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Leaving Mt Isa
Leaving Mt Isa
Gregory Downs
Fishing at Burketown
Katherine Gorge

Mt Isa to Darwin drive

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Ben is on the road again, this time heading from Mount Isa in Queensland to his favourite Australian city, Darwin in the Northern Territory. Ben's mate Brad went along for the ride. He introduced Ben to his passion for fishing and you could say they are now both hooked!

The Queensland section of the drive, from Cairns to the Northern Territory border, is rich with natural wonders. Explore just a section or the entire route. You'll pass through an amazingly diverse and spectacular landscape of wide horizons, ancient gorges, rockpools and hot springs, with abundant wildlife. From Cairns and the World Heritage-listed reef and rainforest, the Savannah Way winds its way up through the Atherton Tableland before opening out onto the endless horizons of the Gulf Savannah and Northern Territory.

Mount Isa in Kalkadoon country is northwest Queensland's most important industrial, commercial and administrative centre. It sits in the Selwyn Ranges amongst spinifex ridges and the huge waterholes of the Leichhardt River. With boundaries stretching 43,000 square kilometres, locals claim it is the second largest city in the world.

The town owes its presence to large quantities of zinc, silver, lead and copper and to John Miles, who established Mount Isa Mines in 1924. The silver and lead mines are the world's largest. In its early days, The Isa was a shanty town. Tent houses made of hessian, canvas, wood and corrugated iron with a double roof once dotted the town. There is a National Trust tent house where you can revisit the pioneers life.

First stop after Mt Isa was Gregory Downs. The 266,425 hectare property of mainly open black soil plains is a breeding station running 24,000 Brahman cattle. The beautiful spring-fed Gregory River runs the length of the property and the soils grow Flinders and native legumes which the herd thrives on.

Back on the track, the crew drove 121km to Burketown, barramundi capital of Australia. With a population of around 235, the town on the flat plains of the Gulf near the Albert River has a school, pub, a couple of service stations, a council office and three general stores.

The Burketown Caravan Park has self-contained units and standard rooms. The owners can assist with booking fishing trips and scenic tours.

The Gulf Savannah has a wonderful blend of cultures and traditions and wetlands which are breeding grounds of crocodiles, barramundi and prawns and a vast number of bird species. The area has the Morning Glory formations, spectacular propagating rolling clouds, one of the world's most exotic meteorological phenomena. While a fascinating place to visit, the roads aren't great and it is best to avoid the monsoon season, November to April.

Bill Olive is the proprietor of Savannah Guides and has lived in the area for most of his life. He runs professional tours through the fragile Gulf Savannah region in an air-conditioned, 14-seater bus. Local history is deep with evidence of its existence 500 million years ago and Bill knows how to tell a good yarn!

Hell's Gate, at the gateway to the Macassan Coast, has a range of clean and comfortable accommodation and campsites. Rooms are air-conditioned and there is a laundry and shady camp area. Meals and snacks are available.

For 25 years, Hell's Gate Roadhouse has been an oasis for travellers. It has fresh supplies, fuel, repairs, auto-parts and workshop, an all-weather airstrip, freight depot, licensed dining room and is the home of the Savannah Guide Station.

And that was the last stop before crossing the border into the Northern Territory.

It was well over another thousand kilometres on the road before reaching Borroloola, capital of the south-west Gulf of Carpentaria. Gazetted as a town in 1885, it was a lawless outpost where most people carried guns and indulged in smuggling, cattle rustling and grog running. The police station, built out of need in 1886, is now a pioneer museum.

The town can still be a bit unruly at times, but locals are friendly. Fishing and camping is a way of life here. Barramundi fishermen arrive in droves in the dry season.

As in most small towns, the best place to meet people and find out what goes on is the local pub. It was here that Ben met Greg and Diana Quayle, who run a small fishing charter on the McArthur River, out into the Gulf and the magnificent Sir Edward Pellew group of islands. The Quayles can arrange camping on the islands, either in a tent or cabin. The islands are surrounded by a number of reefs and rocky outcrops which attract an amazing range of fish, including barramundi and crabs.

Time to pack up and drive 360km to Lorella Springs Station, 405,000 hectares of virtually untouched, remote and isolated land. There are many countries nowhere as large as Lorella Springs! It has 20 kilometres of ocean frontage, bird-filled lakes, rivers, hills, forests, savannah, chasms, waterfalls, thermal springs and glittering crystalline escarpments. As far as you can see in any direction is Lorella.

A small part of the station runs cattle, harvesting feral cattle from wherever accessible. The general area has mineral riches, including gold and diamonds, giant prehistoric fossils and hundreds, maybe thousands, of bird, animal and plant species.

Next stop was the tiny settlement of Roper Bar on the magnificent, 250km-long Roper River. Ludwig Leichhardt explored the river in 1845 and crossed it at a rocky shelf which lies at the high tide limit. That is known as Roper Bar and is the only settlement on the river.

The river was opened up for cargo in the 1870s, with paddle steamers plying the waters, taking supplies to men working on the overland telegraph. It was a common stopover for drovers and during the 1880s and 1890s gained a reputation as a wild, outback outpost. Today the small settlement has a hotel/motel, store, police station, caravan park and roadhouse facilities and, common to the area, is a destination for excellent barramundi fishing.

Time to head to Katherine, but 100km short of the town the crew had a look at Mataranka, a series of waterholes fed from underground thermal springs among beautiful tropical vegetation. (This was the centre for the classic book We Of The Never Never by Jeannie Gunn. A replica of the homestead used in the film is there to see).

The crew continued on to the big smoke of Katherine, on the junction of the Victoria and Stuart Highways. The territory's third largest town saw the telegraph station established in 1872. The six-room slab and tin building overlooking the Katherine River still stands.

Katherine Gorge in the 200,000 hectare Nitmiluk National Park is a popular tourist attraction, jointly administered by the National Parks & Wildlife Commission and the original owners, the Jawoyn. There are good examples of their rock paintings in the area. There are 13 gorges, separated by rocks and boulders, which have been eroded through the surrounding red limestone cliffs over thousands of millions of years. There are boat tours in the area, but the best way to see it is from the air.

Skysafari offers flights over the area ranging from 10 to 25 minutes, depending on how many gorges you wish to take in. You will see wild buffalo and crocodiles and some of the most wonderful country in the world. They also offer tours which give swimming time in Nitmiluk National Park, a very special experience.

The last leg was the 316km drive to Darwin, Australia's most remote city. Darwin is growing rapidly and attracting more and more tourists. Its beautiful harbour is a playground for dolphins, sea snakes and turtles. The city offers a relaxed lifestyle, with beautiful sunsets, palm, bamboo, mango trees and masses of flowering tropical shrubs.

Our crew followed the Savannah Way, Australia's new self-drive roadway spanning Cairns in Queensland through the Northern Territory to Broome in Western Australia. Some of it is suitable for 4WD only, but large parts can be driven in the family car. The easy-to-follow route has clear signage, interpretative displays, maps and brochures as well as comprehensive visitor information centres.

The Savannah Guides is a network of professional tour guides with deep knowledge of the natural and cultural assets of the tropical savannahs that stretch across northern Australia. Since 1988 they have been providing a range of tours and have access to private, leased and public property.

For our other great Aussie drives:

  • Melbourne to Sydney
  • Sydney to Brisbane
  • Rockhampton to Cairns.
  • Adelaide to Alice.
  • Perth to Monkey Mia.

    For other great drives, visit

  • Location

    Queensland and Northern Territory.


    Burketown Caravan Park unpowered sites are $8 a night, powered sites are $18-22 a night, room-only is $55 a night and room with refrigerator, television, toaster, kettle and microwave is $66 a night. Fully self-contained units are $98 a night.

    Hell's Gate motel accommodation is $88 a double, safari tents are $77 a double, donga cabins are $30 and camp sites are $6 for each adult. Bookings are essential.

    Savannah Guides cost $30 for two hours, $50 for four hours and $100 for a full day (including lunch) per person.

    McArthur Fishing Charters cost $160 a day, plus fuel. Lunch and fishing tackle are supplied. Half-day trips are available. Camping on Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands starts at $200 a person a day. They will liaise with you about food and drink requirements, which are an extra cost.

    Skysafari 10 minutes are $60 for two people, 15 minutes is $90 for two and 25 minutes is $145 for two.

    Please note that the prices listed are valid at the time of filming.

    More information

    Savannah Way

    Burketown Caravan Park
    Sloman Street
    Burketown 4830
    Ph: (07) 4745 5228
    Fax: (07) 4745 5126

    Hell's Gate Roadhouse
    PMB 45
    Mount Isa 4825
    Ph: (07) 4745 8258
    Fax: (07) 4745 8225

    Borroloola Hotel
    Robinson Road
    Borroloola (08)54
    Ph: (08) 8975 8766

    McArthur Fishing Charters
    Black Rock Landing
    Via Borroloola (08)54
    Ph: (08) 8975 95(07)
    Fax: (08) 8975 8643

    Lorella Springs Station
    PO Box 356
    Palmerston (08)31
    Ph: (08) 8983 3728 (08) 8932 4943

    PO Box 437
    Port Douglas4871
    Ph: (07) 4099 4915

    Savannah Guides

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