Spencer Gulf, SA to Gulf of Carpentaria, Qld

Our group of six vehicles left Port Augusta on a brisk winter’s morning.  The plan was to travel from Spencer Gulf across Australia to Normanton and Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria.  Our hope was to use back roads and tracks and avoid the bitumen as much as possible.  The first step was to get a bottle of Spencer Gulf water and carry it with us to pour into the Gulf of Carpentaria at the end of our journey.


Collecting Spencer Gulf water

We set off north on a gravel road that follows the now disused railway from Leigh Creek to Port Augusta.  The road was in good condition and we enjoyed views of the Flinders Ranges as well as sightings of kangaroos, emus and numerous birds and various wildflowers.  There were interesting ruins at Warrakimbo Woolshed.  We continued to follow the railway until we came to a gate with a sign which assured us there was “No Entry” by order of ….  Whose order it was we don’t know because that part of the sign was blank.  We duly turned around and headed back to another road which took us across country to the bitumen north of Hawker.  We followed this until we turned onto the Brachina Gorge Geological Trail.  We stopped at the lookout for some great views of the Flinders then drove on past some ancient fossils to our camp site at Trezona.  It was a very cool evening and we huddled around a reluctant fire before heading for bed early.


Flinders Ranges from Brachina Lookout

Next morning everything was coated with ice (-3oC) and our fingers froze was we packed up.  We were soon on the road headed for Blinman and then Parachilna.  Back on the black-top we were off to for Copley a famous quandong pie.  We drove past the now closed Leigh Creek coal mine and visited the nearby ochre pits before arriving at our next camp spot at the abandoned township of Farina now being gradually restored.  The bakery was operational so we enjoyed some fresh baked goodies.  The following day we drove to Marree where we enjoyed visiting the Tom Kruse museum and taking a quick look at the town before fuelling up and heading for the Birdsville Track.  We drove up the track to see the date farm ruins near Lake Harry, which was dry, before arriving at our next camp at Clayton station.  We enjoyed relaxing in the spa and walking through the wetlands before a good chat around the campfire.

Ochre Cliffs near Lyndhurst

We set off next morning for Mungerannie.   About fifty kilometres up the track Paul went to take a photo and couldn’t find his camera.  Last time it was seen was back by the spa at Clayton so two vehicles returned to search for it while the rest moved on and had morning tea in the dry bed of the Cooper Creek.  The camera seekers returned having found the camera.  After a stop at Mulka store ruins we arrived at Mungerannie in time for lunch and to set up camp.  Our favourite camp spot on the beach had been washed away by a flood earlier in the year but it was still pleasant camping near the wetlands.  Next day we were on our way to Birdsville.  We stopped at Mirramitta Bore where very hot water flows into a channel to cool off so the cattle can drink it.  We paused at the Warburton Crossing and Birdsville Inside Track turnoffs but both tracks were closed due to flooding.  We enjoyed lunch between two sand-ridges which were bright with many wildflowers.  After pausing at the SA/Queensland border then arrived at Birdsville mid-afternoon to set up camp for four nights.

Around the campfire at Clayton camp

 We travelled out to Big Red the next morning and all enjoyed driving up to the top without difficulty.  We then headed west for a taste of what the Simpson has to offer.  We were amazed at all the wildflowers blooming and as the track wound on we were tempted to go further but eventually we returned to tackle Big Red from the more challenging  western side.  

The Simpson Desert Blooms

Only Graham made it up most difficult track, the rest of us making do with a more moderate track.  On the way back to Birdsville we spotted an eagle’s nest and it was occupied – by a pair of corellas.  The following day we had a look at places of interest around Birdsville.  We attempted Pelican Point but were turned back by water over the road.  Similarly the causeway on the Diamantina was closed and the river was rushing over what is usually a dry crossing.  A visit to the Burke & Wills blaze tree and to the Birdsville racecourse topped off the day before we returned to town and lunch at the bakery.

Up Big Red

On Wednesday we had a free day so everyone did their own thing.  Some visited the museum and others found plenty of interesting things to photograph.  We met at the Birdsville Hotel for dinner but this was interrupted by a static display of three hot air balloons down by the river at the campground.


Hot Air Balloons at Birdsville

We had hoped to visit Diamantina National Park after Birdsville but were told it was closed, though it might open soon.  We decided to drive as far as Bedourie and hoped the park would be open by the time we got there.  Our fall back plan was to drive on to Boulia via some interesting back roads.  We headed of up the Eyre Development Road.  After checking out the Carcory ruins we stopped at Cuttaburra Crossing bird hide where we saw plenty of birdlife.  We hoped to get a glimpse of Lake Machattie, the breeding ground for hundreds of pelicans in flood seasons, but after travelling some distance without sighting the lake we headed on to Bedourie.

At Bedourie we were disappointed to discover that the Diamantina National Park was still closed, as were all the back roads we had hoped to travel.  This was due to flooding from a lot of rain that had fallen further east.  We didn’t actually encounter any rain, apart from an overnight shower at Birdsville, but Winton, one of the places we had hoped to visit was cut off by flooding.  We continued on towards Boulia and were surprised to find the Vaughan Johnston Lookout on our left as we drove.  It was only opened recently and gives great 360o views over the channel country.  We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and found ourselves in the big burgh of Boulia.  The next day was a free day.  Some visited the Stonehouse Museum, and/or the Min Min Encounter.  There was a Christmas in July celebration happening at the Golf Club that night so we all went along for a nice meal and an opportunity to chat with some of the locals.


The Channel Country from Vaughan Johnston Lookout

From Boulia we decided to visit a dot on the map named Duchess.  We didn’t quite know what to expect but it proved to be an interesting drive.   The road climbed up into the Selwyn Range, which is part of a watershed.  Rivers flowing south head to Lake Eyre, whilst rivers flowing north head to the Gulf of Carpentaria.  As we drove we were confronted by the large white mound which our maps informed us was Phosphate Hill.  We drove up to it and around.  It is apparently made of residue from a phosphate mining process.  When we arrived at Duchess we more than doubled the population, which consisted of Bill and Rhoda, the publicans, a kiwi cook and a French backpacker.  We camped on the roadside and “enjoyed” the passing trains, most carrying sulphuric acid from the mine but one a passenger train travelling from Mt Isa to Townsville.


Duchess Hotel

We made it to Cloncurry by lunch time the next day.  There were such exciting things as supermarkets, as well as some scenic spots to visit.  We were based around the camp kitchen and were able to sit in comfort that evening for a good chat around the tables.  Then it was on to Julia Creek, where we saw a Fat-tailed Dunnart on display as well as a series of short documentaries on various aspects of the area.  There had been a lot of rain the previous week – the caravan park was still quite squelchy – so we wondered how we would go when we headed north on the theoretically gravel Taldora Station road.  It turned out to be mostly bitumen.  We had permission to camp at Martin’s Waterhole where the Saxby Round Up is held each year.   What a great camping spot it turned out to be.  There was heaps of birdlife – pelicans, kites, darters, egrets, brolgas, jabirus (both adult and juvenile), herons, kingfishers and a resident sea eagle.  Around camp we were visited by busy apostle birds as well.  That evening we had our final bush camp fire for the trip and Tineke celebrated by making a giant scone in her camp oven – it went down well with jam and cream.


Martin's Waterhole

Next morning we set off for Normanton along some minor tracks past cattle stations with occasional glimpses of waterways.  There were plenty of gates to be opened and closed keeping both the leader and tail end Charlie busy.  We arrived at the main highway some 25 kilometres east of Normanton and headed in to set up camp at the caravan park.  Next morning we set off for Karumba.  There was a minor panic when we couldn’t locate the bottle of Spencer Gulf water, but it was found so we were all able to have a turn at pouring some of the water into the mouth of the Norman River at the Gulf of Carpentaria.  After a look around Karumba, and some yummy fish and chips, everyone made their own way back to Normanton.

Adding Spencer Gulf water to the Gulf of Carpenteria 

We were in luck.  We wanted to take a ride on the Gulflander train and it just so happened that the day we wanted to travel was the day they did their Billy Tea and Damper run so we had the best of both worlds.  Queensland Rail did a great job with an interesting commentary on the train trip and a delicious morning tea.  That evening we dined at the Purple Pub.  Next morning we set out for Burke & Wills Camp 119, their most northerly camp.  After straining our eyes to see if we could find the blazes they had made on the trees we enjoyed morning tea then farewelled Mark and Felicity who were heading off for Melbourne.  After checking out the fast flowing Little Bynoe River we drove back to Normanton.  That evening at Happy Hour the trip was official declared over and the next morning everyone set off for their next destination after a very interesting and enjoyable trip.


Trip members

Colin & Heather (Leaders)

Wayne & Ruthi

Paul & Tineke

Danny & Fay

Mark & Felicity