What’s the big deal about Boodjamulla?
For starters, this vivid green waterway that blazes a palm-fringed path through ancient sandstone and across parched spinifex plains towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, is blissfully estuarine crocodile-free. Given that so many NT waterways are currently closed to paddling and swimming (while the booming croc populations are assessed), Boodjamulla now outranks Katherine Gorge and Elsey National Park’s Roper River as the number one destination for remote, far northern river adventures.
Not only does this spring-fed savannah oasis provide river frontage campsites, budget-priced stays and easy, breezy, no-rules paddling, the swimming is sheer heaven after time spent exploring Boodjamulla National Park’s network of short walks, and the wildlife encounters – freshies, flying foxes, wallabies and more – make this far-flung destination an even more appealing option for travellers who can’t sit still.
There are no park entry fees (thank-you Queensland!), the spacious riverside campsites cost a tiny $6.15 per person, and you can paddle your own kayak for free, leaving you extra dollars to fill your tank or prolong your outback stay.
Boodjamulla National Park also throws a protective border around Riversleigh World Heritage Area (where you can check out weird and wonderful fossilised Australian mega fauna) and although everyone seems to arrive in a 4WD vehicle, the park is accessible to conventional vehicles and rigs via the tiny outback settlement of Gregory.
Tempted to tackle that long-awaited road trip? Here’s the nitty gritty to help you escape.
You’ll find Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park in Queensland’s rugged northwest corner. The smoothest access road shoots 100km west of Gregory, while off-roaders can follow a more rugged route 340km (4-5hrs) northwest of Mt Isa.
Paddling is the number one reason to head to this destination, and because you won’t be happy with just a few hours in a rental canoe, you really should bring your own, allowing you to push off into the gorge at dawn and have it all to yourself.
Allow two to three hours to tackle the 6km-long canoe adventure from Duwadarri Waterhole into Upper Gorge, following a vivid maze of fan palms and water lilies and gliding past pandanus-fringed banks and between sheer, blazing red cliffs that shoot skywards. Halfway into the trip you’ll need to get out and portage around Indarri Falls that stalls Lawn Hill’s crystal-clear creek, sending it cascading over its two-metre high drop.
This is a perfect excuse to get wet and with the help of a mask and snorkel, eyeball giant catfish, spitting archerfish and the snapping turtles that thrive in the limey, 30-metre deep pool beneath the falls. When the sun rises high, the energising spa pools beneath the falls are irresistible, and to warm up again, you could tackle the quick climb to Indarri Falls Lookout that elevates you high above the scene – all this and there’s still one more gorge to explore!
Paddling Upper Gorge is a quieter experience because not everyone makes the effort. That means you will undoubtedly spot plenty of wildlife – crimson finches flitting amongst the pandanus, and at dawn and dusk, wallabies and wild pigs drinking at the water’s edge.
Opposite the small cascades at the head of the gorge you can tie up and picnic on the banks, toying with the archerfish that spit and jump for insects and cooling yourself in the invigorating mist. These jumpy little fish that spray out jets of water to knock down insects, frequently launch themselves clean out of the creek, surprising the paddlers whose fingers often attract a nibble too.
Of all the walking trails that lead along the gorge rim and delve deep into the national park, two favourites stand out.
Don’t miss an early morning stroll along Wild Dog Dreaming (4.5km/1.5hrs return) to discover 10,000-year-old Indigenous rock art, petroglyphs, a midden of mussel shells and stone artifacts, and the huge colony of little red flying foxes that unexpectedly moved into Lower Gorge in winter 2017, according to park rangers, for the first time in recent history. Linger here to spot freshwater crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks down below.
My choice of top trails skirts alongside Lawn Hill Creek before climbing the Constance Range to a grand viewpoint over the verdant gorge and the endless spinifex and sandstone outcrops that stud the landscape. Tackle this short hike (4km, 3hrs return) in time for sunset and remember a torch for the trip back down.
Other worthy leg-stretchers include the stiff ascent to Duwadarri Lookout for 360-degree views over Middle Gorge and the surrounding escarpments (600m/30mins return), and the Island Stack track that elevates you to panoramic viewpoints along the edge of its tabletop formation (4km/2hrs return).
Boodjamulla’s oh-so-popular national park campground on the edge of Duwadarri Waterhole provides just 20, uber spacious sites. That means there’s plenty of elbowroom and quietude after dark. It’s a top choice for access to the gorge to cool off at any time of day, and to get your boat wet early or to linger late on the water.
About 10km away, a cushier, commercially run camp at Adels Grove provides hot showers and allows all the things that the national park doesn’t – campfires, pets and generator use. If you are lucky you might nab a campsite by the water, but to go hiking or launch your canoe or kayak to explore Middle and Upper Gorge, you’ll need to drive back into the national park. Also, the campsites are a tad pricier at $18 per person.
But wait, there’s more
World heritage-listed Riversleigh – also within the national park and located 50km away – showcases the fossilised remains of 25 million-year-old prehistoric mega-fauna along a short but fascinating self-guided walking trail. Think meat-eating kangaroos, giant wombats, carnivorous lions, and an almost complete skeleton of a thylacine – all of which have been unearthed on site.
This vast collection is Australia’s richest known mammal fossil deposit and one of the world’s most significant too. More than 300 fossilised species were discovered in the 1960s, and the most impressive you’ll spot is the rocky remains of Big Bird: limb bones and gizzard stones of a flightless thunderbird or dromornithid that reputedly stood around 2.5 metres tall and weighed 250-300kg.
Interpretive signage points out the fossilised bone of a five metre-long freshwater crocodile, an oversized Riversleigh turtle and bone fragments everywhere you look. D Site takes about an hour to explore and provides good displays, and close by, Miyumba Bush Camp on the Gregory River is a quiet spot to overnight if you are tackling the rugged shortcut back to the Barkly Highway and Mt Isa (330km).
Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park is located 100km west of Gregory via the Wills Developmental Road. Camping: Entry is free and campsites cost $6.15/person/night. Facilities include drinking water (boil first), toilets, cold showers, tables and a park interpretive shelter. No pets, fires, generators, fishing or motorised boats allowed. Best time to visit: Expect cool, dry conditions (12-28˚C) from May to September. The park is busy during school holidays and may be cut off by wet season rains from December to March. Top Tip: Book campsite in advance for stays from April to October (www.npsr.qld.gov.au, phone 137 468).