With the borders closed this is a good time for exploring parts of Queensland. Having left Adels Grove we had a couple of days to get to our next destination Undara Lava Experience and took a detour up to Karumba. There's a couple of ways of getting from Adels to Karumba but starting early in the morning we stuck to the mostly bitumen track via the Wills Development Rd from Gregory to Burke and Wills and then the Burke Development Rd to Normanton.
There' not much traffic about as Queensland's easing travel restrictions take a while to percolate this far north. But there is always plenty of cattle on the move. They appear on every road, bitumen or gravel and they could be going anywhere in Queensland or the Northern Territory or even to the port of Karumba for live export. The only rule for other drivers is that if they are coming your way and your are on dirt or a single-lane blacktop then get right out of their way. Might in this case is right.
We arrive in Normanton fours hours into the journey and pay homage to Krys the Croc. The Norman River has a long history of big crocs, the most famous being the Savannah King, measuring 8.63m killed by Polish migrant Krys Pawlowski in 1955. Pawlowski survived a World War II Siberian prison camp before hunting for crocs in Queensland's tropics and killed up to 10,000 reptiles over a 15-year hunting career with her husband. The Savannah King earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the biggest croc captured in modern times. As I fit my head into the mouth of the replica with ease it is terrifying to imagine meeting something like this in the nearby river.
Just out of Normanton on the road to Karumba is the beautiful Mutton Hole wetlands. They are part of the largest continuous estuarine wetland aggregation of its type in northern Queensland with superb wildlife observation opportunities. The area has diverse and complex habitats from fresh to hypersaline and is a crocodile breeding habitat. The wetlands supports an outstanding number of waterbirds including these lovely brolgas. It is a significant breeding, feeding, resting, and moulting site while also being an important dry season refuge for waterbirds and water fowl.
Some 70km north of Normanton is Karumba, our base for the night. Karumba is the end of the line on the south-north Matilda Highway which comes north from Cunnamulla and an important strategic spot on the east west Savannah highway from Cairns to Broome (and the only spot on that highway on the Gulf of Carpentaria. The water looks blue and inviting though modern mates of the Savannah King would make short work of you if you were foolish enough to go for a dip.
We were staying on the Point for its lovely seaside setting but we did detour the 5km or so to Karumba Port. I mentioned the cattle export earlier, but it is also important for the prawn fisheries. Wild-caught in the beautiful waters of the Gulf, Karumba Prawns are highly sought after. Chances are that if you are eating banana prawns, they came from Karumba. The port is also where zinc (the pipeline of which followed us all the way from New Century mine near Adels Grove) is exported overseas.
After checking out the nearby Barramundi Discovery Centre, we head back to the Point and the whole point of the exercise. Sunset at the Karumba Point hotel with a beer and barra and chips is a right of passage in these parts. And with views out on the Gulf like these who were we to turn our noses up at tradition?
The following morning we had to backtrack to Normanton before heading east on the Savannah Way. The first stop past Normanton was Croydon, 150km away. Croydon is now a sleepy little town of 250 people but was once one of the thriving towns of the wild north west. Gold was discovered here in 1885 and within two years the population grew to 7000 making it temporarily the fourth-largest town in the colony. The Townsville Bulletin reported in 1885 the country between Croydon and Normanton was "in a dreadful condition, the heat fearfully intense, and travelling by any means positive torture." A railway was built 1888-1891 linking the towns and the Gulflander train still plies the route today. But little else remains of the rush today except some lovely heritage buildings including the hospital (above) built in 1894.
The same distance further east of Croydon (150km) brings us to the next town Georgetown. Just 30km before Georgetown is an important stop at the abandoned township of Cumberland. There's two reasons these days to stop there. First is the Cumberland Lagoon. This human-made lagoon has become a haven for the waterlilies and waterbirds. Nearby Cumberland Creek was dammed to build the lagoon to collect water for a gold mine that sprung up on the site.
The only remains of that mine is the nearby Cumberland Chimney. Gold was discovered here in 1872 - even earlier than Croydon. By 1878 the Cumberland Company was a major gold producer in the Etheridge region and the township here quickly rivalled Georgetown with 500 residents. There was a post office, police station, telegraph office, and four hotels by 1894. Gold production was already declining by then from its peak in 1886 The chimney was built in 1889 to disperse smoke from the large steam driven engines that powered the batteries and associated tramways. The gold petered out by the end of the century and the town was abandoned by 1899 though the school stayed open until 1915.
Cumberland was overtaken by its neighbour Georgetown which remains the biggest town in Etheridge Shire with just 250 residents. Like Cumberland, Georgetown began as the site of a gold rush in the 1870s. Originally known by the name Etheridge, the town's name was changed in 1871 to honour an early gold commissioner, Howard St George. By 1900 grazing had replaced gold mining as the region's main industry.
The name Etheridge survives in the shire and also the river that passes through Georgetown. Dry now during the winter, it flows north in the wet to meet the Einasleigh River and then the Gilbert River which empties into the Gulf, north-east of Karumba, at the site of Nevil Shute's fictional Willstown.
Heading initially east to Mt Surprise and Undara Lava Experience we pass through the Great Dividing Range at Casey's Rest. Southwest the view extends to the Gregory Range where the Norman River begins.
Our destination for the night after Undara was the Goldfields Hotel at Forsayth, 40km south of Georgetown. This is a common stopping point for Cobbold Gorge (which we were also checking out) but has charm of its own. As the name of the pub suggest, this area was also found on 1870s gold. Originally called Finnegan's Camp, it was nicknamed the 'Poor Man's Goldfield', as a prospector did not need expensive equipment to search for gold with nuggets found on the ground. After a slump in the mid-1880s the town flourished again in the mid-1890s, with five hotels, a school and a courthouse.
At Forsayth's Caschafor Park wood carvings are creatively worked into the trees by a local artist.
We also had a visit from the train that evening. Forsayth is the final stop on the two day Savannahlander from Cairns. In the late 1890s, the Chillagoe Company bought some promising copper deposits in the Etheridge district which led the company to commence a rail link in 1907 from Almaden to Einasleigh and Charleston. The latter was renamed Forsayth after the railway's commissioner, James Forsayth Thallon. Though the Chillagoe Smelters shut down in 1914 Forsayth remained the railhead for transport to the west, although plans in the 1930s to extend the railway to connect to the Croydon-Normanton line did not proceed. Queensland Rail opened the line to tourists in 1995 and has been run as a private operation since 2004. Running once a week it travels from Cairns every Wednesday via Kuranda and then Chillagoe before overnighting in Almaden. The second day travels to the heritage listed Etheridge railway line at Mt Surprise before arriving in Forsayth late Thursday and leaving for the two-day return trip on Friday.