North Queensland | Savannay Way
THE GULF SAVANNAH
The Queensland stretch of the Savannah Way, from Cairns to the Northern Territory border, is rich with natural wonders. Explore just a section or the entire route to pass through an amazingly diverse and spectacular landscape of wide horizons, ancient gorges, rock pools, hot springs and abundant wildlife.
From Cairns, with its reef and rainforest, the Savannah Way winds its way up through the Atherton Tablelands before opening out to the endless horizons of the Gulf Savannah and Northern Territory. The Savannay way may be one of the nation’s ultimate adventure drives but, depending on the route you choose, this section is suitable for both 4WD and 2WD drive vehicles.
Most of the year the Gulf Savannah is dry, but in the green season (usually December to March) the countryside is extremely green and alive with prolific birdlife.
A fascinating journey awaits you – across amazing landscapes formed by incredible geological forces, sculptured by wind and water, harvested for thousands of years by Aboriginal people and harnessed in more contemporary times by pastoralists, fishermen and miners.
Observing the changes in landform and vegetation provides an extra dimension to your journey along The Savannah Way. This is an ancient yet dynamic landscape, washed by monsoonal rains each wet season.
The Savannah Way starts on the east coast, at Cairns Gateway Discovery Information Centre on the Esplanade to be exact. Cairns sits on a coastal plain formed by sediment from the mountains to its west. Mangrove vegetation is extensive on nearby mudflats.
Travelling to Kuranda involves climbing Australia’s Eastern Uplands, which include the Great Dividing Range. In Tropical North Queensland these mountains are covered in a mosaic of rainforest habitats differing with soil, geology and topography.
The rich volcanic soils of the Atherton Tablelands support agriculture including bananas, coffee, maize, peanuts, potatoes and sugar cane, with remnant eucalypt forests.
The Einasleigh Uplands begin west of Ravenshoe, with ironbark and bloodwood eucalypts and volcanic soil patches. Cattle farming begins to dominate human activity, interspersed with past and present day mining.
The McBride Volcanic Province, defined by its 164 extinct volcanoes, vents and holes, ends at Mount Surprise and the Newcastle Range, folded and rounded low hills of granite and sediments. The vegetation changes with soil types heading west, supporting lancewood patches on hard, shallow soils, river red gum and coolabah trees by the creeks and box species on the deeper red soils.
The Gulf Plains, west of Croydon, were formed by sediment deposition into the vast Carpentaria Basin over the last 150 million years. During this time Australia broke free from Gondwana and became more arid. This gave rise to plant species more tolerant of dry periods, such as acacia, banksia, casuarina and eucalyptus. Ancient rainforests were replaced by grasslands and open woodlands on the Gulf Plains and riparian vegetation along watercourses.
Closer to Normanton melaleuca (paperbark and teatree) vegetation, which is more tolerant of groundwater, becomes more common. You will notice that in many areas this vegetation is thick due to a lack of burning, a practice that has modified the landscape in Australia for 50,000 years. Modern land management techniques are reintroducing mosaic burning and cattle grazing to maintain traditional vegetation patterns.
Lawn Hill gorge provides a great contrast – spectacular sandstone gorges with perennial freshwater pools fed by springs from a limestone plateau to the west. Fascinating tufa formations form calcium pools at the base of the Island Stack among massive paperbark trees. Walk onto the surrounding sandstone plateaux for open snappy gum and Spinifex landscapes.
Burketown is the divide between the Albert River’s tidal mudflats to the north and the “Plains of Promise’s” golden beard grass, curly bluegrass and Mitchell grass looking south. The salt pans offer great photo opportunities.
ACCOMMODATION, ACTIVITIES & MORE
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.