WORDS BY TIM FERRIER, PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID WOLTSCHENKO
There we were, packing up at the mighty King Ash Bay after what was an epic run through some of the Gulf’s most iconic 4WD hotspots. While it was sad leaving such an epic campsite, we had nothing but big fat grins on our faces. Why? We had 1,000km of red dirt adventure still ahead of us, including the best river crossings, the biggest bulldust patches, and a secret swimming hole I’ll get to later. Sorry, but this trip was too epic to fit into one article!
“Countless river crossings, truck-swallowing bulldust holes, and a prehistoric water-filled gorge in the middle of nowhere – adventure doesn’t come bigger than this!”
Situated nearly 100km northwest of Borroloola and 200km east of the Queensland border, Manangoora Station is as good as a Top End destination gets. The rough roads, lack of signage and absolute isolation keeps the grey nomads and the like away, and the fishing, crabbing and camping is second to none. Manangoora Station sits right on the picturesque Wearyan River, which runs out directly in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Haven’t heard of the Wearyan? That’s what we were like before the first trip – now it’s part of almost every camping and fishing anecdote I throw around with my mates in front of the fire!
As small as Borroloola is, it has all supplies available, including a wreckers and mechanic. The caravan park lets you fill up on potable water, do your washing and have a shower before you do the last 100km to the mighty Wearyan River.
The road out to Manangoora is the first stretch of what is an iconic and treacherous section of the Savannah Way. The rich, red and often corrugated soil is sporadically broken up with a picture perfect water crossing.
No need to rush this part of the trip – the last thing you want is to push your vehicle too hard and have dramas with your final destination in sight! Besides, when it’s over 40°C, you’re going to want to pull up and cool down at the water crossings. You can also grab a roof rack’s worth of wood while you’re there.
The Manangoora homestead is 25km from the turnoff, however it still takes a good 40 minutes to get through the heavy bull-dust ruts and through a few gates. The track can get pretty rough, so it’s a good idea to lose a few pound out of the tyres, just to make travel that touch more enjoyable.
The scene from camp is as good as any you will see – better than anything . Beautiful, glassed-out water and amazing sunsets in front of the crackling fire; there’s no better way to unwind. You can also catch your feed straight from the bank if you can’t be bothered to put the boat in.
BORDER HOPPING IN BULLDUST
From Manangoora, it’s time to head west across the border into QLD. Be prepared for more of that bulldust, and a few more river crossings – they’re too good not to pull up at for a look about. Yep – diff-deep bulldust holes and crystal clear river crossings – you won’t get enough of either!
There’s one bulldust hole in particular that had us grabbing at gears to find momentum, almost like a soft dune run on a hot day! You need to keep an eye out for these, because they come out of nowhere. I’d love to see one of those big road trains hit one at full noise!
You’ve gotta love this kind of touring. You’re in the middle of nowhere, but there’s so much to see you won’t be bored. However, just past Doomadgee in QLD, things take an even better turn, as you head to a true oasis – Lawn Hill Gorge.
“After 2,000km of red dirt adventure, this campsite will be heaven”
LAWN HILL NATIONAL PARK
Never before have I seen such a dramatic landscape than the one laid before me at Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park. Australia’s most arid country gives wayo a water-filled gorge that will take your breath away. What an absolute corker!
You have two options for enjoying Lawn Hill and its gorges. Option one is to stay at Adels Grove, just a few kays down the road, and drive in, which is a popular choice. Your other option is to book one of the 20 sites available at the campsite in the National Park itself. They’re not the largest sites, and there’s not much shade, but it’s cheaper than Adels Grove and closer to the gorge. If you want to take option two, make sure you book ahead online – it gets busy, and the only way to pay is online.
Now to the good stuff, the amazing adventure on offer at Lawn Hill. This prehistoric and ever-changing sandstone and limestone gorge is one of QLD’s most unique geological locations. These huge red cliff faces plummet down into a paradise of crystal blue water, waterfalls, palm trees, fish and freshwater crocs. There aren’t many places in Australia you could call a literal oasis, but this is certainly one.
There are a number of ways to enjoy Lawn Hill Gorge. The most popular is by kayak or canoe. You can bring your own and paddle your way along, or you can hire one from the tour company that sets up here. You’re paddling through deep blue water, looking up at these amazing cliffs, with nothing but a faint rumble of a waterfall and birdsong interrupting the serenity. Make sure you pack plenty of water and sunscreen for the canoe trip, as the sun reflects off the water dramatically.
JUST MAKE IT HAPPEN
A keen group of mates, a capable 4WD, a bit of quality planning and three weeks of annual leave – that’s all it takes to make a trip like this an annual event. You go once and you’ll be hooked for life – there really is nothing like a Top End trip with your mates. So stop with the excuses, get the team keen and get your 4WD ready – turn your recurring dream into a regular that you’ll always be just around the corner!
“Diff deep bulldust holes and crystal clear river crossings – you won’t get enough of either!”
TOP END ESSENTIALS
It may feel like paradise on the river bank, but you have to remember this is a harsh, hot climate that needs to be shown a certain amount of respect. Late in the dry season, temperatures can be 45°C during the day and 30°C and humid at night, so shade and water will be a whole lot more important than just your normal weekend trip to your local river. With shade, the key is to have as much as you can, without blocking the breeze. Shade sail is good for this, as you can throw it on a wall or two of your gazebo or tarp and it’ll still let the breeze in.
A common mistake we see travellers make on a trip like this is not bringing enough water. Beers might be refreshing, but trust me, you will drink 3L of water every day, and you should really plan to carry 5L per person, per day.
Be prepared to get carried away by mozzies and midges at dawn and dusk. Insect repellent is essential, but think about bringing citronella candles and mozzie coils, because after two weeks on the river and irregular shower you’ll be sick of putting that chemical on every uncovered bit of skin.
We know how essential it is to bring spares for the 4WD, but think about what can go wrong at camp and prepare for these breakdowns. Electrical spares and a decent multimeter are absolutely necessary – having a stuffed fridge and warm beer will no doubt bring an early end to your holidays!
This trip starts at Borroloola, and heads east along the Savannah Way to Lawn Hill National Park, which is about 150km south of Burketown. It’s all red dirt the whole way – you gotta love that!
The best campsites are at Manangoora Station, and Lawn Hill National Park. Facilities aren’t available at Manangoora, but all others are.
WHAT TO TAKE:
You don’t get much more remote than this, so you need to understand your 4WD, and pack the necessary spares. Pack spare hoses, and extra air filter, a fuel filter (dodgy fuel can be a problem), and ensure you have heaps of zip ties etc. to strap back on anything that rattles loose on the corrugations. For camping, don’t just rely on your awning, pack extra shade. Ensure you’re set up to carry at least 80L of water, have a fuel range of at least 600km, and have the necessary emergency essential such as a sat phone etc.
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL:
If you love fishing, head in April. If you want to escape the crowds, head late September. Anywhere in between is still brilliant, and the weather is more forgiving.
FUEL AND SUPPLIES:
The best places to fuel up are Borroloola and Burketown.
Trips are rated A though E, with A meaning only suitable to vehicles with an extreme level of off-road modifications and meaning perfectly suited to all types of 4WD vehicles. While this is a super remote adventure, you’d still rate this trip as a C, or B straight after the wet.