Starting in Tropical North Queensland and finishing in the Top End, this epic 3500-kilometre journey of a lifetime from Cairns to Darwin cuts through a sensational swathe of northern Australia’s tablelands, savannah, cattle stations and rust-red outback.
This is the eastern half of the Savannah Way, if you are considering doing it all, then you will also need our itinerary and guide to the western half, Darwin to Broom.
Here’s our 14-day adventure itinerary outlining the why, what and where of this eastern half of the trans-continental Savannah Way.
Day 1: Cairns to Undara – 404 kilometres; about five hours
Leave early and follow the Bruce Highway south from Cairns. Turn onto Route 52 into the rainforest-clad Atherton Tablelands. Take a break at Lake Eacham, and admire Little Millstream Falls near Ravenshoe. You’re now on Route 1 (National Highway) all the way to Darwin. Continue west to Undara Experience – try to arrive in time for a sunset wildlife tour. Accommodation here ranges from cabins to converted railway carriages and a campground.
Day 2: Undara
After yesterday’s long drive, relax in Undara Volcanic National Park, where the outback begins and 164 ancient volcanoes pepper the landscape. Early morning is perfect for admiring the abundant birdlife. Then explore the amazing lava tubes, go bushwalking or mountain biking, and admire bats and stars after sunset.
Day 3: Undara to Croydon – 300 kilometres; about 3 hours
Continue west to former gold-mining settlement Georgetown and check out the mineral collection at The Terrestrial Centre. Your destination for the night, Croydon, also has a gold-mining history and has an interesting heritage precinct.
Consider detouring to Cobbold Gorge for an afternoon cruise surrounded by sculpted red sandstone cliffs. This will however take an extra day. Stay at luxe Gilberton Outback Retreat and explore rock art, gold-mining history and wildlife.
Day 4: Croydon to Karumba – 125 kilometres; about 2.3 hours
The Savannah Way skirts the Gulf of Carpentaria, but this is one of a few chances to see the coast. First, pass through Mutton Hole Wetlands north of Normanton for stunning birdlife, including brolgas and black swans. Karumba is a great spot to charter a fishing boat. Visit the fascinating Barramundi Discovery Centre and enjoy an evening meal at the Sunset Tavern.
Day 5: Karumba to Burketown – 300 kilometres; about 3.5 hours
Hard to resist pausing in Normanton for a photo at its eight-metre crocodile (relax, it’s a replica) and lurid Purple Pub. Burketown on the Albert River is another terrific spot to tackle barramundi, so be sure to pack your fishing rod, or you can hire one locally. Take a sunset cruise or stargazing tour with indigenous-owned Yagurli Tours.
Day 6: Burketown to Seven Emu Station (NT border) – 450 kilometres; about 5 hours
Whiz on west, filling up with petrol at Hells’ Gate Roadhouse and passing over the border into the Northern Territory. Your destination is working cattle station Seven Emu Station, where the campsites overlook the Robinson River. Enjoy birdwatching, fishing for trevally and mackerel, and chatting to the Shadforth family about their traditional Garawa culture. Seven Emu Station is accessible by 4WD only. Check road conditions before visiting.
Day 7: Seven Emu Station to Lorella Springs – 260 kilometres; about 3.5 hours
Stock up on supplies at Borroloola. Birdwatchers should detour to Caranbirini Conservation Reserve, keen anglers to King Ash Bay, renowned for its barramundi. Then head into the 4000-square-kilometre Lorella Springs Wilderness Park, which has a choice of camping or air-conditioned cabins.
Day 8: Lorella Springs
Enjoy a day’s R&R at Lorella Springs Wilderness Park, which is surrounded by Indigenous land and Limmen National Park’s abundant waterways, savannah, beach-scalloped coast, gorges and rocks formations such as the rusted columns nicknamed the Lost City.
This is the quintessential NT wilderness experience. You might discover waterfalls, thermal springs, rock art and fossils. Fishing, swimming, bushwalking and birdwatching will also keep you occupied.
Day 9: Lorella Springs to Daly Waters – 400 kilometres; about 5 hours
There’s no hiding the fact you have a long, lonely drive today, and not a single town along the way except Arnold, population about 30. Then you hit the Stuart Highway that runs from Darwin to Adelaide. Turn right and aim to stay at The Daly Waters Pub, which has motel, cabins, budget rooms and camping. The eccentric outback pub features bras hanging from the ceiling, and great beef-and-barramundi barbecues during the dry season.
Day 10: Daly Waters to Katherine – 280 kilometres; about 3 hours
Head north, pausing at Larrimah, which has another historic bush pub and Second World War museum, and at Mataranka, made famous in the 1908 Jeannie Gunn novel, We of the Never-Never. You will find turquoise spring water pools perfect for a plunge in adjacent Elsey National Park, a landscape patchworked with savannah woodland, stone country and monsoon rainforest. Overnight in Katherine or 20 minutes away at Katherine Gorge, where you’ll find campgrounds and the luxury Cicada Lodge.
Day 11: Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge
You’ll want to spend the day in this series of spectacular gorges in Nitmiluk National Park and stay for sunset, when the cliffs glow red. Take a river cruise, paddle a hired kayak and take to the hiking trails. It is worth splashing out on a scenic flight, which offers breathtaking views over the stunning countryside. Check out the newly reopened Baruwei Lookout for jaw-dropping views over the ancient gorge system. (nitmiluktours.com.au)
Day 12: Katherine to Litchfield National Park – 250 kilometres; about 2.5 hours
As you head out the next day, Leliyn (Edith Falls) is another Nitmiluk National Park must-see just north of Katherine, where you can enjoy a swim or hike. Your next stops should be former gold-rush town Pine Creek and Adelaide River, famous for its jumping crocodile cruises. Finish your day in accommodation at Batchelor, gateway to Litchfield National Park, or camp in the park itself.
Day 13: Litchfield National Park
There are plenty of waterfalls and waterholes in Litchfield National Park that are accessible via sealed roads: Florence Falls and Buley Rockhole are popular among both locals and visitors. Head to Wangi Falls where you can take a short rainforest walk or book a scenic heli flight year-round. Don’t forget to stop for a photo at the peculiar looking magnetic termite mounds along the way, which take on an orange glow at sunset.
Day 14: Litchfield National Park to Darwin – 110 kilometres; about 1.5 hours
Your destination is in sight, but you might also consider stopping at Berry Springs Nature Park for a swim and Territory Wildlife Park to see the full range of outback animals, including nocturnal creatures seldom seen in the wild.
For more information read our survival guide on driving in the outback and this story on driving in the NT.
If you are taking on the entire Savannah Way, Cairns to Broome, then check out our itinerary and guide to the western half, Darwin to Broome.
Distances are approximate; add on detours. Hours refer to driving time only.
You need a 4WD, as sections of road on this route are unsealed. You could, however, do the first and last sections in a 2WD.
Travel in the dry season (from May to October). Avoid the wet season, as roads may be impassable and you risk getting stranded.
Keep watch on the fuel gauge, as petrol stations are infrequent. Carry water and consider bringing a satellite phone, as mobile reception can be patchy or non-existent.
Don’t swim without authoritative local advice, since waterways may be inhabited by saltwater crocodiles.