The road up the Cape has over the years, caught the imagination of many travellers who may want to drive that distance to the very tip of Australia. In earlier times the access to the Cape has been along the now disused, Overland Telegraph Track, and, with many deep creek crossings, has been quite a challenge to negotiate. In recent years however, with tourism increasing during the winter months and the need for better access for local inhabitants, two Bypass Roads have been established giving easier access to the most northerly point of Australia. With the new roads in mind, and seeing as we had never been this way we decided that our little caravan should be towed along all the way to the top. Comments on our proposal varied but I do my research and take scant notice of ‘advice’ from armchair travellers.
Our journey starts in Cooktown where we arrived earlier than expected and needed to cool our heels, so to speak, to wait for pension day to come along so as to bolster our bank balance. So with some local knowledge in hand we made for Archer Point, about 27km south east of Cooktown. On arrival at our destination we took the first turn to the right and found, as related by our acquaintance, that there are some good camp spots situated right on the beach. It took a bit of manoeuvering to get the van in to an area amongst the coconut palms and about ten metres from the high tide mark. We set up camp in this idyllic setting.
Well, idyllic it might have been, but the wind blew non-stop 24/7 and the crashing of the surf in the wee hours of the morning disturbed our sleep. But we went for long walks on the beach, shook coconuts to see if they contained milk, and even opened a few, albeit with my rudimentary method, of using a hammer and a screwdriver! But a day before our intended departure we called it quits and decided to leave, having been blown silly. I had gauged two possible exits from our camp. The problem was that the van does not track around corners with the 4×4 and so we had a devil of a time trying to get around trees without denting the van. It took half an hour and a 15 point turn to get free. Then we drove out to the Archer Point Lighthouse and took the little van with us along the steep winding road. Low Range third gear made it a breeze however. After that it was into Cooktown for laundry, shopping, and a refuel before taking the road to the Cape via Lakeland
Our friends Ron and Viv Moon, well known Adventure Writers and authors of many travel books, kindly sent us a copy of their Cape York Guide and we used this as our guide for our adventure to the north. We were making for a suggested bush camp site adjacent to the Split Rock Art Gallery about 12km south of the town of Laura. It was late when we found this slightly overgrown and washed out track but made it in as far we could go only to realise that turning was going to be a problem. Luckily there was a way out though the 4×4 and van got at acute angles! We camped on a flat site right near a lovely waterhole, lit a fire, and cooked our tucker. As we sat around the fire, bullfrogs and kookaburras serenaded us.
The next morning we found that the angle of a particular washout was too deep for the van to pass over and so we spent half an hour repairing the track damage before taking the van across without hindrance.
Soon after our road-building exercise we were climbing the pathway up a hill to a series of rock art paintings at Split Rock. We were disappointed to see them not as spectacular as made out to be and that very little had been done to preserve the art from further erosion.
At Laura we refuelled, did our internet banking and emails, dropped the tyre pressures to 24psi and set off to the north. The road was corrugated in places and every now and then there was some respite with a short stretch of sealed road thrown in. The road was busy with many holidaymakers travelling and some unfortunately throwing caution to the wind and driving in a manner dangerous to themselves and other travellers. We found an early camp in a disused road side quarry and stopped for the day.
The road up the Cape
The following day the road was busy once again and people not used to driving in dusty conditions were taking silly chances. We were nearly involved in a head-on accident when a vehicle commenced as passing movement on us in the dust with a vehicle approaching from the other direction. It was a close call. After Musgrave Roadhouse the road deteriorated somewhat and I drove even slower. We found a nice camp site at The Bend on the Coen River and kept ourselves busy for the rest of the day.
We spoke with some other campers who came in later. Another traveller related a tale of an accident further back along the road in the afternoon. After our fire had died down we turned in for the night. A local generator not too far from our camp droned away until the wee hours of the night. At 5am I was awoken by voices close-by our van and on inspection found some fishermen camped less than three metres from us. Then they waved their torches around causing light flashes and we decided to have an early cuppa. Our noisy neighbours left soon after. We tried snoozing after that but to ni avail and then arose, did the morning chores, and were on the road by 8am.
The first 24km out of Coen was sealed. At the Quarantine Station we collected information for our return journey. From there the gravel road continued on to Archer River Roadhouse, Overland Telegraph Line Junction and Bramwell Junction Roadhouse. We refuelled at Bramwell Junction at $2 a litre of diesel. The day so far had been very pleasant with overcast conditions and very little traffic but they caught up with us eventually. The countryside along this route changes from Savannah Woodland to Heathlands and then sub-tropical jungle and then back to Heathlands. The road was relatively corrugated in places and one had to pick ones way through the bad bits. About half way along the road to the Jardine Ferry crossing, we found a road-works scrape atop the ridge and pulled up for the night. There was a strong breeze but dust made by passing vehicles was blowing away in the opposite direction and we could camp in peace. By 6pm the traffic had ceased.
We passed by the signs to Fruitbat Falls and Eliot Falls with the intention of visiting there on the way back. At the Jardine Ferry we were surprised to receive a Seniors discount on the fare and camping permit which came to $70 return. The approach and departure angles are quite steep and one has to get on and off the ferry at an angle especially if towing.
Once across, we made our way to Injinoo Community which is the most southerly of the four other communities of Umagico, Bamaga, New Mapoon and Seisia. We had picked up a brochure for the Campground at Alau Beach at the Umagico Community and headed that way.
The small communities of the Top End and all quite neat and tidy with mostly high set tropical houses.The usual dead cars are found in back yards and dogs roam freely on the streets. While the dogs all look well fed many of them have visible mange and are forever scratching and biting themselves. There are three supermarkets respectively at Umagico, Bamaga and Seisia. There is a Bakery, Butcher, 3 fuel outlets, and two vehicle recovery and maintenance workshops. All five communities are run by one Regional Council. The populace is made up of a rich mixture of Melanesian Islander and Aboriginal people. During WW2 a group of inhabitants from Thursday Island were evacuated to the mainland and never returned. Their first community was named Bamaga after the name of their Tribal Chief.
We had decided to base ourselves at Alau Beach campground at Umagico for a week and found a good spot with power at absolute beachfront. The facilities at Alau Beach were basic but they were clean and functional and we had a good time while we were there.
Our time at the Top End coincided with Queensland and Victoria school holidays and tourism was at its peak. When we arrived at the car-park at the penultimate destination we found a small area crammed with vehicles and tour buses. We made our way across the beach and up the rocks in our sandals winning the comments from more than one other traveller. At the signpost we had to wait our turn to have our photo taken by a kindly gentleman and then we spent some time there relaxing in the sun. Jeddah had walked with us and needed some fresh water we poured for her into small rock pool. After completing the return walk we drove down a wheel track on to the beach and had our lunch in the shade of the encroaching rainforest.
Our most delighted experience in reaching this point in our travels was driving through the rainforest which covers the last 25km to the Tip. We had purchased a Plants of Cape York book by John Beasley and we were able to identify a number of trees which caught our eye as being unusual. The rainforest is very dense in places and a number of poisonous shrubs and vines inhabit the place making it a relatively dangerous place walk in to.
Judith took a Ferry ride and Tour to Thursday Island whilst I minded Jeddah. By all accounts she had a great day.minded Jeddah for the day and opted for an art tour at a later date
Over the week we visited Punsand Bay Camp, Loyalty Beach Camp, Somerset Beach and ruins and drove the five beaches track via Fly Point, Vallack Point and Nanthau Headland. We also visited Lake Wicheura, which is a perched freshwater lake.
We also drove out to Mutee Heads to have a look see and on the south side of the heads found that the beach sand was too soft and bogged the Nissan. This necessitated lowering the tyre pressures substantially and using our front heavy duty floor mats for traction. We managed to crawl out, albeit very slowly, from our predicament.
Then we took the track towards Van Spoult Head at the mouth of the Jardine River but after a few kilometres of bouncing along this two wheel track through a dry paperbark forest, we got sick of it and turned around to head back to our base at Umagico.
We had encountered cloudy weather from the time we had left Coen and overall did not see the stars at night for eleven days. This however did keep the temperatures at a steady 29 degrees and a fresh land breeze coming from the east coast of the Cape kept us cool for the time we spent in the Top End.
The day before our departure I noticed as scraping sound emanating from the left hand rear wheel of the Nissan. It turned out to be a fault with the Brake Callipers. I tried obtaining a replacement bolt from the local mechanical workshop but could not find anything suitable. So I used some of my Tie-wire and fastened the loose part, hoping that it would hold until I reached a more populated town.
Our journey south took us back along our track. At the junction of the Northern Bypass Road and Overland Telegraph Track, we made our way into Fruitbat Falls.
Expecting a road in, we found a one-vehicle-width track, and inevitably met others coming out. Some careful negotiating past one another was needed. The falls area is very scenic and offers a lovely, safe, swimming area. Our next destination was to be Eliot Falls but it is situated with the boundaries of Jardine River National Park, and domestic animals are not allowed in. So back at the junction we unhitched the van and set Jeddah up with sufficient water and air circulation in the van and set off for the falls area some 7km in distance. Other vehicles were on the track and we gauged the depth of one creek crossing as they were ahead of us. The falls were very spectacular and a boardwalk linked them. Swimming at Twin Falls was the order of the day for many.
On our return to the van and Jeddah, I inspected the brake caliper only to find that the anchor bolt had worked its way loose and had fallen out.
It was time to do remedial work. So I strapped and tied the brake caliper to the axle housing with tape and wire and after a while we were on the road again. We managed about 40 km before I noticed that the Emergency Brake Light had come on and upon further inspection found that the caliper had worked its way loose and somehow the brake hose had been damaged and that brake fluid had escaped. It was time to remove it. Now we had no brakes at all. We made for a quarry site I had seen on the way up and camped there for the night. I rang my mate George, in Darwin, via our Satellite phone and asked if he could source a replacement caliper.
Our next port of call was Moreton Telegraph Station where we decided to camp for the day. Moreton offered nice walks through the sub-tropical forest and along the banks of the Wenlock River. Their facilities however are only designed to cope with about 25 visitors and the night we were there at least 100 over-nighting. You had to queue for a toilet or shower. Luckily we showered early and have our own toilet in the van. We were going to stay two nights but the invasive noise of the diesel generator running during the day put paid to that. The generator did shut down at 9.30pm and after that it was very quiet apart from the odd Curlew call and the Kookaburras at around 6am.
We took the shortcut from Batavia Downs Station to the Peninsula Development Road. The road was good for the majority of the way except for one very big bulldust hole, just after the end of the airstrip. We were able to bypass it. Along the way we heard a scraping sound outside. Stopped and had a look under the Nissan but saw nothing untoward. Then proceeded for a short while and heard it again. At the top of the Embley Range there was a road-works clearing and we pulled up there to find that the brake activator pin at the wheel on the left hand side of the caravan had come adrift. So it was time for a roadside repair job. I removed the wheel, brake hub and bearings and repaired the damaged part. Then I discovered that I had left my grease at home. Just at that moment two young blokes from Darwin stopped to lend a hand and we were able to grab a couple of dollops of wheel-bearing grease from them
It was a smooth run into Weipa until we came to the Haul Road Crossing. Boom gates barred our way and would not budge although there was no traffic on the Haul Road. I rang the number shown on the sign and a very terse female voice told me that she could not help. I was to reverse all the way back to where we entered the divided road and try to activate the sensor. Did that with some difficulty and proceeded forward again but the boom-gate still would not rise. Just then a tour bus drove up from the opposite direction and the boom gates activated and we snuck across into Weipa. Technology does not always work!
We booked in for a week at the Weipa Campground. I rang George who advised that he had sent the parcel of parts that morning via Australia Post and E-post. The travel time for the parts would be 4 days. This was confirmed by the Weipa Post Office as well. The campground is a wide open space and shaded by Flaky Barked Satin-ash and Coral Bean Trees. It has direct access to the beach, good ablution facilities and a swimming pool. They also allow dogs. You pick your site at random and we found one in the shade of a tree with water and power handy. Weipa’s Woolworths Shopping Complex is only one hundred metres from the campground. Finding a place to camp is on an ad-hoc basis and as long as you have a long power lead you may pick your site at random. Our time was spent going on long walks on the beach, swimming in the pool, chatting to fellow travellers and watching DVD’s on the laptop at night!
We took a run up to Mapoon one day to experience crossing the Embly and Andoom Rivers which are spanned by a one-lane bridge and rail line. Camping is allowed by permit at Cullen Point at the mouth of the Wenlock River although the sites on the eastern side did not look too inviting. Along the open ocean beach there are some beaut spots under paperbark trees with access to Turtle Beach. On the way back we called in at Red Beach, so named as it is made up of pure bauxite granules. We crossed the bridges again together with an ore train bound for then stockpile at Lorim Point. Two ore carrying ships were being loaded and we saw this happen as a conveyor belt runs from the stockpile out to the ore wharves.
The brake parts arrived from Darwin after four days as promised, and I fitted them with Jude assisting when we had to bleed the air out of the brake hydraulic system. Jeddah looked on with a bored expression. On the Wednesday after, we set off again, heading south, or so we thought. I immediately noticed that the Nissan wasn’t accelerating quickly enough and mentioned that there was no power. After a few kilometres we stopped and found that the right hand rear brakes had seized on the brake rotor and that the wheel was red hot! After we let it cool down we returned to Weipa calling in at the RACQ workshop where we were quoted $110 per hour for labour! We returned to our spot at the campground and paid for another night. I rang George again for his opinion and he said that it was easy to repair and I would have no trouble doing just that! Oh yeah? Well we did just that but with some expert assistance from Garry Thompson, a fellow camper and qualified motor mechanic. Thanks Garry! That evening I broke my self-imposed alcohol abstinence, shouted a few beers and had a few myself!
On the Thursday we managed to get away from Weipa and made it to Coen by lunch time after stopping at Archer River for morning smoko.
The road was good to start with but deteriorated after Archer River Roadhouse. We camped at The Bend on the Coen River and there were only a few other camps. The next morning I noticed that the right hand brake calliper retaining bolt was missing and so we drove into town to the only mechanical workshop and the owners were very helpful in giving us two bolts with the same thread as the lost one. We then went for a drive around Coen and at first came to a locked gate en route to where a waterfall supposedly was. The next track took us a long way through the scrub and ended at a deep water crossing on a small creek. I decided that it was not the time to cross and we went back to camp the way we came. On arrival back at camp we found an old couple parked right in front of our van. They were in their 70’s and stated that they always camped there under the trees and they were doing so for the next two weeks. They had a swag of bits and pieces and their camp looked more like a jumble sale. Later they moved their old Landrover so that we could hitch up again. Later in the day more camps settled in for the night and another bloke with a $200,000 Isuzu 4×4 tried to park us in but I said that I needed the space to get out in the morning and the fella reversed out in as huff.
We made it to Laura just after lunch having had it in the shade of the trees of Hann River Roadhouse. The road from Musgrave Roadhouse was quite good but the last 30km into Laura was very corrugated. Once there we refuelled and I booked to go on a Quinkan Rock Art tour the next day. Drove around looking for a campsite but found none. So we drove out to Split Rock Billabong and it was taken up already. So we turned around again along the washed out road and eventually found a sheltered place behind a quarry about 6km from Laura. Quiet night.
I went on the Quinkan Art Tour guided by Thomas Quinkan, a Traditional Custodian of the land. It was a long drive via a sandy track and only about 45 minutes of viewing three galleries. The art is good but not spectacular as I have seen far better art in other areas. But it was a worthwhile experience.
After the tour Judith presented lunch in the shade where she and Jeddah had been relaxing. Jude also visited the Cultural Centre presentation in my absence. Then we made our way along Battlecamp Road towards Cooktown. There were a number of rivers to cross but the waters were not too deep. Right after crossing the Normanby River, we spied a track leading off into the rainforest. We walked it first to see if we could fit the rig in. On the way in the track ran at a slant and the caravan leaned over onto a tree. I had to use all my driving skills to prevent further damage to Daisy, the van. We had a good camp but the Flying Foxes crapped all over our rig during the night.
The last bit of road over the Great Dividing Range was good and sealed for a short way. We stopped at the delightful Isabella Falls and very soon after we were back in Cooktown where we did some shopping, replenished our water supply and washed the bad stuff off the Nissan and van.
And so our Cape York adventure came to a close.