Cairns to Normanton – History
The Gulf Savannah region has a rich history of indigenous occupation and frontier settlement.
Aboriginal language groups developed a deep physical and spiritual relationship with the land over probably 50,000 years here. Seasonal migration followed varied food sources and religious cycles which were maintained through song and ceremony. Numerous fish traps along the coast used the tide to capture fish inside rock walls. Totems linked clan groups to species for sustainable harvest management. Rafts made from mangrove timber allowed the hunting of dugong, turtle and fish as well as interaction with Torres Strait Islanders. Although many languages have died out in northern Australia Aboriginal people still have strong cultural links and responsibilities. Many locations have special meaning and secret taboos.
Macassan traders (from the Indonesian Sulawesi islands) visited regularly from around 1400 until 1900, harvesting beche-de-mer (sea slugs) for the Chinese market. Even today the dried powder from this marine animal is thought by the Chinese to possess health and aphrodisiac qualities.
European exploration began with the Dutch East India Company’s expansion of trade, especially the establishment of Batavia (Jakarta) in 1622. Willem Janz named the Gulf of Carpentaria after the Dutch East Indies Governor and landed on western Cape York, near Weipa, in 1606. Jan Carstensz sailed into the Gulf in 1623, and Abel Tasman mapped the sections of the north coast in 1644. The Dutch were generally unimpressed with the land and its inhabitants and saw no trade or settlement possibilities. Despite British colonisation of parts of Australia from 1788 the north was too remote for early interest. Matthew Flinders charted the coast in 1802-03, and John Lort Stokes in Darwin’s Beagle sailed through in 1841 praising the “Plains of Promise” he saw around the Albert River. By this time settlement was expanding on the east coast, and a military settlement was established at Port Essington, near modern Darwin in 1844.
Ludwig Leichhardt, a German explorer, travelled overland from Brisbane to Port Essington in 1844-45. This was an incredible achievement covering almost 5000 kilometres in 14 months using bush tucker gathered by Aboriginal expedition members. Leichhardt’s second expedition left Sydney in 1847 for the Swan River (Perth) but the party’s fate has never been determined.
The telegraph line from Bowen to Burketown was surveyed in 1866 by Frederick Walker, previously the Commandant of the ruthless Native Mounted Police. These Aboriginal trackers from southern areas were used to subdue local Aboriginal groups until community outrage at their brutal methods disbanded the force in 1894.
The Overlanders opened the country more permanently by driving cattle from eastern stations across the Gulf and into the Northern Territory and Western Australia to establish new cattle empires. From 1872 drovers headed west, the most famous Nat Buchanan who drove thousands of beasts across unmarked routes which gradually became the “Top Road” and is now The Savannah Way. Buchanan was known as “Paraway”, the Aboriginal version of his answer to the question “which way old man boss go this time?” He had red hair and carried a green umbrella to shade his pale Irish complexion.
Mining discoveries prompted the hurried establishment of towns and provided local markets for cattle, with flurries of activity accompanying the discovery of gold, tin, zinc, copper and other metals. The Croydon goldrush began in 1886. Many of these towns declined rapidly after the minerals ran out, a cycle that continues even today with fluctuating international resource prices.