In a far-flung pocket of Queensland’s Gulf Country, a little-known world heritage area preserves the final resting place of petrified, prehistoric Aussie megafauna. Here lies Baru wickeni — a fearsome, five metre-long freshwater crocodile with blade-like teeth and an insatiable appetite — and beside him, a 300kg thunderbird nicknamed ‘Big Bird’ that once stood taller than a human.
The other 25 million-year-old fossilised creatures unearthed at Riversleigh are fantastical and strange: meat-eating kangaroos, giant wombats, and a marsupial lion discovered inside the mouth of a fossilised crocodile. Add to this an almost complete skeleton of a thylacine, Tassie’s own fabled devil, and eight-metre long pythons, and you begin to realise why paleontologists get pretty excited about a place like Riversleigh.
Together with Naracoote Caves, 2000km away in South Australia, Riversleigh was declared part of the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites World Heritage Area in 1994 and rates as Australia’s richest ancient fossil site. Back in the 1960s, more than 300 species from the late Oligocene to Quaternary times were unearthed at Riversleigh. Many of these have been found nowhere else in the world.
If you love offroad camping, what will lure you to this laidback discovery site is that you can simply rock up and walk on in — no entry fees, bookings or guides required — and there’s a rustic bush camp just 4km down the road. You’ll have to tackle 100km of corrugations first, but getting to Riversleigh puts you in a region rich with barramundi-filled rivers, lurid emerald waterways, and a rich pioneer and Indigenous heritage.
You don’t need a lot of time to tackle the self-guided Riversleigh Fossil Trail that provides an intriguing, short wander back in time, linking the rocky graves of dozens of ancient Aussie animals (800m, 1hr return). The trail is well-marked with interpretive signage to help you imagine what form these prehistoric critters might once have taken, and how and whom they hunted on Riversleigh’s once wild, watery landscape.
It’s not only the diversity of mammals found at Riversleigh that make it world-renowned, but that their rocky graves that preserve 20 million years of evolution in these animals and linking directly to the versions that roam Australia today. Fossils have revealed how today’s koala successfully adapted from a diet of rainforest vegetation to drier eucalypts when the climate changed.
Halfway through the walk, beyond the remains of an oversized Riversleigh turtle, the trail climbs a small limestone bluff for epic, big-sky vistas, covering ground that’s littered with fossilised bone fragments. Stop here to take in the view and spot bustards, emus, and kangaroos wandering on the plains below. At the end of the trail you’ll get to see the fossilised leg bone of Baru wickeni, and what remains of ‘Big Bird.’
The fossil trail is quite exposed to the sun, so save a walk here for the cool hours of day and retreat afterwards into D Site’s information cave to have all your curiosities and questions answered. There’s a life-sized diorama here that kids will love, and lots of informative displays. If travelling with young kids, download the Riversleigh Ancient Animals Poster from parks.des.qld.gov.au before hitting the road.
If arriving from the south, the route via Mount Isa is an excellent choice for offroaders, allowing you to push north to paddle Lawn Hill Creek and then continue along the remote, wild Savannah Way to reach Limmen National Park, Mataranka and Darwin, or double back to Karumba and Cairns.
From Mount Isa, head 118km north-west on the Barkly Highway and turn north at the Gregory-Burketown sign onto Thorntonia–Yelvertoft Road. After 56km you finally hit the dirt, rumbling onto the Gregory Downs–Camooweal Road for 61km before heading left on Riversleigh Road, across the Gregory River to Riversleigh D Site, 39km away.
As you cross the Gregory River, 4km from Riversleigh, Miyumba bush camping area appears on your right. This rustic camp offers nothing but toilets, a water tank, and six secluded campsites, but it’s close to the spring-fed Gregory River, which at 321km rates as one of Queensland’s largest rivers. The Gregory is croc-free at this point, and its cool, deep waterholes and rushing little rapids bring campers and wildlife together at dusk and dawn.
Miyumba provides a convenient camp if you happen to reach Riversleigh late in the day, just in time to climb the bluff at D Site to watch the sunset over the plains. With more time up your sleeve, take a walk around Riversleigh and check out the excellent interpretive cave, before pushing another 50km to set up camp riverside at Lawn Hill Gorge.
All of this region is protected as Boodjamulla National Park, but Lawn Hill Creek’s emerald oasis is everything that Riversleigh isn’t: cool, lush, and full of ways to have watery fun. Bring a kayak or hire one when you arrive, and hit the water at dawn to watch the sun ignite soaring red cliffs. You can even paddle to Indarri Falls to snorkel with giant catfish and snapping turtles.
It takes two to three hours to tackle the 6km-long canoe adventure from Duwadarri Waterhole into Upper Gorge, though a whole day could easily be spent following its vivid maze of fan palms and water lilies. Portage around Indarri Falls into the quieter Upper Gorge where crimson finches flit amongst the pandanus, and wallabies and wild pigs drink at the water’s edge, then turn downstream and do it all again.
Boodjamulla is a popular school break camping destination, providing just enough of the facilities for a comfortable holiday. Individual campsites are close to the water, and you can launch your water toys at any time of day. Bring your own to get wet before the canoe stand opens for the day.
Excellent walking trails wind along the gorge rim, climbing to escarpment lookouts and revealing 10,000-year-old Waanyi rock art, petroglyphs, and a midden of mussel shells and stone artifacts. Sunset from the top of the Constance Range is unforgettable (three hours return — don’t forget your drone), and the Wild Dog Dreaming trail (4.5km/1.5hrs return) leads you to freshwater crocs sunning themselves in Lower Gorge.
It might be one of the state’s most remote national parks, but you won’t do it too tough at Boodjamulla. The national park campground provides coldwater showers, water, picnic tables, and an interpretive shelter with access to rangers if needed. Just next door, campsites at Adels Grove cost more than twice the price but come with hot water showers, while generators, campfires, and pets are permitted.
Adels Grove also tempts travellers with restaurant meals, cold ales, and hour-long, solar powered boat cruises that cost $59 per adult, $50 for concessions, and $35 for kids. They also run a sunset tour to Harry’s Hill for wine and nibbles ($55 adults, $49 concessions, $35 kids).
NEED TO KNOW
Getting there: Riversleigh is located in Queensland’s far west corner, approximately 275km north-west of Mt Isa (allow 3–4 hours, 4WD recommended). Alternatively, follow Wills Road 93km from Gregory Downs to Boodjamulla National Park, and continue 50km to Riversleigh.
Visit: Expect cool, dry conditions (12–28 degrees) from May to September. Book well in advance for school holiday stays.
Stay: National park entry is free. Riversleigh’s Miyumba bush camp provides six campsites, toilets, and a water tank (no campfires or generators allowed). Campsites in Boodjamulla National Park come with cold water showers, water, picnic tables, and toilets. All sites cost $6.75/person or $27/family (kids under five years are free). Book online at parks.des.qld.gov.au. Unpowered sites at Adels Grove cost $20/adult, $10/child (5-14 years) or $55/family (Two adults and two kids, adelsgrove.com.au).
For more information: racq.com.au, wildtravelstory.com.