Exploring the Cape York is an adventure to the most northen tip of Australia
We city slickers had flown into Weipa, which proudly proclaims itself the site of the world’s largest bauxite mine, from Cairns a few days earlier, and were still becoming accustomed to the stifling humidity of the place. Cape York has two seasons – the wet from December to April and the dry from May to November. Both seasons are hot, obviously, with average temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius throughout the year. Humidity levels during the wet are extreme. Hence, thank God for the Alby.
The Albatross is the only watering hole for Weipa’s 3500 residents, most of whom work for the mining giant Comalco, which developed the township 40 years ago. That’s a speck of time around here: Aboriginal people are thought to have inhabited this area for more than 40,000 years. Their history is recorded orally by the Cape’s numerous clan groups, who tell of significant events such as cyclones, droughts, fires and, most momentous of all, the coming of Europeans.
Captain Willem Janz of the Duyfken made the first recorded sighting of the Australian coast by a European approximately 40 kms north of Weipa in 1606. In 1770, Captain James Cook planted the English flag on Possession Island, near the tip of Cape York. In 1791, Captain William Bligh, bound for Timor, passed around the Cape in a longboat after the mutiny on the Bounty.
None chose to stay for a break. If you do, you’ll find luxury accommodation, upmarket bars and trendy cafes are not what the Cape is about. The Alby has a lively public bar accompanied by the maddening jangle of noise produced by poker machines, and a restaurant that dishes up fresh local seafood including barramundi and mud crab. The recently renovated hotel, overlooking Albatross Bay, offers air-conditioned units and bungalows.
There are a few other accommodation options in town, including a camping ground full of 4WDs – mandatory in this rugged country. Camping on any national park or other protected area in Queensland requires a camping guide permit, for which a fee is charged. (Details from Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service website at www.epa.qld.gov.au). There are some holiday units, and the new, more upmarket Heritage Resort. Locally, you’ll also find a supermarket, hospital, bakery, newsagency and pharmacy.
After the wetting of whistles in the pub we head to the tiny town of Coen, the Cape’s largest settlement after Weipa, 175 kms away. The road is as rugged as corrugated iron, and our “troopie” rattles, shakes and kicks up clouds of dust. Scrub stretches endlessly into the distance. We see heavy-humped Brahman cattle grazing across the tundra and pass tracks off the main road that lead to hidden campsites and big cattle stations.
Surrounded by the Coral Sea to the east, Torres Strait at the tip, and the Gulf of Carpentaria on the west, Cape York covers a massive 150,000 square kilometres – about the same size as Victoria – yet has a population of only 18,000. It consists mainly of land like this: dry savannah, eucalypt forests with pockets of ancient rainforests along the rivers, and flat to undulating scrub. But rather than be monotonous, the Cape’s vast interior continually surprises you with its variety of scenery.
Many roads in the region cross Aboriginal land and other private properties which you can’t enter without permission from the relevant landholders. Access through lands under Aboriginal control is generally restricted to the main roads, which connect to various community centres. Information is available from road maps, available at petrol stations and newsagents, or the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland (RACQ) at www.racq.com.au.
Cape York travellers need to carry ample supplies of water and food, a first aid kit, extra fuel, a tool kit and basic spare parts. Fuel, ice, bait and most standard supplies are available at the small townships and roadhouses across the Cape, and also at Aboriginal community stores or service stations. Still, it’s not a clever idea to leave your shopping for the road.
Just over 110 kms from Weipa is the Archer River, a welcome respite from the dusty road. Shady gums cluster along the banks of the river, one of the Cape’s most popular swimming and camping spots. A cold beer and an Archer Burger, a local delicacy, hit the spot, as does a peaceful paddle in the cool waters. (As a note re the beer, tourists need to be wary of alcohol restrictions when travelling in the Cape. New laws governing alcohol carry hefty fines for the unwary. You need to visit the Queensland Government website at www.mcmc.qld.gov.au for information on alcohol-restricted areas.)
Coen, 65 kms south-east of the Archer River, is a tiny former gold mining town situated on the old telegraph line that once ran from Laura to Bamaga near the tip of the Cape. Aside from Weipa, it’s the last place north where you can get mechanical repairs and supplies. The town has an airstrip, a racecourse, two general stores, a pub and the Homestead, a classic old-style Aussie guesthouse where you can get an appreciation of the lives of the people who pioneered this unforgiving region.
Built of corrugated iron and native timbers in the 1930s by owner Jacqueline Parry’s great-grandfather, who moved here in the 1890s, the Homestead has a wide, shady veranda furnished with cane chairs, settees and tropical plants. There are eight spotless guestrooms in the original homestead and a further three rooms in a separate building adjoining a patio covered with a massive purple bougainvillea planted at the turn of the century. Guests gather in the old kitchen to chat as they cook their dinners.
The best anecdotal possession of the Parry clan is a piano which an ancestor hauled across the scrub by bullock and dray from Cooktown 100 years ago. The welcome is warm at the Homestead; these people have been looking after weary travellers for decades. A few more each week hardly causes a stir.
We head back along the bone-crunching road to Weipa, and the following day we embark on a cruise of Albatross Bay. Numerous fishing boats chug out from the shores on organised tours, with Weipa regarded as one of Australia’s foremost fishing spots. Anglers battle it out with huge barramundi in the expansive, well-protected waterways, catching mangrove Jack, threadfin salmon, queenfish, trevalley and mackerel along the way.
Joining us on the cruise is Thancoupie, an indigenous Weipa local and one of Australia’s best ceramic artists. Born in nearby Napranum in the late 1930s, Thancoupie spent many of her childhood years living in the bush. A tribal elder, she maintains a strong connection with her family’s country, using her talent with clay to convey the ancestral narratives of the Thainakuith people. Her art is exhibited at major galleries across Australia and sells around the world. Later, Thancoupie takes us to one of the Cape’s pristine beaches 20km north of Weipa. It’s a beautiful setting, with a wide sweep of sand, and to hear Thancoupie share the stories of her ancestral people in such surroundings is a moment near magic.