Katherine to Normanton – History
Numerous Aboriginal groups inhabited the rich hunting habitats of this region, including the Jawoyn and Dagomen people around Katherine, and from Doomadgee the Gangalidda people north to the coast and Waanyi people south to Lawn Hill. On your journey think about the varying lifestyles and diets the different habitats and regions meant for these people.
Macassan (Indonesian) fishermen came to northern Australian shores from approximately 1600 onwards, harvesting the supposed aphrodisiac trepang (sea cucumber) for trade with Chinese merchants. Dutch sailors from the Dutch East India Company began searching from their base in Batavia (Jakarta) for spices and trade. Willem Janz landed in Cape York Peninsula in 1606 and Abel Tasman traversed the north coast in 1644. In 1802-3 Matthew Flinders charted the coast and in 1841 John Lort Stokes aboard “The Beagle” praised the Burketown region’s “Plains of Promise” for future cattle grazing.
The Prussian Ludwig Leichhardt led an incredible expedition from Brisbane to near today’s Darwin over 14 months and 5000km in 1844-5. Living off the land using Aboriginal knowledge sustained the group.
Augustus Gregory crossed the north in an efficient sea (3000km) and land (8000km) journey in 1855-6, identifying new pasture. As Queensland Surveyor three years later he moved the state border west to incorporate Mount Isa, a future mining boom town.
Burke and Wills’ tragic expedition is Australian legend. Departing Melbourne to great fanfare to cross the continent from south to north in 1860 they had 21 tons of baggage, 17 men, 26 camels and 28 horses. The exhausted advance party reached Camp CXIX near Burketown then spent days in wetlands until they saw tidal water, although mangroves prevented them seeing the coast. On the return their base camps had given them up as lost and Burke, Wills and Gray died of hunger. King survived by living with Aboriginal people.
John McDouall Stuart crossed from Adelaide to the north coast and back on his sixth attempt in 1861-2. This route led to the Overland Telegraph Line in 1870 and is now the Stuart Highway.
From the 1870s Overlanders or Drovers took thousands of cattle along what is now The Savannah Way to supply increasing mining activity in the Northern Territory and The Kimberley. This frontier life included many Aboriginal drovers. Road Trains replaced drovers from the 1950’s.
Today most cattle stations are operated by families for large Australian or international companies. Grazing land is usually leased (usually 50 years) from the state or territory government, or owned freehold by Aboriginal groups. Live export from Karumba is a major market. Most cattle are bred from the Australian Brahman (including Indian Zebu cattle lines with the hump), Shorthorn (from English Durham) or American Santa Gertrudis stock.
The Second World War saw Japanese bombings across the north coast and an influx of American and Australian troops with associated airstrip and road construction.
Mining has driven settlement in many areas. Goldrushes in Hall’s Creek, Tennant Creek, Pine Creek, Croydon and Georgetown kept miners seeking their fortunes across the north. Uranium has been mined on a small scale at Wollogorang and silver on Lawn Hill Station. Macarthur River Mine near Borroloola extracts zinc, and Zinifex Century near Gregory Downs mines zinc, lead and silver.