Cape York – Part 1
This is the story of our journey to one of the most remote places in Australia. The northern most point of the country – the tip of Cape York.
The Daintree rainforest is a magical place. So much of it remains unexplored and there is such an abundant biodiversity that scientists are frequently discovering new species and even finding some that were thought to be extinct. It looks like the kind of habit where dinosaurs should roam. One particularly interesting creature of the forest is the cassowary. This flightless bird looks as if it just walked out of a time machine. It stands up to two meters tall, has a blue, featherless head with a bony crest on top and each foot sports a claw large and powerful enough to gut a human in one kick.
The Daintree is fondly known as the place where the jungle meets the reef. In fact, it’s the only place in the world where two UNESCO world heritage sites combine.
There’s actually very little access to the Daintree. This is partly to conserve the beauty and unspoiled nature of the rainforest. It’s also because of the sheer density of the bush and steep slopes, making road/path construction difficult. There is however a very steep and winding, 4 wheel drive only road called the Bloomfield track which follows the coast the whole way through. These days the road is graded and the steepest parts are even concreted, but it gets a reputation due to the length and steepness of the climbs and descents. Bruce conquered it with no problem at all of course and we had lots of fun. It’s an incredibly beautiful drive. Some people were towing camper trailers and even off road caravans, although they’re pretty brave to be pulling that kind of load up and down those slippery slopes if you ask me!
The jungle and mangrove lined beaches all along this route are incredible. Real tropical paradises. In the middle is Cape Tribulation, where Captain Cook infamously ran aground on June the 10th 1770. He named it, according to his log book, “because here begun all our troubles.”
Lions Den Hotel
After the Bloomfield track and on the way to Cooktown, we stopped off for some dinner at the Lions Den Hotel. It’s one of those country pubs, in the middle of nowhere and with so much character that anyone passing nearby simply has to stop in. The gateway is guarded by a statue of a lion. The walls and ceiling are covered all over with the signatures and witty comments of travellers. They even have a little museum room full of curios. And to top it all off, good grub and cold beer.
To our dismay, it rained the whole evening that we arrived in Cooktown. We quickly checked out the stunning but grey view from the lighthouse on Grassy Hill and then had a beer or two at the Cooktown Hotel. We camped for the night in the busy but pleasantly leafy Cooktown Caravan Park. In the morning we had a wander around the banks of the Endeavour River, trying to find points of interest on an essentially useless, free tourist map. And that was enough of Cooktown…
From Cooktown we left the bitumen and took the Endeavour Battlecamp Road to the north, which brought us to the Old Laura Homestead historic site. The corrugations on the way in were… something special. Nothing much we could do but hold on and bounce along. The homestead was abandoned in 1966 but the empty shells of the buildings are still standing along with an old, rusted truck in the centre of the yard. It gives a good insight into the lives of people pioneering remote cattle stations in days gone by.
Next we joined the Peninsula Development Road, which is the mostly unsealed highway winding its way up the middle of cape york. The driving conditions on this road are difficult to say the least. It’s riddled with corrugations, dust holes, rocks and uneven surfaces.
I’m not sure if there’s an official speed limit, but it’s not advised anywhere. Unfortunately that leads some people to drive like it’s a race track. That said, driving too slowly makes the ride painfully bumpy. To drive comfortably on the corrugated surface, you need to travel at about 80 to 90 km/h. The theory is that when you go fast enough, the wheels skip over the top of the corrugations rather than completely dipping into each rut. I don’t know if that’s strictly correct, but it certainly feels a lot smoother. The other trick is to lower your tyre pressure. In our case, letting out about 15 to 20 psi all round seems to work best (On bitumen we run 45 on the front and 60 on the back). This makes the tyres softer so they work with the suspension to smooth out the ride. Just remember that with lower tyre pressure, your grip will be decreased, so take it easy on the corners.
Bruce has Tough Dog adjustable shock absorbers, so I also set them to the softest setting. Admittedly I only remembered this was an option after needlessly pummelling our backsides with them set on hard for the first few hours. Man what a difference it makes!
The reason the original road to the tip was built, was to install and maintain a telegraph line connecting Australia to Thursday Island and the rest of the world. The telegraph line was in use from 1885 until 1962 when it was replaced with microwave links. The line was then upgraded to a telephone line which was used until 1987. All the way up the Cape are the old telegraph repeater stations, most of which are now used as roadhouses.
The first station we stopped at was Musgrave Roadhouse, where a list of distances painted on the end of a tank reminded us that we were still closer to Cairns than to the tip! We decided to camp the night and we also filled up with diesel – $1.55 per litre. Not bad for the middle of nowhere!
Much to our dismay, when we went to cook dinner, we found that the corrugations had smashed all of our eggs and deposited the mess all around our fridge…
Exchange Hotel, Coen
The town of Coen is home to a couple of hundred residents. There’s a good sense of community and they’re pretty friendly to the passing tourists too.
The Exchange Hotel was another telegraph station and is a bit of a local hub. Legend has it that during the ’70s, a few drunken mates climbed up onto the roof one night and placed a letter ‘S’ in front of the pubs name. After the prank was repeated a few times, the landlord grew tired of taking it down again. It has remained ever since as the S’Exchange hotel!
I don’t seem to have taken any photos in Coen so… Here’s a picture of one of the many absurdly large termite mounds we found on the way.
Morten Telegraph Station
The next station we camped at was Morten. Lucky for us, there was a private site still available and as we arrived late in the evening we were allowed to camp there for no extra cost! It gets surprisingly chilly overnight in the cape, so we got a nice fire going and had a wonderfully peaceful evening. Now we were really starting to enjoy the remote wilderness we had come to.
This is the barge used for transporting cars over the Wenlock River, near Morten when it’s too deep to drive across. Looks terrifying!
We also spotted a row of old telegraph poles that are still standing.
Other than fuelling up, we didn’t stick around long at Bramwell. We were eager to try something else. This is where the imfamous Old Telegraph 4WD Track starts. It’s the original route from here to the Jardine River and while it’s still a gazetted public road, the only maintenance it receives is from off-roading enthusiasts making it passible each season. A gruelling 130 odd kilometres that took us almost three days to complete!
Stay tuned for part two where we tackle The Old Telegraph Track and reach the tip. Why not follow us on Facebook?