The bitumen is too narrow for two vehicles. One of them at least will need to go on to the sloping, gravel shoulder.
I’m with Joe, in the front passenger seat of his ageing Commodore, driving from Cairns to Karumba, a distance of over seven hundred and fifty kilometres. We’re driving through a plague of grasshoppers.
West of Mount Surprise, the Gulf Development Road narrows to a single strip of bitumen.
Joe has never driven on a road like this.
“When we meet on-coming traffic, what should I do?” he asks.
Joe’s driving has all been on motorways and city streets, and he is expert at changing lanes and reverse parking. Now he needs to learn another skill.
“When you see an oncoming vehicle, put two wheels off the bitumen,” I tell him. “Give them lots of room.”
Out of the mirage ahead of us a Toyota ute appears, heading our way, at speed. At one hundred kilometres an hour, Joe puts two wheels on to the shoulder and we fly along the gravel, past the Toyota, and back on to the bitumen.
“Maybe, next time, you should reduce speed before you do that,” I suggest to Joe.
“Good idea,” he says, drily.
Con and Joe and I going to visit our daughter Lizzie and her family. They’re living in Karumba, a small town on the mud banks of the Norman River, close to where it flows into the south-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria. Russ, a scientific assistant, spends his days sitting in a shed overlooking the river, with a microscope and tweezers, counting juvenile prawns by species: banana, king, tiger.
This is crocodile country, so no one swims in the river or in the Gulf. There are box jellyfish in these waters, as well as crocodiles. On Google Earth, the Norman River and its tributaries look like twisting tree branches or a beautiful abstract painting. Up close, it looks dangerous.
Karumba exists because of prawning and fishing. Prawns and barramundi come off the trawlers already frozen and go straight into freezer trucks destined for the southern markets.
In the winter months retirees come from the south for the fishing. That’s what Karumba is about. Prawns and fishing.
Con and I last came this way in the 1970s, on the way west to Burketown, driving our old Holden sedan. When we’d passed through Croydon, over five hundred kilometres into the trip, the sun was low and shone directly into our eyes.
The road had once been sealed, but the bitumen had worn away to sharp-edged tracks running through bull-dust. Half-blinded by the sun, Con bogged the car half off the road, and we had to wait with our young children for a tow.
Today this road is part of the Savannah Way, stretching three thousand, seven hundred kilometres from Cairns to Broome, in Western Australia, and although it’s narrow it is well maintained.
We’re following the line of the Gulflander, the rail motor that connects Croydon and Normanton with a once a week service. Built in the late 1880s to service the Croydon gold rush, now it’s a tourist attraction, a welcome sight to travellers on this lonely road as it goes rocking slowly on its way.
Mid-afternoon we meet the Burke Development Road and turn north towards Normanton. Karumba is seventy kilometres further north, and just on dusk we pull in at Lizzie’s place, a cabin behind the motel in the shade of a poinciana tree. The front of the car is plastered with dead grasshoppers.
We spend a week in Karumba, visiting the barramundi farm and going up-river with Russ to glimpse the low scrub on the barren river flats, crocodile slides showing clearly in the muddy banks. We collect hermit crabs at low tide with our grandsons, visit the tavern, admire the town brolga and swim in the motel pool before heading back to Cairns.
Lizzie and her family are enjoying their few months here, but she worries about cyclones. “There’s nowhere to go,” she says. “No hill, no safe building. A tidal surge would go right over the town and wipe it out.”
A few weeks later, in the middle of the night, Tropical Cyclone Charlotte crosses the coast at Karumba. Only one building is damaged. While Lizzie, Russ and the boys shelter in the bathroom, that poinciana tree falls and crushes their cabin. No one is hurt, so they put it down as just another Gulf Country adventure.