Cape York – August 2018

Thursday, Jan 03, 2019 at 23:34

Stephen L (Clare) SA

Cape York – August 2018
As Witnessed from a First Time Visitor to the Cape and not knowing what to really expect.

This Blog is written as a “First Time Visitor” to Cape York, as like me, there are still many travellers out there that have wanted to get to the Tip and do not really know what to see or expect on such a trip, and for nearly all Australian’s, the drive is a very long drive from where they reside.
Finally after a couple of years planning, Fiona and I undertook another great trip that we both had wanted to do for a very long time and would be on most peoples “Bucket List” of places to visit – Cape York. Because of the distances involved, it is not the type of trip that we could do comfortably in four weeks, so we both took seven weeks long service leave, still not knowing how we would go for our allocated time.
Prior to the trip, I had been continually reading as much as I could and purchased a couple of great publications that helped greatly in my planning, “Cape York-Travel & Adventure Guide” by Ron and Viv Moon and the excellent “Cape York Atlas & Guide” produced by Hema Maps. Seeing that we had seven weeks, the last things that we did not want to do was rush the trip and miss some of the important things to see and do in the Cape.

As we had driven up to Cairns on 3 other occasions, we decide to take the inland route this time and visit parts of Queensland that we had never been to before. Our travels from Clare had us going over to Burra and then up the Barrier Highway to Broken Hill and on to Wilcannia for our first nights stay, with that day being the longest days travel of around 600 kilometres. From Wilcannia we stayed at Bourke, Lightning Ridge, Roma, including the small detour to Thallon to see the great new painted silos, Clermont, Greenvale before finally entering the Atherton Tablelands and our stay at Mareeba nine days after leaving home. During our two-day stay at Mareeba, we did one drive that we had never heard of or driven before and had read about during my research in the Hema Cape York Atlas.

The Black Mountain Road for some reason gets very little publicity for reason that I find hard to believe, and offers some great driving through the Mountain ranges from Kuranda, and coming out at the very small and quaint town of Julatten. If anyone is ever in the area and are looking to do a great little drive that is not found in the tourist brochures, I can highly recommend the Black Mountain Road, of course proving that it is dry.

Leaving Mareeba we headed down to the coast coming out just south of Mossman before arriving at our next nights stay, Daintree, so we could make an early start the next morning over the Daintree River and up the Bloomfield Track to Cooktown. As the track was dry, it was not an issue to drive and when in such condition, I cannot see why others say it is a scary and hard drive. We had intended to camp at Archer Point, but unfortunately all the great spots were taken, so we pushed on to the short run into Cooktown. Seeing we had been here before, we only booked in for one night and set off next morning for the short drive out to Eddies Camp at Elim Beach, just out from the Hope Vale Aboriginal Community, which was the start of new places to visit north of Cooktown.

We stayed at Elim Beach for three days, where the atmosphere is very relaxed with the only facilities being flush toilets and cold showers. While we were there, we visited the Coloured Sands, South Cape Bedford and a number of walks along the beach and collected wood for our campfire which you can have anywhere. After three great days, it was time to hit the road and head further north and explore more parts of FNQ and what we officially called the start of our Cape trip. We followed the Battle Camp Road as far as Old Laura before heading south to Laura and the official stat of the Peninsula Development Road.

As we started heading north from Laura and up the Development Road, there were no signs of the dirt until just past Fairview Station, around 17 kilometres north of Laura and from that point on it was a mixture of dirt, corrugations and bitumen all the way north to the Tip. As with any dirt road, it is a matter of lowering tyre pressures, slowing down and driving safely to the conditions, a fact of life that not all drivers adhered to up in the Cape. It was also the first time for any of our Outback dirt road trips that we would never alone on the road; the longest time before seeing another vehicle was no more than around ten minutes. The Development Road is a good wide road and on more than one occasion, we were overtaken, not on the driver side, but on the passenger inside, between the very edge of the road and the white posts. My biggest fear was from the way many “Cowboy” drivers would pass you like there was no tomorrow in situations that can be describe as just outright dangerous and crazy.

On one such occasion, we were stuck behind a truck and I knew that there was another vehicle towing a camper behind us. As there was a complete wall of dust in front of me, I slowed right down to around 60 kph and kept well out of the trucks dust. We were happy to sit there and wait until safe to pass, after all we were on holidays, when out of the dust behind me, a vehicle shot past me doing at least 100 kph, showering me with dust and rocks and continued on the pass the truck as well, not knowing if we were approaching a corner or another vehicle coming the other way. It was also our first time in our travelling history the most driver were never courteous and being a country boy, I have always given approaching vehicles a courtesy wave, from which we counted only around one in 25 vehicles would give you the return wave.
From what we witnessed and have been told about, the Cape would be one place to keep well clear of during School holidays, as we were told it is just crazy with most drivers going like cut snakes to do the trip in the two week holiday timeline. We were also told that it was also a four hour wait to cross the ferry over the Jardine, so that gives you an indication of just how many people head north then, compared to when we crossed over on the ferry, I had time to take photos, walk onto the ferry and chat with the operators and then drive on, with no other vehicles around.
Our first nights stay in the Cape was Coen and the weather now was quite warm and shade was a premium. Coen is a quaint little town with basic services and interesting history. After topping up our vehicle, we booked into the campground behind the Exchange Hotel and had a very easy afternoon. The next day we just plodded along, taking our time and stopping regularly to see many special little features along the drive, with our first stop only just up the road at the Coen Quarantine Station and the start of more dirt. The sections of bitumen were now getting longer and after leaving Archer River, it was bitumen all the way to the Weipa turnoff, a distance of over 35 kilometres. We had heard a lot about Weipa and decided that we would visit on the way up, not knowing how we would go for time on our homeward bound drive. Another thing we had never done before was pre book ahead, as for the first time all the parks were very full and when we arrived in Weipa, there were 4 other vehicles lined up and waiting to get booked into the caravan park. Seeing that we had pre booked and paid for our stay here, we were given a mud map of where we were staying and set up our camp for the next 4 nights under a very large shady tree. Even though it was only around 33° degrees, the humidity made it feel hotter than clear dry heat and we were so lucky to have the shade and not out in the open like many other campers.
Settled in, we drove into the main town area, and as expected being a Sunday nearly everything was closed, but it gave us an idea where most shops were located and what was on offer. First thing on Mondays list was to head over to the supermarket and top up our supplies, from milk, fruit and everything in between seeing it was our first major shop since Mossman. My next item to get hold of was some filter cleaner for my snorkel filter, which was now red and caked in a thick film of red Cape York dust. It is very interesting to see how busy the vehicle workshops were, working and repairing all types of vehicles, trailers and caravans. Over the next three days we explored most things to see in the Weipa area heading as far north as Mapoon and everything in between. The nightly ritual was to head down to the beach, along with dozens of people staying in the caravan park to witness the fantastic sunsets.

Our time passed very quickly and we could have stayed longer, but we were still a long way from the top of the Cape, and we headed out to the main PDR going via the main Batavia Downs Station road, which at the time we travelled it would have been the best dirt road in the Cape and was like driving on bitumen.
Conditions changed the moment that we reached the PDR again and it was a slower pace of travel and back to the corrugations and the dust from the many vehicles that were both coming and going from the Cape. It was only a short drive and before lunch we drove into Bramwell Station which we were advised from other travellers was a must stay. Shade here was an absolute premium and due to the very dry conditions, made for a hot and dusty stay and we wished had driven that little distance further and stayed at Bramwell Junction, which had nice green lawns and shade. Early in the afternoon the clouds set in and there was even a few spots of heavy rain, which then increased the humidity level.
Speaking with a few other campers, they all said the same and agreed that Bramwell Junction was the better option for camping, but as they say, we all have a different perspective and others might agree that the Station was better.

Heading north the next day it was time leave the PDR and head out to famous Gunshot Creek crossing on the Telegraph Track. Leaving the PDR, the road was quite good right until the turn of to the actual Heathlands Ranger Station and then they set in, some of the best corrugations that we had ever encountered, and that was saying something, being for us worse than the Anne Beadell Highway corrugations. We were now down to around 15kph and any faster would have surely related in some form of damage to either the car or the camper. On reaching the actual Telegraph Track, it was now a single two wheeled track with limited passing places for oncoming vehicles, but at least the track was not corrugated and was quite good going. Heading south we encountered a few groups of people heading north and we all did the right thing and we all managed to squeeze past each other. There is no mistake about finding the actual Gunshot Crossing, as there were a large number of vehicles gathered there to witness any vehicle that was game enough to make the almost vertical drop off into the main crossing. A few groups did the normal, easier water crossing, but one young lad in his nice new, tricked up Ford Ranger said he had done the crossing before and was going to do it again….the hard one.
Word now spread to the large crowd and there would have been around 20 or more people now down in the water and waiting with baited breath to see first hand just what the steep crossing was going to be like. My concern was that he did not have another vehicle behind him to act as an anchor, or another vehicle down the bottom to snatch him out if he had not made it safely to the bottom. With low range engaged, the Ford Ranger slowly approached the drop off, and he inched his way ever slowly and his wheels were now over the drop, but his vehicle was not going anywhere, as he was caught up on the lip of the drop off with 4 wheels all spinning. This was now one of those Minties moment as he tried in vein but was stuck fast and not going anywhere. After lots of talking and wondering how he would get out of this precarious situation, one chap walked up to the back of the vehicle and gave it the most gentle of pushes and down it went. At first I thought it was going to do a complete summersault, as the vehicle started to fall forwards and then it was back to normal but stuck fast at an almost vertical angle. With mud and dust being flung up, this vehicle was not budging. For well over ten minutes the vehicle was stuck in this position and then someone finally drove down and with a snatch strap hooked connect to both vehicles, he then started his Ranger and it was not a very healthy sound and he was now out on flat ground, but being stuck in that position for that time had done its damage….oil draining from the oil pump and possible damage to his motor, and another very expensive “I drove down Gunshot”. Had this young lad had prepared for this crossing and not been so bullet proof and had a vehicle stationed at the bottom, this damage to his vehicle would have been averted, so it does not matter how good a driver you are, or capable your vehicle is, with total lack of planning, it will result in damage to both vehicle and driver.

We took another route back out to the PDR, with the corrugations just as serve the moment we left the Telegraph Track, until back to the turn off to the Ranger Station. Once back onto the main PDR , conditions were good and we were making good time, even dropping into a few of the other side attractions that there is to see up this way and arrived at the Jardine River Crossing at 4pm with no other vehicles around, with the exception of 2 vehicles camping in the lawned area not far from the Office and Service Station where you purchase your Jardine Ferry ticket. I first walked onto the ferry and chatted with the 3 operators and took a few photos of them and then made the crossing of this famous barrier to the top of the Cape. With the help of WikiCamps Australia and fellow travellers that we had spoken to along the way, we booked into the quiet little Caravan Park at Loyalty Beach for 5 nights and were totally happy with our stay there.

Once we were all set up, it felt like we were now really at the top of Australia. For us, the best part about staying at Loyalty Beach was that we were close enough to Bamaga and Seisia, and not that far from the actual “Tip” and designated to an actual site, as once you have paid your fees, you are given a run down of where you can stay and then you choose where you want to camp. Temperatures up here in the Cape were now just perfect, apart from the humidity and from the day to night temperatures, there was usually only 4° to 6° difference. It was also the first time that our nightly small campfires were for cooking and not for the comfort of keeping warm when out in the cooler deserts.
Next morning, the first thing that we planned to do was to head to the “Tip” and we took the back track from the caravan park. The track was is good condition until a few kilometres in, with a large water crossing to be undertake if we wanted to continue on the track. I could see that both the entry and departure points looked firm, but I had no way of knowing how deep it was and how firm the base was in the middle. There was a 200 Series parked on the side of the track, and I stop to see if he was OK, to which he replied he was fine, but was unsure of the water crossing. If all went wrong, he was at least there to snatch me out, so I engaged low range second and entered the water. The track felt firm until the middle where it was deeper, around 700mm deep and then became quite soft and I could feel the car losing traction. so I then gave the Prado a little more pedal power and luckily we were out of the soft section and back onto firmer ground and back high and dry on the other side. I stopped and got out of the vehicle, to see a nice watermark over the dust and about half way up the side of the car doors, which showed how deep the crossing was.
I yelled out to the other chap, but he said he was going to turn back and go the longer way, which was strange, as we got trough ok, but he must have thought otherwise. We were soon at the Croc Tent. While Fiona went inside the tent, I walked over to the other side of the road to inspect the old Lockerbie Homestead ruins, before returning to join Fiona in the Croc Tent. The lady was so helpful there, gave us a rundown on the local track conditions, on what to see up there and a great little map of the area. From there we then headed straight for the Tip, and we were now almost at one place that we had wanted to reach and cross of out “To Do” bucket list.

The small car park was full and we could not believe the number of vehicles that were there so early in the day. As the tide was out, we decided to do a two-way walk, firstly along the beach to the Tip and then come back over the headland. The walk was easy along the beach, even though I kept an eye out for crocodiles and then it was time to do a little bit of rock hopping and we were finally there. There were lots of people all there for the same thing, and slowly it was our turn to get the compulsory photo by the famous sign. We headed back to the car park this time via the headland track, which offers great views the higher that you get. By the time we reached the car park, there was heaps of room, and shows just how quick things change up there. From there we headed for Somerset and out to the beach camping area. As the tide was in, we were not able to get to the Aboriginal rock art site, but saved that for another day when we came back a few days later when the tide would be on our side. We did however find the two old graves just back from the beach that date back to 1890 and its makes one wonder what they have witnessed over the following years. It was then a slow drive back to camp and stopping to get more firewood, before returning to the park and enjoy the quiet solitude of the area.

The next day we travelled at a slow pace and headed to Muttee Head, visiting the camping area and the must visit old Radar Station before again returning back towards Bamaga, this time taking another back track that follows the power lines., and there was only one little deep water crossing, that was basically front wheels in and travel just over a car length and then out again. The drive was interesting with more giant termite mounds lining the track. Once back on the PDR, we headed straight to Bamaga and then out towards the Airport and visited the sites where the old WW11 planes had crashed, then back to camp for another easy afternoon, only stopping on the way back for more wood for the fire which was in abundance up here.
The start of day 3 was just like the others days, a comfortable and warm 24° at 6:30am but still overcast, and not the nice blue sky that we were hoping for. Today had us heading back to the tip, but this time going via Punsand Bay. Arriving at the Resort we were very glad that we had stayed at Loyalty Beach. The place was packed and everyone packed into smaller designated camping sites. Another thing that put us off well before reaching the Cape were the fees that they charge here at the Punsand Bay resort. The camping fees were a little dearer, but the biggest put off was charging pet owners a daily fee per pet for having their pets in the park.

Yes they did have a nice big outside restaurant area and pool, but we could live without them and could camp were we liked with no close neighbours at Loyalty Beach. Many people also point out that this is the closest park to the TIP, which it is, but it is also the furthest way from the main business area at the Cape, Bamaga and Seisia, so for us the 30 minute drive was enjoyable and worth it and not an inconvenience. Chatting with the backpacker in the office, she asked the usual questions and give a pre set reply that they must tell all guests. Some of the questions were almost textbook type of questions, but she was only doing here job and what Management wanted their staff to ask and tell all guests. One such question that I had asked two days before at the Croc Tent from a local perspective, who lives and works her year round was the condition of the Roma Flat track that runs from the Resort out to the Tip track. The advise from the Croc Tent was an honest and type of answer that we had hoped to here, drive to your abilities, do not take any chances and use the chicken tracks around a couple of the large bog holes that were still catching people out.

For this question, the young backpacker asked where we were off to, and I explained that we were going to the Tip via the Roma Flat Track. She then asked another set of questions, do you have a winch, recovery gear, and are you travelling with at least two other vehicles ..with my reply being that I had the recovery gear, no winch and travelling solo. She then gave me the usual pre set answer, you will never get through, they charge a $1000 recovery fee if you get stranded, one vehicle was recovered with water over its roof and go back the way you had just come. So here we get two very different answers, one from a local that lives here year round and one from a young backpacker that had only been in Australia for a month from Ireland, had never driven the track and had no idea what was it like. We purchased our fridge magnet, and said our good byes and got back into our vehicle. It was moments like this that first hand local knowledge is vital to give the correct answers, and I was so glad that we had spoken first hand with the very helpful lady at the Croc Tent.
Less that 500 metres into the Roma Flat track and the first wrong piece of information was show by a sign on the track, advising that there is a $500 recovery fee in the event of trouble, yet the pack packer said it was $1000? The rest of the track was an easy drive, with only one major bog hole with an easy chicken track skirting the long, deep black mud, water covered crossing that many boys had been playing in and you would have to be crazy to try it , let alone if you were travelling solo like we were. It makes you wonder why people have to try such obstacles and cut the hell out of the track when there is clearly an easy way around this large mud hole. The track had many serious, badly cut up sections that would be impossible to drive when the track was wet and under water. There was only one small creek crossing that had around 30cm of water in it, but it was a firm rocky base and an easy crossing. The track was a mixture of savannah country, to thick dense rainforest areas. Arriving at the tip car park we could not believe the difference, with lots of places to park compared to two days previous. We then backtracked and headed again for Somerset, knowing that we now were at low tide and a possible rock hopping venture to the Aboriginal rock art site. Even with the tide out, we were advises by the lady in the Croc Tent to stick to the rocks, as using the water way still requited going through water at tine knee depth, and knowing that there was a local 4 metre saltie inhabiting this area. The ladies said that it had never attacked anyone, but would stalk people walking through the water and given a few people a bad scare. The rock hopping took about 20 minutes and finally you arrive in a very small cove with a large sandstone overhang, where the rock art is located. For anyone that is interested in this type of thing, it is worth the effort and see something that is quite unique to the area, but make sure you check the tide tides first, something that the Croc Tent will assist you with. Once back at the car park, we enjoyed another slow drive back to Loyalty Beach and another easy afternoon back at camp.

Our last day in the top of the Cape had us going back in Seisia, other small drives and then topping up with fuel at the BP Service Station in Bamaga for our trip back down the PDR in the morning. Once back at camp, we reorganised a few things and got ready for our departure in the morning, and like all things, it seemed to be the quickest four days of our trip away. Next morning we said our farewell to Loyalty Beach and headed out to the Jardine Ferry crossing and further south. Even though we were heading south, there was still the ever convoy of vehicles heading north and to experience what most four wheel drivers want to do, stand at the top of the Australian mainland. Our first nights stay after leaving was at the Archer River Roadhouse, which was almost full to capacity, and then down to Laura the next night, where the heavens opened up just before we arrived and we had 30 mm of rain in just under an hour. From Laura we spent another 3 days in Cooktown before arriving back in Cairns, and booked in for 3 nights, when it was time to get the car serviced, and to get ready for the 3000 kilometre drive back home over the next two weeks.
Stephen Langman
January 2019
Smile like a Crocodile
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