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.