From Cooktown and travelling the Savannah Way

We took advantage of an extra day in Cooktown to catch up on what we missed on our first visit, including a walk up to the first lookout on Mt Cook and a visit to Keatings Lagoon – lots of water lilies but no birds to be seen.  Someone had parked in front of the croc warning sign so we inadvertantly got too close to the water!  We had a look at the lichen-blackened slopes at Black Mtn lookout before having lunch at the historic Lions Den Hotel, an iconic pub built in 1875.  The highlight of the day was stopping at Trevethan Falls, which were very hard to find, 12.7km’s in on a dirt road with a 500meter hike/climb/rock scramble to get to the falls. They were stunning and we marvel at how often we find these hard to find, stunning places with no signs, generally no one else there and quite special places to see; like this waterfall.  Back in Cooktown we got fuel and as it happened the car wash was almost next door so we (Dick) gave the van a much needed wash and it looked like new (almost!).  Many of you have commented on the dirty state of our van but we do wash it when we can!

For our drive to Wonga Beach via the Bloomfield Track, Cape Tribulation and the Daintree we left at 8:41(an early start for us). Met an interesting fellow, Ross Franzi – artist, conservationist, builder and engineer; at his Black Cockatoo Gallery, where he is currently building a helicopter and also runs  an animal rescue/refuge.  He was impressive and his art was very good.  We stopped to look at Weary Bay beach before clambering over rocks for 300 meters to see the Bloomfield waterfall.  Also visited the Wugal Wugal Art & Cultural centre who were selling traditional dot painting artworks and nice jewellery made by local aborginals from bush nuts and seeds.  From there we drove the Bloomfield Track (4WD so we aired down) through the Daintree Rainforest to Cape Tribulation.  Road was narrow and windy but not too bad, considering where we had been on the Cape. Managed a walk on Cape Tribulation beach which was nice but too many people!!  Spent an hour at the Daintree Discovery Centre learning about the rainforest flora and fauna and visiting its different levels via aerial walkways.  They even had life size dinosaurs on display to show the link between their decline and climate change.  Took the Daintree River Ferry and ended up at the ‘Wonga Beach Resort’, aka home of our friends Chris and Christine, where we again enjoyed a lovely few days of R&R, plus the mandatory clean up and stock up jobs.  Booked the Lestervan in for a 40,000 km service so enjoyed a day in Cairns and then also had a day in Port Douglas with Chris and Christine.  I hated to leave as we had such a nice time with them in Wonga Beach.

On the way to the Atherton Tableland we stopped at Mossman Gorge, but found it very commercial and crowded so didn’t stay long. At Mareeba we visited the Tourist Info Centre which has an excellant museum and nice coffee shop so we had lunch there and checked out all the displays.  Lots of great fruit and veg stalls in the Atherton Tablelands which looks very green and fertile.  We camped at Lake Tinaroo NP.  The lake was built in the 1950’s by damming the Baron River with a 45 m high dam wall.  It traps enough water to create a lake 3/4’s the size of Sydney Harbor and supplies irrigation and hydro electric power.  The highlight of that stop was watching the live streaming of Amy’s team winning bronze at the Beach Ultimate World Championships in France – very exciting.  They were also awarded the Spirit medal as well so have included their team photo with medals even though its out of context for the blog.

In an attempt to “cover” the rest of the Atherton Tableland in one day we left camp at 9am and stopped at 6pm, so drove 342 km’s in 9 hours and made 13 stops.  Way too full and too ambitious!!  Nothing ever goes according to plan and within the first 20 minutes of driving the planned route we hit a closed road and had to backtrack, so changed the route and visited Hastie Swamp/Nyleta Wetland near Atherton.  It is internationally renowned as a bird habitat with more than 229 recorded species and has a 2-storey bird hide to make watching easier.  We saw thousands of birds and ducks there.  Then we visited the massive ‘Curtain Fig Tree’, where the fig surrounded two trees like a massive curtain.  The volcanic history of the Tablelands is pervasive – we visited Lake Eacham, a superb crater lake and then Mt Hypipamee Crater, which is an unusual volcanic vent hole, 124 m deep. A bonus there was seeing a cassowary in the wild.  We also stopped at Malanda Falls and Bromfield Swamp (both were disappointing), as was the Millaa Millaa Lookout due to rain & fog & cloud everywhere.  Taking the waterfall circuit road  we stopped at Millaa Millaa Falls, Zillie Falls, & Ellinjaa Falls before visiting the Biodynamic Dairy, who advertise “the world’s best cheesecakes!”  Dick loves cheesecake so we got a piece of gf baked chocolate cheesecake and some Gallo cheddar cheese.  No time to eat in as we were on a tight schedule!  Drove to Ravenshoe to use their dump station before visiting Millstream Falls, Australia’s widest falls.  We then drove straight thru to the station (cattle  ranch) that hosts the Undara Experience & arrived just before dark, way too tired to participate in any of their evening activities.

Undara is aboriginal for ‘long way’ and The Undara Experience (guided tours) explores the Undara Lava Tubes that were created when volcanic eruptions produced 160 kms of lava flow from the crater.  The geological phenomenon known as lava tubes were formed from lava flowing into low lying areas and acting as a conduit distributing the lava more than 100 kms from the crater. 69 lava tubes have been found from roof collapses; it is possible to go in 9 and we went in 3.  There are 32.5 kms of lava tubes. It was interesting to walk thru these tunnels, access is only via guided tours, and this seems to be one way these stations make an income from the features of their properties, in addition to the camping fees. 

After our tour we drove to Georgetown hoping to catch the advertised rodeo, but it wasn’t on so we drove on to Cobbold Gorge and booked in for their 3 hour gorge tour.  The Cobbold Gorge is located on a cattle grazing property called Robin Hood Station (500 sq miles, 1284 sq kms) which has been owned by the Terry family since 1956.  In fact the gorge was only discovered 25 years ago in 1992 as it really is tucked away within rugged sandstone formations.  The tour involved 1.5 hours walking (with some bush tucker {aboriginal bush food} and history asides) to the top of the gorge and then 1.5 hours cruising through the extremely narrow gorge in an electric boat.  The bush tucker demo included Gidgee Gidgee, shiny red seeds, which are extremely poisonous and were used by aboriginies to kill fish and also as an abortion method, according to our guide.  The gorge is only 2 m (6 feet) wide in places with 30 m (100 foot) high cliffs on either side and it’s home to freshwater crocodiles and native fish.  It was nice to see and quite different although both of us prefer exploring on our own rather than in a tour group (two days of tours was a bit much).

With a 6 am alarm we set a new record by leaving at 7:52am and saw lots of cattle everywhere on the road, as there has been most of our travels in northern Australia.  Many of our stops are on stations with a tourist venture included and we have seen thousands of cattle along the road.  Just hoping they stay on the roadside as we’ve also seen lots of dead ones, along with dead kangaroos.  Another long driving day got us to Karumba, where we checked into a CP (caravan park), drove around the town and saw the famous Karumba sunset over the Gulf of Carpentaria while having a seafood dinner in the Sunset Pub.

Stopped in Normanton to take pictures of a model of the largest crocodile ever shot.  Quite scary to imagine it!  Then in another long driving day (410 kms)we stopped at the Burke & Wills Roadhouse (named after two early Australian explorers who didn’t make it back) before overnighting in a free camp at Gregory River.  Re-met our Swiss friends here, and stupidly left a front van window open overnight so I was suffering badly from mosquito bites in the morning.

This drive we are doing is along The Savannah Way which goes from Cairns to Broome.  With last years trip and this one we will have covered almost all of this iconic Australian road journey.


Black Mtn, outside of Cooktown


The Lions Den Hotel


Trevathan Falls


Bloomfield Falls, better known but not as special

Cape Tribulation beach


Port Douglas lookout with Chris & Christine

Lake Tinaroo campsite, near Atherton

Amy’s Beach Ultimate team with their medals (Amy is 2nd from the left in the back row)


Hastie Swamp/Nyleta Wetland – internationally renowned bird habitat


Curtain Fig Tree


Mt Hypipamee Crater-volcanic vent hole, 124 m deep


Cassowary in the wild


Ellinjaa Falls

Millstream Falls, the widest one in Australia


Lots of cattle on the road

Inside the lava tubes


A view of Cobbold Gorge from the clifftops


A view of Cobbold Gorge from the water

Brolgas at the side of the road

A Karumba sunset and only the second place where we saw the Gulf of Carpentaria

The colors kept changing in the sunset


Normanton – Model of the largest crocodile ever shot

The story behind the crocodile

Burke & Wills Roadhouse, in the middle of nowhere


The sign we are following

A map showing The Savannah Way


Cape York – the trip down south from The Tip

The trip down south from The Tip of Cape York

Bamaga is the largest town in the NPA (Northern Peninsula Area) so we got groceries, fuel, water and dumped the toilet there before checking into Loyalty Beach campground, another great spot right on the beach. This one had wonderful sunset views, a shuttle to take us to the Thursday Island (TI) ferry terminal, and a great restaurant.  We had a beautiful sunny day and a calm boat trip for the l hour & 10 minute ferry ride to TI.  Started off with a tour from a local guide who gave us a good intro to the Island.  TI has a population of 3500 on an island of approximately 3.5 square kilometers.  70 government depaertments have offices on TI which serves an the admin centre for all the Australian islands in the Torres Strait and the NPA.  It was interesting to learn about the Torres Strait Islanders and how they are very different from aboriginals, being melanesian and agrarian rather than nomadic, so have very different cultures.  A visit to the Green Hill Fort museum highlighted the military and pearling history of TI. Green Hill Fort is a hilltop fortress with guns that have never been fired in anger.  Initial concerns were about the Russians expanding in the Pacific, and then offsetting the French presence in New Caledonia and in 1877 the Royal Navy pressed for fortifications to guard the only known navigable passage inside the Great Barrier Reef.  Today it showcases fabulous views around TI.

Did some wandering around on our own and managed to visit a boutique and pearl gallery plus a design shop for some retail fun. Lunch at the Grand Hotel overlooking the harbor completed our tour on TI, and a very nice dinner at the Loyalty Beach campground/fishing lodge restaurant rounded out a good day.

We finished off our time at the top of Australia with two nights in a free camp at Muttee Heads, a remote free campsite on a beautiful beach where just like everywhere else, you can’t go near the water because of crocodiles. Was a bit appalling to see fishermen in the water up to their knees.  We were the only ones there on the first night.  Several others joined us the second but couldn’t be seen from our camp. We reconnected with Geoff and Liz in Bamaga (as they didn’t stay in free camps), and started the trek back down south with a return ferry ride across the Jardine River.  Drove to Captain Billy Landing, a national park (NP) campground on yet another beautiful beach. Finished the evening with a game of ‘Up and Down the River’ (cards) and in the morning said goodbye to our travelling companions as we are going our separate ways.

In the 1880’s a government geologist, Dr Jack, named the creek after his aboriginal guide, Captain Billy.  This place name is a legacy of one of the early encounters between Aboriginal inhabitants and European explorers.  In 1968 Comalco established an experimental cattle station here and we are camped near the remains of the wharf where they used to load the cattle on a barge to take them to market.  The lease was surrendered to the government and the land became a national park.  It is a beautiful area with colored cliffs and a lovely long white beach.  We walked 8 km’s along the beach today, with no one in sight, and looking around I could almost imagine that the view hasn’t changed since those early explorers met Captain Billy.  Along the way I think I saw a crocodile move from a sunny bank into a small lagoon adjacent to the beach. It’s always on my mind as we walk beside the ocean, never getting too close to the shore. We invited a Swiss couple we’ve seen a few times along the way over for a beer after our walk.

Before leaving Captain Billy Landing we had a long chat with fellow campers, Phil and Monica Coleman who are the founders of Auswalk, a walking company we have patronised a few times.  It was a 5-6 hour drive to Weipa on mostly dirt roads, but ok.  Had a nice seafood dinner in the outdoor takeaway at the Weipa caravan park (CP) watching a lovely sunset over the Gulf of Carpentaria. Weipa was another catch up/stockup stop, where I spent a lot of time on skype with family, did laundry and got groceries.  Drove to Mapoon, a small, remote aboriginal township 90 km’s north of Weipa to meet Leon Yeatman, a friend of our friend, Steve Garrett.  Leon is the CEO of the Mapoon Aboriginal Shire Council and we had an interesting chat with him about Mapoon, the history and local issues, and the fishing, as Leon is a keen fisherman. Mapoon was visited by the Dutch in 1606 so is known locally as ‘first contact country’.  To get there we drove on the Mission River bridge, an 825 meter (half mile) long one lane bridge where you have to look to see if anyone is on it before you start.

Geologist Harry Evans (no relation as far as I know) discovered bauxite on aboriginal lands at Weipa in 1955 and mining began in 1961.  We did the ‘Mine and Town Tour’ which was very good and taught us a lot.  Bauxite ore is found in a layer up to 4 meters deep, so its on the surface (after top soil is removed) and loaded into unique Weipa haul trucks.  Then it’s washed and screened, railed to ships and taken for processing into a white powder called alumina, and then processed at smelters into aluminium at places like Gladstone. Those haul trucks drive on 200km’s of haul roads and local traffic has to stop at crossings that intersect with the haul roads.  The mining operation is highly computerized and uses a complex gps system which monitors and controls all vehicles and machinery.  The most interesting aspect to me was that the land was mapped and surveyed before mining, the trees, seeds and animals are taken out and rehoused for later, even the top soil was saved, and then after the mining is done, the top soil is put back and the land is revegetated with whatever was originally there.  The mining company, Rio Tinto, is working closely with the aboriginal communities who are the traditional owners of the land being mined.  Weipa is a mining town and people can’t work in the mine unless they live in Weipa.  25% of mine staff are women and 25% are indigenous.  Weipa is quite different from the other towns up in Cape York because of the mine, and what that has meant for infrastructure in the town, in terms of sporting facilities etc.  One of the man-made lakes, Lake Patricia was a ‘must do’ stop just for the photo with the sign, as was Evans Landing.  There are beware of croc signs everywhere and our guide told us the population is 4100, each person has two pig dogs, and the crocs feed on feral pigs and pig dogs so they are kept pretty full.  Interesting to visit but…………….

We continued our jouney south with a long driving day to Sweetwater Lake campsite in Lakefield NP, arriving just before dark and having the campsite to ourselves.  Lakefield is Queensland’s 2nd largest NP and features vast river systems with spectacular wetlands.  Before leaving our campsite we were visited by about a dozen cows and calves and a wallaby.  The drive through the park took us to Nilford Plains where we photographed various termite mounds (magnetic, bulbous and dome mounds), then a beautiful lagoon and hundred year old mango trees at Breeza Homestead, and catfish waterhole where we didn’t manage to see any crocs.  We checked out the riverside campsites at Hahn Crossing and unfortunately did the 4 km Discovery Walk at Kalpower Crossing-very hot, not much shade and nothing to discover!  Ended up staying back at Laura as we were booked in to do a 1pm tour to the UNESCO listed Quinkan Gallery rock art site.  As it happened the tour left at 3:07pm since the guide got bogged on the morning tour and returned a bit late!  However he was an excellant guide and the galleries were really worth seeing.  There were five galleries together which according to our guide, Steve, were the location for the initiation ceremonies (circumcisions and chest cutting) for the 13 yr old boys.  The art was clear and with our guide’s help we could see some of the older art that has been layered over with new art. That said the art is estimated to be over 29,000 years old and is rated by UNESCO as one of the top 10 rock art sites in the world.  Very useful to have the pictures pointed out and the stories explained to us.  The images are of Quinkan spirits (good ones and bad ones), totem animals and people.  It was a very rough half hour drive over a rocky and sandy 4WD track- without a guide you would never find the site. The late start meant we finished our drive to Cooktown in the dark but we made it in time to check in and then go out for a nice dinner.  Back to Cooktown where we started our Cape York adventure.

Loyalty Beach campsite, probably working on the blog on my ipad or doing emails



A map showing the Torres Strait and location of Thursday Island and Australian waters

Taking the ferry to Thursday Island (TI)

One of the guns at Green Hill Fort on Thursday Island (has never been fired in anger)


Another view of TI from the fort

Interesting signs show that the local culture is alive and well


The TI wharf, leaving for the trip back


Beautiful sunsets at our Loyalty Beach campsite


Outdoor dining in the Loyalty Beach campground restaurant


Muttee Heads free camp

Sunrise at Muttee Heads

Lots of wild horses roam the NPA (also feral pigs)


Back on the Jardine River Ferry


Overlooking Captain Billy Landing

Dick on the beach in front of our campsite

The cliffs and palms at Captain Billy Landing

Another view at Captain Billy Landing


A fabulous beach for doing a long walk- hard sand, flat beach, no crocs in view


Having a rest in the shade before we walk back to camp


The 860 meter (half mile) one lane bridge in Weipa where you look for headlights before driving on it


A visit with Leon in Mapoon

Stopped at the crossing for the haul road with a haul truck passing by

Loading up the haul trucks with bauxite

Washing and screening the bauxite at the beneficiation plant


Loading the ships in Weipa harbor

Had to get the Evans Landing sign

And the Lake Patricia sign


Sweetwater Lake campsite in Wakefield NP


Different types of termite mounds in Nilford Plains – the tall magnetic mound and the shorter dome mound


100 year old Mango trees at Breeza Homestead

Beautiful Breeza lagoon


Quinkan Gallery – the welcome room pictures feature multiple layers of art


13 flying foxes depicted here and 13 year old boys were initiated

Our guide, Steve, beside the pictures of the good Quinkans in the room where they performed the initiations

Walking between the various rock art galleries