A Cape to Adventure
Story and photographs by Roderick Eime
The Australian love affair with the 4WD is evident everywhere from Cocklebiddy to Coles Car Park. Great roaring, bull-bar reinforced, spotlight emblazoned urban assault vehicles ferry cherubic pre-schoolers and burly scaffolders alike. Most look like they’ve never seen more danger than the odd pigeon poop, so can these all-terrain behemoths really hack the rough stuff? We found out.
Our objective was to take a showroom-standard 4WD vehicle all the way to the tip of Cape York and back with a minimum of preparation and damage, whilst still enjoying a true off-road experience. Our candidate machine: a brand new Volkswagen Touareg 4WD 3.2 V6. Its big brother, the V8 version, had just won the prestigious 2003 4WD Of The Year Award (Overlander Magazine), so we knew we weren't dealing with some fragile pretender.
Cape York Peninsula is a bush-driving destination of considerable repute and on the very short list of all aspiring off-roaders. The very "blokey" mix of hundreds of kilometres of dirt road, nights under the stars, true frontier country and the odd crocodile provided the ideal formula for our test of mechanised manhood.
Our journey began in Cairns, the gateway to Cape York, after a softening ride aboard Queensland Rail's luxurious Queenslander. We kicked back with gourmet cuisine, the occasional glass of merlot, comfy bunks and hand-and-foot service that in no way prepared us for the trials ahead.
Carefully unloaded from the train, we proceeded at a doddle toward Cooktown, along the 250km coastal route via Mossman. Recently sealed, this leg of was merely sightseeing as we twisted and turned along the scenic Coral Sea coast, the road bordered by lush Daintree forest on one side and vast, white powder beaches on the other.
Beyond Cape Tribulation and its many lodges, resorts and hostels we came upon our first sections of real dirt, and with a light sprinkle of rain, the Touareg was christened with its inaugural dusting of mud, but as yet, nothing had tested our European steed.
At the tiny Aboriginal community of Wujal Wujal, the Walker sisters take visitors on an informative stroll to Bloomfield Falls, pointing out bush tucker plants and relating the local myths and legends. Lunch Tip: Croc’n’Barra Café, Ayton – yes!
Pulling up for our overnighter at the legendary, 125 year old Lions Den Hotel, we parked very conspicuously amongst the omnipresent Toyota Hiluxes and Landcruisers so dominant in this neck of the woods. Genuine outback types complete with ragged blue singlets and crusty Akubras, as well as over-equipped caravaners, eyed the lone, muscly Volkswagen with a mix a wonder and suspicion.
We bade a bleary farewell to the all too memorable Lions Den and headed off toward Cooktown, rejoining the mainly sealed thoroughfare just up the way. Cooktown, now a charming and authentic frontier town, was named after the famous captain who camped there for nearly two months in 1770 while repairing Endeavour after her fateful encounter with the nearby reef that now bears her name. As a consequence, the proud and eclectic Cooktonians brag about their village being the site of the first European settlement on mainland Australia.
From Cooktown a course was set for Laura, a mere 138kms hence, taking in the lower reaches of the Lakefield National Park. Beyond the town, famous for its annual rodeo, is the Peninsula Developmental Road, which links the major roadhouses, rest stops and towns of Hutt River, Musgrave, Coen and Archer River, 312kms from Laura. Each of these layovers provides good food, camping and most facilities. Along this stretch the road is mainly pretty good but is interspersed with hazards like dust bowls and patches of deep corrugations that can throw you off your game if unprepared. Stay alert, don’t be lulled into excessive speed and give yourself LOTS of time to slow down for the numerous creek crossings. Silly accidents occur when drivers plunge into the water too fast and find it's full of rocks - or other vehicles!
If time is on your side and you're up for a bit of left-field adventure, there's the Gibson family's Munbah Beach Resort about 30 clicks out of Cooktown. What began as a ramshackle weekender on one of the most pristine stretches of coastline anywhere on the Cape, is now largely unchanged! Local Guugu Yimithirr tribal elder, Les Gibson and wife, Marie, entertain city folks at their modest shack on Elim Beach, just north of Cape Bedford in the Hope Vale reserve. There's spear fishing, Aboriginal bushcraft and tucker plus traditional arts. It's something you won't find in the Michelin guide! From there, you can continue (if properly prepared) through Lakefield National Park, rejoining the main route at Musgrave Roadhouse.
Beyond Archer River Roadhouse, the Development Road continues on to Weipa and the way north is now along the fabled Telegraph Track, passing by Moreton (former) Telegraph Station, now a popular camping spot. At Bramwell Junction, 163kms from Archer, the hardcore 4WDers continue straight on along the Old Telegraph Track, but those wanting a relatively smooth passage will opt, as we did, for the new Bamaga Road. It bypasses the notorious Gunshot Creek and other treacherous crossings for which we were not prepared. If you choose this route, for heaven’s sake, make sure you’ve got all the gear like winches, snorkels and bag jacks.
Depending on your timing, the corrugations on the road can vary from awful to bad or just plain appalling. Anything loose will fall off; your dentures will vibrate and forget about playing a CD. Our brawny Touareg took all this in its stride; the sophisticated suspension and computerised traction control laughing at these petty obstacles. Our only real concern was exceeding the stated 500mm wading depth, which we did on occasions (shhh), fortunately without any trouble.
The Jardine River Ferry affords us some comic relief before we complete the final 220kms to Bamaga from Bramwell. The fee is a whopping $88 return, including GST, cash only, and don’t ask for a receipt. Lunchtime is strictly observed and so are you as the cheerless operator scowls from inside his noisy cabin. The once popular river crossing has been dredged, assuring your valued patronage.
Once at the Cape, we set base at the comfortable Resort Bamaga and make our final 34km lunge at the tip in a leisurely all-day foray that takes in many of the local sights including the fabled Croc Shop, probably Australia’s most northerly retailer and some of the still accessible wartime plane wrecks scattered in the bush. The Pajinka Lodge has fallen into disrepair and is currently abandoned, making the idyllic Punsand Bay Safari and Fishing Lodge the only accommodation option within cooee of the tip.
If you're a bit cheeky and want to really tick the journey off, it's possible to negotiate the tracks around the old resort and drive out onto the sand flats. This will take you within about 50m of the very tip of the Cape, and earn you maximum bragging rights. A short stroll will take you to the plaque marking Australia's most northerly point - and that's it! Now all you need is the t-shirt.
Don't rush back, instead do as we did and savour your victory. Linger for a day or two; take in some fishing and perhaps a ferry over to Thursday Island before tightening your U-bolts for the return journey.