The great savannahs of the Gulf of Carpentaria – described by the Dutch explorer Jan Carstensz as being full of hostile tribes – were ignored for centuries after his 1623 visit, except by Indonesians gathering sea slugs to sell to the Chinese. Interest in its potential, however, was stirred in 1841 by John Lort Stokes, a lieutenant on the Beagle (which had been graced by a young Charles Darwin on an earlier voyage), who absurdly described the coast as “Plains of Promise”.
It took Burke and Wills’ awful 1861 trek to discover that the land here was deficient in nutrients and that the black soil became a quagmire during the wet season. Too awkward to develop, the Gulf hung in limbo as settlements sprang up, staggered on for a while, then disappeared – even today few places could be described as thriving communities. Not that this should put you off visiting – with few real destinations but plenty to see, the Gulf is perfect for those who just like to travel. On the way, and only half a day’s drive from Cairns, the awesome lava tubes at Undara shouldn’t be missed, while further afield there are gemstones to be fossicked, the coast’s birdlife and exciting barramundi fishing to enjoy, and the Gulf’s extraordinary sunsets and sheer remoteness to savour.Read More
Undara Lava Tubes
Undara Lava Tubes
The Undara Lava Tubes are astounding, massive subterranean tunnels running in broken chambers for up to 160km beneath the scrub – most weren’t even uncovered until the 1980s, although tool sites around the cave mouths show that local Aboriginal groups knew of their existence. The tubes were created 190,000 years ago after lava flowing from the now-extinct Undara volcano followed rivers and gullies as it snaked northwest towards the Gulf. Away from the cone, the surface of these lava rivers hardened, forming insulating tubes that kept the lava inside in a liquid state and allowed it to run until the tubes were drained. Today, thick vegetation and soil have completely covered the tubes, and they’d still be hidden if some of their ceilings hadn’t collapsed, creating a way in. These entrance caves are decked in rubble and remnant pockets of thick prehistoric vegetation quite out of place among the dry scrub on the surface.
Once inside, the scale of the 52 tubes is overpowering. Up to 19m high, their glazed walls bear evidence of the terrible forces that created them – coil patterns and ledges formed by cooling lava, whirlpools where lava forged its way through rock from other flows, and “stalactites” made when solidifying lava dribbled from the ceiling. Some end in lakes, while others are blocked by lava plugs. Animal tracks in the dust indicate the regular passage of kangaroos, snakes and invertebrates, but the overall scale of the tubes tends to deaden any sounds or signs of life. Four species of microbats use some of the tubes as a maternity chamber, emerging at night en masse to feed – up to 150,000 at a time. Lying in wait (though harmless to humans) are brown tree snakes, commonly known as night tigers, which dangle from the treetops.
Reached from Normanton along a 70km sealed stretch of cracked, burning saltpan, patrolled by saurus cranes and jabiru storks, KARUMBA sits near the mouth of the Norman River. Karumba comprises two areas – central Karumba itself, and Karumba Point, 10km downstream by the estuary, overlooking mudflats and mangroves along the river mouth where it meets the Gulf’s open seas. The town mostly survives on prawn trawling and fishing, though a major landmark is the huge sheds storing slurry from the zinc mine near Lawn Hill Gorge; the slurry is fed through pipes to Karumba, then dried and shipped overseas for refining. Declining stocks of barramundi in the Gulf have inspired the opening of the Barramundi Discovery Centre, which raises fish for release into the wild; during a one-hour tour you have the chance to hand-feed them and learn about their regeneration.