The Gulf of Carpentaria is a
vast, relatively shallow body of warm, often turbid tropical water
Queensland's Cape York Peninsula from Arnhem Land in the
Northern Territory. Along its southern shore lies some of the wildest
country in Australia, which is characterised by savannah and mangrove
forests, swamps and mud flats, and maze-like river systems that are home
to large populations of freshwater and saltwater crocodiles. Little
changed since the first European explorers arrived in the middle of the
nineteenth century, this region is sparsely populated, with only a few
isolated settlements and cattle stations studding the wilderness. It's
this relatively unspoilt, undeveloped character, however, that attracts a
wide range of visitors, whether it be 4WD enthusiasts seeking off-road
adventures, travellers tracing the footsteps of explorers and pioneers, or
keen anglers drawn by the productive waterways.
Travelling in the Gulf Country is not to be undertaken lightly. Many roads
are 4WD only, and may be impassable from late November until May, when
cyclones and severe tropical storms occur regularly. Even during the dry
season, you should make sure you have a well-equipped 4WD vehicle and
carry ample fuel, water and food, as well as basic medical supplies.
Always remember, too, that this is croc territory and the dangerous
saltwater species is abundant on the shores of the gulf, in estuaries and
along rivers -often well above the tidal limits. Take heed of all warning
signs, camp at least 50 m (55 yards) from water, and avoid swimming in
deep rivers. When fishing, stay well back from the water's edge, don't
stand on logs over deep pools, and dispose of fish offal and other refuse
far from your camp.
This 4WD tour takes you from Normanton, the gulf's largest settlement,
along the coastal plains to Burketown. From there, travellers can either
continue west to the
Northern Territory or follow a loop south and east to
return to Normanton. About half of the loop tour is sealed, but the road
along the gulf and into the
Northern Territory is rough going in places
and a 4WD is definitely recommended.
Located on the Norman River, Normanton has a population of around 1200.
Throughout the dry season, this number is swelled by visitors, many of
whom use the town as a base for exploring and fishing the extensive tracts
of low, marshy land and winding waterways nearby. Normanton has a good
deal of character, with a number of classified historic buildings,
including the shire offices and the railway station. Accommodation is
available at a couple of hotels and at the local caravan park.
Leaving Normanton, head south toward Cloncurry, and about 5 km (3.1 miles)
from the Purple Pub, at a major road junction, veer right onto the dirt
toward Burketown. For the most part, this is a reasonably good road,
though immediately after the Wet it may be chopped up and late in the dry
season it can become corrugated and incorporate long, deep stretches of
bulldust and you ain't seen deep bulldust until you've seen Gulf Country
bulldust! Take great care, too, at creek and river crossings.
About 37 km (23 miles) from Normanton, and just before you get to the
causeway across the Little Bynoe River, a track on the left leads 2 km
(1.2 miles) to the site of Burke and Wills, Camp 119. Though it looks a
little forlorn today, the ring of trees blazed by Burke still stands, and
a number of monuments testify to the fact that this was the most northerly
of the explorers' camps. Just north of this point, Burke and Wills were
prevented from reaching the sea by an impenetrable barrier of mangroves.
All they could do was taste the salty water and observe the rise and fall
of the tide before returning southward.
If you plan to camp in this area, follow any of the tracks west from the
monument and within 1 km (0.6 miles) you will come to the banks of the
Little Bynoe where there are some pleasant sites. Don't forget that
estuarine crocodiles inhabit these streams.
Returning to the main road, you cross the Little Bynoe and then, less than
3 km (1.9 miles) later, the Bynoe River. Another 3 km (1.9 miles) takes
you to the Flinders River and its causeway. Cattle are common around these
crossings early and late in the day, so drive carefully. On either side of
the road here, a sea of golden grass stretches as far as the eye can see.
The Inverleigh Homestead turn-off is 71 km (44 miles) from Normanton, then
another 73 km (45 miles) of dust needs to pass under the wheels before you
reach the sidetrack to Wernadinga Homestead. Approximately 11 km (7 miles)
west of the Wernadinga Homestead track junction you come to the Alexandra
River. If the river is flowing, take the crossing slowly, as there are a
number of deep holes in the riverbed. Once you reach the western bank, you
will see a stock gate which may be open or closed. Pass through it and
leave it as you found it.
Just beyond the gate, and 156 km (97 miles) west of Normanton, you come to
a junction with the main Cloncurry-Burketown Road. Veer right here, and
less than 2 km (1.2 miles) along the road turn onto the long and winding
causeway across the Leichhardt River. The route passes close to a
tree-shaded, sandy island that is probably the best camp site between
Normanton and Burketown. A short distance downstream from the causeway,
you'll find Leichhardt Falls. In summer, these 12-m (40-foot) cascades are
a seething mass of water and spray; during the Dry, they slow to a
trickle, but still constitute an impressive enough sight to warrant the
Just beyond the island, you cross the main stream via a small concrete
bridge where a somewhat puzzling sign on the upstream side says, in woven
wrought-iron letters, 'God is'. A little further on, the road climbs the
western bank of the stream and then, after another 1 km (0.6 miles), a
track on the left leads to Floraville Homestead. If you turn left here and
keep left at the next two minor track junctions, you end up about 1.5 km
(0.9 miles) from the main road, at the monument to Frederick Walker.
Walker led one of the parties that searched for Burke and Wills in 1861.
Although he didn't find the explorers, he did discover their most
northerly camp site, Camp 119. Later, while living in Burketown, Walker
contracted the fever that nearly wiped out the whole town, and eventually
he died at this remote and lonely spot.
Most of the creek crossings on the route from the Leichhardt River to
Burketown are bitumen causeways, with the road in-between varying from a
narrow dirt track to a well-graded road. Near Harris Creek, 57 km (35
miles) beyond the Leichhardt River, the bitumen begins and leads all the
way to Burketown, 230 km (142 miles) from Normanton.
Once one of Australia's most unruly towns, where nearly everyone carried a
gun, Burketown is now one of its friendliest. As well as warm hospitality,
you'll find accommodation and cold drinks at the local pub, the Albert
Hotel/Motel; the general store supplies basic food requirements and fuel.
Turning left at the pub will take you to the local tourist office, and a
camping ground just opposite.
There are a few historic sites in and around the town, including a tree
blazed by the explorer William Landsborough, a cemetery and the historic
wharf and post office. But it's the town's setting that usually delights
visitors, offering dramatic views across the immense, flat plains toward
the coast and, at night, a vast canopy of unbelievably bright stars.
If you are in the region in September or October and up early in the day,
you may be lucky enough to see a unique weather phenomenon known as a
'Morning Glory' -a long tube of cloud that rolls in from the gulf. Such
formations can reach incredible sizes, extending in a sweeping arc for
hundreds of kilometres, and have a depth of 1000 m (3280 feet) or more. At
times, they form as low as 50 m (164 feet) above the ground -an
Leaving Burketown on the main road heading south-west, you reach a
turn-off after 5 km (3.1 miles) which leads to Escott Lodge, 13 km (8
miles) away. This 225,000-ha (556,000-acre) cattle station caters for
travellers with self-contained rooms, a camping ground, licensed
restaurant, flights to nearby points of interest including the offshore
islands, and boat hire. It also has fuel and basic supplies and a number
of pleasant riverside camp sites (accessible by 4WD only). Escott is well
known in fishing circles as a top spot for barramundi, so with a little
luck you might also catch a magnificent feed.
Back on the main road and heading south, you reach a fork in the road 25
km (15.5 miles) from Burketown. From here, you can head west to the
Northern Territory. The first part of this route takes you across the
Gregory and Nicholson rivers and along a fairly rough road through scrubby
vegetation to Hell's Gate Roadhouse. Named after the nearby limestone
outcrop which, in the old days, was seen as the entrance to the even
wilder and therefore more dangerous country to the west, the roadhouse has
accommodation, meals, fuel and supplies. Nearby are some spectacular
escarpments and tranquil lagoons that are home to multitudes of waterbirds.
From Hell's Gate, it's another 50 km (31 miles) to Wollongorang Station
just across the state border, and, beyond that, a demanding 266-km
(165-mile) drive to the next sizeable settlement, Borroloola. A sealed
road leads from there to the Stuart Highway.
The other fork takes you to Gregory Downs, 92 km (57 miles) due south. The
Gregory Downs Hotel, an old Cobb & Co staging post, has accommodation,
food, fuel and supplies, and there are pleasant camp sites by the river.
From here, you can venture west into Lawn Hill National Park (see p. 528),
a remote but beautiful reserve that protects a dramatic swathe of country
cut by the majestic Lawn Hill Gorge, where 60-m (200-foot) cliffs rise
above a palm-fringed river. The World-Heritage-listed Riversleigh fossil
deposits are also located nearby.
From Gregory Downs, take the Wills Developmental Road south-east to the
Burke and Wills Roadhouse, 144 km (89 miles) away. Here you can join the
Matilda Highway, which runs all the way from the
New South Wales-Queensland border to the Gulf of Carpentaria (see p. 532). It's an
easy drive through scrub and then coastal plains to return to your
departure point at Normanton, where you complete a round trip of
approximately 675 km (419 miles).
Though the ocean bed here is for the most part mud, silt or sand with just
a few outcrops of rock or coral, the Gulf of Carpentaria is nevertheless
an extremely fertile body of water. It is particularly famous for its
abundant prawns, which, in turn, attract large numbers of fish. But its
richness also has much to do with the remarkable number of major waterways
that drain into it, especially in the east and south where slow-moving
rivers and streams meander in great muddy braids across the plains to the
warm, shallow sea.
This combination of diverse marine life and varied habitats makes the gulf
one of the country's top fishing destinations and ensures that a steady
stream of anglers is prepared to undertake the long journey to its shores.
Travel to the area is easiest during the dry season, but unfortunately
this is the least productive time for anglers, especially those on the
hunt for barramundi. Since travel during the peak of the wet season is
potentially hazardous, the best option is to visit immediately after or
before the Wet.
The towns of Normanton and Burketown both make good bases for fishing
expeditions. At Normanton, anglers can simply drop a line in the Norman
River, or they can launch a boat near the wharf in order to explore
further afield. Good barramundi fishing is available in the lower reaches
of rivers such as the Flinders, Norman, Saxby and Carron, particularly
from late March or April until June and again in October and November
(check the current closed seasons before fishing). Upstream you'll also
find sooty grunter (black bream), fork-tailed catfish and saratoga.
Around Burketown, the maze of waterways formed by the Gregory, Nicholson
and Alexandra river systems could keep you busy for a lifetime. The
barramundi fishing is particularly good here, and higher up the rivers,
sooty grunter, catfish, archer fish and freshwater long tom are prolific.
Some waterways also hold pockets of northern saratoga.
On the lower reaches of the rivers, mangrove jacks, estuary cod, threadfin
salmon and small queenfish are abundant, along with trevally, fork-tailed
catfish, sharks, rays and sawfish. Mud crabs are also prolific.
Offshore, there is excellent fishing around the islands of Mornington,
Bentinck, Denham, Forsyth,
Sydney, Bountiful and Sweers. Mornington, the
largest of the islands, is noted for barramundi, cod of several species,
mangrove jacks, barracuda, mackerel, queenfish, cobia, prolific numbers of
trevally and a wide variety of reef species. It is also one of the most
reliable and productive areas in Australia for catching (or at least
hooking!) the spectacular and highly prized giant herring or 'ladyfish'.
Mornington and Sweers both have fishing lodges -Birri Fishing Resort on
the former and Sweers Island Resort and both islands can be reached easily
by air from Burketown.