“The sky forms vivid pastel layers and the gorge glows a soft orange. Pelicans with their great wing span glide serenely over the water. Everything becomes still and gentle. This is outback Australia at her finest and its magnificent.”
Diamantina National Park is remote. Draw a rough diamond on a map between Winton, Boulia, Birdsville and Windorah in Outback Queensland and Diamantina is roughly in the middle; in the middle of nowhere to be precise. It’s the catchment region for the Diamantina River in the heart of the mighty channel country and until 1992 was a former pastoral holding.
The flat, treeless black soil plains that surround the National Park hold many perils for the 4WD enthusiast if it rains. Even small amounts of rain can make the roads impassable. The wet black soil is treacherous and will suck you down to the bowels of the earth, or at the very least to your mudguards. National Parks advise that all travellers must be self sufficient, prepared for emergencies, carry an EPIRB, extra fuel and be aware the campground is exposed and has few shade trees.
As uninspiring as all this sounds, we were drawn to the Diamantina in July 2015, or more appropriately, lured by a siren song. Australian folk singer, John Williamson is responsible for that. His version of ‘Diamantina Drover’ has always been one of our favourites and it inspired an intense longing to visit a region immortalised so eloquently in folk song. It’s a song about droving days gone by at Old Cork Station where the rain never falls on that dusty Diamantina.
With a few different options available to enter the National Park, we chose the 306km Winton route, specifically so we could go via the ruins of Old Cork Station and pay homage to those droving ghosts of days long gone. We passed the occasional red sand dune on the drive in, an indication of our close proximity to the Simpson Desert. You must be totally self sufficient and its rough but there is a free camping area behind the ruins on the muddy banks of the Diamantina River. It’s in the dirt, its parched dry and the river is the muddy brown of all our inland rivers but it has a romantic allure with a windmill providing the opportunity for a classic Australian sunset photo. The feeling of isolation was absolute and the ruins proved to be fascinating to explore.
It’s only a relatively short distance from Old Cork Station to the entrance of Diamantina National Park, where the landscape continues to hide its secrets. There is literally nothing from horizon to horizon. It’s this in itself which makes the drive ‘something’ to experience. The third year of an extended drought ensured that we encountered little more than vast expanses of bull dust and dry parched earth. We could see how only a little bit of rain would change the conditions instantly though.
After passing through the park ranger station it was a further 10km before we set up camp at Hunters Gorge Campground on the banks of the caramel coloured Diamantina River.
The harsh midday sun drains the colour from the landscape. It’s stark, harsh and almost lifeless and our initial impression was misleading. Only the 1.5 billion flies take great delight in making their presence known; in your eyes, up your nose, in your ears and they even accompany you on a visit to the single pit toilet. Any orifice will do. Okay, that was a bit tongue in cheek, but I’m sure you get the picture. The flies were bad to the extent that even Kevin for the first time ever in all our years of bush travel succumbed to the almighty ‘fly net’.
This place is, however, incredibly special. When the sun sinks low on the horizon at sunset and sunrise, Diamantina National Park is spectacular. The buzzing of flies diminishes and only a gentle chorus of birdsong breaks the quietude. The features of the landscape start to soften and the hues of colour are stunning. The sky forms vivid pastel layers and the gorge glows a soft orange. Pelicans with their great wing span glide serenely over the water. Everything becomes still and gentle. This is outback Australia at her finest and its magnificent.
So, we find it hard to leave this stunning place. We extend our stay and we learn to live with the landscape. During the day when the sun is merciless and the flies congregate in masses we ‘siesta’ and read in the safe confines of our fly-screened Trayon camper. At dusk we drink in and savour the beauty and the complete solitude. At night we prepare the campfire for a phenomenal starry night sky that defies comprehension and then we sleep to the eerie tune of distant dingo howls. At dawn we rise early to appreciate the coolness, the stillness, the pastel shades in the sky and the mirror reflections on the water.
So, is it worthwhile to go out of your way to visit this remote National Park in Outback Queensland? If you are into adventure and solitude where people are few, the landscape is vast and only 4WD vehicles dare to tread, absolutely it is.
We love the layering of the layers in the sky. Its worth braving the chill and climbing a hill at sunrise for the view.
After visiting Diamantina National Park I recommend a visit to Boodjamulla National Park. Yeah it’s a long drive but that goes with Outback Queensland and Lawn Hill Gorge is an absolute oasis. Read my blog Just what is it about Lawn Hill Gorge?
So we’re home. And home is lovely. After months of living in arid landscapes, red dirt and deserts we had forgotten just how ‘green’ Cairns is. It’s so pretty with the mountain backdrop and rainforest. The ocean isn’t the glorious aquamarine of the WA coast but its lovely in a north QLD kind of way. Isn’t it wonderful we have experienced it all?
So we did it, the trip of a lifetime, and it was just grand. No regrets. We gave up our jobs and drove 20232 kilometres across the top, down the west coast, across the middle and a quick dash down south. Fantastic. Australia is amazing.
So here are some random statistics on our experience travelling remote Australia by 4WD.
The ultimate trip cost
We were away for just over 16 weeks in total and we spent $18 681 in total. I’m happy with that. I had budgeted for $1000 per week plus an extra $4000 for car repairs and maintenance. We came in under budget in our weekly spending averaging at $800 per week and went over in the car expenditure which blew out to $5860. Three services in Kununurra, Tom Price and Kapunda, front wheel bearings in Broome, rear parabolic springs and 4 Cooper tyres in Geraldton and, thanks to the Simpson Desert, new rear shock absorbers in Kapunda. We didn’t actually need the new Coopers but we were getting frustrated with the flats we were getting on the skinny split rim tube tyres and opted to replace them with fatter tubeless. No flats since so it was worth it.
We travelled 20232 km and spent $4696 on fuel. The most expensive fuel was at Mt Dare Station SA just before the Simpson Desert at $2.15 per litre and the cheapest in Kapunda SA at $1.21 per litre. That’s a bit uncanny that South Australia wins the crown in both cases and it wasn’t even planned.
Food came in at $4514 and we ate way too much chocolate. We would stock up on chocolate and other assorted snacks when we got to a big supermarket as that sort of stuff is too expensive to buy in remote locations. We bought 6 blocks of chocolate in Broome (after 2 weeks on the Gibb River Road) as it was so cheap and ate them all in 3 days. That’s why I had to buy moo moo’s in Broome. We ate a little too well and were not as disciplined as we are at home. Let’s not talk about all the kitchener buns and chocolate donuts in Kapunda. I’m paying for that extravagance now.
Accommodation costs were very reasonable at $1957. A good mix of free camping, national parks, the luxury of three nights in a cottage at Geraldton and a couple of nights in a cabin at Kapunda because it was freezing cold.
Miscellaneous spending was $1654. This money was put aside for tours, entry fees and everything else. There were quite a few Op Shop purchases in there. It was one of my favourite activities in a town; pottering through an Op Shop in an exotic new destination. My wardrobe expanded unnecessarily and exponentially much to Kevin’s perturbed amusement and mild disgust. (Chuckle)
Between us we managed to read 28 books and listen to 3 audio books. Every book swap was taken advantage of with much gusto. That’s what we did in the evenings. Read books and ate chocolate.
Ugg boots are just the best footwear on holiday, even in warm country (clean feet with ease)
I made bread 14 times in the Weber Baby Q, and with home made lentil soup this was our most popular meal choice. (Chocolate for desert of course) We called our Weber ‘Baby you fat bitch’. A little harsh I know, but she was so big and heavy and took up a lot of space in the camper. We wouldn’t have gone without her though. She gave us so many awesome meals.
The two equally worst roads were the Simpson Desert crossing and the Kalumburu Road to Mitchell Falls in the Kimberly. Both were particularly punishing to our vehicle but the scenic reward was worth it so no real regrets there.
People ask what was the absolute highlight of the whole trip and I find it impossible to narrow it down to one place. We saw and did so much that was absolutely stunning, each in its own unique way. So many ‘wow, moments. I loved it all.
So the highlight has to be the length of our trip. Four months was an ideal time frame. We didn’t feel pressured for time and we felt the pure joy of freedom to explore at our leisure. That was a sufficient length of time though as by the end we were both weary. I don’t think you can keep appreciating it as much if you do it perpetually. It was time to come home and we actually started to look forward to a couch, a TV, our own toilet and a bed where Kevin doesn’t have to climb over me to go out for a wee. It’s the little things.
Kevin and I, for the first time, spent 24 hours a day with each other, for four months in a confined living arrangement. We survived, we laughed a lot, we became more tolerant, we relaxed into a comfortable camaraderie and it made our relationship stronger. It was a fantastic experience to share.
We saw hundreds of emus in all states. They were the dominant wildlife on this trip which was great because I love them. They’re so quirky.
Lessons learnt along the way
Follow the weather. The perception of a holiday is 95% dictated by the weather, especially when living under a canvas roof. A place that is simply magnificent in sunshine becomes bleak and horrid in wet, bleak, cold and overcast weather. During the winter months the North of Australia is the place to be. Gotta love warmth and sunshine.
Less is more and will save you grief. We overpacked. Too much ‘stuff’. I tried to be minimalist when we packed but failed and it became obvious when at our first service, the mechanic assumed we were there to get our suddenly sagging rear springs replaced. We carried too much ‘just in case’ stuff and things that only got minimal use. The heavy generator and max tracks sat on the roof rack the whole way with no use, the boat only got used twice, the BBQ plate that got used once, there was too much stuff in our internal cupboards like the heavy camp oven that didn’t get used, too many clothes (in my section). The excessive weight of our vehicle became stringently obvious in Kapunda when the mechanic replacing the shockers couldn’t lift the vehicle with a 4 tonne hoist (our gvm is 3.3 tonnes). No wonder we suffered trying to cross the Simpson Desert and had the considerable expense of replacing our suspension.
It’s nice to have a home to come back too. We did actually consider selling up everything to travel perpetually prior to this trip. Sell the house, hit the road and be totally free. That’s a romantic notion though and I’m glad we didn’t go down that path. It’s wonderful to be free but living in a confined space, always on the move takes its toll. I’m positive that the thrill of travel wouldn’t be as great if it was a way of life rather than just a holiday. I guess it’s a personal thing because some people happily do it but we need a place to go ‘home’. Then we can plan and get excited about the next adventure. And there will be more………..
So to those people that faithfully followed my blog on this adventure, thank you for coming with us, thank you for the likes and nice comments and I hope you enjoyed the journey. I hope I encouraged other people to do similar and inspired you to visit these amazing places in our beautiful country. It is so worth it. We are much richer for the experience. Kevin and I have luckily both got our jobs back straight away so we didn’t even have to line up at Centrelink, which is a huge bonus. We took a risk and the reward was beyond our expectations.
“Lawn Hill Gorge has ‘it’. Precisely what ‘it’ is I’m not sure how to put into words. I guess it’s like trying to explain what colours are to a blind person. It’s just something you need to experience yourself or it has no meaning.”
From Leichhardt Falls we take the shorter route via Augusta Downs Stations and join the Gregory Development Road to the Gregory Pub. After a delightful swim in the Gregory River its only 100km further on to Boodjamulla National Park and Lawn Hill Gorge.
The first 65 odd km to the Century Mine turn off used to be great because it was well maintained for the numerous trucks going in and out of the mine. However now the mine has closed and the layer of seal is pot holed and disintegrating rapidly. Makes for an interesting ride dodging from one side of the road to the other avoiding mega pot holes. The last 15km into the National Park is badly corrugated dirt but the camp ground is full of caravans so it did not obviously deter them.
We always stay at the Boodjamulla National Park campground. Adeles Grove Caravan Park 10km away is very shady with green grass on the banks of Lawn Hill creek. Its lovely if your stay is all about the camping, nice facilities and a restaurant but we come here to hike, canoe and swim in the pristine waters of the Gorge and all this action starts at the National Park campground. Its dry and sparse with cold water showers but is nice and quiet. No generators allowed and only 20 sites that must be pre-booked online if you want to snag a spot in peak season.
Now about Lawn Hill Gorge. Some places just have that ‘wow’ factor. I’m hoping to see a few of them on this extended trip but on this occasion, we chose to start our adventure with a known ‘wow’ spot just to kick it off nicely. This is our sixth visit here.
Lawn Hill Gorge has ‘it’. Precisely what ‘it’ is I’m not sure how to put into words. I guess it’s like trying to explain what colours are to a blind person. It’s just something you need to experience yourself or it has no meaning.
In the words of John Denver, it just ‘fills up my senses’. Visually it is striking. The colours mixed together on an outback palette create something quite extraordinary. The water in Lawn Hill Creek is a deep jade green due to the calcium carbonate content. The gorge is ochre red and against a brilliant blue outback sky it is beautiful. I can never take a photo that does it justice.
My favourite place at Lawn Hill is in the middle of the gorge, drifting aimlessly in the canoe in the late afternoon shade and just taking it all in. The canoe traffic has vanished for the day make it a place of complete solitude. The water is still and reflections are mirrored on the surface. The silence is complete. Only on occasion, you hear a willy wagtail chirrup or a corella squawk by or the gentle lapping of water on the canoe. It is so unbelievably peaceful.
The swimming in the green water is just absolutely delicious despite the presence of freshwater crocodiles. They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. We don’t even know they are there unless we spot one sun baking on a log as we canoe past.
We think its essential to bring your own canoe to Lawn Hill. They can be hired from Adeles Grove but its quite expensive and only available during the day. We bring our own ‘Sevylor’ inflatable. It packs up quite small and gives us the freedom to canoe to our hearts content, including sunrise and at night (that was a bit hairy). That way you can take photos like this.
So our three days here have, as usual, have been just so lovely. Mostly swimming, canoeing and relaxing as the weather was very warm still and swimming in that divine water is just a heavenly experience. Hard to leave but this time is different as we are not homeward bound.
Its time for us to turn left and head for the Northern Territory border. Exciting days to come. Lorella Springs Wilderness Park and Limmen Bight National Park next and this is a wild and remote part of the Northern Territory (complete with natural hot springs).
Our trip commenced in earnest after we fuelled up in Normanton and started kicking up some dust on the Burke Development Road. We aptly had John Williamson singing ‘The Dusty Road We Know’ on the stereo, wedge-tail eagles and hawks were swooping lonely road kill carcasses and it was flat grassy flood plain with blue cloudless sky from horizon to horizon. The only pedestrians were a mob of lazy Brahman cattle and occasionally we disappeared into the billowing dust cloud of a passing road train. This is outback Queensland in the Gulf Savannah.
Normanton to Burketown via this route is 230km on a pretty good road these days. It used to be an adventure to travel but now there are causeways over the river crossings, some bitumen sections and even the dirt sections don’t frighten off the few caravans we passed.
At the 140km point we come to Leichhardt Falls. The falls weren’t flowing but there was lots of water in the Leichhardt River and it’s an irresistible spot to stop and camp. Its off the beaten tourist track and has a raw, unmanicured natural beauty. Prolific bird life, crocodiles, the river to explore and lots of tracks to follow to find a private camp site with a gorgeous water view. Stars, campfire, sunset and sunrise all perfect. I guess the only flaw is that the river is rumoured to be the dominion of salt water croc’s so a cool refreshing swim is out of the question on a warm day. We saw a couple of long snouted freshies sun basking on the water surface below the falls but better safe than sorry.
As I put pen to paper I’m sitting here by our small camp fire. Its dusk, the sun has just sunk below the horizon and the sky to the east is pastel pink and purple. Budgies and babblers are chirping their gay chorus in the trees around us, the water is still and it so peaceful.
The restless remnants of our previous suburban working lives are starting to fade as we slowly acclimatise to this new chapter of gypsy living.
The light is now getting dim and the stars are starting to pop out through the gum tree silhouettes. Kevin has a star observatory app and is pointing his phone at each new star and reeling off facts. Hydra B, Sirius, 262 light years away, blue dwarf, red giant and I’m kind of half listening while I sip on my green tea watching the flames flicker.
This is a nice life.
In the morning, the dawn chorus makes us chuckle in amusement as we make toast on the campfire. It’s like all the birds are ferociously abusing each other and bickering amongst themselves. It’s a hell of a racket with all the squawking, shrilling and warbling. Noisy but absolutely wonderful.
We’d stay a bit longer here but we have a date to chill out with Boodjamulla the rainbow serpent in a stunning red ochre gorge later today. On to more of the good stuff. Stay tuned.
Every time Kevin and I go on a road trip it takes us a couple of days to unwind. The thought of just doing nothing on that first night on the road doesn’t feel natural, so we frantically try to keep busy. Kevin chops fire wood with an axe as if we need a stockpile for a long hard winter and I’m so highly strung that I frantically pace around the campsite looking for something to do.
It’s a weird feeling and it’s purely because we need time to mentally adjust from the hectic pace and pressure of our normal work lives to this carefree, casual and new relaxed way of living.
From previous experience we know it will take three days; three days until we stop looking for our watches, before we lose the structure of our days and just go with the flow of life well lived.
So we have built it into the start of our journey.
Mental unwind commences at Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill Gorge)National Park, one and half days of solid driving, 1000km from Cairns. Why that far away you may ask? Sure we could just chill at some ‘really nice’ place nearby but we don’t want to start such an awesome adventure with ‘really nice’ we want ‘extraordinary’. Extraordinary describes Lawn Hill Gorge to perfection.
We have already visited this amazing place on numerous occasions. It draws us back time and time again. If I had a place on this earth that I consider my sacred place, well Lawn Hill Gorge is it. It has a rich Aboriginal history that supports this notion. It has been sacred to the Waanyi Aborginal people for 17 000 years and inside the perfect silence of the gorge dwells Boodjamulla, The Rainbow Serpent.
The scenery is striking especially considering the landscape around Lawn Hill. Classic Gulf Savannah, it’s flat and treeless from horizon to horizon. Marginal cattle country that’s remote, dry, dusty and sunburnt. Yet, like an oasis in the desert, Lawn Hill Gorge exists. Rich blue skies, red ochre gorge walls, lime green crystal clear spring water and ancient ‘Livistona Australis’ cabbage palm trees make this place a paradise, worth every long boring kilometre of dusty road to get there
So for three days we will immerse ourselves in this serenity. We will burn off pent up mental agitation by hiking the various walking tracks, canoeing through the first and second gorges, by sunset picnics with jaw dropping views and by the blissful night silence of the ‘generator free’ campground far, far away from traffic and city lights.
And then we get to turn left.
Each time we leave Lawn Hill we have to turn right and head homewards towards Cairns. Left is the Northern Territory border and we always desperately long to turn left but time has been our enemy. It’s going to be a monumental occasion for us to leave Lawn Hill this time because with all the time in the world we WILL turn left. And it will be the best feeling in our newly unwound state.