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The Savannah Way, Mataranka to Cairns



As I write this, I am sitting very comfortably at our campsite near Julatten, in the Tablelands above Mossman and Port Douglas in Far North Queensland [FNQ]. It has been a few weeks since we left Mataranka to journey east towards Cairns. So, before I get to far ahead of myself I should try and paint a picture of our travels and a few small challenges encountered along the way.


For the time poor there are links to a few more pictures below, hopefully giving you a glimpse of our journey.

Link to a few pictures here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/fpbphPF1LCY5pFKv8

Lawn Hill NP: https://photos.app.goo.gl/aabqqq6cDXCyEdC8A

And lastly, Lorella Springs : https://photos.app.goo.gl/EqALi2aE1UtFpnqU9



We left the Little Roper Stock Camp in Mataranka, our goodbyes taking a while as usual, the girls had made new friends and we had learnt a fair bit from fellow travellers who had just come across the Savannah Way from the East Coast towards the NT. We were travelling with friends, Michael, Vicki & Katie for the trip across the Savannah Way and to the Cape, seemed sensible to travel together across such remote country


Our first destination though was Bitter Springs, just a few minutes back up the road for a final swim in the most delightful spring fed creek before heading south of town and then turning East towards Roper Bar.


We soon found the tarmac giving way to the usual dirt and corrugations of outback roads and we lowered tyre pressures to help the trucks and trailers survive the continual pounding.

If you are interested in dirt road corrugations, take a look below.

[ Corrugations: https://practicalmotoring.com.au/4x4/how-are-corrugations-formed/ ]

[ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OlM7yeFeuI a video of corrugations in action 😊 ]



Our drive out of Mataranka and down to the Old Roper River crossing was pretty uneventful. As it is pretty late in the season the water levels on the Roper River crossing are pretty low so we took the opportunity to drive across and get some pictures from the river.



While taking a few pictures a local guy told us about fishing from his truck in the middle of the river crossing, so Michael and I came up with a cunning plan to fish from the top of his camper trailer [staying out of the reach of any nearby crocodiles] and try and catch a Barramundi for dinner.


Our fishing platform on the Roper River

The river was beautiful, the plan executed in fine style but no fish unfortunately. Now at this point you have to try and imagine our faces when another car came to cross the river, of course it was the NT Police, out and about on patrol in the far reaches of the NT.


Feeling like very naughty schoolboys, who had been caught doing something really silly, we quickly had the car driven out of the river and awaited the police expecting to get a ticking off about our fishing practices. We were happily surprised when their first question was “How’s the fishing going?” 😊 It seems the police in the NT have a sense of humour and the guys gave us a few tips and spots to try out later.


Tomato Island Campsite

We continued our drive after lunch, arriving at the Tomato Island National Park campground and enjoying another incredible sunset. We also met a German couple whose car had broken down further up the track, they had been towed into the camp ground by a passing traveller but were now trying to get their car back to Mataranka or Katherine for repairs, they were in surprisingly good spirits and were very happy with all the help they had received. I gifted them a towing strap and some shackles and we wished them well in the morning as we left for our drive to Lorella Springs.


The plan was to stop and have a look at another Lost City along the way and hopefully arrive mid afternoon at Lorella Springs for a few days. The road was corrugated as usual, but not too bad and with a few creek crossings thrown in, our progress was pretty leisurely. We found a spot to stop for lunch at one of the NP campgrounds along the way, enjoyed a cup of tea, had lunch, the kids running around full of energy as usual and then prepared to set off for the Lost City. I checked the temperature of the trailer hubs, a normal and routine check when towing on these roads, and found to my horror one of the wheels was red hot, even after we had been stopped for almost an hour. Bugger.


The trailer brake had become jammed, the brake shoe causing the hub, the wheel, the axle and bearings to become red hot, not good. We couldn’t get the hub off to inspect the damage but determined to drive on slowly towards Lorella Springs, stopping every 5 -10 kilometres to check the hub temperature and make sure it didn’t catch fire [a real possibility], we were 450 kilometres from Mataranka and about 80 from Lorella Springs, seemed like an almost sensible thing to do.


We nursed the trailer along, stopping regularly and at every creek crossing to cool the wheel, we ditched the plan to visit the Lost City [it was just a pile of ancient rock formations anyway ☹] and limped into Lorella Springs Wilderness Park. Remarkably, the wheel started to cool off as we arrived [I think we had worn away the brake linings to a point where there was no more friction and the hub, bearings and wheel cooled down significantly] so the only thing to do was check in, order a cold beer at the bar and then sink gently into the hot springs around the homestead. Not exactly as planned but felt pretty good to arrive.


Small billabong at Lorealla Springs

Over the next couple of days, we explored Lorella Springs as best we could, we swam in the Springs whenever we could, found swimming holes and billabongs to explore and fish respectively, and generally tried to ignore the fact our trailer was in a bit of a mess and we had a few hundred kilometres of rough dirt roads before arriving at Borroloola to get some mechanical help.



The almost good news though was the trailer wheel was rotating freely which meant the bearings were ok but we also found another problem; we were unable to charge the trailer battery from the truck while driving, this certainly caused a lot of head scratching and it wasn’t until we got to Cairns that I figured it out ☹.



Cautiously, we ventured out of the comfort of Lorella Springs and back on the road, hoping to get to Borroloola, find a mechanic and sort out the trailer. We were driving pretty gently, tyre pressures had been lowered again to take some of the bumps out of the corrugations and we were stopping regularly to check wheels [and the solar panel, now lashed to the top of our trailer trying to get some charge into the battery], progress was ok though and we were soon 35 kilometres away from town and found ourselves back on tarmac roads for the drive into town.


Temporoary solar charging platform. Covered in red dust after 5 minutes

The sense of relief was tangible as we drove into town and straight to the mechanics [TJ’s – your one stop shop for truck and trailer repairs in Borroloola], they were able to fit us in for a look the next day so we went to the caravan park, set up camp and relaxed.


Pretty soon we were talking to fellow travellers about their journeys, about wheels falling off trucks on the next stretch of road because the corrugations were so bad ☹ and about how we should definitely not miss Lawn Hill on our way towards the East Coast 😊.


Next day the trailer went for surgery, it came back pretty quickly, the brake had almost disintegrated inside the hub, TJ’s had a bit of drama getting the hub off but without spares all they could do was remove the braking system so we could continue our travel and we would have to get them fixed in Cairns. The trailer electrics were also still on the blink, TJ’s could not see the problem and again it would not be sorted until Cairns, so I lashed up an ugly, temporary charging system that would hopefully keep the fridge cold and the lights on.


Borroloola is a Barramundi fisherman’s paradise in season, (just not when we were there), but it was comfortable & friendly given our situation, and after much deliberation [over a cold beer or two] we decided we should roll the dice, continue on the dirt roads towards Lawn Hill National Park even though they were supposed to be really really bad, passing through Hell’s Gate Roadhouse before crossing into Queensland. Sounded like a plan and next day we set off with the intention of camping overnight at Hell’s Gate.



The road was corrugated but manageable and with a number of pretty creek crossings we were not really getting anyway very fast. We stopped to help a local family with their truck [a wheel had fallen off with the corrugations vibrating the wheel nuts loose and shearing a couple of studs], we were able to get a wheel back on and took wheel nuts from each of the other wheels to secure it to the offending hub. Not perfect but enough for the people to get back to Borroloola. Interestingly they had a turtle in the back of the car [fast food for locals] which they were kind enough to show the kids, the kids not at all impressed that it was going to be eaten.


We stopped at a pretty creek crossing along the road for lunch, saw wild brumbies come down for nervous drink at the water and then they were quickly followed by a few cattle including a huge Brahmin bull. Great to see wildlife in action by the creek and so it was no real surprise that we didn’t get to the roadhouse that day but stopped by a small creek for an overnight stay in the middle of nowhere again.


It turned out to be a great little campsite, fantastic to be camping under a billion stars again and enjoying the outback with a campfire, friends and the local wildlife. We had a small Bat fly too close to the fire chasing bugs and then crashed to the ground, pretty unusual even for the outback 😊. We tried to get a picture or two before it scurried off to lick its wounded pride and fly away into the night, Helen wouldn’t let me pick it up for the fear of catching Ebola or some other bat-borne disease.



Next morning, we had a very relaxing start to the day, coffee and conversation round a campfire, followed by a leisurely pack up of the trailers and then drove the 50kms or so to Hell’s Gate Roadhouse, it used to be the last place for any policing in the good old days so anything west of Hell’s Gate was considered lawless 😊.



These days you can get a pretty good coffee and cake while sitting in the roadhouse and checking out the artwork around the place and messages left by travellers over the years. Pretty cool.


Onwards to Lawn Hill National Park, an oasis in the middle of outback Australia’s channel cattle country, we stayed at Adel’s Grove just outside the park in a beautifully shaded palm grove beside Lawn Hill Creek, but absolutely no way to get any solar charging into the batteries. No problem though as we took the trailer with us the next day when we visited Lawn Hill and once again lashed the solar panel to the trailer to catch some sun.


Lawn Hill is breathtakingly beautiful, and there is really no better way to see the place than paddling a canoe up the river to the small falls. We had to do a little portage to carry the canoes around some rocks before continuing to a small but totally enchanting spot on the river about 3.5kms from our starting point.



We squeezed the 4 of us into a 3-seater family canoe and paddled gently up the river, the water becoming crystal clear the further we paddled. The scenery was incredible, the contrast of the rock walls of the gorge, the lush greenery of the tress lining the banks and the water lilies providing the final piece of the visual feast. And then there was the swimming and splashing around near the water falls and the end of the creek, absolutely fabulous. After the travel and challenges along the road to get to this place it was amazing; we spent the rest of the morning floating around and playing in the water before heading back for some well-earned lunch at the visitor centre.




A fabulous day at Lawn Hill and it would have been great to spend more time there but I was deeply conscious of a number of issues that would need to be fixed in Cairns, so after another lovely evening at Adel’s Grove campsite we got up early and set off for Normanton or Karumba, depending on the progress made during the day.


The road out to Gregory was ok, dirt, dust and some broken tarmac before we hit the tarmac proper for the first time in a week or so, ingeniously there was a coffee shop advertising great coffee and free use of their air compressor 😊 so after a coffee [pretty good] and pumping up the tyres we were off towards the Burke & Wills Roadhouse at 4-Ways, and then to Karumba via Normanton because we had heard about a great fishing spot from some fellow travellers.


The Big Barramundi

The fishing at Karumba was a bit of a disappointment, there were howling onshore winds making fishing very difficult, the tides were wrong and the fish elsewhere. We did manage a couple of catfish but they are pretty low on the scale of desirable fish in Australia and went back to live another day. The only consolation was to see a saltwater crocodile swim lazily past our fishing spot, probably eying up lunch in the form of two unwary fishermen 😊.


If the fishing was poor, the sunset was possibly the most spectacular of any on our trip so far, and given we had been to a good number of places along the way this is a bold claim. We also chose to eat dinner at the local pub and started to reminisce about our trip across the Savannah Way and talk optimistically about doing it again but early in the season when the barramundi are biting and the creeks and gorges full of water.


Sunrise at Karumba

After a sneaky early morning fish at sun-up (fortunately a glorious sunrise to compensate for just one small fish between us) we were packing up and heading off towards Cairns, just 650kms down the road. I was still thinking about getting into Cairns get things fixed so we drove on and bypassed a few places like the Undarra Lava Tubes, Mount Surprise, Mount Garnet and the whole of the Atherton Tablelands, adding them to a long list of places to see later, or on the next trip.


We bade farewell to Vicki, Michael and Katie for a few days, they would do some exploring while we went to Cairns and after a quick overnight stop at Mt Garnet we rolled into Cairns on Tuesday 11th September to get the fridge repaired, the trailer brakes and electrics sorted, a new zip fitted to the main door of our trailer tent and the car serviced in readiness for the trip to Cape York. The drive in through the Great Dividing Range marking a real end to this part of the trip, as we went from dry, red dirt and dust to lush green across the Tablelands, we will definitely come back and spend time here after Cape York.


Arriving in Cairns we checked into a cabin in a delightful caravan park for 4 nights to enable us to get the trailer repaired; a sense of normal, real life returning with real beds to sleep in, a toilet and shower inside the building, and best of all, an electric kettle for a quick cup of tea & coffee whenever we needed one.


Michael, Vicki and Katie arrived a few days later and planning started in earnest for the trip to Cape York but that will have to wait for another episode.


Lawn Hill Gorge



Regards Roy, Helen, Sophie and Zoe


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