If you've got a sense of adventure and a well-prepared rig, these tropical tracks across the top of Australia are not to be missed.
The land north of the Tropic of Capricorn lies in the tropics, where our European notions of summer and winter begin to break down and other seasonal determinants kick in. In the monsoonal belt across the top of the continent – Far North Qld, the Top End (Darwin) and the North-West (the Kimberley) – there are only two seasons: hot and dry from May to October, and hot and wet from December to March, with ‘shoulder’ months in between.
From December to March the monsoonal area is pretty much a no-go zone for travel off the beaten track. Even the major highways can get cut by flooding – sometimes for weeks, though that’s unusual and you’ll see it on national television. Cyclones at this time of the year can also play havoc with travel plans.
Serious rains may hold off till January and/or last well into April, and in any case, many unsealed roads are still impassable in the early dry season (April/May) with saturated blacksoil bogs and fast-flowing, deep river crossings.
The height of the dry season (June-October) is the best time to visit, with lush greenery (at first) and pleasant daytime temperatures. If unsealed roads are on your agenda, however, you may want to wait till later in the Dry to ensure that you won’t get held up too much by bogs or river crossings – though the trade-off may be rougher roads.
Ground clearance is often a limiting factor, so the higher your tow vehicle and van are off the ground, the better. Also pay close attention to tyres (the more plies the better, and avoid wide, low-profile designs), tyre pressures (drop them a bit on rough roads, and slow down), and spares (carry two, if possible).
FAR NORTH QLD AND THE TOP END
FNQ and the Top End in the NT offer dramatic scenery with bird-filled wetlands, ragged escarpments, deep rock pools, tall waterfalls and pristine coastlines where you can indulge in some of the best fishing in the world. The area around Darwin adds Aboriginal culture to the mix, and the Cairns region has magnificent tropical rainforests and the Barrier Reef.
Many people expect Cape York to be a huge rainforest similar to the Daintree/Cape Tribulation region north of Cairns. In fact much of it is dusty savannah country with massive floodplains and rivers that become impassable during the Wet. Only a few isolated pockets contain ‘proper’ rainforest, such as the small Iron Range NP with the Lockhart River Aboriginal community and Portlands Roads holiday settlement – and it’s a beauty! It’s on the east coast about two-thirds of the way up Cape York and requires 4WD, although if it hasn’t rained for a while, high-clearance 2WDs can get through along the main track that begins 36km north of Archer River.
Directly across from Iron Range is the bauxite mining town of Weipa on the west coast, which is quite accessible by 2WDs during the Dry although corrugations along the Peninsula Developmental Road can get pretty bad.
This developmental road – sections of which are gradually being sealed – begins at Lakefield on the Mulligan Highway south-west of Cooktown, from where it’s 49km to the famous Quinkan Aboriginal art galleries at Split Rock near Laura.
From Laura it’s well worth detouring into Lakefield NP, the second-largest national park in Qld, which consists of massive floodplains during the Wet and billabongs and watercourses with good fishing during the Dry. There are no facilities apart from wonderful QPWS camping areas – with countless huge saltwater crocs, so beware.
The developmental road continues past the Hann River and Musgrave roadhouses to Coen, the ‘capital’ of the Cape, where there’s not much to entice you beyond the rowdy pub. The extensive quarantine station north of town only checks vehicles heading south and is closed on weekends.
North of here is the turn-off east to the afore-mentioned Iron Range NP, and not far beyond that, the turn-off west to Weipa. Apart from the brilliant fishing, this bauxite-mining town is worth visiting ‘because you can’. If you continue northwards on the developmental road you’re on the old Telegraph Track which soon deteriorates into a very scenic but heavy-duty 4WD route to the top of Australia.
This 1670km, all-bitumen route up the centre of Qld links the Kidman Way up the centre of NSW with the prawn-fishing capital of Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria. It includes sections of the Mitchell and Landsborough highways and the Burke Developmental Road, and strings together towns that embody the white Australian pioneering spirit (shearing, droving, Flying Doctors, School of the Air, Waltzing Matilda, the Labor Party, Qantas), culminating in the Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach. It traverses vast regions that were immortalised by our greatest bush poets and balladeers.
At the northern end of the highway, the towns of Normanton and Karumba beckon with wetlands and mudflats (Karumba can get cut off from the world for weeks on end during the Wet), and some of the best barramundi fishing in the country. Other attractions at this seemingly end-of-the-earth destination include one-third of all migratory wading birds in Australia, and spectacular sunsets. Also worth checking is the Gulflander Railway, a charming tourist train that runs 155km from Normanton to the former goldfields inland at Croydon.
The remote north of WA includes the rugged Kimberley and Pilbara regions, along with spectacular coastlines of red cliffs and lonely beaches, and vast, wide-open spaces. Towns are few and far between – a sprinkle of mining and pastoral centres in the Pilbara and Kimberley, and a few ports along the coast such as Port Hedland and Karratha/Dampier. And then there’s Broome, once the pearling capital of Australia and now a mining magnet.
GIBB RIVER ROAD
Many seasoned outback travellers consider the Kimberley their all-time favourite. Its deep gorges, massive rivers, stunning waterfalls, billion-year-old geological formations, rich Aboriginal history and unique flora and fauna are special indeed and will keep drawing you back.
The 710km Gibb River Road cuts through the heart of this region, from Kununurra and/or Wyndham in the north-east t Derby and/or Broome in the south-west. The road has been much improved in recent years and many 2WDs make it through, especially if the gardens have just been out. But it can still be a rough run and the number of trailer wrecks by the side of the road gives serious pause for thought – a solid and at least moderately offroad setup is definitely preferable. The Pentecost River crossing near the north-eastern end can be a formidable obstacle early in the Dry – and a potentially exhaust-wrecking one at any time if you lack ground clearance.
The additional 750km round-trip excursion to the Mitchell Plateau and Kalumburu requires a 4WD and offroad van, though in a good year, persistent 2WDs make it through to the Edward River camping area. In any case, many vanners leave their van at Edward River for the final run up to Mitchell Falls because of the countless washaways in the highest-rainfall part of the Kimberley.
The Gibb River and Kalumburu roads are entirely off limits during the Wet. Mechanical services are few and far between, so bring vital spares (drive belts, radiator hoses, fuses, fuel filters) and two spare tyres.
If this level of adventure is not for you, you can always rent a 4WD or go on an organised tour from a major tourist centre such as Broome or Kununurra – or stick to the all-bitumen Great Northern Highway.
GREAT NORTHERN HIGHWAY
This section of Highway 1 skirts the southern edges of the Kimberley between Kununurra and Broome, and continues there along Eighty Mile Beach (or slightly inland thereof) to Port Hedland. After that, it heads inland as Highway 95 to Perth via the Pilbara and Meekatharra.
The 1050km section from Kununurra to Broome still provides a taste of the Kimberley – with lots of grand monotony between the highlights. From Kununurra you could visit Lake Argyle, and fly over the Bungle Bungles (Purnululu) or take a 4WD tour in there (no 2WD access). At Halls Creek, visit Old Halls Creek and China Wall. At Fitzroy Crossing, visit Geikie Gorge on the mighty Fitzroy River. North-west of here, detour along a major gravel road to Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge for two of the Kimberley’s most interesting natural attractions, and continue from there to Derby.
The longest distance without fuel between Kununurra and Broome is 290km between Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing.
Broome is certainly worth a stop-over, but adventurous types may want to hot-foot it up to the Dampier Peninsula to Cape Leveque. Much of that road is now sealed, though the bits that aren’t yet can be corrugated and sandy in places and aren’t a brilliant towing proposition. Consider leaving your van in Broome and booking something up the cape.
South-west of Broome, the highway continues along Eighty Mile Beach towards Port Hedland. You can’t see the beach from the road and must head 10km or so down side tracks to various camping areas, with stunning beach settings and sunsets to die for.
Before reaching Port Hedland (or after restocking there), it’s well worth detouring inland to Marble Bay – reputedly the hottest place in Australia, where wildflowers put on magnificent displays in spring – and taking the gravel road from there to Woodstock, 95km north of Auski Roadhouse on the Great Northern Highway south of Port Hedland. This would have to be one of the most scenic drives in the Pilbara.
The Pilbara region itself, inland from Port Hedland and Karratha, is another wild place like the Kimberley, with billion-year-old geology, 100m-deep gorges and lots of iron ore. Highlights include the ecotourism trails in Millstream-Chichester NP and the Hamersley Range’s mind-blowing gorges in Karijini NP – the meeting of four gorges at Oxers Lookout has to be seen to be believed.
Despite the many tourists who visit the Pilbara and the many miners who work here in towns such as Tom Price, Paraburdoo and Newman (the world’s largest open-cut mine), it’s still very remote and some of the hottest country on earth. Be prepared. The servos are few and far between, and due to the high iron content in the rocks, the often excellent gravel roads have a tendency to shred tyres – an extra spare is a good idea.
NORTH WEST COASTAL HIGHWAY
After the Pilbara you can continue down the Great Northern Highway to Perth, or back-track to Karratha and take Highway 1, here known as the North West Coastal Highway, to Geraldton and eventually Perth. The latter has more to offer in scenery and other attractions, and is well worth the extra distance over the inland route (1770km from Port Hedland to Perth rather than 1650km) – though it’s still a long and often lonely trip.
Highlights include the historic towns of Roebourne, Cossack and Point Samson; the Aboriginal rock-art site at Deep Gorge on the Burrup Peninsula out of Karratha; Cape Range NP and Ningaloo Reef at Exmouth; and further south, the Shark Bay region at Denham and Monkey Mia.