Day 1 – Cooktown to Kalpowar Crossing (242kms)
We set off from Cooktown this morning with a little trepidation on my part… this is our first foray into the corrugated roads and river crossings of Cape York. I needn’t have worried though, it’s like a main highway out here most of the time.
Once we were 22kms out of Cooktown we hit the start of the gravel road, although through the day there were several sections of road that were sealed for a few hundred metres – those parts of the road where the water sits and becomes a mud hole. We took a little detour from our path this morning to go out to Elim beach (near Hope Vale) to see the coloured sands which are famous here. The beach was deserted – just us taking a walk and the sands were definitely coloured, but I think that the pure white sands in the rest of the area and the view out over the ocean were more impressive.
Back on track to Kalpowar and we headed over the Battle Camp road, named after a 1873 ‘battle’ between a group of gold diggers and ‘around 500 war-painted natives’. Many lives were lost during the battle, mostly Aboriginal. We had three river crossings at Isabella Falls, Normandy River and Laura River, but all were no deeper than about 400mm and had nice firm surfaces.
We stopped for lunch at the Old Laura homestead. These are (fairly well maintained) ruins of the original homestead for the cattle station developed here to supply meat to the gold fields through the boom, it was still in use up to 1966 when the homestead was moved north 24km to New Laura.
We’ve made it to the Kalpowar Crossing campground on the Normanby River. Great spot with a beautiful clear fast flowing river that looked so inviting after a day of dust and heat, but no swimming to be had here, our crocodylus johnstoni friends are lurking in there somewhere!
We saw an unusual sight on the road from Old Laura… a turtle trying to make it across the bulldust road to a little creek on the other side. As the kids say, “that’s something you don’t see every day!”.
Day 2 – Kalpowar Crossing (10kms)
We hung out at camp today catching up on the recently neglected school work and fishing. Jake caught the first Barramundi of the trip, but too small to keep. All in all the boys (big and little) caught five fish with one being big enough to keep (just big enough, I think!). We tried to drive to the reportedly spectacular White Lily pond and Red Lily pond but the road north is closed at the New Laura Ranger station.
Day 3 – Kalpowar Crossing – Charlie’s Place (Coen) (341kms)
The majority of our drive today was on the super-highway that is the Peninsula Development Road (PDR). We’d heard that the road was good at the moment, but it is excellent, aside from the dust and the occasional wet floodway we could have been on any main road in Australia. We made it to Charlie’s Place which is 3kms south of Coen. We’d absolutely recommend a stop to chat with Charlie and take a look around his quirky grounds. Whether you want to camp the night there or not Charlie is more than happy to have a chat.
Day 4 – Charlie’s Place – Chilli Beach (230kms)
Once again we were amazed by the quality of the roads, both on the PDR and on the road loading out to Iron Range National Park. We’ve passed a fair number of road crews working on the road and there is certainly no leaning on the spade being done here, they’re all flat out grading, watering and rolling. It took us 2.5 hours to do the 125kms from the PDR turnoff to Chilli beach, with two more significant river crossings at the Wenlock and Pascoe rivers, but even these were solid on the bottom and no more than 400mm deep. There is a fair amount of dust though!
We had been warned that you have to get the Chilli beach early to secure a campsite and that is certainly the case. We arrived at 1.30pm hot on the heels of 3 or 4 other cars and managed to get one of the last spots going… it is a good one though, just back from the beach, loads of room and not too far from the loo!
Days 5&6 – Chilli Beach (51kms)
Often on our trip we have driven considerable distances in search of some apparently wonderful spot only to be a little disappointed at what we found. This is not the case at Chilli Beach – what a fantastic place. Beautiful white sandy beach, brilliant blue ocean, palm trees… the works. We were also fortunate enough for our trip to coincide with a PCYC camp for the kids from Lockhart River so our children have joined in games with them and we were all invited to dance around the campfire on Sunday night. They are in training for the Laura Dance Festival which is on later in the month.
Fishing is still a major disappointment… a morning’s fishing at Portland Roads and another morning at the mouth of Chilli Creek resulted in ZERO fish for the dinner table, even Ben’s getting a little bored of it I think, but not our Tobey, he’d happily fish away for weeks on end without a catch I think.
We’ve found some friends to travel the rough sections with too! We have bumped into Matt and Monica, who we first met a few weeks ago at Big Crystal Creek, they are travelling now with some of their family, making five cars in total. Should be enough to pull each other out of any trouble!
Day 7 – Chilli Beach – Bramwell Junction (284km)
It was a perfect day to leave the wonderful Chilli Beach this morning, the clouds had come in and we had a sprinkling or two of rain. The plan for today was to attempt the shorter route, via the Frenchmans Track, back to the PDR and head further north. This option (rather than retracing our steps along the Portland Roads road to the PDR) would save us about 80kms, the only hitch could be crossing the Pascoe River, but we figured as it was only around 10kms along the Frenchmans Track to that point we could easily turn around and come out again if it looked too bad. The drive in was really nice, the track pretty good, just a couple of washed out areas, but nothing significant at all. The track down to the river crossing was not so great though(remember these are my descriptions and Ben may have a totally different story to tell!). There was a sizeable drop, running into a mud hole before the river, then the river was around waist height and flowing pretty strongly with boulders the size of beach balls dotted through the bottom, then a steep rocky ascent on the exit. By the time we’d arrived at the river we had caught up with a car from Perth who also wanted to cross, so now we had six cars, three with trailers looking to cross. After much thought and weighing the options (not from me, because I’d made my decision quite early on!) our group decided not to attempt the crossing and to turn around. Just the turning around was eventful enough with the Disco picking up a new bruise! The guys from WA decided to take the plunge and managed to get their Troopie and trailer through, not after the trailer started a sideways drift in the river and having to winch out the exit though! I’m pleased we made the decision to turn around, the additional 2 hours and 21kms to our trip was far better than the heart-stopper the other alternative may have been! (We caught up with the WA guys later in Bamaga, they said the river crossing was the lest of their concerns, the remainder of the track looked as though it had not been driven this season and was totally overgrown and rutted. The remaining 40kms of the track took them about 11 hours – coming out on the PDR at 11pm that night. I am SOOO glad we turned around!)
Day 8 – Bramwell Junction – Gunshot Creek (46kms)
Right, this is the Cape York that I had imagined and that I have been apprehensive about! We left Bramwell Junction this morning in a convoy of eight vehicles, three with camper trailers to tackle the Old Telegraph Track.
The Old Telegraph Track is the service road for the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL), built in the late 1880’s as a vital communications link for the southern parts of Australia to the rest of the world. The line served Australia well, especially through WWII and continued in operation as a local telephone line to Bamaga (in the north of the Cape) until it was dismantled in 1987. The line runs STRAIGHT up the cape, virtually ignoring all of Mother Natures obstacles. This is the track we’d be taking up; there is an alternative route, on the PDR, right to the Jardine River, which is the way we will return.
The first crossing of the OTL at Palm Creek was certainly the most difficult of the day with the first vehicle making it through and having to winch everyone else up the exit hill.
The remainder of the day was full of fun and mud as we made our way across Ducie Creek, Dulhunty River, and Bertie Creek before we made it to the junction of the bypass around the notorious Gunshot River.
Decisions, decisions, which was do we go? The drivers were all pretty keen to go and have a look at Gunshot and we’d turn around if necessary, the passengers were less convinced. The drivers won! Between this junction and the Gunshot River was the Cholmondeley Creek crossing and some pretty heavily rutted track to negotiate though! This was by far the scariest moment for me during the two days. You can just see me through the windscreen there, leaning as far to the right as I can and trying not to jiggle around too much! Ben still says he wasn’t worried at this (or any other point) through the entire trip, but I secretly think that he must have been a little nervous at some stage!
We arrived at Gunshot Creek and wondered what all the fuss was about really! Obviously the original crossing is only for those with rocks in their heads, but the chicken track which we had also been told was impassable, was a breeze compared with the rest of the crossings of the day. Ager crossing we set up camp on the northern side of Gunshot Creek, it was around 4.30pm once we started setting up which meant eight hours of driving today to travel 46kms!
The kids had fun here too! Tobey looks even skinnier than usual in this pit!
Day 9 – Gunshot Creek – Nolans Brook (71kms)
Our group of eight vehicles had split into two smaller groups yesterday, so we set off from Gunshot Creek in a group of four this morning. Two camper trailers – ours and another behind a Troopie (Darren, Tracey, Emma and Kate from Canberra)– and two vehicles, another Troopie (Thomas and Madeleine from Switzerland) and a Nissan Navara (John and Roylene from Burnie in Tassie). Cockatoo Creek was the first obstacle of the day, a tricky one that took a lot of assessing to map a track around the worst of the potholes. We made it to the northern section of the Old Telegraph Track just in time for a swim at Fruit Bat Falls before going on to Eliot and Twin Falls for lunch. We had originally intended to camp here after the first day of driving the OTL, but hadn’t quite made the distance yesterday, so we carried on and may come back here on the way south again.
Canal Creek was the first of the creeks we crossed which flow eastward (with the others thus far flowing west) and the water was much clearer here. Beautiful clear water flowing over a rock bottom. Yet another brilliant spot for the kids to swim. Sam Creek, Mistake Creek, Cannibal and Cypress Creeks came in quick succession after each other.
Logan Creek in the ‘wet desert’ was a long, fairly deep crossing which we weren’t expecting, but after much assessment we all made it through fine. Light was fading at this point so we decided to camp at Nolan’s Brook for the night, just as well because our path through the river was blocked by a Nissan Navara drying out after an earlier attempt at crossing.
Day 10 – Nolans Brook – Loyalty Beach (86kms)
Today started out with a lot of assessing the crossing at Nolan’s Brook. This was by far the deepest crossing we had made and although the water was not flowing rapidly there was a sandy bottom and a couple of fairly deep holes to negotiate. Tension was fairly high with the Navara from last night still coughing and spluttering on the opposite bank as it tried to get going properly.
Thomas in his Toyota Troopie was first off the mark because his vehicle wasn’t towing a trailer and had a winch (that’s what we told him, really it was because he was Swiss and believed everything we said!!!). The group ahead of us were on hand to pull Thomas out if needed… but there was no need, he got through fine. John in his Nissan Navara came next with not so fantastic results… John lost traction on the ascent out of the river and very quickly his car started filling with water. By the time we pulled him out (no more than a minute as everything was ready to go) the car had water up to the seats. Thomas pulled John out of the way and then it was Ben’s turn to cross. With butterflies raging in my stomach he took the plunge… and made it! Woo hoo! What a huge relief, we had made it across all of the creek crossings of the OTL with the tiniest bit of damage (trailer stabilisers bent on the first crossing at Palm Creek).
Darren with his Troopie and trailer was the final vehicle to make it across and all went well for him too. Now we just needed John’s car to start and the whole adventure of the OTL would be a total success. After one or two splutterey starts John’s car did turn over and ran perfectly. Another 13kms and we were back onto the PDR. We’d done the Old Telegraph Track!
Across the Jardine river ferry and we are well on our way to the top of Australia!
I have had a brilliant time in the last two and a half days on the OTL. I really was very nervous about this part of our trip, but we travelled with a great bunch of people, all who were like-minded in their level of care when assessing which way to go and the cautious measures to take. I’d even be keen to come back and spend a lot more time stopping at the brilliant campsites that we passed along the way. It wasn’t all mud and cars either, even if most of the photos look that way. We saw some amazing plants and brilliant scenery along the way too.
Day 11 – Loyalty Beach – THE TIP – Loyalty Beach (122km)
We made it to the tippy top today! The views are beautiful across Torres Straight and from Somerset and Fly Point down the eastern side of the tip. We even saw a few Dugongs surfacing for water in the straight between Cape York and Albany Island.
Day 12 – Loyalty Beach – Jardine River Mouth (48km)
We left John and Roylene and Thomas and Madeleine today and continued on with the Smidt family, heading for the mouth of the Jardine River. After putting in as little diesel as we thought we could get away with (at $2.24 per litre we didn’t really want to top up here!) we took the coastal track from Seisia through to Umagico, a bit of a bumpy track and much to Darren’s delight we had to get pulled out of a little sand bog – the price you pay for being too lazy to let the air out of your tyres for sand driving! The small communities of Umagico and Injinoo are really friendly, we had lots of waves from the locals as we drove through. The drive out to the mouth of the Jardine River was fairly rough for the last five kms with another sand bog – and we finally conceded to reducing the pressure in the tyres and everything was much better from here on in! We found a great spot on the river, a little high of the water level as a deterrent for any nosy crocs! That said, we haven’t even seen a croc in the whole time we’ve been on the Cape, the last one was on the Bloomfield River, I’m sure they’re here, but it’s easy to get complacent about croc safety when you don’t see any of them.
The boys put the boats in the water and were off for a few hours of fishing before the sun set (most beautifully) over the horizon. Tobey caught a really good sized trevally and Emma caught a mud crab on her lure. The big boys caught zip!
Day 13 – Jardine River Mouth (0kms)
After a week of no school work, much to the disgust of the students, it was time to get back into routine again so we spent the morning catching up on a bit of work before an afternoon out fishing in the boats. There was a much better haul this time, Tobey caught a Mangrove Jack, Tracey caught a Barramundi, Darren caught Barra, Jack, and two Cod and Ben caught an Archer Fish… and Tobey loves to keep reminding Ben that the Archer fish was the smallest one!
Needless to say we had a wonderful dinner that night. Bring on more of the fish catching!
Day 14 – Jardine River Mouth – Weipa (404km)
It was a long driving day today, all pretty good roads though, travelling down the 100-odd-kms where the Old Telegraph Track meets the PDR in about an hour (versus the two and a half days to do the same going north!). Coming into Weipa we stopped at the red lights to let the water truck pass… have you ever seen a water truck this big?
Weipa is the hub of the Rio Tinto bauxite mining operation on the western side of the Cape York Peninsula, bauxite being the raw material for aluminium. The town has a pretty big shopping centre and for the first time since we left Port Douglas, three weeks ago we have done our grocery shopping at Woolies.
Day 15 – Weipa (37km)
We had a fairly relaxing day around camp today catching up on washing, school work and grocery shopping before a little more (unsuccessful) fishing and sunset gazing. Ahhh, what a terrible mid-winter’s day!
Day 16 – Weipa – Laura (547km)
It was a huge driving day today, 10 hours in the car with just wee-stops and a lunch stop. To top it off, we had wanted to camp at Jowalbinna which is 34kms off the PDR just north of Laura, we were at the 26km mark with light fading and met a car coming out saying that the camp was closed and the river crossing in there was very very boggy! So we turned around and retraced the last 26kms, then went into Laura to camp for a couple of nights.
Day 17 – Laura
Another day of catch-up with school work and a bit of cleaning and grooming! Tobey has been complaining about his long hair for the last week or so (to the extent that he gave his fringe a bit of a snip himself!), so it was hair-cut day for Tobes. The clippers worked overtime on that mop though.
We’ll make our way to Cooktown tomorrow to collect more school work and pick up our post, so I guess this is the end of our Cape York adventure. It’s been fantastic!