Road tripping: Cairns to Karumba

The road trip between two coasts along the Savannah Way Highway, from Cairns to Karumba, is an awe-inspiring journey through the real outback

Kangaroo sign on the side of the road.
  • Sheree Scott
  • March 2014

Filled with a desire for wide open road, sunny skies, ancient river gorges and wedge-tailed eagles soaring overhead, we load up the 4WD for a four-day, 800km adventure to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Setting out from the spa town of Palm Cove, just north of Cairns, we leave thick coastal rainforest and head west to Herberton Historical Village on the edge of the Great Dividing Range. For a few hours we are lost in the past. Fire blazes in an 1886 steam engine, which once worked the Ravenshoe sawmill, and Day’s Garage is packed with beautiful classic vehicles. The old schoolroom is trapped in time, even down to the magazines which chronicle the Queen’s coronation.

On the other side of the range, the real Outback begins. We’re heading 275km across the ancient lava flows that created Undara Lava Tubes, among the world’s longest cave systems. We arrive at the Undara Experience national park headquarters in time for the Sunset Tour, which includes the stunning sunset over the savannah. We watch thousands of micro-bats flying from one of the lava tubes – a nightly occurrence.

Ancient volcanic lava flows created the Undara Lava Tubes, among the longest cave systems in the world
Dinner at Undara’s railway-themed restaurant is finished off with a humorously referential chocolate lava cake. Soon afterwards we’re retiring to a refurbished railway carriage, where the bed is firm and narrow, and the door doesn’t lock. But it has character.

Dawn breaks through the trees to the call of kookaburras as we enjoy Undara’s famous bush breakfast, which sees guests toasting bread on the campfire to go with our billy tea, bacon and eggs. We set off early for Mount Surprise, where the real surprise is having a 2m coastal carpet python wrapped around your neck. Wendy the Snake is harmless enough, just keen for a little body warmth, explains snake handler Russell Dennis of Planet Earth Adventures.

More surprises await at The Gem Den, where aquamarine crystals and blue topaz appear after we sieve a bucket of sand from owners Pete and Pam Blackburn’s mining lease. The couple hire equipment and issue permits for fossicking in the nearby gemfields, which yield agates, semi-precious stones, sapphires and even gold. The TerrEstrial Centre at Georgetown is a must for “rock-hounds”, with an impressive 4,500 mineral specimens on show.

Between Mount Surprise and Georgetown is Cobbold Gorge, a detour with about 45km of unsealed road. A 4WD truck takes us from Cobbold Camping Village over the dry Richardson River to Cobbold Creek and the cliffs of the gorge. Only metres away, a freshwater crocodile basks on the bank as our electric-powered boat cruises quietly by.

Only metres away, a freshwater crocodile basks on the bank

The intense blue sky and red cliffs create stunning reflections on the water – the kind of Australian Outback colour scheme that will never disappoint guests. The gorge is only 2m wide in places, and we’re close enough to touch it as we navigate its sculpted contours. We follow a rocky trail up the escarpment to a ledge with Aboriginal rock art and drop-away views before passing through a narrow gap to a rocky overhang, where oleander butterflies congregate en masse.

We stay the night in the spacious Cobbold Camping Village cabins, overlooking a billabong where galahs and wallabies gather to drink. Relaxing on the timber deck beside the infinity-edge pool, we are treated to a near-full moon rising behind the open fire and sparks rising into the clear, starry sky.

It’s another early start for the long drive to the cattle town of Croydon, Normanton and the fishing hub of Karumba, some 823km from Cairns, on the edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Fishermen cast for bait here under the watchful eyes of kites and pelicans, while dinghies return to the boat ramp with barramundi. The setting sun is our cue to head to the Sunset Tavern at Karumba Point, which quickly fills with patrons for the golden sunset over the estuary. We finish off with a bucket of delicious Gulf prawns.

The next day we stop in at the historic Normanton Railway Station for a rocking ride on the 82-year-old RM60 petrol-engine railmotor before the return trip to Cairns.

Take me there

Herberton Historical Village: 6 Broadway St, opens in new window

Undara Experience: Undara Volcanic National Park, 1800 990 opens in new window

Cobbold Gorge Tours: Robin Hood Station, +61 07 4062 opens in new window

Ash’s Holiday Units: 21 Palmer St, Karumba, opens in new window

The Gem Den: Garland St, Mt Surprise, opens in new window

TerrEstrial: Low St, Georgetown, +61 07 4062 opens in new window

For Savannah Way maps go to Drive North Queensland opens in new window