Amidst rocky hills, dry grasslands and dusty plains, this vibrant oasis can be a sight for sore eyes when travelling through the dull palette of tans, greys and browns that paint savannah country. It’s a little chunk of tropical paradise hidden in Queensland’s north-west, rich in wildlife, scenery, and natural history.
Boodjamulla, formerly known as Lawn Hill National Park, is one of those places that might not be on every Australian’s travel radar, yet it really, really should be. I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before planning our lap of Australia, and yet now, near the end of it, Boodjamulla has to be one of the most spectacular places we’ve been.
It’s not the easiest place to get to, which could be said for a lot of great places around Australia, but luckily, it’s also far from the hardest. It’s not hidden at the end of a long and arduous 4WD trek or the middle of an inhospitable desert, however it is quite far from pretty much everywhere, and it’s not exactly on a path most travellers take. Flung right out on the northern QLD/NT border, the drive is a little over a 1000km from Cairns, or about 400km from Mount Isa. So, it’s probably safe to say that most people aren’t likely to find themselves in the area without an explicit desire to be there.
For those that do make the journey, you’ll find an oasis of deep emerald pools and lush tropical vegetation amidst a rugged landscape of red sandstone gorges and spinifex-carpeted limestone plateaus. While you could easily go charging in with a bountiful supply of energy and a desire to do some exploring, it’s also a great place to relax, forget about the rest of the world and do a whole lot of nothing for a couple of days.
You can get there from Gregory to the north-west, or along the Barkly Highway from the south. We came in from the south, through an unusually lush outback Queensland carpeted in a sea of greenery thanks to the remnant floodwaters from earlier this year. We spent our first night at Miyumba Bush Camp, which is a quieter and more basic option to the main camping area at Lawn Hill Gorge, although it’s a bit far from the latter to make it worthwhile if you aren’t heading in from the south. If you are, it’s a nice bush setting surrounded by flowering gums full of honeyeaters and lorikeets, with a lily-choked billabong nearby.
It’s also a good base for the short drive to the nearby Riversleigh Fossil World Heritage Area, where we headed the next morning. It’s one of Australia’s 20 World Heritage areas, and one of the richest mammal fossil sites in the world, with specimens dating back some 25 million years. There’s a short walk where you can see the fossilised remains of ancient turtles and giant flightless birds, and read about the 300 or so species whose remains have been found here, from giant snakes and crocodiles, to relatives of the koala and platypus.
It’s about 40km into Lawn Hill Gorge from Riversleigh. I’d say the roads aren’t too bad, easily doable in a 2WD, but we did manage to get the only flat tyre we’ve had in ten months of travelling, so maybe not. We set up camp at the Lawn Hill Campground, whacked on the dodgy spare, then jumped straight in the nearby river for a swim. Lush riparian foliage crowds the banks here, with cabbage palms, figs, paperbark and pandanus trees overhanging the verdant water, while stairs and small platforms have been set up by the water’s edge. We sat on one for a while, watching the catfish, archerfish and occasional turtles below.
Cooled off, we set out to explore upstream. There’s a bundle of walking trails, and while none are particularly challenging, there’s a few I’d avoid in hot weather. As we had cool and breezy conditions, we set off for the full loop to the upper gorge, through dry and rugged spinifex country dominated by red sandstone hills, Mitchell grass, acacias and eucalypts. From the ridge-top at the end, the upper reaches of the gorge below are patterned with a mosaic of water lilies as the river narrows into a corridor of paperbarks.
The next stop on the walk is Indarri Falls, one of Boodjamulla’s most iconic sights. Low falls tumble over moss-carpeted tufa, a porous and brittle stone formed by the calcite in the lime-rich water, into a sheltered enclave of ferns and pandanus. For me, it’s definitely a contender for one of the best swimming holes in the country, and we spent a good hour floating around in the clear water, with huge rocks rising beneath us like ghostly shipwrecks.
We started our second day at a lazier pace, renting a canoe and meandering upstream for the morning. They can be rented from right by the campground, at $54 for two hours, which is just enough time to cruise beneath the towering red cliffs at a pretty relaxed pace. It’s beautiful early morning, before the light can crest the high cliffs, and the dense riverine forest is alive with the melodic calls of vibrant purple-crowned fairywrens, crimson finches and buff-sided robins. The lush oasitic conditions of the gorge welcomes a wealth of wildlife that can be found throughout the park, from rock ringtail possums, olive pythons, crocodiles, and ring-tailed and Gilbert’s dragons.
I saved a few final walks for the last day, the slightly more challenging Constance Range and Island Stack, which are both best left for early morning or late afternoon. From the Island Stack, a stony triangular ridge rising between a loop in the river, there’s great views over the country to the north. The serene Wild Dog Dreaming below is an important Aboriginal site you’re asked not to photograph for cultural reasons. Their habitation of this area dates back almost 30,000 years, making it one of the longest continually occupied areas in Australia, and remains an important area to their people today.
For our last afternoon, Duwadarri Lookout was a great vantage point to view the rugged and ancient landscape aglow in a wash of golden light. The ranges, cliffs and gorges are the result of Cambrian limestone and sandstone risen from ancient seabeds, eroded and shaped by millennia of water. The serpentine curves of the emerald river below continue to shape the land to this day, the embodiment of the Rainbow Serpent, or Boodjamulla, that the park is named for.
If you’re planning on heading out there, keep in mind that the campground does need to be booked online, and it can fill up during busy periods. Adels Grove, about 10km from the gorge, also offers camping beside Lawn Hill Creek, as well as cabins and pre-erected tents.