Touring Cape York

There aren’t too many parts of Australia that can boast a commercial magazine dedicated to a celebration of its unique culture. This magazine, “Cape Yorker”, highlights a part of Australia that is very special. It is visited by thousands of Australians every year for a multitude of reasons. Some people come for the “adventure”; some come for the history; some come for the fishing; some come for the biodiversity; some come for the culture and some come merely to be able to say they’ve been there! Many of my fellow Cape York explorers travel there for all the above reasons, and do so on a regular basis. Our journey is enhanced by having a dedicated publication, which allows us to enjoy the area – even when we’re not there!

The author crosses Canal Creek in his Cape York rig.

The author crosses Canal Creek in his Cape York rig.

The key word when describing Cape York is “diversity”. There are many different natural environments – from the rainforests to the heathlands, from the open eucalypt forests to the mangrove forests, from the beaches to the swamps. Each of these environments has its own special population of animals, reptiles, birds and insects, many of which, may only be found in that special place. The key to enjoying this diversity is to adopt a slow measured pace, allowing plenty of time to pause and enjoy the surroundings, to “smell the flowers”, to take a million images. (I guess that’s a big plus of the digital age – you can take hundreds of images without having to worry about the cost of film and processing, as in the pre-digital era.)

Too many Cape York visitors make the same mistake. You cannot explore Cape York in a fortnight. If you are only going to charge up to the top, then back again so you can tell everyone you’ve “done the tip”, why bother? You would need a month to even scratch the surface. If your time is limited, I suggest you concentrate on just one area, returning later to explore further. In this way you will give Cape York the respect it deserves.

Cape York roads are not made for speed! If you travel too quickly, you not only risk damaging your pride and joy – you risk damaging your most important possession – your family. I have seen deaths, serious injuries and much mangled metal on my many trips to the Cape, almost all caused by inexperience and/or speed. The worst aspect is that it is often an innocent party who suffers when you display poor judgement. Imagine this – you are driving steadily along enjoying the ambience, when you are suddenly confronted by an out-of-control 4WD, with trailer attached, coming at you sideways! It happens far too often. Last trip, my friend and I put in three to four hours waiting for ambulance, police and ultimately a rescue chopper, while we administered first aid and reassurance to the two occupants of a rolled 4WD, one of whom obviously had serious injuries. The driver was young and unlicensed, once again speed and inexperience on gravel roads…

Preparations

Anyway, let’s talk of more pleasant matters, but before I introduce you to some of my favourite parts of Cape York, we need to prepare. Obviously your vehicle needs to be in good reliable order and recently serviced. Tyres should have plenty of tread, shock absorbers work effectively and fan belts and hoses in good condition. If the battery is questionable, or has some age about it, it’s probably best to replace it. These days the track is not as bad as it used to be, and I would not worry about carrying a multitude of spare parts. Far better to make sure it doesn’t need any before you leave. A very basic kit should suffice. Items like spare fuel filters (you never know how clean the fuel tanks are in these isolated fuel stops), spare fan belts and a couple of spare tyres may not go astray. Remember, a major breakdown is going to be very expensive – the closest RACQ tow service will be Weipa. In the event of a breakdown, communication will be the first challenge. Forget your mobile phone, but you would be well-advised to consider hiring a satellite phone. A few hundred dollars spent here might be good insurance. I also now carry the latest personal epirb fitted with a GPS, as another safety factor should I find myself in dire straits. I hope it never gets used.

Crossing the Jardine on the Injinoo Ferry.  The ferry ticket is also your permit to camp on Injinoo land.

Crossing the Jardine on the Injinoo Ferry. The ferry ticket is also your permit to camp on Injinoo land.

Any visitor to the Cape will need to carry some camping gear. These days, there is more accommodation available en route, but you will still need to carry some equipment. The next challenge is fitting it all in. A solitary traveller may get away with a tray back 4WD and canopy, however most travellers are not alone, so the common alternatives are roof racks and/or trailers. Camping trailers are very popular, and as long as they are genuine off-roaders, you should be fine. For me, roof racks are not an option due to the incessant corrugations that will be encountered. My trailer is purpose designed, equipped with shocks and coil springs, hot-dipped and built like the proverbial brick outhouse! The only problem I have encountered involved the rear tyre carrier (twice!) so now I carry the 2nd spare inside the trailer. I should point out that my trailer is not a camper, merely a vehicle for carrying all my camping gear.

Of course, you should have a copy of the Hema Cape York map, the latest version of Ron Moon’s book and don’t forget your library of “Cape Yorker” magazines! Part of the joy of exploring an area like Cape York is sharing your experiences with friends and family (I guess that’s what I’m doing right now!) so, if possible try to travel with compatible people. A couple of families with children make a great travelling party. The adults can discuss the sights and share the high points, while the kids always amuse themselves as they engage fully in the camping experience. Evenings are filled with stories, impromptu campfire concerts and, best of all, no TV!! My wife whiles away the hours working sudoku puzzles in quiet times…

Speed and inexperience contributed to this accident.  One person seriously injured…

Speed and inexperience contributed to this accident. One person seriously injured…

Lastly, make sure you are “au fait” with the current alcohol management plans for the different Cape York areas you will be traversing, and make sure you abide by them.

The Telegraph Track

For me, the Telegraph Track is about the beauty of the many pristine streams that it crosses. For many, the focus is on the difficulty of the various creek crossings – the “adventure” aspect. I guess it’s an age thing, and I’m over that, but I still love the telegraph track. I enjoy pausing at each creek and exploring either side of the crossing with camera in hand, and a range of lenses in the shoulder bag. You will see strange plants, such as the pitcher plant, an insect eating plant. At certain times of the year the toothbrush grevilleas will provide a riot of colour. Watch where you walk very carefully. A bad snakebite in this situation would be fatal, so due care must be taken at all times.

If you’re driving a $50 000 vehicle you will need to consider whether you really need to risk it unnecessarily by driving down Gunshot Creek or fording the Jardine River. Now I have done both, but not these days! Each creek crossing has its own character and inherent risks and should be carefully inspected on foot rather than just charging in. Some creeks, like Nolan’s Brook, can be quite deep so you need to check them out to find the best path through, as this is definitely not the place to “hydraulic” your diesel by causing it to ingest a gutful of water. Many of the more risky sections of the Telegraph Track can be bypassed these days, which allows you to enjoy the “adventure” without destroying your primary means of transport. When you reach the top, if you’ve had enough, you can always put your rig on the coastal boat and head back to Cairns by sea. There are those that do.

The Water Falls

The author powers up out of one of the creeks near the bottom of the Telegraph Track, lifting a wheel in the process.

The author powers up out of one of the creeks near the bottom of the Telegraph Track, lifting a wheel in the process.

Fruit Bat Falls and Twin Falls are two of the major attractions of the Cape and lie within the Jardine River National Park. Camping is available for the usual fee at Twin Falls and it is a very popular spot, and deservedly so. They are also ideal spots to take a cooling dip, but please remember, no soap! Let’s keep these streams as pristine as they are.

Somerset

Everyone wants to reach the Tip, but personally, I prefer to visit Somerset. This was once the hub of the Jardine family’s pastoral holdings and the place has an aura for me because of its past history – much of it violent. Little remains of the homestead, but down below, near a delightful little beach, lie the final resting places of Frank and Sana Jardine. It’s a tangible reminder of our recent history, and I always like to visit when I’m in the area. A track south follows the coast, skirting secluded beaches, which offer great beach combing, before eventually rejoining the main road back to Bamaga.

Vrilya Point

On the western side of Cape York Peninsula, Vrilya Point is accessed from the Northern Bypass Road and the turn off is 28 km south of the Jardine Ferry Crossing. This area is best accessed on your return from the north as you require a ticket for the Jardine Ferry, which is also your camping permit to access Injinoo land, and that includes Vrilya Point.

It’s a beautiful area with plenty of beachcombing to the north to explore. You can also access a creek system for fishing and camping by driving the ten kilometres of beach. An old rusted, wreck of a light boat lies towards the northern end of this beach.

If you just want to kick back and enjoy a few quiet days of relaxation, this is your spot. The track from the bypass road is generally OK, but there is a log bridge over Crystal Creek, about 4 km from the bypass track, which should be checked before crossing. Cross at your own risk!

Bamaga

This is the service centre for the top of Cape York, and has most facilities including fuel supplies, a hotel, supermarket, bakery and resort. Adjacent to the BP servo is a small, but interesting, museum which is a must-visit for the history buff. These folk will also want to visit the plane wrecks near the Bamaga Airstrip, reminders of how close World War II came to Australia.

The best place to camp near Bamaga is the campground at Seisia. A little further away are the alternatives of Loyalty Beach and Punsand Bay. Any fishermen camping at Seisia will want to check out the jetty at Red Island Point. Huge schools of sardines gather beneath the jetty, attracting all the usual predators, and it is rare to see no one fishing there. There are certainly some big fish taken here at times.

Keen fisherfolk are well catered for, with several guided fishing operations in the area, any of whom will be happy to have you sample what the area has to offer.

Muttee Heads

The mouth of the mighty Jardine River can be accessed from the Muttee Heads road, via a very sandy track. This is definitely 4WD only, and towing heavy trailers through the soft sand is fraught with danger. Tyres will need to be deflated and it can be tough going!

The Jardine is Queensland’s largest perennial stream, due to it draining the “wet desert” which caused so many problems for the early explorers. At low tide the water is drinkable near the mouth, even in the dry. It’s a very pleasant camp and even if you have no boat, you can fish, but watch for crocs – the Jardine is full of them! Beachcombers will enjoy strolling the beach north, towards Muttee Heads.

Weipa attracts the fishermen, and there are plenty of guided operations to put you onto fish.

Weipa attracts the fishermen, and there are plenty of guided operations to put you onto fish.

Weipa

Weipa is the largest centre on the Cape and exists because of Comalco’s huge bauxite operation. It has all facilities. While it is off the main track to the tip of the Cape, it is well worth a visit. Fishermen love to visit Weipa because of the wide range of fishing options on offer. A quick survey of the guided fishing operations that utilize Weipa as their base, will quickly convince you that Weipa must have something going for it!

While fishing is the main lure that draws visitors to Weipa, it has more to offer the traveller. There are delightful locations for restful camping, such as the Pennefather River, Mapoon and Stones Crossing on the Wenlock. It also offers a centre for replenishing the larder, getting your vehicle repaired or just taking a break from the rigors of the track. It also boasts a well-serviced airport, if you need something urgently.

East Coast of the Cape

I haven’t mentioned too many spots on the east coast of the Peninsula yet. I guess the prevailing south easterly trade winds tend to make it a bit uncomfortable at times if you’re camping. If you turn east around the Archer River Roadhouse, you will reach the tiny paradise called Portland Roads. Once a strategic Port during World War II, this port serviced the Iron Range aerodrome. The Iron Range rainforest is a fine example of virgin rainforest and is a must-visit area if you are a nature buff. While Portland Roads is a beautiful and quaint little settlement, there are no camping facilities available. The only camping available in the area, is located at Iron Range and also at the beautiful, but very breezy, Chili Beach. This lovely area must be the windiest on the Cape, so be warned. Further north you can visit Captain Billy’s Landing, also windy.

Conclusion

Well, this is a very short account of some of my favourite haunts up on Cape York. I was going to tell you about the track into the Skardon River, however that is now closed, unfortunately. Then there was the time we found a very disused track into the Escape River. The last 14 km took us eight hours over two days! Someone who tried it a year or two ago found it impossible, due to erosion. It would be really easy to write a book on the topic. In fact many books have been written about this fascinating part of Australia, and you will find many in your local library, which you can use for pre-trip research.

When you get back from your trip, you will probably be even more eager to find further information about the area, to prepare you for your next trip. The fact that you are reading this publication means you have fallen under the spell of the Cape. Very quickly, you will develop your own list of favourite places to visit up there. You are not on your own – you have joined a select band of discerning people, Cape York explorers, and I’ll probably see you up on the track – soon!

By Ken Stien