When ever I see on a map the words, Developmental Road, it always grabs my attention for being a less used route. Apparently the name Developmental comes from the roads being under constant development and a lot are damaged or washed away from the severe wet seasons in the north of Australia.
One fact is that they are always gravel, are variable in their conditions and originally they were built to facilitate the transport of stock in the far reaches of Qld.
Spending time at the Karumba in the gulf of QLD and looking for an alternative across to the east coast, I spied the Bourke Developmental Road ( BDR ). Karumba’s a bit of a strange town as if you're not a fisherman there’s honestly not a lot to do.
Located right on the banks of the Normanton River the waters are apparently rich with Barramundi and Gulf Banana Prawns which are the towns main industry. After visiting the Barramundi Discovery Centre where you can learn the history and behaviour of the Barra and other aspects of town, eat at the sunset bar which is one of the few places in QLD where you can watch a sunset over the ocean, that’s about it for Karumba.
The BDR caught my eye for several reasons, it was a long way between fuel stops which meant maybe less travelled for others and it ran along several rivers for a few miles so hopefully good for remote camping.
Leaving Karumba it’s a sealed road to the start of the BDR ( or on some maps the Normanton-Dimbullah Road ) just 41 km away, and right from the start there’s warning signs regarding no fuel for 600 km and rough roads.
The BDR heads in a NE direction for nearly 260km passing through open savannah plains and woodlands and at the time we travelled on it about 4 million corrugations which definatly found new rattles in the old cruiser.
About 100km into the trip there’s signage for Van Rook station. Now while it's not possible to enter the gates this empire consists of over 1,000,000 hectares of prime grazing land broken into 4 different stations dating back to 1883.
The dutch bearing name Van Rook refer to early coastal explorers who sailed past the top of Australia in the 1600’s. The stats for this station is staggering, they run approximately 100,000 head of pure Brahman cattle, one out station is surrounded by water on three sides, some have fresh waterholes nearly 20km long, another is bordered by remote shell covered beaches and Van Rook is regarded as the largest station in Queensland.
This section of the BDR runs diagonally with the gulf coastline for 260km with several massive bridges across rivers flowing out to the gulf. Being only 100km to the coastline, there’s always a good chance to see a few crocs along the way if there’s any water in these rivers. They may only be freshies, but be croc wise.
It's not long before the BDR takes a sharp turn to the right and starts heading directly east along the Mitchell River at Dunbar Station. The landscape seems to change where there’s more moisture in the ground, the trees are greener and the low scrub thicker. Our camp for the night was at the Drumduff Crossing on the banks of the Mitchell River.
The crossing over the water is a long low concrete causeway which acts like a weir holding back water on one side, yet the water can cascade over when there’s flow. What blew me away was that even tho the causeway was just 200 metres across, during the wet season the river is nearly 2km wide and this was apparent by the amount of sand that the road traversed out the other side towards Drumduff Station.
This is one of those camps where you plan for one night and stay a few more. Just a stunning place where the serenity pulls you in, the water is cool on a warm day and the birdlife is amazing. Recent reports said that Barra were caught upstream of the causeway, but unfortunately none were spotted or hooked during our stay.
We did however see several small fresh water crocs away from the camp and at night it was possible to see their beady red eyes glow from the torch beams. What did blow us away were the small bull sharks in this landlocked waterway. Totally used to the fresh water, we must of saw a dozen at any onetime. I had to give it a go, fishing for sharks in the gulf. Hooked 20 -landed 1. Fun!!
The BDR from Drumduff eastward starts to change with mountains in the distance giving life to the barren landscape that we have left behind. Waterholes filled with lily-pads and alive with birdlife are an indication that there is life out here still. Brolga’s, Wren’s, Jabiru’s and even Ibis congregate around the waters edge looking for a feed.
Crossing the Lynd and the Walsh Rivers are another stop over to look for crocs if there is any water flow but at the end of the dry season nothing can be guaranteed. The road soon swings towards the south and heads towards the Sentinel Range where towering peaks seem to pop out of no where, but this volcanic area has been weathering away for more than 400 million years.
The Chillagoe-Mungana Karst Caves National Park are known world wide for its ancient aboriginal art work, nearby heritage and an estimated 600 - 1000 stunning limestone caves within the park.
Luckily there’s a handful with easy access to explore and honestly be blown away with what nature has created. One of the better ones is 30 km before Chillagoe in the Mungana Reserve named the Archways.
A labyrinth of caves, and walkways are near spell bounding where tall trees shoot skyward seeking sunlight and stretching above for any moisture in the air.
It's an amazing walk through the different rooms exploring the rock formations and cosy caves. Outside there’s the Mungana Rock Art site where a host of ancient Aboriginal paintings depict a story from years ago in a peaceful area.
In conjunction with volcanic rock, minerals are normally found nearby and within a few kilometres towards Chillagoe the turn to Mungana mine historical mine soon caught our attention.
An easy road in it stops at the once rich and rough town site of Mungana, where way back in 1896 Copper was found. A smelter, rail line back to Chillagoe and town was set up here, but it was a harsh area with lack the lack of water, facilities and food plaguing the workers for many years.
Walking around the area where the town once was beside the rail head, there’s evidence of buildings, a few relics, the rail line is till there with uneven sleepers yet the info boards depict a picture of prosperity and hope.
Sadly in the early 1940’s the OK mine closed and the people blended into other areas within the district. Originally horses and camels were used around the mine but the horses started to bolt and were erratic when the camels and cameleers came too close.
Soon only camels were used to transport the copper from the mines but during this time the animals were getting sick from eating the leaves off the Iron Wood Tree. But a bit of smart thinking in 1907 by head Cameleer Abdul Wade bought several steam driven tractors in to move the heavy loads from the mines. At the peak of production there were 13 tractor engines operating, and when the mines closed Japanese interests bought all but one of them. The last one was sent to Atherton where it was used to haul timber.
The last stretch of road to Chillagoe is sealed and something not to be missed in town is the heritage listed Chillagoe Smelter site. Huge amounts of Copper were found here in the early 1880’s and this subsequently opened far north Queensland up for more mining exploration.
At the peak of production over 1000 people were employed within the mines. But come 1914 and the mine shut for the duration of WW1, but failed to re-open due to financial problems and the the over capitalisation of the mine.
Over the next few years the QLD government took ownership and recommenced operations trying to help through the depression years. But sadly during this time it failed and the smelters closed once and for all. Today the site has been cleaned up but there’s public viewing areas that over look the chimneys, the main smelter area, tunnels and much more.
Walking tracks lead you over the back to where the managers grand house once stood over looking the stunning Featherbed Ranges to the east. Another walking trail takes you to view the largest remaining slag heap left in Queensland. After processing the ore, the left over material ( a thick liquid called slag ) was transported by a trolley on rails with large bell pots on the side to be dumped. It's estimated that nearly a million tonnes of waste was dumped to make this slag pile.
There was vision by John Moffat to create a network of rail lines from the smaller mines back to the massive Chillagoe smelter works but reports of corruption, mismanagement and scandals soon bought everything to a halt. They say that the Chillagoe Smelter works never made a profit in any year, only supported the town through a flow on effect where there once was 10 hotels, a bustling town centre and relevant services. Today Chillagoe is a quaint drive through outback country town where history blends in with the new.
The BDR continues on towards Dimbulah and is a mixture of dirt and sealed road. While the whole road can be done cautiously in a modern day car, but a 4wd is highly recommended due to the lack of road maintenance, wet weather events smashing the area or just finding those little out of the way camp sites. Listed as one of Australia’s most dangerous roads and at over 1,000km long the Bourke Developmental Road is any thing but boring if you're keen to heighten your sense of adventure.