THE SAVANNAH SIMPLE LIFE
The stretch of Savannah Way from Normanton to Mt Surprise holds some of the Gulf of Carpentaria’s best kept secrets
WORDS BY TIM FERRIER, PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID WOLTSCHENKO
It would be very hard to argue with anyone who calls the Savannah Way the best caravan touring route in Australia. From east coast to west coast across the top of Australia, the route is home to the country’s best remote free camps, and world renowned attractions. However, it’s one small section of the Savannah Way that really caught our attention on the recent trip across the Top.
The stretch of country from Normanton to Mt Surprise is quite often a region that is rushed by caravanners on their way to more popular hotspots. If you slow down and spend a bit of time in these small towns, you’ll quickly realise this is a brilliant RV hotspot in its right. In just 400km of bitumen, you have no less than five historically significant towns full of attractions and good old country hospitality, connected by easy-to-drive roads dotted with incredibly unique free camps – have I got your attention yet?
There are a number of highlights in the area, including Karumba’s amazing Sunset Tavern, the mighty Gulf Savannah Train Ride, Leichhardt Lagoon Camping Park, and the iconic Cumberland Chimney free camp. However, the most unique memory we took home was the great small town hospitality and friendliness. It lifts the spirit of locals and travellers alike, and makes it such a brilliant experience! Let’s get into the details of what this region has to offer.
NORMANTON AND KARUMBA
The starting point for this adventure is the popular RV hotspot of Normanton and Karumba. Yes, in this instance popular does mean busy, especially in Karumba, but it doesn’t take long until you see what all the fuss is about.
Normanton is one of the main hubs of QLD’s Gulf of Carpentaria pocket, and is roughly 700km west of Cairns, and 500km north of Mt Isa. What makes these towns popular is the ease of access – it’s the furthest you can get into the Gulf on bitumen – and its decent bitumen for the most part. There’s a few hundred kays of single lane highway coming from the south, and road trains are frequent. Other than that, you’ll have no issues bringing your on-road van up this far.
You’ve got a few options for accommodation here. The caravan park in Normanton is well appointed, and is right in the heart of town. It’s not as busy here as it is in Karumba, so it’s a nice place to base yourself for a few weeks as you explore the region.
Once you’ve set up in Normanton, it’s time for a true Aussie experience – head to the iconic Purple Pub for a drink. You won’t miss the pub – you don’t get many bright purple buildings in this kind of country! The crew behind the bar are very friendly, and are a wealth of knowledge – its well worth a cold drink just to chew their ear about the attractions off the main tourist brochures. There’s another beaut pub at the other end of town called the Albion Hotel. Often coined as ‘the locals’ pub’ – this is your traditional outback pub experience. Cold beer, big meals, friendly locals and walls adorned with regional history – from huge floods to even bigger crocodiles!
Speaking of big crocodiles, no trip to Normanton is complete without a photo in front of Krys the Savannah King monument. This huge fibreglass croc is an artist’s impression of what is still considered one of the biggest crocodiles ever caught. The reported, near nine metre croc, was brought down with just one shot by a 30 year old polish immigrant, Krystina Pawlowski. It earned her and her husband Rob a place in the record books, and put the town of Normanton on the map. Although it’s said that Rob and Krystina killed thousands of crocodiles, they were the ones pushing the Whitlam Government to put a ban on the killing of crocs in the 1970s. The whole story is displayed at the monument, and photos of Krystina are spread throughout town, in the pubs and historical buildings.
After you’ve had a photo in front of Krys, and see the historical museum and railway station in Normanton, there’s nowhere else to head but north to Karumba. Just a leisurely 70km drive on blacktop, Karumba is so popular with RVers, you’ll need to book your stay months in advance at the caravan parks. Why is it so popular? This is the furthest north in the Gulf you can go via black top, the fishing grounds are very easy to get to with a small rooftop tinny, and the local shops and pubs are out of this world! They pack you into the caravan park though, so we like to stay in Normanton and drive up for the day. With perfect coastlines and great seafood, Karumba is the day trip you’ve been dreaming of. Time your trip with lunch and head to the Sunset Tavern. The beer garden has a coastal outlook you won’t find anywhere else, and the barra is to die for!
THE MOST RV FRIENDLY CARAVAN PARK
Just 24km southeast of Normanton is arguably the best value for money, and most RV friendly park in the state – Leichhardt Lagoon. Big call I know, but from the moment you arrive and see the warm, welcoming smiles from caretakers, Midge and John, you’ll fall in love with this place.
As you turn off the Gulf Development Rd, it’s just a short drive down a well-kept driveway to the caretaker’s shed, which you must stop at before choosing where to camp. Midge and John are full of great information, and will give you a rundown of what’s on offer at the camp, the best places to fish, and a print out of all the birdlife you’ll see on the lagoon.
From here, you can set up almost anywhere on this huge bit of land, with the most sought-after spots right by the lagoon. The sun sets over the lagoon, casting fiery orange colours across the horizon. You’ll love sitting by the water with a drink in hand, watching the water birds make the most of the increased fish and bug activity on the lagoon in the dying sunlight.
This is when the real highlight of your stay at Leichhardt Lagoon begins. There are regular happy hours hosted by the caretakers around the big fire pit – most travellers staying there get involved, and it’s a community spirit and joyous occasion you just don’t get at other parks. What’s even better is that during peak times, the property owners host a $5 three course meal up at the homestead, and invite all guests to come and join them. There’s regularly a bloke with a guitar playing some music, and the atmosphere is amazing. Leichhardt Lagoon represents everything we love about caravanning – great views and even better hospitality.
The camp is quite busy from May through to July, however that’s the best time to go for climate, birdlife and community atmosphere. By August it’s nice and quiet – you won’t have to battle for a view of the lagoon!
The best thing about Leichhardt Lagoon? It’s only $7 per person, per night. That’s incredible value for money when you consider the great views, top facilities, friendly faces and camp activities.
ICONIC GULF FREE CAMP
Cumberland Chimney has the reputation of being one of the most iconic and most loved free camps of the north. Why? You’ve got plenty of room, flat ground, you’re just a short drive from services, and the scenery, is, well, just outstanding! Once the sun hits the horizon, you can see why so many travellers stay at Cumberland Chimney. The wetlands burst into life with birds, turtles and bugs, and the ever-present silhouette of the chimney makes the perfect backdrop for a night camped with like-minded travellers.
Understandably it gets pretty busy here by sunset, so we recommend arriving to camp in the early afternoon to secure a nice spot. The best places to setup are right down by the wetlands, or up on the flat ground near the chimney.
RED DIRT GULF COUNTRY
While the roads are in good condition, the drive is quite dull. Luckily it’s broken up with amazingly well-kept, RV friendly towns. We loved Croydon and its Club Hotel, Heritage Precinct, Mining Museum, and big open streets. Georgetown, which is the closest hub to Cumberland Chimney, has everything you need as a caravanner. Then you get to Mt Surprise, which is a real highlight of the area.
On first glance, Mt Surprise looks like nothing more than a short stopover. However, have a chat to the local owner of the cafe and you’ll discover there’s so much more to the region. For starters, the cafe and gift shop has an incredible display of product, and what’ll particularly grab your attention is the display of opals, something the area is famous for. In the caravan park behind the cafe, you’ll meet a number of travellers that come here in search of these precious stones. Stay a while and they might give you some insight into where to look for them! We loved our time here, and you will too.
SAFE & AFFORDABLE GULF ADVENTURE
What you’re going to enjoy about the stretch of the Savannah Way is the unique history, friendly locals, and world class free and low cost camping. It’s an added bonus that it’s all so accessible, and is the gateway to even further exploration of the Gulf or east into QLD’s amazing coastline. Whether you’re up in April to June for the fishing, or August and September for the peace and quiet, you’ll be heading with memories and experiences you just can’t get elsewhere. Fun, friendly, affordable – what more could you ask for?