Using dirt airstrips, Bruce Elder discovers a lost city, silica dunes and fields of fossils way beyond the beaten track.
If you decide to buy a caravan and circumnavigate the continent on Highway 1, like so many Australians, you will miss many of the nation's most compelling attractions in northern Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Kimberley because they are hopelessly inaccessible.
From Mount Isa via Cloncurry to Lawn Hill National Park is 520 kilometres, for example, most of it on single track or dirt road. Cairns to Cape York is 1027 kilometres and once you've reached the northern tip, all you can do is turn around and bump back - 2054 kilometres just so you can say you drove to Cape York.
The same applies to Burketown, Borroloola and Karumba. In the case of the magnificent Lost City in Arnhem Land and the mountainous silica sand dunes and perched freshwater lakes on Cape York - two of the little-known wonders of this continent - there is no road access at all.
There is an ideal way to see these wonders: fly, preferably low and slowly. Land on isolated airstrips, stay in places so remote they are accessible only by boat and take your chances with the crocodiles, mosquitoes, vast mangrove flood plains and the impenetrable rainforests in which the sound of a chainsaw has never been heard. This is territory as far away as Mars and as familiar as the jungles of the Congo for most urban Australians.
With this in mind, we board the legendary 1937 Lockheed Electra. Named the Silver City, it was bought by the former chairman of BHP, Essington Lewis, and was probably the first executive aeroplane in Australia. It is now owned by an aircraft enthusiast from Rolleston in Queensland, Ross Smith, who flies it with Darren Christiansen, a pilot from Roma. Although Smith bought the plane some years ago, he sees himself more as its custodian than its owner.
The Lockheed has been hired on this trip by John Dyer, the 28-year-old manager of Air Adventure Australia, as reconnaissance for the company's journeys. Dyer's father, Rod, established the company in 1977 when he started flying friends to Ellenbrae, a 400,000-hectare property in the Kimberley that he leased from the West Australian government. Since that informal beginning, the company has grown and specialises in upmarket air holidays to spectacular places that are difficult or impossible to reach by road.
In the dry winter months, the historic Lockheed will be replaced by a Cessna 208 that carries 10 passengers, a guide and a pilot. A 14-day journey around the gulf costs $12,990 a person; already the first flight on July 28 is fully booked.
Once we have reached far western Queensland, the route we take is a U-shaped arc around the gulf, starting in Longreach, heading north to Lawn Hill National Park, flying past the Lost City to Groote Eylandt, back to the fishing town of Karumba, around and up the east side of the gulf to Cape York, back to Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef, down to Bloomfield Lodge in the Daintree and finishing with a 14-kilometre walk up Carnarvon Gorge.
In Longreach we spend a couple of hours at the Stockman's Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Museum and drive out to Longway, an 8094-hectare property with a gracious two-storey heritage-listed timber house. Here we are entertained by the daughter of Queensland grandee Sir James Walker and a prominent member of the Longreach community, Rosemary Champion, who opens her home to groups and offers tea, scones and a drive through the gidgee. In the evening we listen to bush poetry and dine on the banks of the Thomson River.
This is a gentle introduction to the harsh isolation of the gulf country. Our next stop is Lawn Hill National Park, now known as Boodjamulla National Park, which is famous for the ancient and beautiful Lawn Hill Gorge and Riversleigh fossil site.
Canoes, fossils and a Lost City
We fly relatively low - never more than 5000 feet (1525 metres) - over the pancake-flat gulf country, uninterrupted by even the bump of a hillock. When we cross the mighty Diamantina, which is in flood, we marvel at a tangle of braided channels sprawling across the now-green plains. Occasionally we pass over the scars of open-cut mines - lead, silver, copper and zinc - until, near Lawn Hill, we pass over the huge open-cut MMG Century mine. This is now so productive the company has built a 304-kilometre underground slurry pipeline to transfer mineral concentrates to Karumba on the gulf.
Boodjamulla National Park has two major attractions: the Riversleigh fossil fields and a gorge where, albeit unwittingly, the visitor can swim in impossibly clear water with shy freshwater crocodiles.
The Riversleigh fossil fields (known as the D Site) has been a World Heritage site since 1994 but is likely to be a huge disappointment to anyone other than a palaeontologist with a pick and shovel. You might go expecting to see impressive examples of 25 million-year-old fossils of exotic fauna but all you will inspect is a tiny remnant of the limb bone of a freshwater croc, a small piece of a turtle shell and the drumstick of an ancient avian known by the less-than-scientific name of ''Big Bird''. The famous Riversleigh fossils of giant pythons, carnivorous kangaroos and marsupial lions are nowhere to be seen. They have been been moved to distant museums and the Riversleigh Fossil Centre in Mount Isa.
But there is still magic at Lawn Hill. Canoeing up the gorge, which is edged by cabbage palms, pandanus, eucalypts and water lilies, and then diving into the clear waters at Indarri Falls is a reminder of the pristine peacefulness of this seldom-visited wonderland.
Dyer and Smith spend the evening determining the exact co-ordinates of the Lost City, which they hope to fly over on the way to Groote Eylandt. But already the late monsoon rains, which should have departed a month earlier, are threatening this leg of the journey. During the night, spent in comfortable tented accommodation at Adels Grove on the edge of the national park, there is a tropical downpour that roars on the corrugated-iron roofs above the tents. In the morning the dirt airstrip is dangerously soft and storm clouds are hanging low.
We make our way up the coast and see the magnificent Lost City. It is like a much larger version of the Bungle Bungles and, apart from hardy walkers and bush bashers, is accessible only by air.
Soon, though, we're turned back by a solid black wall of rain-filled clouds before we reach Groote Eylandt. With unanimous agreement, we head to the gulf fishing town of Karumba.
Crabs, crocs and Karumba
On the banks of the Norman River, Karumba is 71 kilometres from Normanton on a road to nowhere. In the winter, anglers from across Australia arrive to try their luck in the fish-rich waters of the gulf. For $25 a person, Bernadette, the taxi driver and school bus driver, conducts tours of her wild town. We drive past the infamous Animal Bar, which, at one time, was so unruly the furniture was bolted to the floor, more to prevent it being thrown than stolen.
In recent years, Karumba has evolved into two interconnected towns. There's the ''commercial centre'', with its wharves, barramundi farm, prawn-processing plant and MMG Century mine loading facility; and there's the ''tourist centre'', with a large four-star motel, caravan parks, cafes, the Sunset Tavern with superb views across the mouth of the Norman River and, most impressively, its Croc and Crab Tours, run by Mark and Julianne Grunske.
The Grunskes have designed their own boat so pots containing Karumba's glorious mud crabs can be lifted in, where Mark can demonstrate the fine arts of crab handling and tying. The vessel can reverse on to a sand island at the mouth of the river, where passengers can alight, gaze in wonder as the sky turns red and feast on freshly cooked mud crabs, huge gulf banana prawns and sushi.
By now we are facing monsoonal rainstorms blowing in off the Coral Sea. We abandon plans to fly to the cape and head across to the Lockhart River and up the coast. At one point the cloud cover is so low that as we fly over the mountains towards the river, we are only about 300 metres above the ground and able to gasp, with a twinge of terror, at the dense, virgin rainforest. It's wildly beautiful. Further up the coast, mountainous dunes of silica sands and freshwater perched lakes gleam in the sunlight that filters through the clouds.
Cape York art galleries
We turn around and fly down Cape York to Laura, where we meet up with Steve Trezise, the son of the famous Percy Trezise, who discovered most of the rock art in the vast area of Cape York that lies to the west of Cooktown. We drive for nearly an hour over an increasingly bumpy and ill-defined road. After some ''we're not really lost'' searching, we descend through two rocky outcrops to a series of impressive rock art galleries - as good as, if not better than, the galleries in Kakadu. This is Aboriginal art at its most potent and seductive. There are images of fruit bats lined up and upside down on the cave wall, huge crocodiles, kangaroos, emus, wallabies, turtles, rainbow serpents and sacred deities, known as Quinkans, which stare from the ancient cave walls. Only 150 people a year are permitted to view these walls. Trezise explains that his father, an Ansett pilot who flew regularly across the region, began to recognise rocky outcrops he thought might be galleries. He logged their location and then, in his spare time, navigated unchartered tropical terrain. What he discovered was hugely important and unforgettable.
Heart of the Daintree
The next stop is Bloomfield Lodge, on the coast some 120 kilometres south of Cooktown and deep in the Daintree. It is owned and operated by a British travel company, Trailfinders, and up to 80 per cent of its guests are from Britain. What they experience is five-star eco luxury in the heart of the Daintree, with excellent meals, thoughtful service and a specially designed boat that is towed by tractor to the shoreline so no one gets wet. On its program is a two-hour guided walk through the rainforest and a trip up the Bloomfield River, exploring the ecology of the mangrove swamps that edge the river and watching for saltwater crocodiles idly searching for places on the shore where they can bask in the sun. On the way back, we notice some Aborigines spearfishing and jumping into the croc-infested waters as though such dangers are no more daunting than crossing a busy city road.
Living fossils in Carnarvon Gorge
Our final stop is the Carnarvon National Park, which contains some of Australia's finest Aboriginal rock paintings and carvings. It lies about 40 kilometres off the road between Roma and Emerald, which means many travellers passing through Queensland ignore the park, preferring either the coast road or the western road from Charleville to Longreach.
Carnarvon Gorge is one of the wonders of Australia, with its cabbage tree palms and ancient cycads. It has one of the easiest 21-kilometre walks imaginable, winding along the valley floor and criss-crossing Carnarvon Creek on stepping stones that are so stable and well placed you could breakdance across the water and never fall in.
A huge Aboriginal art gallery lies 5½⁄ kilometres from the park's information centre. The gallery is notable for the large number of vulva carved into the rock walls (no prizes for guessing that it was a sacred site) and 2000 hand stencils, including tiny ones from dead children, and ochre images of boomerangs, white goannas, coolamons and fishing nets.
The gorge contains cycads that are the living remnants of flora that died out millions of years ago in the drier zones above the gorge. Special places include the amphitheatre, a glorious hidden grotto with walls covered in moss, and the Moss Garden, a fairytale gorge of mosses, tree ferns and liverworts where water drips constantly - a retreat on the hottest of central Queensland days.
The journey is over and I'm reminded that I've seen places that have eluded me for two decades. When I drove around Australia in the 1980s, twice, I visited Longreach and Karumba but avoided most of the places on this itinerary. They were at the end of roads to nowhere or were too difficult, or impossible, to access by land. It has taken more than 20 years for me to see the Lost City, the mouth of the Bloomfield River, Carnarvon Gorge, the Quinkans at Laura and the silica dunes on Cape York - among the most magical places in a continent full of drama and beauty.
Bruce Elder travelled courtesy of Air Adventure Australia.
Air Adventure Australia has a 13-day Gulf Getaway to Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria for $12,990 a person, twin share, departing Melbourne on July 28 and August 20. An expanded Gulf Getaway air safari of 14 days, with five double overnight stays for about $13,500 a person, twin share, will be launched for the 2011 season. Other air safari itineraries include the Kimberley, Freycinet and Cradle Mountain in Tasmania and Lake Eyre in flood. Phone (03) 5572 1371, see www.airadventure.com.au.