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Savannah Way

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Borroloola - Past and Present

Borroloola and surrounds have been home to the Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Gudanji and Mara people for countless millennia. Approaching from the east (Burketown) you will travel through Garrwa country, from the west (Heartbreak) Gudanji country and from the north (Roper) Mara country. As you follow the rivers to the coast and islands you are moving across the homelands and dreaming tracks of the Yanyuwa peoples.

Asian Explorers: By Sea
There is little doubt that Chinese explorers during the Ming dynasties ventured south in the 15th century, to be replaced by Muslim traders from Persia as China contacted inwards following revolutions at home; if you'd like to read a thought provoking article, click here. The first clear evidence of new arrivals from overseas is of Macassan fishermen by the early 1600's. They came in large numbers, with reports of up to 2000 in their colorful prahus, on the monsoonal winds of our wet season, returning home on the south easterlies of our dry season. Laying the grounds for Australia's first export industry, they gathered trepang, pearl shell and sandalwood, working alongside the local people and even intermarrying. Mostly they got on well together and the Macassan influence is still evident in the people, artwork and language of the present day, not to mention the many ancient tamarind trees throughout the region. Sadly and embarrassingly, the violence associated with Australia's colonization only came later.

European Explorers: By Sea
Early records of Europeans venturing near this area reveal that the Portuguese sailor Manuel Godinho de Eredia can probably lay claim to being the first to sight Australia in 1601, while searching for new routes for the spice trade. The quirks of history, however, commemorate the Spaniard Luis de Torres, who in 1606 led a Spanish/Portuguese expedition through the strait between Australia and New Guinea that still bears his name, without even realizing that to the south lay another continent! Theirs was basically the age old crusade to colonize the area and drive out one religion, Islam, and replace it with another, Christianity; the recent trouble in East Timor is a legacy of those times. In this same year the Dutchman William Jansz aboard the Duyfken (Little Dove) sailed into what we now know is a gulf and started charting its eastern shores. However he too missed his chance to leave his name on the map and the gulf did not become the Gulf of Carpentaria for another 17 years. In 1623 Captain Jan Carstensz aboard the Pera named it after Pieter de Carpentier, Governor-General of Batavia. His sister ship on this voyage was the Arnhem, hence Arnhem Land! Yet another Dutchman, Abel Tasman, charted and named most of the features along the Territory coastline on his second voyage to the area in 1644. His charts remained in use until Matthew Flinders was ordered by the British Admiralty in 1801 to make a thorough survey of the Australian coastline which he completed in 1803; his charts remain in use to this very day!! It was Flinders insistence on titling his map "Terra Australis or Australia" as opposed to the more common (at the time) "New Holland" that gave our country its name. Further detail and maps of Tasman's voyages can be found here, while Flinders journals can be found here (select from index) and his charts here .

European Explorers: By Land
The first foot slogger was our old mate Ludwig (Leichardt) in 1845; but even he caught the boat back to Sydney after finally arriving in Darwin, weary, but unfortunately for his travelling companions on his next expedition in 1848, not much wiser. For a short version of Leichardt's expeditions, click here; to read a transcript of his journals for his first expedition, click here.

Early Settlement
Several explorers followed in Leichardt's footsteps, among them Gregory in 1856, and then Favenc in the years following the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line. (Curiously, in 1858 Gregory again followed in Leichardt's footsteps when he led an unsuccessful expedition sent to search for Leichardt who had disappeared without trace in 1848.) These later explorers were mainly in search of new pastoral land but they wouldn't find it here; it lay further south in the vast Mitchell grass plains of what we now call the Barkly Tablelands. The McArthur River provided the only ready access into the area for many years and the river side shanty town soon acquired a reputation for lawlessness and wild behavior. Needless to say it was a magnet for sly grog merchants and gamblers, who in turn attracted a motley assortment of unsavory vagabonds and petty/not so petty criminals from far and wide!

The activity surrounding the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line, completed in 1872, laid the foundations for much of the Territory's early development and Borroloola certainly grew in leaps and bounds during these heady days; whether it progressed in still a subject of debate. A township was laid out by surveyor Hingston in 1885 and by the end of the year the rapidly expanding port had been duly gazetted and proclaimed as Borroloola.

During the boom times of the Telegraph Line construction, the isolated outpost had become more permanent with all the trapping of a small country town. Chinese market gardeners provided a constant supply of fresh veggies for drovers headed for the Kimberly and miners headed for the Territory's goldfields. The mango trees they brought with them and the well that watered everything are still here. With this air of respectability came government customs officials, to ensure duty was collected on the steady flow of alcohol, a mail service so they didn't feel too abandoned, and of course some police officers with the unenviable task of establishing law and order!!

One of the first blocks in the newly proclaimed town was set aside for a police station, and by 1887, for the princely sum of five thousand pounds ($10,000), it was home to one of the Northern Territory of South Australia's five new outback police stations. Needless to say it was an instant success and provided board and lodging for many of Borroloola's finest for years to come; more on them later. It was used in its present form until 1948, then as a medical centre in the 1970's; Borroloola didn't get a new police station until 1980! The last surviving government issue outback police station is now a very attractive museum. It contains lots of memorabilia of Borroloola's past, and never ceases to surprise visitors; it's not a stuffy school lecture, just a fascinating glimpse into the towns colourful past; click here for a quick peek.

Recent Times
From Leichardt's time to the present, the area has been the focus of a never ending succession of schemes by governments and investors of all persuasions to "realize the potential of the Gulf Region". For generations, the common thread of these reports has been the comment that the greatest resource, and export, to be found here is hope!

After the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line, the main impetus in opening up this area since the droving days was the completion, in 1969, of the Tablelands and Carpentaria Highways as part of the Commonwealth Government's "Beef Roads Program". The ever-expanding exports of live cattle through the Darwin's new East Arm Port facilities relies heavily on these modern bitumen equivalents of the old time stock routes. Unfortunately for a lot of people who live in this area, the cattle industry of the 21'st century provides little in the way of employment opportunities.

The construction during the 1990's of Mt Isa Mining's McArthur River Mine and it's commissioning in 1995, have heralded the next wave of development in the area. Unfortunately, a modern day mining operation has little requirement for unskilled labour, however the current proposal to open cut the ore body and smelt the concentrate on site may well bring increased employment opportunities. Some things never change and, as always, this proposal is dependent on the vagaries of events occurring far away; a reliable and long term supply of natural gas.

Borroloola and surrounds have always been a favoured destination for fishing fanatics and the recent closure of the McArthur River to commercial fishing can only serve to guarantee stocks of that king of sport fish; the Barramundi! The shallow estuaries and pristine Gulf waters have long been a reliable source for the delicious mud crabs and prawns so eagerly sought after both domestically and internationally. A Chinese banquet table is the next thing many of these muddies see after they crawl from the mangroves of Manankurra!

The development of the Savannah Way as an outback adventure destination in its own right, stretching across the vastness of northern Australia from Cairns to Broome, promises to be the regions next step along its slow, tantalizing, elusive, but never dull, journey towards finally "realizing its potential".

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