the lush rainforest of the coast behind and head to the cool of the tablelands and the dramatic landscapes of the Queensland outback. Walk through ancient geological formations, have a yarn with the locals in tiny country pubs and catch barramundi in the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria. You’re in for quite an adventure.
Cairns to Undara
Your journey begins in Cairns, the “capital” of Tropical North Queensland, a buzzing coastal city famous for its picturesque esplanade, lively bars, vibrant food scene and laid-back lifestyle.
Now kiss the coast goodbye and take the climb up into the cool of the Atherton Tablelands. This is the place to swim under a waterfall and sample fresh produce from a farmers’ market. In Mareeba, coffee is king – get your daily caffeine injection at Coffee Works or wander through the plantation at Skybury Coffee.
Pass through Ravenshoe, a historic timber town that’s also the highest locale in the state (920m above sea level), and home to Queensland’s highest pub. Don’t miss two spectacular waterfalls: Millstream Falls, reputedly the widest single-drop waterfall in the country, and Tully Falls where, during the wet season, water cascades almost 300m down sheer rock into the Tully River. Millstream is about five minutes’ drive out of town; Tully Falls about 25km south.
On the way to your final destination, Undara, you’ll pass through Forty Mile Scrub National Park. Despite its less-than-poetic name, the park features ancient volcanic flows, giant bottle trees and plenty of birdlife. Discover them all on a self-guided walk.
Spend the night in a turn-of-the-century Queensland Rail carriage at Undara Experience, gateway to the Undara Lava Tubes. The 15 carriages were meticulously restored in 2016 and are set along the old Cobb & Co coach road.
Today, you’re staying out of the car and heading underground. The Undara Volcanic National Park is home to one of the world’s longest flows of lava originating from a single volcano, dating back some 190,000 years. The flow has created a vast network of lava tubes and underground caves. There are lovely moments of whimsy here … rainforest grows up through the rock where cave roofs have collapsed. Wallabies hop among the trees, and birds shelter in the canopy. Colonies of insectivorous bats roost in the overhangs.
There are guided tours daily and must be booked. The Archway Explorer is a great introduction to the caves and, as it follows boardwalks, is suitable for all fitness levels. Those wanting a more physical challenge – think uneven surfaces, clambering over rocks – should consider the Active Explorer tour (April to September only).
Undara to Mount Surprise
Jump back behind the wheel and start heading west; today you’re bound for Mount Surprise. It’s only a short drive so you can focus on the most exciting part of the day – fossicking for semi-precious gemstones. (A driving tip for those using Google Maps: ignore its advice to go via Conjuboy and instead head back to Highway 1 from Undara.)
Mount Surprise is a tiny historic railway town that sits on the edge of a giant lava flow. At the Mount Surprise Gem Den, the friendly team will tell you everything you need to know about fossicking; you can buy a fossicking licence here, too – about $12 for a family – and hire equipment. Using the mud map they’ve supplied, take the gravel road some 40km to O’Briens Creek fossicking area (check road conditions in wet weather). The area is known for its topaz, aquamarine and gems from the quartz family, which can be found, if you’re luck is running, in the sand and gravel of the dry creek beds. If you’ve built up a hunger after all that fossicking, try a burger from the BP Roadhouse.
Mount Surprise to Cobbold Gorge
Pack up all your shiny finds and get back on the Savannah Way bound for Georgetown. The town was established when gold was found around the Etheridge River in 1869, and is full of charming heritage buildings and surrounded by spectacular outback scenery. Visit the TerrEstrial centre to see the impressive Ted Elliott Mineral Collection more than 4,500 pieces and considered one of the largest private collections in Australia. The 6km-long Georgetown River Walk – which follows both the Etheridge River and Sandy Creek – offers more insight to the township and its history.
From Georgetown, head west again then take a small detour off the main route to head to the geological wonder that is Cobbold Gorge, Queensland’s “youngest” gorge, at about 10,000 years old. A guided tour is the only way you can explore this spectacular formation: daily tours, led by an extremely knowledgeable Savannah Guide, include both a walking component and a cruise through the gorge, where rugged sandstone walls soar up to 30m on either side. Active travellers can explore the gorge under their own steam on a stand-up paddleboard. Or take it all in from above with a scenic helicopter flight.
Cobbold Village, home to an infinity pool with a swim-up bar (you’ll appreciate it after an active day at the gorge), has motel-style rooms and self-contained cabins, as well as a camping/caravanning area. Cook your own dinner on the barbecues or try some lip-smacking Gulf fish in the restaurant.
Cobbold Gorge to Karumba
You’re heading for the coast today – the northern Queensland coast, that is. First, you’ll pass through another historic gold-rush town, Croydon, which dates back to 1885. There’s a lovely collection of historic buildings here, including the courthouse, police station, jail and town hall. Stop into the True Blue Visitor Information Centre to see its interesting collection of heritage items, information displays and photographs.
Tonight, you’ll arrive in Karumba, a small town on the edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria, where anglers from around Australia and the world come to fish for the barramundi. Tasting a little wild-caught barramundi and local prawns is highly recommended, as is a cold beverage at the Sunset Tavern where you can, yes, watch the sun set spectacularly over the Gulf.
Optional Detour – Normanton
Drive 60 minutes south-east to Normanton, an inland river port that is home to the legendary Gulflander train. Originally built to run between Normanton and the gold fields of Croydon, the train still runs today, from Normanton to Croydon on a Wednesday; doing the return run the next day (you can leave the car in Normanton and overnight in Croydon, or catch the coach back on the same day). The “nowhere to nowhere” journey – the line was never connected to the state network – travels for just 94 miles one-way … and yes, miles … it’s the only piece of track in the state still not measured in kilometres.
Karumba to Gregory
The remote Savannahland outpost of Burketown is made up of little more than a pub, a school, a couple of shops and the council office, but it’s famous for two things – as the “Barramundi Fishing Capital of the World” (the barramundi pie from the bakery is legendary) and the site of a spectacular annual cloud formation known as the Morning Glory (September to November). The town is named after one half of Australia’s most famous pair of explorers, Burke and Wills, who passed through here in 1861.
Yagurli Tours offers an Indigenous perspective on Burketown. Run by the Gangalidda and Garawa peoples, tours include a fishing charter, a cruise along the Albert River at sunset and a stargazing experience, where a Gangalidda elder explains the significance of the night sky.
Then it’s onto Gregory Downs, another isolated frontier town, set on the tranquil Gregory River (great for a canoe). Spend the night here at the Gregory Downs Hotel, originally a stop on the stagecoach run to Burketown, where publican Jo will make you feel especially welcome.
Gregory to Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park
Today, you’re on the final stretch. Head out on the Gregory-Lawn Hill Road to Adels Grove, the launching point for Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, one of Queensland’s most beautiful reserves. Lawn Hill Gorge carves a vibrant ribbon of green through the surrounding plains, a rich emerald oasis surrounded by sandstone peaks and fringing rainforest. The area is a sacred place to the Indigenous Waanyi people, who believe the Rainbow Serpent (Boodjamulla) formed the gorge.
The Riversleigh World Heritage Site, one of the world’s richest fossil sites, sits within the park. Immerse yourself in 25 million years of history on the Riversleigh Fossil Trail, an 800m walk that passes the fossilised bones of towering flightless birds and the remains of the Earth’s largest freshwater crocodile.
Adels Grove has plenty of accommodation options: two camp grounds, pre-erected tents, bunkhouses and rooms with ensuites, all about 10km from Boodjamulla and 50km from Riversleigh. There’s a restaurant onsite, a nice deck to enjoy a sundowner and the spring-fed Lawn Hill Creek, ideal for swimming and canoeing.
Head off the beaten track
Find out more for your Savannah Way adventure
Savannah Way – An Outback Adventure through Gulf Country
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