Australian Traveller looks at the Cape York Outback Trek, one of Australia’s 10 Greatest Outback Journeys.
Yes, there is an outback in Australia’s tropical far north . . . you mightn’t believe it when you set out from lush, coastal Cairns, where palm trees and resort sails sway in the breeze. But drive just 20km inland and you’ll experience the real outback right here on the Cape York Peninsula.
On this journey over the Great Dividing Range and all the way to the northernmost point of mainland Australia, you’ll first pass Mareeba and the Palm River Goldfield, before continuing on to the Peninsula Developmental Road at Lakeland. Permits are needed here to access or camp in certain areas – and be sure to check road conditions. And even then, don’t let the track trick you; it might not seem all that bad at first, but it doesn’t stay bitumen very long and becomes totally inaccessible if there’s been a lot of recent rain. So, unless you have access to an amphibious vehicle of some kind, don’t even think about doing this trip between November and July.
Start at pretty little Laura, famous for her annual rodeo, and check out the Aboriginal rock art sites in surrounding Quinkan Country; Split Rock is particularly popular. Further, past Hann River, it’s birdwatchers’ heaven. We recommend you make camp and get up early: the sunrises are simply spectacular and a great way to start the day.
The road then passes Musgrave, with its old telegraph station, and Coen, the centre for the local cattle industry, before reaching the Archer River Roadhouse. This classic icon of the outback is ideal for a chat with the locals – surrounding lagoons, swamps and rivers would suggest croc stories galore, and it doesn’t hurt to also get a locals’ update on road conditions, as well as interesting places to visit and activities in the area before you leave civilisation as you know it.
All major roadhouses in the region provide camping spots and good facilities and along this route there are nearly as many interesting turn-offs as there are creeks. Check out the Wenlock ruins and continue straight up north on the suitably rough Old Telegraph Road. You’re in for some fun and we hope you brought your snorkel, as you’re entering River Crossing Country.
A popular camping spot is at Moreton Telegraph Station just after Batavia Downs, or you could continue on to Heathlands National Park. Not only is the vast man-high wet and dry vegetation home to a myriad of animals, there are also some waterfalls, excellent for a swim after (or before) a long day’s drive. Eliot and Fruit Bat Falls are a good option – for camping, too.
If you’d like to drive a little further north before interrupting your journey to the top, make a little stop at Jardine River National Park. It also offers some amazing waterfalls, including the breathtaking Indian Head Falls.
The Jardine River Crossing in the Aboriginal reserve of Mapoon is notorious for its whopping ferry fees – so we do hope you have some cash handy, as turning around within cooee of your final destination would be a crying shame.
The Aboriginal communities of Bamaga, Seisia and Pajinka right at the very top of Australia are all worth a visit and there’s accommodation available. Visit the infamous Croc Shop in Bamaga for something a little different.
If you like walking, set off for the bush walk all the way to Cape York – granted, it’s nothing like your usual coastal walk and you should only really attempt this trek in the early morning or late afternoon and have plenty of water at hand. And, when you see the plaque that marks Australia’s northernmost mainland point, you’ll know you’ve well and truly reached the end of the road.
Who got there first? // Dutch navigator Willem Jansz spotted the coastline of Cape York Peninsula first in 1606. And in 1770, James Cook planted the English flag on an island near Cape York, calling it Possession Island.
Drive Time // Total length, 1012km. You can drive this in around four days, but take your time, drive at a leisurely pace and plan side trips to get the most out of this stunning area.
Dos + Don’ts
1. Don’t feed the crocs. Check before you enter the water or ask the locals.
2. Bring your fishing rod, binoculars, cossies and a good camera.
3. You have to be largely self-sufficient. Bring fuel, water, supplies, repair kit and (entertaining) travel companions. Or join one of the tag-along-tours.
4. Consider renting a 4WD, rather than destroying your own.
5. Don’t speed; take your time to get to Cape York. It might seem obvious, but even the better-maintained sections of road can be treacherous.
Accessibility // Northern part of road only accessible to well-equipped 4WDs (think snorkel etc). Go early in the dry season; beginning of June is best.
Did you know? // Many large crocs apparently swallow stones. Experts believe they use them to balance their bodies. Let’s hope the one that’s lying in wait for you has just restocked.
More info // Visit www.adventureoutback.com.au for more maps and daily itineraries.
Sidetracks // Cape York Outback Trek
1. Lakefield National Park // Large wetland areas northwest of Cooktown, utter heaven for birdwatchers.
2. Cooktown // A real frontier town with a surprising array of activities. The site of the first European settlement in Australia.
3. Daintree National Park // It’s a World Heritage-Listed site for a reason, so don’t miss the 135 million-year-old rainforest. Its flora and fauna are among the oldest and most diverse in the world.
4. Thursday Island and GBR // The island is just under 40km from Cape York, rich in history and offers an intriguing look into a cultural mosaic. And what more need we say about the GBR than: what are you waiting for, go!
5. Weipa // The peninsula’s largest town, it’s also home to the Comalco bauxite mine and worth a day trip.