Townsville to Normanton via Mt Isa
“The Great North Eastern Loop” is a 2,000km circuit of sealed roads using Charters Towers, Cloncurry, Normanton and (kinda) Mt Garnet as its defining corner points
It’s for riders who want to experience the outback at its brilliant, lonely, extraordinary, varied, (I’ve-run-out-of-adjectives) best. As with any loop you can join anywhere, but most riders will be coming in from the coast or up from the south, so I’m starting this monotravelogue from Charters Towers, one of the finest inland towns you are going to find, and this month we’ll get you to Normanton up on the Gulf.
It’s a loop that requires more time and more planning than most social rides but any rider making the effort will be rewarded with a rainbow of experiences which will never be forgotten.
I suggest you don’t allocate less than a week to doing entire circuit and it’s best suited to camping; camping rough at least two out of every three nights. Travelling through the top end can be an endless trial of being exploited and ripped-off by retailers and accommodation providers who know you have few options to what they are offering. Camping rough arms you with an alternative to avoid at least the accommodation exploiters who, shackled by the wet season, see no problem in doing everything possible to make 12 months income from 7 months work!
If you’re camping one of the best places to overnight before heading west is on the eastern side of the Burdekin River some 17km to the east of CT. Macrossan Park is always choccas with mobile homes but it’s also huge and you’ll have no issue finding a quiet patch. Some of the track in is a bit sandy.
Or if you want to get a head start, the first decent camping spot west of CT is on the eastern side of the Campaspe River about 90km west of the town. It’s fairly close to the road but again you can find a quieter place.
Trips like this are about keeping two essential fluids up: your water and your fuel so top up and every opportunity. Charters has two Caltex Servos on Gill St (the town’s main drag. The more easterly one sells 91,95 and 98 whilst the outlet a bit to the west sells only 91 and 95.
Once you’re full, follow the signs for Hughenden and head out with the morning sun on your back onto the Flinders Hwy. You’ll soon pass the turn south for Clermont and Emerald but keep right and head west.
If you’ve come in from the coast you’ll notice that as you leave CT, you take a step into the back edge of the bush. The horizon widens out and the sky becomes bigger, the traffic thins out and you are left with road trains, caravans and yourself.
In quick succession you’ll pass Pentland and then Torrens Creek before you hit the town of Praire which these days is just a pub but the pub is not just a pub. I’ve already reviewed it and it’s very much worth a stop and a chat with owners Tom and Andrea and a cooling soft drink in the dentist’s chair pulled up at the bar before heading into Hughenden.
Don’t go making the mistake of looking forward to being in Hughenden! There sure aint much here! The Caltex on the left as you head into town sells 91 and some sort of premium, the only non-91 you’ll get here. Get used to this! Many of the servos have ‘Unleaded’ and ‘Premium’ but any enquiry about the rating of the premium will be met with a blank stare!
Turn left at the only seriously good building in town, the beautiful old Grand Hotel, which is bordered up and closed down and as you head out, the country again becomes a deeper shade of desolate as you head for Julia Creek, 150 km to the west. There’s a massive free camping area on the right on the way into the Creek. The servo on the western side of town has all three grades of fuel.
About 30 kms out of Julia Creek you’ll have your first evidence that you’re in the ‘Channel Country’ as you cross the Gilliat Canals. Take it slow here and look around, pull over and take it in. Imagine it in flood. Imagine the immensity. You have crossed over now. As the earth goes from black to red, as the anthills become ubiquitous and taller, you realize that you have left the bush, you are now in the outback, the red core of this country. Only the lucky ones who have been this far out will understand that difference.
About 110 km short of Cloncurry there is a very nice free camping area. If you are planning on the side trip down to Mt Isa, this is a good overnight option.
Cloncurry has three hotels and all the services you are going to need. If you are sticking to the loop and not heading a bit west to Isa, this will be your last taste of anything resembling a larger country hub town until you get back to Charters Towers, so stock up on all your essentials, you are about to meet the vast!
If the day is wearing on, I suggest that you fill up on everything, and head out of town. I rate the Post Office Hotel as one of the most unfriendly places I’ve stayed at, and a far better bet, if you’re equipped for camping, is head west over the Cloncurry River, take the turn right for Normanton and cruise about 45 km up the highway to Qamby where the signs promise food, drink, fuel and a bed.
Don’t believe any of it. The town was only the pub, and it’s closed down. It’s a sad sight now, but if you are ready to quit for the night there are far worse places to throw your swag. There’s a great deck (supported by the tray of an old ute) still standing at the front and a secluded area out the back, all ideal for a relaxing night before ride up to the Gulf.
The only dot on your map along the Burke Development Road is the Burke and Wills Roadhouse, about 170kms out of Cloncurry. This is without doubt one of the slackest ‘servos’ you’ll ever be forced to endure. The backpacker staff are ignorant of any history, culture or directions and the boss, well he simply doesn’t seem to give a toss. At 11.00 am there was no-one else in the place so I asked him about the bone dry squeegee in the arid bucket and he told me they’d been very busy that morning. I looked at the four backpacker staff serving no-one then I sat outside in the shade for 45 minutes. No-one came out except to crouch on the front step and roll a durie. Two days later at Normanton I was chatting in the Purple Pub with a couple who’d just come through and yes, that bucket was still bone dry!
You should budget 200kms to the next servo at Normanton and buy the minimum of fuel (they only have 91) you need from this bloke. (Oh and don’t even think of staying at the red dirt dust bowl which is the adjoining ‘camping’ area!
Again the vegetation changes; For km after km the side of the road will be black from fires, then lush, then wide open grazing and then back to the blackened fires. Many anthills near the roadside have been adorned with travellers’ T shirts or hats. This is an entertaining stretch until you roll past the Savannah Way turn to the east followed by its turn to the west and then you are in Normanton, probably your stop for the night!