The Gulf Savannah is a vast open country offering adventure around every turn, for everyone. You can explore stunning gorges and lava tubes, descend into limestone caves, rejuvenate at hot springs and search for hidden treasures, including gold, gemstones and agates. There are country towns and termite mounds, friendly folk and the promise of an endless summer, even in winter, when the days are warm and the nights are crisp and cool, perfect for camping and campfires. If glamping is more your style, then they have that too and you don’t need a 4WD to get there – so without further ado, here’s our top tips on the Gulf Savannah.
We love the Gulf Savannah. It’s a place we escape too when we want to let the stress slide away. A place to make precious memories, as a family and with friends. A place to feel free. By day, you can do as much or little as you like, with amazing natural wonders waiting to be explored with Rangers and Guides. There’s walking tracks and trails, historic sites and towns and at the end of the day, the savannah sunsets give way to a silky night sky with a million sparking stars. Where can you go and what can you do? Read on for our Ultimate Gulf Savannah Guide.
This is our Guide to the Gulf Savannah. For those that don’t know, the Gulf Savannah is in north-west Queensland. It encompasses the area between Cairns on the eastern coast, and Karumba on the western coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. A place rich with pioneering history, natural attractions and resources. A place of cattle stations and tiny townships, linked by roads that slip in and out of being sealed and not sealed. We’ve driven these roads and prepared our Guide to the Gulf Savannah based on our personal experiences, gathered over many years and many trips. At this time, we will focus on the places we know well – O’Briens Creek, Talaroo Hot Springs, Cobbold Gorge, Agate Creek, Undara, Chillagoe, Einasleigh and Copperfield Gorge – with future destinations and information to be added to the site in due course.
Firstly, let me just say the Gulf Savannah is the most accessible outback destination around Cairns. You do not need a 4WD to get to a lot of the towns and attractions. The roads are a combination of sealed and graded dirt, often switching backwards and forwards between the two. Government works are ongoing to seal these roads, but progress is slow. All of the attractions we cover here – Talaroo Hot Springs, Cobbold Gorge, Undara and Chillagoe – are accessible in 2WD vehicles. You may encounter potholes and corrugation, you will encounter dust, but drive to the conditions and you will get where you need to go.
The Gulf Savannah is suitable for people of all ages, with reasonable mobility and a moderate level of fitness. We’ve visited as a couple and now as a family. We’ve seen everyone from Mums with bubs to grandparents and grey nomads on the roads, on the tours and in the pools. A quick run down on the tours. All the tours include boardwalks and steps, some of them are wheelchair friendly and some are not. The Cobbold Gorge, Undara and Talaroo Hot Springs tours are fine for children of all ages, but for the Chillagoe Caves I would suggest children should be at least 4 years old and able to navigate (sometimes steep) staircases. The cave tours are not suitable for wheelchairs.
The Gulf Savannah is reasonably close to Cairns but no matter where you choose to go, it will involve driving for a few hours. The closest destination to us is Chillagoe; it takes around 2 hours and 40 minutes to drive there, so you can do this on a weekend. The next closest is Undara, which is around 3 hours and 30 minutes away, then Talaroo Hot Springs and O’Briens Creek, both of which are just over a 4 hour drive away, and Cobbold Gorge is a 6 hour drive from Cairns. If you have time, it’s a great idea to combine Cobbold, Talaroo and Undara into one big road trip.
A lot of the privately owned and operated tours and attractions in the Gulf Savannah are seasonal. Cobbold Gorge, Undara Experience and Talaroo Hot Springs are all closed in the ‘wet season’, which is November to end of March. Why? Firstly, it gets very hot at that time of year. Secondly, when the rain arrives some of the roads become unpassable. So, if you want to see any of these destinations, you will need to plan your trip between April and October. The Chillagoe Cave tours run throughout the year. The cave tours are underground, and the interior temperature of the caves stays relatively cool and constant.
Good news for the non-campers, pretty much all the attractions have accommodation. Undara and Cobbold Gorge have a range of room types for your comfort. They also have campgrounds, with powered and unpowered sites, and all of the facilities that go with these, including toilets and showers, camp kitchens and laundry facilities. Talaroo Hot Springs has a limited selection of Eco Tents, which are on raised platforms, have a Queen sized bed and deck area. It also has a camping ground with the usual facilities. Chillagoe has a range of accommodation options and several campgrounds. Accommodation does tend to fill up, so book ahead to secure your preferred travel dates.
The only way to see the natural attractions at Undara, Talaroo and Cobbold Gorge is on a guided tour. Again, these can sell out so always book ahead to secure your preferred dates and tours. At Undara you can choose between two Lava Tube tours; they also have a Wildlife at Sunset tour, which includes a drink and snacks at sunset, followed by a cave visit to watch the microbats emerge, and a Bush Breakfast. Cobbold Gorge has three tours you can choose from. The Gorge Tour, which includes a boat ride in the gorge, guided walk on the escarpment and glass bridge. Scenic helicopter flights, including a sunset with cheese and wine option and Stand-Up Paddleboarding tours. Talaroo has a guided Hot Springs Discovery tour.
For the treasure seekers, the Gulf Savannah offers a wealth of fossicking and prospecting destinations, but you must be prepared to get offroad and you must purchase a license. I’ll start with O’Briens Creek, which is where you might find topaz, quartz, citrine, aquamarine and rock crystal. O’Briens Creek is around a 4 hour and 20 minute drive from Cairns coming via Mount Surprise. Georgetown and Forsayth are next, as potentially good places to prospect for gold. Georgetown is a 4 hour 30 minute drive from Cairns and Forsayth is another 30 minutes down the road. Finally, Agate Creek is the place to fossick for agates and it’s a 6 hour and 30 minute drive from Cairns.
The Gulf Savannah is one of our favourite places in the Cairns Outback. We go every year, and we always have an awesome time. In addition to the tours and attractions, there’s lots of free things you can do too. There are plenty of walking tracks and trails, including the Kalkani Crater Rim Walk near Undara, which has interpretive signage. Fossicking is nearly free – you can get a 1 month license for $9.33 per person, or $13.36 for a family – and then spend as many hours or days as you like looking for the hidden treasures. We take our SUP boards and paddle around the rivers and gorges. Our top tips when planning a Gulf Savannah trip is to book ahead and check the facilities of the places you are staying, to make sure they have what you need.
I really like going to the Gulf Savannah because it’s beautiful out there. My favorite destination is Cobbold Gorge; their scenic helicopter flights are awesome, and I could see lots of places, I would not be able to get to in the car. The Gorge tour is cool too, especially the boat ride and glass bridge. When we are at Cobbold Gorge, we sometimes go fossicking for agates at Agate Creek, which is nearby. It’s heaps of fun looking for them. The night sky in the outback is amazing – there seems to be so many more stars. Chillagoe is a cool place to go as well, the nighttime observatory was awesome, and the cave tours were really interesting. It’s just great to get away camping.
The Gulf Savannah is a vast expanse of country, dotted with tiny towns and attractions, which includes but is not limited to Undara, Mount Surprise, O’Briens Creek, Talaroo Hot Springs, Copperfield Gorge, Georgetown, Forsayth, Cobbold Gorge, Agate Creek, Croydon, Normanton, Karumba and Chillagoe. While we have been to all of these places, we haven’t spent a significant amount of time at Croydon, Normanton and Karumba (watch this space though, road trip coming soon), so we will focus on the ones we know well. All of these are accessible by conventional vehicles, with the exception of O’Briens Creek and Agate Creek, you really need a 4WD for these. Please note most of these attractions are seasonal and open from late March to October. Due to their remote locations, you need to book your tours and accommodation in advance to avoid disappointment. We love the Gulf Savannah and are sure you will too – so read on for more of our Ultimate Gulf Savannah Guide.
There’s something about Chillagoe, we just keep going back. We love the serenity and ability to explore lots of its places by ourselves. We love the giant limestone karsts that tower into the sky, the balancing rocks and of course the caves, with their stalagmites and stalactites. It’s a tiny town with a big history, which is evident everywhere you look. From the dinosaur statue, a nod to the fact this area was once an inland sea, to the Aboriginal rock art, abandoned smelters and even the bank vault on the main road. Drive time from Cairns: 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Undara is essentially a destination and an attraction. The attraction is the Lava Tubes themselves, the oldest and most intact lava tubes in the world. A prehistoric lava flow created an intriguing subterranean space, that you can explore on guided tours. Once part of a private property, the Lava Tubes are now protected in the Undara Volcanic National Park and access is on tour only. You can stay at the nearby Undara Experience, which is managed by Discovery Resorts and provides accommodation and camping facilities. There are walking tracks and trails, a swimming pool and onsite bar and restaurant. Drive time from Cairns: 3 hours and 30 minutes.
Talaroo Hot Springs is presented by the Traditional Owners, the Ewamian people, and opened to the public in 2021. These hot springs are unique in Australia with their mineral composition, and access is by guided tour only. The tour is really interesting – you learn more about the Ewamian people, their connection to country and these hot springs – and at the end, you can enjoy the hot spring waters in a swimming pool. Talaroo Hot Springs has Eco Tents (think glamping with Queen beds) and a well-equipped campground. Drive time from Cairns: 4 hours and 15 minutes.
The O’Briens Creek fossicking area is a magnet for enthusiasts seeking topaz, quartz, citrine, aquamarine and more. The fossicking area itself does not have any facilities but there is a campground nearby, on the banks of Elizabeth Creek. This is privately run and while the sites are plentiful, it can best be described as a bush camp (you fire up the donkey for hot water). So, what is the fossicking like? The campground manager described it best ‘this is not like Agate Creek, you have to work to find gemstones here’, which involves digging and sieving. Drive time from Cairns: 4 hours and 20 minutes.
We have visited Copperfield Gorge twice, once at the start of September and once again the following April. The difference in visits, was amazing. In September, there was very little water. In April, the Copperfield River was still flowing and the cool, clear water was perfect for swimming and stand-up paddleboarding. Regardless of the time of year, the gorge itself is beautiful and worth visiting – there’s even the Einasleigh Hotel just there, for cool drinks and meals. Copperfield Gorge is pet friendly and people of all ages will enjoy it. Drive time from Cairns: 5 hours – or 2 hours from Cobbold Gorge.
Agate Creek – its name tells you exactly what you will find here – agates! We first visited Agate Creek when we were staying at nearby Cobbold Gorge. Having never looked for agates before, we were unsure what to expect – what we discovered were lots of pretty rocks which you could find sitting on the surface of dried-up rivers, creeks and streams – be warned, its infectious this fossicking business. There is a campground at Agate Creek but it’s definitely a bush camp, we recommend staying at Cobbold Gorge. Drive time from Cairns: 6 hours and 30 minutes – or 50 minutes from Cobbold Gorge.
Cobbold Gorge and Cobbold Village is a destination and an attraction. The attraction is the gorge itself and it’s stunning. Carved out by the flow of water over thousands of years, its walls are almost wave-like in appearance with beautiful colours. It’s a permanent water source and provides habitat for freshwater crocodiles and fish. You can do gorge tours, scenic helicopter flights and SUP. Access to the gorge is on tour only. Accommodation is at the nearby Cobbold Village, which has a range of rooms and an excellent campground with all the facilities. There’s a swimming pool, bar and restaurant. Drive time from Cairns: 6 hours.
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The Gulf Savannah is in north-west Queensland. It’s an area that goes from the eastern coastline at Cairns, to the western cape of the Gulf of Carpentaria at Karumba. This is a vast expanse of country, comprised of cattle stations, tiny towns, natural attractions and various other industry. The main places to visit in the Gulf Savannah are Undara, Mount Surprise, O’Briens Creek, Talaroo Hot Springs, Copperfield Gorge, Georgetown, Forsayth, Cobbold Gorge, Agate Creek, Croydon, Normanton, Karumba and Chillagoe.
Yes – the Gulf Savannah is definitely worth visiting – we go every year. We love the big blue sky days and million star nights. Its natural attractions – Cobbold Gorge, Undara Lava Tubes and Talaroo Hot Springs – are impressive and getting there is accessible to most people.
No – you do not need a 4WD to visit most destinations in the Gulf Savannah. There are some exceptions to that rule, especially if you want to go offroad, fossicking or prospecting for gold. In that instance, you will need a 4WD to access most of those destinations.
Yes – most townships in the Gulf Savannah provides accommodation. As the towns are small and traffic is high during the winter months, it’s always best to book ahead to avoid disappointment. In addition to the motels, hotels, resorts and glamping facilities, there are lots of campgrounds.
No – you do not need to camp to visit and stay in the Gulf Savannah. Most of the towns have hotels or motels. If you are camping, then there are lots of camping grounds across the Gulf Savannah and they range from the very well appointed – at the tours and attractions – to bush camps with very basic facilities.
As a tourist, the best time to visit the Gulf Savannah is between April and October. This is the tourist season and the tours and attractions are all open. Generally speaking the weather is dry, the days are warm and the nights are crisp and cool. Most tourist attractions are closed November to March. Always book ahead to avoid disappointment.
The roads across the Gulf Savannah vary. There are lots of sealed sections of road – sometimes only one lane – but sealed – and lots of graded surfaces. You do not need a 4WD to get to most destinations, but you should be prepared for the potential of potholes and some corrugation.
Yes – every town on the Gulf Savannah has a service station with petrol and diesel.
Yes – you will be able to get groceries when you visit the Gulf Savannah, as there are townships and shops. However, be aware that the range might be limited and they may not always have what you are looking for.
The Gulf Savannah is rich with natural treasures. You can prospect for gold at Georgetown and Forsayth, fossick for agates at Agate Creek and look for gemstones at Mount Suprise and O’Briens Creek.
Offers a stress-free environment ideal for family and friends to explore natural wonders, historical sites and enjoy savannah sunsets.
All of the major natural attractions are accessed via tour only. This not only helps to protect the places, but it allows visitors to learn more about what they are seeing thanks to the informative Savannah Guides and Rangers. If you want to explore on your own, look for the tracks and trails in the National Parks.
Most attractions are accessible in 2WD vehicles, with roads being a combination of sealed and graded dirt.
Suitable for all ages with reasonable mobility. Certain tours are child-friendly and wheelchair accessible, while others may have restrictions.
Depending on the destination within the Gulf Savannah, drives can range from about 2 hours 40 minutes to over 6 hours from Cairns.
Many tours and attractions are seasonal, closed in the wet season (November to March), with the best visit times between April and October.
Despite ongoing works to seal roads, visitors should drive to conditions, expect dust, potholes and corrugation. It is always a good idea to have a spare wheel.
Book ahead for tours and accommodation, check the facilities of stay places, and prepare for the adventure with appropriate planning.
Talaroo Hot Springs, you’ve heard its name and might have seen some photos, but what is it, where is it and is it worth going? It’s a unique destination combining geological wonders and an outback landscape, presented by the Ewamian people and yes, it’s worth going.More
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