6-day road trip: The Savannah Way from Cairns to Burketown
Driving the Savannah Way – Australia’s longest and arguably most interesting drive route – is an adventure within anyone’s reach. While much of the road is unsealed, and there are some watercourses to ford along the way, it’s eminently achievable.
Stretching from Cairns to Broome, the Savannah Way covers 3700 km but can also be tackled in shorter bursts. The Queensland section has many small attractions along the way, and unscheduled stops are almost guaranteed for wildlife watching or unexpected photo ops along this epic drive.
So pack up your camping gear, make sure you’ve got a couple of spare tyres, and hit the road with this itinerary!
Psst! Check out more of these great Queensland Drives here.
Day 1: Cairns to Undara
Heading west from Cairns, take the drive up the Kuranda range and out onto the Atherton Tablelands to Mareeba, through the cane fields, macadamia plantations and mango orchards of this fertile land. This is coffee country – and it’s a good chance to stop for a brew (and maybe pick up a supply to take on the road with you).
Drop in at Queensland’s highest pub, the Ravenshoe Hotel (at 916 metres) and stop for a look at Millstream Falls, one of the widest single-drop waterfalls in Australia. Another feature of interest along the road near Ravenshoe is Queensland’s largest wind farm, with about 20 windmills dotting the landscape.
By the end of the day, you’ll be at Undara, just in time to join a guided tour, which ends with a glass of bubbles while you watch the sunset. Undara National Park is home to world’s longest lava tube system and Undara Experience offers a range of tours, including sunset wildlife spotting (the lava tubes are home to colonies of microbats).
If you don’t want to camp, there is accommodation in either permanent tents or comfortable restored railway carriages. A restaurant and bar are part of the complex, and be sure not to miss the ‘bush breakfast’ (where you may need to guard your bacon from a watchful posse of kookaburras!).
Just 320km from Cairns, you’ll already feel like you’ve covered a lot of ground.
Day 2: Undara to Mount Surprise
Head from Undara to Mount Surprise, where you can try your hand at fossicking – either just buy a licence ($10.45 for a family), or take a guided tour which will give you the best chance of finding something!
Pam and Pete at Mount Surprise Gems will rent you the equipment you need, polish up any stones you might find (the most likely is a nice topaz) and give you directions to O’Briens Creek, the most accessible site, about 45km from town.
Another ‘surprise’ in this tiny town is Russell ‘the snake man’ at Planet Earth Adventures campground; be brave, and let that python slither around your body!
Day 3: Mount Surprise to Cobbold Gorge
This hidden oasis, on the Terry family’s Robin Hood cattle station, is by guided tour only but makes a fantastic overnight stop. There is a camping ground, cabins, a restaurant and a Savannah Guides station.
Cruise through the gorge on electric boats, silently gliding through a landscape of ancient sandstone, while you spot birdlife – and the occasional freshwater crocodile.
Day 4: Cobbold Gorge to Normanton
The old gold mining town of Croydon, with its kangaroo sculptures and ‘true blue’ entrance to the visitor centre adding some interesting features to the streetscape, is also worth a rest stop before forging on to Normanton.
Normanton, marking the end of the bitumen for another 700km (beyond the Queensland border), is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type of place that on first glance seems to be most famous for its purple pub. But it’s worth stopping if only to ride the historic Gulflander train. The old tin hare railmotor operates half-day trips between Normanton and Croydon through some spectacular country.
Day 5: Normanton to Karumba
Take a 70km side trip from Normanton to Karumba, where the place to be as the sun goes down is the Sunset Tavern at Karumba Point. Delectable mud crabs and seafood are on the menu, as this is Australia’s barramundi and prawn fishing capital.
If fishing or birdwatching is on your agenda, this is the place for both. Karumba is right on the Gulf of Carpentaria, at the mouth of the Norman River. The town is surrounded by wetlands, home to huge saltwater crocodiles and a vast array of birdlife including herons, brolgas, jabiru, pelicans, cranes, brolgas and black swans.
Campers can set up at the Karumba Sunset Caravan Park, but if you are looking for a bit of style and comfort after some dusty days on the road, book in at the beachfront End of the Road Motel.
Day 6: Karumba to Burketown
A highlight of the trip is Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, just south of the Savannah Way. Accommodation – either camping or cabins – is at Adel’s Grove, where you can kayak up the gorge to the idyllic Indari Falls. This is a perfect spot for cooling off after a hot day on the road.
Adel’s Grove is a good base for visiting the Riversleigh Fossil Fields, the World Heritage-listed mammal fossil site which dates back about 25 million years. The 800 metres fossil trail takes about an hour and there is an interpretive centre to help you understand what you are seeing.
Over the next couple of hundred kilometres, there are a couple of great bush pubs to stop off at – Gregory Downs, sitting alone on the Wills Developmental Road, and Burketown, which boasted the oldest pub in the Gulf until it burnt down a couple of years ago. Thirsty travellers will be happy to know the pub has been rebuilt!
Most visitors to Burketown come for the fishing – each Easter, the World Barramundi Fishing Championships offers more than $20,000 in prize money – but there’s a better reason (in my book) if you’re here at the right time of year.
If you overnight at Burketown – from late September to early November – early risers may be treated to the phenomenon called the Morning Glory. These spectacular rolling clouds travel at up to 60km per hour and extend as far as the eye can see, appearing in the hours before dawn. It’s worth getting up for!
Have you driven the Savannah Way? Share your highlights in the comments below.
*This post was first published in 2016 and updated in January 2018.