Taking off from Cairns after a morning pack up, saw us make it to the Walsh River, West of Chillagoe for our first night en route to the Lost Cities in the Northern Territory for a bit of a look around. Our route was going to take us to Normanton, Burketown, Hell’s Gate, Borooloola and then up to the Lost Cities rock formations, and the Roper River, before returning via Lawn Hill. The Lost Cities rock formations can be found in three different areas, two of which are within the Limmen National Park and one near Cape Crawford on MacArthur River Station. Although individually the formations are quite different, they are all similar in their age (twice the age of Uluru, about 1.4 billion years old) and are the remnants of an ancient ocean floor.
On this trip, we didn’t have any set destination or timeline, and no real planned camp spots to be at either. Mostly we just looked for a spot to camp when it was getting close to the day’s end, a much more relaxed way of travelling, and more easily done when not towing or with the whole family. The trip was also the first serious test trip for the new 79 series Dual Cab remote tourer setup, and a chance to fault find before some larger trips coming up soon.
Travelling through Normanton we noticed a lot of bushfire smoke in the air to the West which was causing some awesome light in the sunset. We camped the night on the Bynoe River, and the following morning woke to this spectacular sunrise, no doubt also smoke related.
This was the first time in about ten years that I’d been back through here, and it was some surprise when we reached Burketown that I saw the old pub was gone and a new concrete modern one had replaced it. Being a big fan of country pubs, particularly the historic ones, it was a big disappointment to see. The publican told us it was a fire in the kitchen and that the pub was completely destroyed back in 2012, however, when I later googled the story, I noted that there were a lot of references in the news reports that the fire may have been an alcohol or race-related arson incident also. A real shame either way, as it was one of those classic old timber pubs that were nearing the 100-year-old mark and had a ton of character.
After passing through Doomadgee lands, our next stop was Hell’s Gate roadhouse, which I was happy to see was under new ownership and was being revived with renovations.
Hell’s Gate is one location where a real coffee can be obtained as well, albeit one from a Nespresso machine, however, there were no complaints here. The camping out the back was thriving, the lawns were being watered, and the facilities were clean – a big change from the previous time I’d been here.
We made it through to the Calvert River that evening, where we had thought we’d camp on the far side, as I’d done once before. On arrival though we found the small camping area was jam-packed with caravaners and there was no space remaining, even for a couple of swags beside the truck.
We did, however, find a somewhat cramped spot down by the river (that was already occupied), and some friendly people invited us to squeeze in and then went even further to share their campfire with us while we knocked up a quick dinner before bed. We swapped stories on road conditions and destinations etc. and it was great to meet like-minded travellers willing to go a bit out of their way to make others comfortable.
The Calvert River in the morning light was a fantastic sight that quickly had me grabbing for the camera before we headed off to refuel in Borroloola, about an hour and a half to the North.
The Lost Cities
After staying a night at the King Ash Bay fishing club, which was packed with relaxed Grey Nomad’s all reporting that very few were catching any fish, our next stop was the Nathan River Ranger Station in the Limen NP. After a brief chat with a ranger, where we were given the code to the lock on the gates, we then made our way slowly down the 4wd track to the Western Lost Cities for some afternoon wandering and evening photo opportunities. Once through the gate, the track narrows and isn’t conducive to dragging a van down there. A camper would probably make it, but there are a couple of big creeks with steep sides that would prove difficult for anyone with a van.
I also ended up with a big ball of twisted up fencing wire wrapped around my driveshaft from this narrow little track.
On arrival though, we were just blown away. The Lost Cities were just amazing, and later, when seen under moon and starlight, were just spectacular. Nic and I spent several hours wandering the rock formations trying not to get lost, before settling down next to the truck in our camp chairs with a cold ale to watch the moon rise and track across the heavens.
We stayed until fairly late before making our way back out as there is no camping within this part of the park. We eventually spent the night at the nearby Butterfly Spring campground.
Wandering through these rocks produced a new experience at every turn, and the feeling of being in a timeless place was strong.
Being able to wander at leisure amongst the formations was fantastic, but keep an eye out for snakes. There is a trail that leads up to a vantage point overlooking the valley that is also worth the short walk. This commences next to the Grand Archway and is only about 300m to the top.
Our visit to the Southern Lost City was shorter, and we thought it was less spectacular, but we probably needed more time to explore. There is a walk along the face of the rock formations that goes for about 2.5 kilometres and would be well worth the stroll in either the morning or afternoon light.
The rest of the trip was basically a bit more exploration as we checked out the Tomato Island campground on the Roper River and the Lorella Springs coastal campsites for a future fishing trip. The Tomato Island campground had been significantly developed and now sports hot showers and nice clean facilities. On the way back home we swung South just before Doomadgee and spent a few nights at Lawn Hill, enjoying Adelle’s Grove and a beautiful paddle up the gorge in a hired canoe. If you are going to visit Lawn Hill, don’t bother camping anywhere other than Adelle’s Grove, which is a beautiful shady spot with swimming for all ages, facilities, and a bar and restaurant setup if you are feeling lazy after a load of travel.
I won’t bother to elaborate on these locations further, as plenty has been written by others already, and with low water levels at Lorella, it was not the best time of year to visit. I was however very impressed with the campgrounds at Tomato Island, and the hosts at Lorella Springs, and am planning return visits to both locations already.
In general, the roads from Normanton to the Roper River were in reasonable shape, with a few sections being heavily corrugated, and plenty of gibber sized rocks to avoid. Several people we met who were towing vans had some pretty tough going through these areas.
We also didn’t come through unscathed and blew a tyre in one of these rough sections. I think I likely sliced a sidewall on one of the larger rocks on the road. After a quick change, we were back on our way. The tyre, however, was completely shagged and I was glad to have the second spare before we headed down to Lawn Hill.
For info, Kingfisher Camp is definitely now closed, so don’t plan on stopping there like we had.
The only other incident we suffered was a large rock thrown up by a passing vehicle towing a camper trailer. This completely destroyed the windscreen and bloody nearly came right through. Our efforts to find a replacement windscreen from Burketown back to Normanton, and everywhere else, were a complete failure. I originally had it in mind that it shouldn’t be too hard to find a windscreen (or any parts) for a 79 series Toyota in Western Queensland as the bloody things are everywhere. How wrong I was! No one had anything, and best they could do was a three-day wait while they got one in. We decided that despite the smashed-in hole about the size of my palm, and the cracks from top to bottom and left to right, we would limp East until someone had one. As it turned out, Cairns was the only place that had one in stock.
So, how did the new truck perform? A Redarc Solar Regulator failed on day two for unknown reasons, but as this was for the third battery, and we were pretty much on the move each day, it didn’t affect our trip. I also found one of the under bonnet battery tray’s was coming loose, but daily checks picked this up and I was able to rectify things before it became an issue. The sidesteps also developed a vibration that was fixed with a bolt, and one of the tweeters on the car stereo vibrated loose.
The oil levels didn’t change over the roughly 4000klm run, and I changed the air filter out for a new one when we were halfway back as the dust was pretty thick on the original. Otherwise, everything worked as it should and we were both pretty happy with the performance and convenience of the camping canopy design.
In Summary – Limen National Park and the Lost Cities are an awesome place to visit, and should definitely be on the destination list if touring around this wonderful country.