The Savannah Way

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The Savannah Way from Cairns to Broome is one of the most interesting stretches of road on earth. At first glance, it is difficult to make a comparison to any other piece of transportation infrastructure out there. The nearly 500 mile span from Atherton to Normanton that  I traveled services no more than a few thousand total residents in a handful of remote towns, which begs the question why bother to pave it at all?

Upon further inspection, it becomes clear that this route is more of an extension of the Australian way of life than traditional thoroughfare. It serves as a reminder of what Australia used to be, and provides access to the recreational and historical elements that make up a fair portion of the national identity.

Most Australians live on the east coast of their USA-sized landmass. Consequently, they don’t typically go inland very often, and those that do face some of the least forgiving conditions and most deadly critters on the planet. In particular: crocodiles, brown snakes, and spiders of all shapes and sizes. Those that venture out this way (and even more so those that dwell here) are keen on adventure, isolation, and the raw exhilaration that accompanies the highest form of exposure.

Steve Humphries, Dennis Wheeler (see previous post on these fellas) and I departed Cairns at 8:30am on Friday, June 1 amidst a piss-pounding tropical downpour. As we ascended the highlands west of Cairns, the rain intensified and the temperature dropped. I was fortunate to have a fully waterproof, properly layered Klim Traverse riding suit and heated grips, which made the miserable context a non-issue.

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We passed through the Atherton Tableands and finally–shortly after lunch time–came into some clear weather. The Kennedy Highway straightened out a bit, and the homogenous treed savannah began to take shape. There isn’t much vertical geography to this region, but the planer scenery is still impressive.

Cattle ranches and kangaroo carcasses pepper the 2 lane route for the duration. The rancid stench of dead roo crept into my helmet about every 400 meters for most of the day, solidifying my awareness of the first rule of adventure touring: never ride at night. The scavenger hawks of the Bush are particularly well fed along this stretch of road.

There were close calls. I nearly ran over a venomous tiger snake that was taking in some rays in the middle of the road. On several occasions, I was forced to slow down or completely stop for free ranging cattle in the road. Hit one of these at speed and you aren’t likely to fair too well.

We putted along thoughtfully–stopping for fuel about every 100km and taking in the scenery–before electing to stop about an hour before dusk at the Croydon caravan park. Dinner, beers, and I was out cold in my tent by 9pm

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The next morning we awoke early to the first full day of decent weather in a week, loaded the bikes and pushed about 150km into Normanton. At the Garden Cafe, I had a cup of coffee while Dennis and Steve sat down to a proper breakfast. These guys were on their way back to Perth from an epic tour that had started with 4 riders. A blown rear shock and a bad wreck had brought their numbers down, and reinforced why it is always better to travel in groups. They were headed for Adel’s Grove. I headed southwest to Mt. Isa to check out the Travellers Haven hostel.

The comfort and security of riding in a group was gone, and I quickly settled back into a somewhat defensive mindset. Good thing. Another tank of bad gas caused the bike to run like shit right around the time I nearly clipped a cow, a roo, some sort of giant lizard and a King Brown all within 50km of each other. Get nipped by a brown and you may be on to the longest nap within a few hours.

In these parts, you never travel too far without being reminded where you are.

I jumped on the Flinders Highway west and spotted the giant belching industrial stacks of Mt. Isa by mid-afternoon–the Savannah Way now in my rear view mirror. I checked into the Travelers Haven, which appeared to serve a mixed clientele of short term workers and travelers. My 5 bed dorm consisted of 4 twenty-something Taiwanese mine workers and yours truly. Interesting folks, interesting place.

The night manager, Chris, informed me of the areas rich mining history and abundant secret haunts–including swimming holes and uranium pits. He also pointed out that Mt. Isa happens to be the largest city in the world in area at over 40,000 sq.km.

Inland Australia is vastly different from anything coastal… worlds apart.

The Outback and Tennant Creek tomorrow.

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