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The Gulf of Carpentaria is a vast, relatively shallow body of warm, often turbid tropical water separating 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 walk.

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 astonishing sight.

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.

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