Northern Territory

#savannahway

Northern Territory | Savannay Way

AUSTRALIA’S TOP END

The Savannah Way traverses Territory highlights including tiny townships, cattle stations, natural springs and waterholdes, roadside campsites, fishing hot spots and beautiful national parks. Slicing through the northern tip of the Territory, it passes through the Territory outback towns of Katherine, Mataranka, Timber Creek, Borroloola and Roper Bar to either Queensland or Western Australia.

The exact route travellers will take through the Territory will depend on the weather and acces during the tropical summer or wet season. Parts, such as Timber Creek through Katherine to Borroloola can be done in a family car. More challenging sections requiring a 4WD take in remote places such as Roper Bar and Wollogorang Station.

The coolest time to visit is betwen April and September although summer (December to March) with its lush green foliage and clear, full-flowing waterways is considered prettiest.

In summer some of the main route will be closed and certain areas may be temporarily impassable following prolonged periods of rain but alternate routes are available making access possible throughout the year.

* Photo credit: Tourism NT Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park

Please Note: The Western Australian Government and some local councils have adopted programs to restrict alcohol sales and public consumption in many communities. 

THE LAND

This section of The Savannah Way certainly has its share of geological wonder with spectacular gorges, sweeping cattle country, saltflats and picturesque rivers.

The Katherine River and its tributaries are great canoeing or cruising spots, either through the grand sandstone gorges or peaceful tree-lined streams. Katherine Gorge is a slice through the Arnhem Land Plateau’s escarpment, a sandstone face also seen in Kakadu. 

Around the highway the native grasses of Katherine’s cattle pastures include golden beard grass, bunched spear grass and kangaroo grass. Darwin Stringybark and Darwin Woolybutt trees dominate the tree layer here.

Cutta Cutta Caves are a limestone karst system, with guided tours by rangers providing a good insight into the region’s formation.

The changing soil types along the Roper Bar route to Cape Crawford support a range of plant communities. Note the thin lancewood and other acacias on the thin soils at the escarpment edge, and more robust bloodwoods and box eucalypts on the lower loam soils. The low lying plains north of Nathan River Ranger Station feature the lemon scented teatree (crush the leaves for aroma!).

Towards Borroloola the broken, eroded escarpment country provides “Lost Cities” and other features created by differential erosion. Travelling north these give way to coastal plains. These are often sand based grasslands with long fruited bloodwood, desert bloodwood and Darwin box. 

THE 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.

THE SAVANNAH WAY

The
Kimberley

Northern
Territory

North
Queensland

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