Darwin Via The Dirt (Part 8 The Gulf Track to Burketown)

Monday, Aug 16, 2010 at 10:00

Member - Michael John T (VIC)

Visiting the Top End had again lived up to our expectations but now it was time to move on. We left Katherine Gorge heading for Roper Bar about 230 km away, calling in on Bitter Springs for a warm swim in the crystal clear limestone waters. The creek has quite a current and makes you work out coming back upstream, a gem of a place and very, very refreshing.
The trip across to Roper Bar is largely Bitumen with about 30 kms of corrugated dirt. There was quite a few vehicles heading the other way, plenty of road kill and consequently numerous whistling kites and wedge tailed eagles to marvel at. The scenery became very striking passing the high black Range, a low line of sculptured sandstone hills and later Mt McMinn (station of the same name).

The Bar is a picturesque place and we camped beside it watching the several aboriginal children frolicking in it's cool waters whilst dad fished the upper side. There is a camp ground that now operates on an honesty system ($10 per head), fees payable at the store, but most people prefer to camp by the causeway. The explorer Leichardt crossed the Roper her in 1845 on his expedition to Port Essington.
We now headed along the Savannah Way a well formed dirt road with the obligatory corrugations, washouts, creek crossings and bull dust patches. The road does suffer from a good deal of usage and the savagery of the wet but take your time and it presents no real problems. There is plenty to see along the track. Tomato Island camping area and boat ramp is interesting in that it is now occupied by permanent squatters (?) as well as short term campers. They have even built their own Vietnam memorial complete with flags and substantial cairn. The problem will be that this is part of the Limmen NP (proposed but almost ready to declare) and according to one of the rangers we talked to, the area will be at odds with National Park policy. I would imagine there are problems of waste disposal and the general unsightliness associated with it. Within the next few kms there are large lagoons covered in water lilies and St Vidgeons Ruins beside the large Lamarienm Billabong.

At 90 kms we turned off towards Port Roper which is situated at the mouth of the Roper some 40 kms East When we left home two months ago this road was still closed and there was ample evidence of why it was. Port Roper .... well I wasn't expecting too much but as the saying goes "this would have to be the ...... end of the earth". A few ramshackle broken down buildings sited along the grey muddy river, belonging to "crabbers" and not much else. Even when approaching it the trees and scrub stop 3 to 4 kms before hand and is replaced by flat dry grassland with tracks leading in all directions. Mangroves line the river and a persistent wind blew continuously over the open plain. We briefly saw one chap entering one of the old sheds, there was a sign "crabs not for sale" and we saw two brolga. A brief look around, a couple of photos and we left. Still it was worth the trip out but not really a place to stay for any length of time, even the fishing was off according to a bloke we met as we traveled in.
Back on the Savannah Way and a further 30 kms on we crossed the Little Towns River and then the Towns River. Here Parks has established one of three camping grounds along the way, well set out among the trees with composting toilet and good sized individual sites, the best position however remained on the rock shelf overlooking the river itself. There were three other camps who also thought this to be the case. What a contrast to Port Roper, just one of those memorable places. We settled in, sharing conversation with a couple of ladies from Gippsland Vic, while their husbands prepared a roast dinner, occasionally they would call out "have you .... put the spuds on yet.... ", their happy hour had already started.

It's Tuesday and we are looking to travel a further 100 kms along this road. We called in to have a look at the privately owned Limmen Bight Fishing Camp, last time Brenda and I stayed here Brenda vowed and declared never again,.... it is a fishing camp (apparently good fishing,
boat required) and changed very little with basic facilities but this time less evidence of the presence of horses. The grader was working along the road for several kms but seemed to be creating further problems with the quite large stones it left in its wake. We crossed the Cox and then the Limmen Bight Rivers, the later at Burketown Crossing where interestingly it flowed up stream with the incoming tide.
Lunch time saw us at Nathan River Ranger Station where we left Dennis's TVan and acquired the gate key to drive into the Western Lost City along a slow 30 km track (1 1/2 hours each way). There are no signs for it and they only allow 2 or 3 vehicles in at any one time. (Dennis found out about it reading one of the 4WD mags). Once in there you actually drive along side the sandstone structures, massive in size, rich in colour, very impressive and quite different from others that we saw. This activity consumed about 4 hours so by 5 pm that afternoon we had returned the Key and made for the next Camp ground at Butterfly Springs. This is a pretty place with a reasonable sized waterfall (just running at this stage) and a small plunge pool surrounded by large paperbarks. In against the rock face are hundreds of brown and white butterflies (hence the name).

Another day and a few kms of graded road before turning left into the Southern Lost City (this one is on the map). Here I met a fellow Exploroz member from Broken Hill so naturally a bit of a chin wag, actually his wife said she would probably write up a blog of their travels with their clever dog ( who on command barked goodbye), but I have yet to see it -- so if you are reading this one ........ . Anyhow these formations take on a different set of shapes and have a 2 1/2 km walking track through them, this was a little taxing in the very hot conditions, but
well worth the effort, or so it would seem by the number of photos taken.
For some reason that I'm still not clear on, we didn't turn down and into Lorrell Springs but continued on out of the National Park and turned onto the Borroloola Road where we found a suitable campsite along the Batton Creek. The next morning into Borroloola where I was going to have my vehicle checked out (typically of a toyota the seal at the rear diff was oozing) but hey the mechanics were flat out with more extensive jobs. A quick drive out to look at King Ash Bay fishing camp, obviously a very popular caravan and fishing destination - there must
have been 50 boat trailers at the boat ramp. A few days later we met a chap at KFC (see later) who owned one of the several holiday houses here and was one of the original starters of the camp.

The bridge over the McArthur River was being replaced forcing us to detour around it. Further on fording the Fletcher River we came upon the first couple of 44 ex army service vehicles rallying their way from Qld to Alice Springs Truck Museum. They were members of the Veteran
Vehicles Association of Australia and hold similar rallies every 5 years. There was a fantastic array of vehicles - willie jeeps to dodge trucks, limousines and ambulances, any way we met them all in clouds of dust for the rest of the afternoon - I,m still unsure of how some of the jeeps managed the often quite deep (for them) river crossings, wet feet I guess.
The Robinson River crossing looked like another challenge by the fact that a couple of vehicles were waiting on the other side for some one else to cross it first. It was rough and a couple of larger rocks to avoid as well as a steeper than usual exit but no dramas involved. Camping spots were at a premium along the rivers until we located a small track in beside Surprise Creek. We are all interested in bird watching and this turned out to be a productive area, several finches, a tawney grass bird (first sighting) and the elusive and beautiful Purple Crowned Fairy Wren male in full colour - WOW.

We were now only 100 kms from the NT/QLD border and disappointingly the Wallongorang Road House is now no more. To add to this the road became very rough and sandy from the border for 50kms to the Hells Gate Road House. Just before this we encountered a road repair team, I never thought I would be so pleased to meet road works. Unfortunately Hells
Gate R H is struggling to stay open having lost virtually all it's local trade due to the changed alcohol laws. They have little to no supplies and offer expensive fuel $1.98 pl (then) and a small camp ground. Surprisingly' shortly after, the road became partly bitumised until we
turned off towards King Fisher Camp (KFC).
KFC, situated on Bowthorne Station and beside a large water hole of the Nicholson River is a bush oasis, watered lawn camping area under pleasant gum trees. It is well worth a visit and an interesting drive away from Lawn Hill NP. We rested here for a couple of nights. The
track out had been a challenge after the river crossing sanded up, especially for large towing vehicles. From there we passed the station homestead and turned towards the highway to Burketown, noting a couple of good over night campsites. Our goal for tonight was to be Leichardt Falls after visiting Burketown. However a look around this historic township and too long in the pub required us to set up camp in the local caravan park which was near full to capacity.

The trip through the Gulf is a really interesting and very pretty experience, particularly if are prepared to take your time and look around. This was the second time for Brenda and I and we enjoyed it as much the second time as the first.

We retired to travell
It's time to go again...
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