A snapshot of Western Queensland, from cute towns like Cloncurry all the way to the coast just north of Cairns. It’s a 2000+ kilometre adventure you can tackle all by yourself, or with a car full of companions.
- Sunset over the Gulf of Carpentaria
- Endless stretches of open road
- Arguably the best fish burger in Australia
- Hair-brained road-train routes
- Peace and quiet in charming country towns
After three months working in Katherine, Northern Territory, I sold everything that wouldn’t fit in my car and began a solo road trip towards home, back on the east coast. State borders being what they are at the moment, the eastern half of the Savannah Way was the best route. I maintained a pretty quick pace – though still enjoyable – but there are plenty more detours, like this one, you might choose to enjoy just off this magnificent road.
Read more: Top 10 Road Trips in Queensland
Day 1: Katherine to Barkly, NT
Time: 8.5 hours
Pre-downloaded podcasts and the 130km/hour speed limit meant I got from the Top End down to the turn-off towards Mount Isa pretty quick smart in one day, with a night’s stop at Barkly Homestead. It also helped that the roads were practically empty, with fewer caravaners out and about on account of COVID travel restrictions.
Note: With a 4WD, you can join the Savannah Way at Roper Bar or Borroloola, a barramundi fishing haven. But, with everything I owned jammed into every nook and cranny of my little car, I kept to the sealed roads from Katherine and joined the official route just west of Mount Isa.
Day 2: Barkly, NT, to Cloncurry, QLD
Time: 6 hours
After crossing the border at the police checkpoint and cruising through Mount Isa, Cloncurry welcomed me with a sign claiming to be Queensland’s friendliest town. Whether or not it’s true, I was favourably disposed to the locals as I parked, wandered, and looked for a cold brew. A compact grid of wide streets connected by roundabouts, it really is a cheerful town. Colonial-era pubs grace most corners, some dilapidated and some freshly painted in tasteful combinations of cream and federation green.
Being in outback Queensland, I assumed I’d just settle for another petrol station coffee when I hit the road the next morning, so stumbling upon The Boundary Gate was a surprise and total delight. The windows of the gorgeous shopfront were filled handmade blankets and other textiles, the shelves lined with soy candles that smelled like Australian natives, books about plants, food, camping, and homemaking.
The gentrified space was airy and spacious – and it had a proper coffee machine! I enjoyed city-quality flat white while I admired several big, copper water tubs a local lady had salvaged from nearby cattle stations and restored by herself.
Day 3: Cloncurry to Karumba (via Normanton), QLD
Time: 5 hours
Slightly to the north of Cloncurry in Normanton, I came face-to-face with the biggest ‘salty’ (saltwater crocodile) that’s ever been sighted! In truth, it’s a life-size statue of the 8.63cm croc, whose name is Krys after the woman who hunted the beast on the Norman River back in 1957.
Dubbed ‘the outback by the sea’, the Normanton Shire truly captures two of the most iconic Australian colour palettes: the reds and blondes of outback scrub, plus the blue-greens of ocean and mangroves.
Just a short drive north, Karumba’s famous Sunset Tavern provides the perfect west-facing vantage point in the evening, as the sun slides into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Plenty of simple accommodation right on the water made a night in Karumba affordable and, with the sounds of waves and birds never far off, very relaxing.
Day 4: Karumba to Mount Surprise, QLD
Time: 7.5 hours
On the main drag through Georgetown, the local pub made for an obvious pit stop after a morning heading further east along the Savannah Way. This was one of those moments on my road trip when I wished there’d been more people with me, simply because the $8 grilled fish burger I sank my teeth into for lunch was just that good. I wanted to share the experience! With a belly full of barra I felt ready for whatever my next destination, Mount Surprise, would throw at me.
Before arriving, I spent several hours negotiating some scarily narrow road-train routes: single-lane strips of bitumen flanked by wide shoulders of dirt road. Whenever a road train approached from the opposite direction, I veered off the black-top onto the shoulder and proceeded cautiously through the cloud of dust until the truck was well and truly in my rear-view mirror. (This part of the trip takes care and concentration, so having several willing and able drivers is a smart choice!)
Mount Surprise was the sleepiest of the little towns I encountered – and it had zero mobile reception. In a nostalgic move, I swapped a $5 note for change at the servo so I could check in with family and friends using the payphone. Strolling back to my cabin, I could tell I was nearing the coast – the vegetation was lusher, more colourful; the air felt a little warm, almost clammy, and it was abuzz with insects, kept at bay by the smoke from my campfire.
Day 5: Mount Surprise to Palm Cove, QLD
Time: 5.5 hours
On the final day of my solo road trip, I drank in the sumptuous colours and textures of the Atherton Tablelands. I’ve never seen hills so curvy and ripe with greenery in Australia! Over the hill, the sea came into view again. I followed the brown scenic route signs as they changed from ‘Savannah Way’ to ‘Great Tropical Drive’, heading for Palm Cove.
Ever a lover of long drives, I was nevertheless grateful to settle under a palm tree with a book for the afternoon and reminisce about the great swathes of country I’d crossed in a mere five days. I hope it won’t be too long before I can venture west to Broome along the other half of this beautiful cross-continental route, the Savannah Way.
On this road trip, I drove through country belonging to more than a dozen different groups of Traditional Owners. I give thanks and pay my respects to their elders – past, present and emerging.
- Phone charger cord that works in your car
- Paper map (or pre-downloaded digital map) in case of reception black-outs (a frequent occurrence in my experience!)
- Jerry can or two, always full. Fill up wherever petrol costs less than $2/litre!
- 10L of water; non-perishable snacks
- A working spare tyre, and the gear to change it
- Satellite phone, in case of emergency
Be Prepared: The Outback Road Trip Survival Guide
- Don’t drive before daylight or after dusk (Large animals – roos, cattle and camels – will damage your car, themselves, and maybe even you if you hit them!)
- Check air pressure and oil at a petrol station each day
- If comfortable, make friends by engaging in conversations with people you meet along the way. Even if, like me, you don’t mind your own company, it can be good for your mental health to break the silence with some human interaction – and the occasional laugh!
Outback driving is more remote and dangerous than regular highway driving. You’ll need extra kit and need to be prepared for things to be difficult or go wrong.
Costs (Average Per Day)
- Accommodation: $60
- Food/drink: $25
- Fuel (unleaded): $65