This cross-continental adventure begins in Tropical North Queensland, weaves through the Northern Territory's breathtaking interior and finally reaches Western Australia's striking coastline.
By Alissa Jenkins
Buckle up for this ultimate driving adventure along the Savannah Way, linking two states, one territory, 15 national parks and five World Heritage sites. Starting in Cairns, the route weaves through Queensland's tropical tablelands and historic goldfields, before venturing across the Northern Territory border. From there the journey continues through the Top End, around Outback gorges, mind-boggling rock formations and unspoilt national parks, past hidden swimming holes and ancient rock art, before traversing Western Australia to the capital of beaches, boab trees and pearling, Broome.
From Tropical North Queensland's unofficial capital, Cairns, sandwiched between the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, drive an hour west along the Captain Cook Highway to the orchards, cane fields and coffee plantations of Mareeba. Make your first stop the Skybury Café for lunch at Australia’s oldest coffee plantation. Continue 40 minutes south through the Atherton Tablelands to Hallorans Hills Conservation Park. Spend the afternoon following the three kilometre (two mile) return hike to the top of extinct volcano Hallorans Hill, and take in the tablelands' unique mosaic landscape. Finish the day further south in Ravenshoe, Queensland’s highest town, and camp at Tall Timber Motel and Caravan Park.
Rested and refuelled, visit Australia's widest waterfall, Millstream Falls, on the outskirts of town, before continuing along the Kennedy Highway. Detour 10 minutes off the highway to Innot Hot Springs and spend the morning relaxing in the therapeutic mineral waters. Back on the highway, drive 140 kilometres (87 miles) through wooded savanna grasslands to Undara Volcanic National Park, home to remnants of the world's longest lava flow from a single volcano. Allow 1 1/2 hours for the Kalkani Crater Rim Walk, which takes you up the side of a volcano, offering incredible views over the lava plains and pockets of rainforest. It's a further two hour drive to the centre of the Etheridge goldfield, Georgetown, where you can stay in cabins or campsites at Goldfields Caravan Park (call ahead to book).
While Georgetown's fossicking glory days may be over, you can still see the world's largest mineral collection at TerrEstrial – the Ted Elliott Mineral Collection, which has more than 4500 specimens on display. Head back on the Savannah Way and drive two hours west to the Croydon Club Hotel for a classic Aussie pub lunch (think battered fish and chips and steak sandwiches). Visit the nearby heritage-listed Croydon Cemetery, where you can still see the elegant inscriptions carved into Chinese graves, left over from the Gulf Savannah gold rush at the and of the 19th century. Then refresh with an afternoon dip in picturesque Lake Belmore, the largest body of fresh water in the Gulf Savannah, before hitting the road and driving the remaining two hour trip to Normanton Tourist Park, on the edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
No visit to Normanton is complete without a photo with Krys the Savannah King in the town centre. He is an almost nine metre (30 foot) long, life-size replica of the largest crocodile ever captured, found in the nearby Norman River. After selfies, detour 45 minutes north, weaving through wetlands dotted with wading birds, to Karumba for freshly caught seafood at the Sunset Tavern on the beach. Driving back through Normanton, follow the Burketown Normanton Road west, stopping at the signposted Burke and Wills memorial – the most northerly point of the ill-fated explorers' 1861 expedition. Then continue 210 kilometres (130 miles) along dirt road to Burketown, the Gulf's oldest town, on the banks of the Albert River.
Spend the morning casting your line into the nearby Albert River, touted as Australia's barramundi capital. Before you set off, ask locals which fishing spots have been most successful of late (the best spots change often, depending on seasons, tides and weather). Then spend the afternoon back on the Savannah Way, driving 210 slow kilometres (130 miles) west on corrugated road to Hell's Gate Roadhouse in Nicholson, where you can stock up on food and fuel and stay in simple accommodation.
Start early for the drive west along Wollogorang Road: more than 300 kilometres (186 miles) of dirt road and river crossings. Stock up on supplies before leaving, as this is one of the more secluded stretches of the Savannah Way. Travellers in the 1800s feared the area west of Hell's Gate Roadhouse, as no law was enforced after this point. Today, however, it's a scenic Outback route through golden savanna woodlands. It takes you over the border into the Northern Territory, to the friendly fishing village of Borroloola and popular McArthur River Caravan Park.
Half an hour south on the Carpentaria Highway, drive into Caranbirini Conservation Reserve, home to towering sandstone spires (some up to 25 metres, or 82 feet, high) known as the Lost City. Do the two kilometre (1.2 mile) Barrawulla Loop Walk through these dramatic pillars, as well as eucalypt woodland and over the Caranbirini Waterhole. Pack your binoculars and a camera: a zoo's worth of different birds can be seen around the water. Back on the highway, continue 346 kilometres (215 miles) west to the Stuart Highway intersection and spend the night at the Daly Waters Pub. Draped in bras, banknotes and other memorabilia left behind by travellers, this historic pub opened in 1938 to service passengers and crew from the nearby airfield.
Journey two hours north on the Stuart Highway and take Martin Road to the palm-fringed Bitter Springs in Elsey National Park. It's a stunning swimming hole and quieter than nearby Mataranka thermal pool. Back in the car, continue 167 kilometres (104 miles) on the highway through Mataranka and Katherine to Nitmiluk Caravan Park, with an enviable locale right by spectacular Nitmiluk Gorge (also known as Katherine Gorge). Marvel at the gorge's towering walls while the setting sun illuminates different colours in the sandstone on the Nabilil Dreaming Sunset Dinner Cruise down the Katherine River. Along the way you'll learn about the traditional owners of this area, the Jawoyn people, while being treated to a three-course feast of fresh local produce cooked on board. Conveniently, the departure point is right by the caravan park.
The best way to see the Katherine region's rugged landscape, cut by deep gorges, dotted with remote waterfalls and scattered with vast cattle stations, is by air. And the best helicopter experience on which to splurge is the full day Nitmiluk Ultimate Tour. The tour has a maximum of three passengers. The pilot doubles as tour guide, explaining the historical and cultural significance of the landmarks below (some of which are so secluded they don't have official names). You'll visit waterfalls, see rock art and swim in a rock pool that's only helicopter accessible, making it exclusively yours. For a night of luxury, check into Cicada Lodge (neighbouring the caravan park in Nitmiluk National Park). It's an 18-room, five-star oasis, offering high-end facilities and authentic Aboriginal experiences.
Return to the Stuart Highway and back through the township of Katherine before taking the Victoria Highway 2 1/2 hours south to Gregory National Park, the Territory's second largest national park, covering 13,000 square kilometres (5000 square miles). It's thick with boab trees and limestone formations. Give yourself 90 minutes to follow the Nawulbinbin Walk from the Joe Creek picnic area. You'll pass ancient Aboriginal artwork and ascend to the base of an escarpment with breathtaking views over the lush surrounds. Then make use of the facilities at the bottom with a barbecue picnic lunch. Continue another 108 kilometres (67 miles) south to the small roadside town of Timber Creek, where you can rest your head at the grassy Circle F Caravan Park and Motel, after watching nightly turtle and crocodile feedings by the creek.
After a 225 kilometre (140 mile) drive west on the Victoria Highway, cross the border into Western Australia and take a refreshing dip in Lake Argyle, Australia's second largest freshwater man-made reservoir. Follow signs to the boat ramp for the easiest access to the water's edge. Though Lake Argyle is home to freshwater crocodiles, these prehistoric creatures are timid and generally considered harmless to humans. Once you've cooled off, drive back along Lake Argyle Road to the Victoria Highway for the remaining one hour drive to the lively East Kimberley Outback town, Kununurra. Peruse the town's impressive assortment of art galleries, including Artopia and the Artlandish Aboriginal Art Gallery, before picking up a keepsake (or just window shopping) at Kimberley Fine Diamonds. With the Argyle Diamond Mine, the largest diamond producer in the world, less than 200 kilometres (124 miles) south of the city, you'll find an exquisite array of sparkling designs, including many featuring the famous pink diamonds that are only found in this area.
Continue two hours west to one of Western Australia's most famous stations, El Questro Wilderness Park. Encompassing a mammoth one million acres, this working cattle station features dramatic mountains and deep gorges, incredible thermal pools and hiking trails, three resorts including a five-star homestead, and one of the most picturesque camping grounds in the Outback, with architecturally designed amenities. Spend the afternoon doing the half day Emma Gorge Walk and Zebedee Springs tour, involving a moderately difficult hike over rocky terrain to the picture-perfect Emma Gorge, complete with waterfalls and clear swimming water. Then you'll be taken to the thermal Zebedee Springs, surrounded by palms, pandanus and fiery red cliffs.
Drive back towards Kununurra to reach the Great Northern Highway, then follow it 250 kilometres (150 miles) south to World Heritage-listed Purnululu National Park, home of the bizarre Bungle Bungle Range. The Bungle Bungles are a maze of orange and black striped sandstone domes, like giant beehives, and you can walk through this Kimberley icon via the easy Cathedral Gorge Walk. Cathedral Gorge is a like an enormous natural amphitheatre, with the natural rock formation creating fascinating acoustics. Allow two hours to explore this area. Back on the highway, continue another 220 kilometres (137 miles) south to the old gold prospecting town of Halls Creek, where you can spend the night at the Kimberley Hotel, which has a series of comfortable and well appointed rooms.
Still on the Great Northern Highway, continue 525 kilometres (326 miles) west, past Fitzroy Crossing, before detouring 40 minutes north on the Derby Highway to Derby. On the way into town, stop at the Boab Prison Tree – a large hollow boab used in the 1890s as a prisoner lock-up. Then pick up some homemade jerky from Sampey Meats to snack on while you watch King Sound's colossal tides (more than 11 metres, or 36 feet, high) from Derby Wharf, just north of the town centre. Derby has the highest tides in Australia and among the highest in the world. You might even spot crocodiles in the mangroves. Then retire to Derby Lodge for a contemporary, self-contained stay and impressive fare at popular Neaps Bistro.
On the final leg of the Savannah Way, drive south again to rejoin the Great Northern Highway 225 kilometres (140 miles) west to Broome. Before reaching Broome, briefly detour north onto Broome Cape Leveque Road and the Willie Creek Pearl Farm, a local icon. Take the two-hour catamaran eco-cruise to spot local wildlife such as dolphins, dugongs and manta rays, and learn about the local pearling industry. Then follow the highway into Broome in time for a sunset camel ride on famous Cable Beach. It's a fittingly magical end to a bucket list road trip across Australia's north.