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TRAVEL

Posted On 03 May 2024
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This entry is part 6 of 30 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#29

SAVANNAH WAY THE OUTBACK ACROSS THE TOP WORDS/PHOTOS THE BEAR

Broome is a place of many memories, and indeed it is still making memories today – and even destroying them if you drink enough of the beer. The local brewery, Matso’s, makes a mango beer that goes down really easily… But whether it’s the drinking or the pearling, the camel rides along the beach or the staircase to the moon across the tidal flats, the place has a lot to offer for travelling motorcyclists. It is also the western end of one of Australia’s most interesting and possibly globally unique “roads” – the Savannah Way.

Incorporating parts of the (occasionally theoretical) around Australia Highway 1, the Way runs right across the top of the continent from Cairns to Broome (or vice versa).

It is probably the only “Highway 1” anywhere in the world that’s closed for a significant part of the year (during the Wet) and that requires substantial preparation at any time. That makes it all the more interesting, of course.

I have to admit that I’ve only ridden sections of the Savannah Way, a bit over half all up, not the entire continental crossing. But as you know, ignorance has never stopped me from writing about anything…

WHAT IS IT?

Well, it’s a road of course, but it’s put together from several existing routes, and there are some alternatives as well. Our friends at Hema Maps have identified several of these, and the first thing you would want to do if you were considering riding it would be to buy one of their maps, Cairns to Broome on the Savannah Way. Everyone agrees that it runs from Cairns to Broome (or the other way) and if you follow the most commonly accepted route it is some 3700km long. In a way it’s our Route 66, I guess, stretching from one end of the continent to the other, and it’s only about 160km shorter.

Although I would not want to ride it on a cruiser… not with those dirt/gravel sections.

The road is marked, but I wouldn’t rely on finding Highway 1 signs. Follow Hema’s advice and take good maps. But let’s take a quick “dry run” along the Savannah Way, starting in Broome. I’ve included a couple of alternative routes, but not all. This story got long enough!

What a croc!

Posted warnings about salties, estuarine or so-called salt water crocodiles, are a constant sight in the north of Australia. In fact, between 1971 and 2013 there were 99 attacks on humans by salties, of which 27 per cent were fatal. That’s some 2.3 attacks a year, and 0.6 fatal ones. In comparison, in 2014 there were 11 shark attacks, of which 2 were fatal – more than three times as many as croc attacks, and between 5 and 10 people die each year in Australia from lightning strikes.

So is the universal signposting about the danger of crocodiles justified when only just over half a person a year is killed by them (a gruesome image, admittedly)? Well, yes. There are two things to remember about a crocodile attack: it’s one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable, and it is avoidable.

The thought of one of these antediluvian monsters exploding from the water in front of you with its staggering rows of teeth glinting on their way to your body brings shudders to me even here in my air conditioned office. Uh, maybe the thermostat is set too low… no, it’s fear.

Any stretch of water, salt or fresh, in Northern Australia may be home to salties, so get some advice from locals before you swim in it or even walk close to it. There is lots of other good advice available; make sure you check it out.

And I understand that the population of estuarine crocodiles is growing… as is the number of sharks… you’re better off riding a bike than swimming!

BROOME TO KUNUNURRA

Decisions, decisions, right from the start. Will you take the Savannah Way proper or the Gibb River Road to Kununurra? If it’s the Wet, or if you’re on a road bike, forget the Gibb River Road; if the skies are blue and you have knobbies on your rims, by all means consider it. But do some detailed research before making a final decision!

Broome has a Visitor Centre staffed by really helpful people – 1800 883 777 – and otherwise has everything you’re likely to need, including free (if slow) wi-fi at Macca’s. Fill up at the big Roebuck Plains Roadhouse on the left as you leave town, near the Warlu Way road junction with the Great Northern Highway. The next fuel is actually not far – about 145km at Willare Bridge Roadhouse.

The road is in good condition and the last time I rode it – a couple of years ago – traffic was not heavy. Keep an eye out for the Grey Nomads in their camper vans or caravans; on the one hand they can be deceptively slow, on the other they sometimes take corners a bit wide!

Some 400km will take you from Broome to Fitzroy Crossing, where the Fitzroy River Lodge – 08 9191 5355 – just east of the bridge, offers caravan parking which can also double as camping and affordable, clean dongas on a little artificial hill (it does flood here) and a pleasant bar in which to eat and spend the evening. I stayed in one of the dongas because it was pelting down with rain in typical tropical style. Fill up before you cross the river.

You now have 289km to go to Halls Creek – Visitor Centre 09 9168 6262. The place long had a poor reputation, but seems to have picked up a lot recently – to the point where I felt very comfortable in the tree-lined main street and would have stayed if it hadn’t been for my schedule. I had had a chat with the manager of Halls Creek’s IGA store and he had done a good sales job on his little town. This is another opportunity to fill up. Wolfe Creek Crater is nearby, and is well worth the detour.

As you continue, keep an eye out on the right-hand side and you’ll see the turnoff for Purnululu National Park, or the Bungle Bungles. The park – 1800 682 213 – is open between April and November, but you’d better be pretty comfortable in bulldust and gravelly creek crossings to get to the ranges.

When it says closed, it means closed.

The Bungle Bungle Caravan Park is right at the turnoff, and it’s about 50km to get to the ranger station. The next fuel stop is Warmun, or Turkey Creek as it’s probably better known. Being on Aboriginal land there is no full-strength beer available, but you’ll have no trouble getting fuel at the Roadhouse – 08 9168 7882.

Another 75km up the road is Doon Doon Roadhouse – 08 9167 8009 – which also offers fuel but no longer has provision for accommodation, even camping. With its big glass windows it reminded me of Edward Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks, which is about as weird as it gets…

The next opportunity, if you prefer to stay in a town or an organised campground rather than camping out, comes 92km away at Kununurra – Visitor Centre 08 9168 1177. Wild camping out in the bush, by the way,can be quite a communal affair up along here and in much of the rest of northern Australia. The reason is the flocks of Grey Nomads who tend to cluster together around a water source or some other touch of civilisation, and stay overnight. There’s no reason not to camp near them – they tend to be friendly and interested in bikes, and they’re quiet – they go to bed early…

The Gibb River Road joins the Savannah Way 46km short of Kununurra, after linking up with the road to Wyndham.

Better safe than sooorry… Hema Maps has a checklist to help you stay safe in the Outback. Here it is:

• Carry suffi cient drinking water – about six to eight litres per day per adult in very hot weather. Have spare water and food in case of emergencies.

• Avoid travelling at night because of wildlife.

• Slow down when you see stock on the road.

• Understand the distances you’ll have to travel in relation to time and fuel.

• Consider where assistance is available.

• Always follow your map.

• Carry spare vehicle parts and extra engine fl uids.

• Check weather and road conditions.

• Advise someone of your itinerary.

• Unless it is on a public roadway, permission must be obtained from stations to travel through their property.

• Do not travel on ‘closed’ roads.

Broome was once a pearling town, and some of the boats remain.

KUNUNURRA TO KATHERINE

Apart from being the Savannah Way, this is the Victoria Highway, and it’s one of those roads that get wildly contrasting wraps from people. Is it one of the most boring roads in the entire continent, or is it the perfect opportunity to observe the subtle changes in landscape that make Australia so fascinating? I’m going to leave this one with you, but while I understand the former I would choose the latter. After all, Australia is a big place – if change came too frequently you’d just end up confused… or something like that…

At any rate, there is fuel at Ngulwirriwirri, 36km east of Kununurra, and then you have a choice: continue along the main road or take the turnoff to Lake Argyle Resort, about 36km to the south-west. Apart from the Durack family homestead, this offers boat trips on the lake and downstream on the river. You can ride across the top of the dam and picnic below, and stay either in chalet-style accommodation or in the campground.

The latter is very pleasant indeed, and has a good cover of grass.

Fuel is outrageously expensive, a fact acknowledged by the people who run the store. They suggest that you only buy the amount you actually need, and fill up somewhere where the cost of bringing the fuel in is not as great as theirs. Fair enough.

The ride up to the resort reminded me, for some reason, of riding down to Wilsons Promontory. No, I don’t know why unless it was the abundance of animals. It’s a terrific road, too.

Two hundred and twenty-seven kilometres from Kununurra is Timber Creek, your next fuel stop. I was initially confused by the signs prohibiting “humbugging”; it’s an olf English term, but I couldn’t see the harm in it. It turns out that “humbug in Aboriginal English means to pester with inane or repetitive requests,” according to Wikipedia. Aha. As Eccles used to say, you learn something every day. The Timber Creek café looks quite pleasant, and I guess you won’t be humbugged while you’re sitting there with your coffee. I certainly wasn’t.

Just over 90km takes you to one of my favourite places along the Victoria Highway, and indeed the Savannah Way. There isn’t much at the Victoria River Roadhouse – 08 8975 0744 – a more or less typical roadhouse with fuel pumps in front and some dongas and a fairly bare campground, but somehow I like it. You can sit at the front window and watch… well, not very much, really…

Before you get there, though, you pass the fi rst optional section the Savannah Way. On your right, 28km out of Timber Creek, is the turnoff for the Buchanan Highway. This road is gravel and cuts across the base of the triangle formed by the Victoria and Stuart highways, to Daly Waters. The pub at Daly Waters – 08 8975 9927 – provides “a real Outback experience” and offers all kinds of accommodation. If you can tear yourself loose, it’s 242km to the only fuel stop, Top Springs, and then another 182km to the Stuart Highway (and a further 36km to Daly Waters).

This is unknown territory for me – I have been to Top Springs, but not along this road.

But back to the main route. Another 196km from Victoria River takes you to Katherine, which is the centre of modern civilisation up here. In the main street it even has a Coffee Club with (wait for it) air conditioning.

Who’s a woose? The Visitor Centre can be reached on 1800 653 142.

Nearby Nitmiluk National Park has 13 beautiful gorges where you can take a watery break – swimming or canoeing. Katherine is also a good place to familiarise yourself with Aboriginal culture, art and so on.

Outback dirt roads are often in good condition.

Surface tension

Up to date information about road conditions is critical. Here are the numbers to call for details: Queensland road conditions from the Royal Auto Club are available 24 hours a day on 1300 130 595 or at www.racq.com.au; government information is on 13 19 40 or at www.131940.qld.gov.au. Northern Territory road conditions are on 1800 246 199 or at www.roadreport.nt.gov.au, and Western Australian conditions are on 1800 013 314 or at www.mainroads.wa.gov.au . More local information is at the Burke Shire Road Report, www.burke.qld.gov.au; Carpentaria Shire Road Report, www.carpentaria.qld.gov.au; Etheridge Shire Road Report,www.etheridge.qld.gov.au. Roadside Assistance for Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia is on 13 11 11. For other information phone local Police, Council Offices or a tourism operator where you’re going.

Fortunately Broome is always ready for rain.

KATHERINE TO CAIRNS

From Katherine, turn south along the Stuart Highway and follow this main road to Mataranka – Cabins & Camping 08 8975 4838. Don’t miss the Mataranka or Bitter Springs thermal pools with their hot water bores where you can relax and let the weariness of the road drain away in the warm pool. You turn left here into the Roper Highway which is sealed for a bit over 200km before going to reasonably good dirt. The first fuel stop is Roper Bar, about 360km away,and you turn right another 31km further on at Ngukurr, Roper River.

There is a store – 08 8975 4636 – and a campground here. The road deteriorates somewhat, and the next fuel is 353km away at Cape Crawford – unless you take the 25km detour to Limmen River Fishing Camp or the 32km detour to Lorella Springs – 08 8975 9917 – both of which have fuel.

Cape Crawford is where you will be reunited with any of your mates who took the Buchanan Highway and then continued along the tar of the Carpentaria Highway for 272km from Daly Waters to get to this meeting point. The Heartbreak Hotel – 08 8975 9928 – is a bit of an oasis and offers food, fuel, accommodation, helicopter flights over the (or really ‘a’ – there are several) Lost City of rock formations.

Cape Crawford Tourism is on 0400 156 685. The Carpentaria Highway is your way onwards now, tarred for the 110km to Borroloola where there’s 24 hour fuel and the Savannah Way Motel – 08 8975 8883. From here on, things get iffy. The road, also known as the Wollogarang Road, is dirt and there is no fuel for 317km to Hells Gate Roadhouse – 07 4745 8258 – where fuel may or may not be available. The tar starts again some 75km further on, just before Domadgee – roadhouse 07 4745 8298 – which also offers fuel, and you’re on good surface for another 90km or so to Burketown – visitor information 07 4745 5111. Okay, take a break!

Atherton Tableland roads are exceptionally good.

It’s time to turn south now, on the Nardoo Burketown Road. Another 75km of sealed surface takes you to the turnoff onto the Burketown Normanton Road, and from there another 150km of dirt finds you in Normanton. The town has three pubs and a giant replica crocodile – visitor information 07 4745 1065, and it’s a lot of fun.

Deep breath, now – that’s the end of the dirt unless you choose to take the northern loop and tackle some more. If you do, and continue by way of Dunbar and Chillagoe, you had better have a big tank – you’ll need a range of nearly 700km. Not impossible, of course, but requires some planning.

Exotic rock formations are everywhere along this road.

The smoother way is south again some seven kilometres from Normanton and then left onto the Gulf Developmental Road, which is tarred and which takes you east via Croydon – visitor information 07 4748 7152 – and Georgetown – “Terrestrial” information centre 07 4062 1485 (fuel is available at both) and eventually joins the Kennedy Highway after about 200km. You’re pretty much back in civilisation now and only Mount Garnet, Ravenshoe, Atherton and Mareeba (where our dirt-riding friends from the northern loop re-join us) before dropping down over the coastal range through Kuranda to Smithfield and Cairns – Gateway Discovery Information Centre 07 4051 3588.

It’s not just the animals that are out to get you.

“I think I’ll just have a bit of a lie-down here…”

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