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Borroloola, NT

Isolated township near the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Borroloola is a small isolated township near the Gulf of Carpentaria area (it is 50 km upstream from the sea) which is located on the McArthur River. It is about as isolated as any township in the Northern Territory can be. It is 970 km from Darwin and 380 km from the Stuart Highway. This means that a visit to Borroloola involves a side trip of 760 km from the highway. There is nothing in between.

The local population is around 800, most of whom are local Aborigines, but this increases dramatically during the winter months when up to 600 anglers arrive in the area. The increasing use of 4WD and the growth of barramundi fishing as a popular sport has seen the town evolve from an Aboriginal settlement to a small tourist destination. Today Borroloola is positioned in one of the potentially richest mineral provinces in the world with one of the world’s largest and metallurgically-complex zinc-lead-silver deposits 60 km to the south, while a relatively high grade deposit of diamonds is being developed 100 km south of the town. For tourists looking beyond fishing for barramundi, the Northern Territory Government has established a network of parks and reserves in the region. The National Parks include Barranyi National Park, Caranbirini Conservation Reserve and Limmen National Park. Borroloola lies in tropical Gulf Savanna country which stretches around the Gulf of Carpentaria from North Queensland. It is also cut off, particularly from Queensland, during "The Wet" when the unsealed road from Normanton and Mount Isa becomes impassible.

Location

The tiny settlement of Borroloola is located on the McArthur River 970 km south-east of Darwin and 380 km east of the Stuart Highway. It is 256 km from Wollogorang Station on the Queensland-Northern Territory border.

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Origin of Name

There shouldn't be an argument about the Aboriginal origin of Borroloola because the town has a large indigenous population. Still some people claim it means "tea-tree", others suggest it means "place of the paperbarks", others that it means "fresh or running water" and others claim it is nothing more than a name for the region.

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Things to See and Do

Borroloola Old Police Station Museum
The Borroloola Museum, which is now managed by the National Trust, was once the Old Police Station. It was built in 1886. It houses an exhibition which explores the role of the police in Borroloola. There is also a collection of artefacts, documents and photographs outlining local Aboriginal history, the visits of Macassan fishing vessels in the early 1900’s and the European exploration of the area. Entry is by a key which is available at the caravan park.

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Other Attractions in the Area

The Story of the Borroloola Library
One of the most persistent legends about the town relates to a huge outback library. The story goes that in the 1890s the resident officer in charge of the Borroloola Police Station, an Irishman named Cornelius Power, decided to establish a town library. He was granted a small sum of money and duly ordered some books from Mudie's Select Library in London. From that point the story becomes blurred. Somehow, by the 1920s, the library had grown to 3000 volumes and, Northern Territory mythologising being what it is, the rumour mongers had a field day.

Some people suggested that a grant of books had been made by Lord Hopetoun, the Governor of Victoria and later the first Australian Governor-General. Another theory was that, sometime in the 1920s, the Carnegie Trust of USA or the Andrew Carnegie Foundation (sources differ) were asked for some good reading material and had sent books to a number of isolated settlements and consequently the library at Borroloola was expanded.

The library was initially housed in the Court House but when it was demolished the books were transferred to the local lockup. The predictable joke of well-educated criminals is supposed to have become a reality when W. E. (Bill) Harney was gaoled for six months for cattle duffing. Certainly Harney went on to write a number of books and by 1958 he had been appointed official curator at Uluru.

Over the years Borroloola has been a haven for eccentrics with exotic names like 'The Freshwater Admiral', 'The Redbank Hermit' and 'Death Adder'. None of these people was more interesting or unusual than Roger Jose, the Hermit of Borroloola. It was said that he was the brother of the Dean of Adelaide. In 1916 he walked to Borroloola from Cunnamulla in Queensland. He lived in a shed at the rear of Tattersalls Hotel until a cyclone severely damaged it in 1938. He then rolled a damaged 1000 gallon tank from the hotel to the site on top of the hill opposite the present clinic and, with his Aboriginal companion, lived in it until his death in 1963. He was an eccentric who took full advantage of the Borroloola library and reputedly knew vast sections of Virgil's Aeneid  in Latin. He also had a good working knowledge of Shakespeare.

Today the remnants of the library have been dispersed. At the end of World War II the library was taken to Darwin where it was stored in a shed behind the Administration Buildings. Those books which weren't destroyed by silverfish, cockroaches, mildew, and the humidity of the tropics, found their way into private collections or simply disappeared.

Visitors to the town today can go to the Old Police Station Museum where a single volume from this great library is on display. Janet Webber at the Museum explains that "We have only one of the library books. We received it about three years ago - a large Webster's Dictionary  - the family who had it, decided that it deserved to go home to Borroloola as it had survived the big Katherine floods of 1998. It had originally been borrowed/taken in the 1930's and had been in the family since then."

Cape Crawford - Heartbreak Hotel
Located at the junction of the Carpentaria and Tablelands Highways, Cape Crawford is home to the famous Heartbreak Hotel and the access point to the remarkable formation known as the Lost City. Cape Crawford is located 110 km south-west of Borroloola and although it is situated approximately 120 km from the Gulf of Carpentaria it is named because it is the northern extremity or ‘cape’ of the Abner Ranges. The Lost City was first explored by Europeans when, in 1880, drover named Lindsay Crawford stumbled upon the formations which cover 8 square kilometres and are characterised by towering sandstone formations which look like skyscrapers. The Heartbreak Hotel runs regular helicopter flights over the Lost City. Travellers can explore the site on foot or take a breathtaking helicopter tour over the site and its hinterlands. Check out http://www.heartbreakhotel.com.au or tel: (08) 8975 9928.

National Parks in the Region
The Northern Territory Government has established a network of parks and reserves in the region which are representative of all major ecosystems. The National Parks in the area include Barranyi National Park, Caranbirini Conservation Reserve and Limmen National Park.

Barranyi ( North Island) National Park
The primary appeal of Barranyl National Park is a combination of long white sandy beaches, small coves and sandstone cliffs. It is an excellent location for birdwatchers. There are four species of marine turtle which use the island as a nesting site and the fishing can yield Red Emperor, Bluefin Tuna, Spanish Mackerel, Queenfish, trevally, Golden Snapper, Coral Rrout, Parrotfish and Large-mouth Sea Perch. This 5,421 ha national park lies within the Sir Edward Pellew group of Islands approximately 30 km from the mouth of the McArthur River. The island is the traditional home of the Yanyuwa Aboriginal people. The park plays an important role in the preservation and protection of their culture and tradition. Travellers wishing to visit the park should contact the Parks and Wildlife Commission's Borroloola Office on tel: (08) 8975 8792. There is a downloadable brochure with greater detail. Check out http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/10544/barranyi_fs11.pdf.

Caranbirini Conservation Reserve
Located 46 km south of Borroloola on the Carpentaria Highway (340 km from the Stuart Highway), Carranbirini Conservation Reserve is 1,200 ha of land which is bordered on three sides by the McArthur River Station. It is part of the traditional lands of the Gadanji and Yanyuwa Aboriginal people. It offers the visitor the easy Barrawulla Loop, (2 km, 1-2 hours) a walk through sandstone pillars (they can be up to 25 metres high) similar to those at the Lost City. The path overlooks a billabong and looks across the escarpment country of the Gulf Region. A second walk - the Jagududgu Loop Walk - is 5 km and takes around 3 hours. It offers spectacular views. Visitors looking for an easier alternative can walk up to the first lookout which is about 1 km return.  There is no camping. For more information contact the Parks and Wildlife Commission's Borroloola Office on tel: (08) 8975 8792. There is a downloadable brochure - http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/10545/CaranbiriniFS11.pdf - which provides maps and additional information.

Limmen Bight National Park
The Limmen National Park covers 960,846 ha and is located 65 km northwest of Borroloola on the unsealed Roper Highway.  The park has camping facilities and is suitable for fishing in the Roper, Towns and Limmen Bight Rivers. Sightseeing in the park includes two small "lost cities" - the Southern Lost City and the Western Lost City (you need a key from the ranger to access the western "city"). For more information contact the Parks and Wildlife Commission's Katherine Office on tel: (08) 8975 9940. There is a downloadable brochure - http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/10553/limmen_fs_20131.pdf.

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History

* Prior to European settlement the area was occupied by the Bingbinga Aboriginal language group although, in recent times, the town has been the home to people from a number of very different Aboriginal cultures. The Yanyuwa, Mara, Karawa and Kurdanji people all live around the town. The Yanyuwa and Mara are referred to as "saltwater people" and are associated with the Sir Edward Pellew Islands and the lower reaches of the McArthur and Wearyan Rivers. The Kurdanji and Karawa people are classed as "mainland people" and are associated with land to the south and east of the present township.

* The first European into the area was the Prussian explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt, who passed through in 1845 on his way from the Darling Downs in Queensland to Port Essington on Cobourg Peninsula.

* In 1856, Augustus Charles Gregory explored the area south-west of present-day Borroloola travelling from the Victoria River across to Queensland.

* By the 1870s pastoralists were moving into the area.

* In 1872 the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line occurred to the west and saw the establishment of supply depots along the route that Leichhardt had taken. There was discussion at the time of establishing townships along the Roper and McArthur Rivers.

* In 1872 Dillon Cox contracted Wentworth Darcy Uhr to drove 400 head of cattle from Queensland to a telegraph supply depot on the Roper River north of the present site of Borroloola.

* In 1878 a survey party led by Ernest Favenc marked a route from Queensland to Western Australia via Darwin which passed close to the McArthur River.

* By 1885 it was decided that town sites on the McArthur and Roper Rivers should be surveyed with a view to establishing ports and supply bases. It was the survey team led by J. P. Hingston which named the town Borroloola.

* By 1887 Borroloola was large enough to hold its first race meeting. At that time the town had a police station (1886), a court house, two hotels, a butcher's shop and a general store.

* By 1900 Borroloola had a reputation as a wild frontier town. The drovers moving cattle between the Kimberleys and Western Queensland stopped in the town and a trade in rum, smuggled from Thursday Island, was established. This illicit trade inevitably attracted criminals, murderers and alcoholics. The town around this time is beautifully captured in an article which appeared in the Northern Standard in 1931. The writer recalls: "What a motley crowd they were! Brumby runners from the Calvert and Robinson Rivers, the Orphan (Jack Martin) Jack Sherringham (who the police were after for lifting horses in Queensland), Pigweed Harry (Harry Herbert), Billy Hynes (Billy the Informer), Big Eyed Billy, Johnnie Mooney and others. Old Billy Macleod (an old Palmer prospector and a great bushman and one of the whitest men in the north) with his two partners, O'Brien and Hunt (also old time Palmer prospectors), were starting a store at the landing ... A few days after we arrived, a schooner came up the river and made fast at the landing. The schooner was the Good Intent and Black Jack Reid, or Maori Reid, owner in command of her. Her first mate was a big buck American nigger. We never heard his name, but christened him 'Smoked Beef'."

* In 1938 the town was devastated by a cyclone which destroyed a large number of buildings.

* By the 1950s the town had become an isolated refuge for old bushmen and hermits.

* Today Borroloola has an Aboriginal population of between 600-800 and has a modern medical centre, schools and a police station. There is both an Aboriginal respite centre and a childcare centre in the town.

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Visitor Information

The closest visitor centre is the Katherine Visitor Information Centre, Stuart Highway, Katherine, tel: (08) 8972 2650.

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Accommodation

Savannah Way Motel, Robinson Road, Borroloola, tel: (08) 8975 8883

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Eating

Carpentaria Grill Restaurant, Robinson Road, Borroloola, tel: (08) 8975 8883

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Useful Websites

The Katherine Visitor Centre site has useful information on the area. Check out http://www.visitkatherine.com.au/pages/borroloola-the-gulf.

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Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

3 suggestions
  • When is the best time for fishing at Borroloola?

    Robert Byrne
  • Looking at my calendar right in front of me reads as follows: Borroloola Show Day is on today. Best wishes on a successful day for those concerned. Footnote! I was working many years ago stationed near the McArthur River Cattle station. The work I undertook was exploration for minerals . Had the good fortune to attend the two day advent which was held on the Sat/Sunday. Great memory of the weekend. This was in the early seventies. I notice there is no mention of the Library which was sent to Borroloola by mistake and was kept there for many years from whom I can not re-call. For in my time I visited there was the old Hotel and Police station. However just wanted to share this bit of history I was part of in my life. Cheers.

    Sydney Tancred
  • The website addresses for the parks, does not take you to their details as indicated. They take you to the Northern Territory Parks site, but addresses are no longer valid.
    Excellent site for details, and history. Well done. Would love to travel the sites in the NT and discover more history. Undertook research for my Masters in 2013 at Alice Springs, and have continued to this day my researching, reading & learning about Aboriginal people, their history, culture etc. in the NT and beyond.

    Nicola Graves