The Savannah Way: Part 1

By: Chris Whitelaw, Photography by: Chris Whitelaw

The Savannah Way01 The fascinating landscape of Keep River NPl
The Savannah Way02 Our site at picturesque Jarnum campground
The Savannah Way09 The Victoria Hwy is one of the Territory s most scenic drives
The Savannah Way15 The old and new bridges at Victoria River Crossing
The Savannah Way16 A birdseye view of the roadhouse and campground at Victoria River Crossing
The Savannah Way22 Mataranka Cabins Camping was a short walk to thermal pools at Bitter Springs
The Savannah Way25 Drifting in the warm spring fed creek is a beguiling experience
The Savannah Way29 Crossing Roper Bar

West meets east across the Top End while exploring the Savannah Way’s natural wonders.

The Savannah Way stretches 3700km from Broome on Western Australia’s Kimberley coast to Cairns in far north Queensland, following a series of superb national highways and unsealed major roads through the tropical savannah belt of northern Australia.

Linking 15 national parks and five World Heritage areas, it is renowned for its expansive outback scenery and natural wonders, and is justly deserving of its reputation as the ‘ultimate self-drive adventure’. While much of the trip can be done in conventional vehicles with caravans, the Savannah Way provides countless opportunities along its length to divert to some of the Top End’s most beautiful 4WD destinations.

The journey can be done in either direction and can be divided roughly into three sections: the Kimberley from Broome via either the Gibb River Road or the Great Northern Highway to Kununurra; the Northern Territory from Keep River through Katherine and Borroloola to Hell’s Gate; and Queensland’s Gulf Country from Doomadgee through Normanton to Cairns.

Each section is a complete adventure in its own right and combined they make one of Australia’s iconic and most memorable treks. This two-part series focuses on the middle leg – from west to east across the Territory, spanning more than 1500km in three weeks during the heart of a long, hot dry season.

Victoria Highway – Keep River to Katherine

As Northern Territory parks go, Keep River National Park (NP) is tiny – less than three per cent of the size of Kakadu – but it stands tall among the best in the Top End for striking landscape, Aboriginal rock art and opportunities for walking adventures. The park takes its name from the Keep River, which runs roughly parallel with the WA/NT border for about 100km to the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf.

Based at the peaceful bushland retreat of Jarnum camping area, we spent three days under a tropical sun walking through an ancient landscape of layered sandstone ‘beehive’ formations, savannah woodlands of spinifex, woollybutts and ghost gums, and secluded ravines embracing waterholes edged with Livistona palms.

From Keep River, we began our eastward journey along the Victoria Highway, through grassy plains dotted with boab trees and towering red sandstone escarpments. On a stretch of beautiful blacktop, we quickly covered the 185km to the small township of Timber Creek on the banks of the Victoria River.

About 10km east of Timber Creek, the Bullita Access Road enters the western section of the 13,000sq km Judbarra/Gregory NP, with its spectacular Newcastle and Stokes Ranges, tropical woodlands and pristine river systems. Fishing and 4WDing are the most popular activities here, and several walks explore the magnificent landscape, significant Aboriginal sites and remnants of early European pastoral history.

Beyond the national park, the Victoria Highway continues through a landscape that qualifies it as one of the most beautiful and dramatic drives in the Territory, with the brick-red escarpment of the Stokes Range shadowing the road in a series of amphitheatres and soaring cliffs above scree slopes littered with gigantic boulders.

By late afternoon, we reached Victoria River Crossing, still 194km short of Katherine. This tiny settlement beside the Victoria River is little more than a roadhouse that includes a shop, a bar and a bistro (that turns out a fair-sized Territory steak to accompany the red wine) and a grassy, open-plan campground with good facilities. It’s a truly picturesque location, nestled in the Red Valley Gorge, and makes an excellent overnighter along the Victoria Highway.

The Buntine Highway joins the Victoria Highway 70km east of the roadhouse and offers an alternate route into Western Australia. The single lane, 570km Buntine winds its way south and west past cattle stations and Indigenous communities via Top Springs and Kalkarindji (Wave Hill) to Halls Creek in the East Kimberley. Although it can be a relatively easy drive in favourable conditions, it has the potential to be a very difficult track and, at times, impassable after wet weather. 

About 195km east of Victoria River and 320km south of Darwin, Katherine lies on the banks of the Katherine River. Often referred to as the ‘Crossroads of the Outback’, Katherine is the central hub of the Savannah Way and provides easy access to other adventures in the Northern Territory’s Top End.

To the south, the Explorer’s Way (aka Stuart Highway) leads to central Australia and the iconic attractions of the MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and Uluru, following the route of John McDouall Stuart when he crossed the continent in 1862. Travellers can divert from this route along the Overlanders Way and cross the Barkly Tablelands into western Queensland.

Stuart Highway to Mataranka

The Stuart Highway departs Katherine in a south-easterly direction and just 30km down the road travellers encounter the natural wonders of Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park. Limestone cave systems are not common in tropical Australia and this 1500ha reserve is the only one of its kind open to the public in the Top End. Guided tours usher visitors through the spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations of the cave systems, while above ground the 625m Tropical Woodland Walk provides a close up experience of the savannah woodland and rainforest thickets that are home to more than 170 species of birds.

Another 75km further south is Mataranka, the Northern Territory’s ‘Tidiest Town of the Year’ in 1991. Also known as the ‘Capital of the Never Never’, Mataranka boasts a population of about 400, a roadhouse and servo, a pub, a supermarket and a cafe. And it doesn’t lack for cultural attractions, with an art gallery, a museum and the world’s largest man-made model of a termite mound.

When the Overland Telegraph Line arrived in 1872, ‘Bitter Springs’, as the town was then known, became a key point in communications linking the Top End with the south.

A replica of the old Elsey Homestead was built for the film (of the same title as the book) at Mataranka Homestead and is open to the public, along with the property’s many other attractions.

World War II saw over 100 military units based here, including a hospital, an ammunition depot and ordnance workshops, set up in buildings made from paperbark trees.

One soldier who saw the region’s potential was Herbert Smith and, in 1946, he established a small resort at a thermal spring, which was the start of a tourist industry that has put Mataranka on the map.

As it happens, the town sits at the doorstep of what is now Elsey NP, 138sq km of lush monsoon forest with  paperbarks, pandanus and Livistona palms embracing the headwaters of the Roper River. This little gem of a park is renowned for its sparkling creeks and small gushing waterfalls, all fed by springs from an underground aquifer with a temperature of around 34ºC at a staggering rate of 30.5 million litres a day.

Roper Highway to Roper Bar

From Mataranka, travellers can continue their eastbound trek by several routes. Those in 2WD vehicles or towing caravans can stay on the bitumen to Daly Waters (and the oldest licensed pub in Australia) and branch off along the Carpentaria Highway via Cape Crawford as far as Borroloola. To continue on blacktop from there requires a backtrack down the Tablelands Highway to Barkly Homestead, east again on the Barkly Highway to Camooweal, Mt Isa and Cloncurry then up the Burke Developmental Road to Normanton, rejoining the Savannah Way to Cairns. For 4WDers, the route to Borroloola is more direct and, dare I say, more adventurous – simply join the Roper Highway, 7km south of Mataranka, and head for Roper Bar.

The Roper is sealed for about the first 150km before the gravel kicks in. Roper Bar is a natural rocky ledge where Leichhardt’s expedition (and countless generations of Aboriginals before it) crossed the Roper River in 1845 into Arnhem Land. A concrete causeway, built over the crossing in the early 1900s, forms the tidal limit of the Roper River and, except under severe flood conditions, is the navigable limit of the river for trailer boats launched downstream. The river below the bar is reputedly full of barramundi and saratoga, as evidenced by the many fishing camps we saw dotted along its banks.

Fast facts

The Savannah Way covers almost 1500km across the NT, more than 600km of which is on rough, unsealed roads suitable only for 4WDs and offroad-capable trailers.  

Fuel and supplies can be found at Timber Creek, Victoria River, Katherine, Mataranka, Roper Town, Cape Crawford and Borroloola. These centres also provide facilities for camping. Bush camping is available within national parks and on private stations.

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