Burketown: expedition through the Gulf Savannah
December 21, 2019 • Katie Williams
5 min read
Have you ever wondered how some of Australia’s remote outback lands have changed over time? Tried to imagine what it was like back in the gold rush era? Thought about what other history possibly lies amongst the dusty roads and barren landscape? We reckon we’ve stumbled across a pretty incredible place where some of these answers can be found_—_a unique township out along the Savannah Way in Queensland’s Gulf Country called Burketown.
There’s no disputing the natural beauty of Burketown. It shows off so many different elements of nature and history. From the ocean and its salt pans, to untamed rivers, sandstone escarpments and some of the most amazing animals and plant life—we were blown away by the stunning landscape. But it was the link we learned of, to explorers Burke and Wills and the strong stories Burketown holds from the past, that we found too fascinating not to share!
Burke and Wills camp 119
Camp 119 marks the most northern camp of the Burke and Wills expedition from 1861, because mangroves blocked their way any further north into the Gulf. The expedition started a year earlier, when a handful of men set out to cross the Australian continent from south (starting in Melbourne) to north (ending in the Gulf of Carpentaria), journaling their observations to share with other European settlers as most of inland Australia was still largely unknown to the non-Indigenous people.
It's worth noting this camp is not physically in Burketown, but you can visit on your way in or out. It’s closer to Normanton near the Little Bynoe River however we thought it was worth a mention as it forms part of the history of the area, and some of the history at the Landsborough Tree mentions it.
The Landsborough Tree
The story of the Landsborough Tree relates to a search party led by William Landsborough sent to find missing explorers Burke and Wills when their expedition did not return as intended. The story goes that a large ship with six months’ supplies, 30 horses and a large cargo of beer, wine and spirits was left to rot in the Albert River after facing a tropical cyclone. Apparently, in Landsborough’s journal, he speaks of the crew drunkenly rioting over the cargo of the wreck, and how any salvaged supplies were buried near a tree with “DIG” carved into its trunk!
There’s not much left at the site that marks this tree and looking around, it’s hard to picture what would have been running through the minds of the search party crew!
The Artesian Bore
What now looks like a mini colourful volcano was once a purpose-built public bath house put together for passing travellers who’d spent days, weeks, and even years at a time trekking through the barren landscape back in the gold rush days of the 1860s. While not directly linked to the expeditions mentioned above, we do wonder if any of the crew on either mission used the bath house?!
There is no structure resembling any showers or bath house anymore, yet the bore still produces boiling water and has now created a bright and colourful billabong area that weirdly enough draws in birdlife from afar. No matter how tempting it is, don’t touch it. The water runs at around 68 degrees celsius—so it really will burn you!
The sign next to the bore has a quote from a 1963 newspaper that states “This shower building is a great boon to travellers and is greatly appreciated by all users of the roads, this being dusty county. When one has travelled extensively for many years on outback roads, a hot shower at the end of a long tiring day’s journey is sheer bliss”.
Some of the other sites to visit while you’re in Burketown are theBoiling Down Works,where the remnants of the unsuccessful beef exportation business lies not far from the Landsborough Tree. You can still see pieces of the rusted out machinery that had been used during its time of production.
The Salt Flats are part of the sacred lands out near Burketown. We actually skipped them this trip, as the heat was getting a bit much for us, but whenever we get back we’ll be looking into either a scenic flight, tag along 4wd tour or self-drive tour with permit as we’ve heard they are definitely a sight to behold!
For the keen fisherman, Burketown is actually known as the Barramundi Capital of Australia. For us, barra season was closed when we came through, so we weren’t able to confirm its namesake—however you can still flick a line or try croc spotting any time of year, either by boat in the Albert River, or by land at either the Albert River Boat Ramp or the old bridge referred to as the Bridge to Bottleheap, located on the Savannah Way crossing the Albert River.
Where to stay
Burketown Caravan Park is a great place to base yourself to explore the history and stunning landscapes of the area, especially if you’re coming past as the warmer months and need power (and air-con)! With friendly staff and all the basic facilities, you’ll enjoy your nights here, watching the sunsets from your caravan.
There are quite a few unpowered bush camps around too, most requiring permits that you can grab from the information centre in town if that’s your preferred accommodation type.