Cape York Peninsula may be alive with crocs, snakes and other dangerous animals, but it’s also a classic destination for lovers of untouched wilderness, great fishing and camping, and the type of moments that make any travel story worth telling…
“You sure this boat is big enough?”
Viv Dick is showing off the lands around his hometown of Weipa, an isolated mining community flanking the Gulf of Carpentaria, around 840 kilometres north-west of Cairns on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula. We’re in a little boat far south of the town, and on each side of this meandering, muddy river you can see dozens of saltwater crocodiles, all teeth and prehistoric menace, some silently sliding into the tea-coloured water as the outboard motor stirs them into the silt.
Viv decides this is a good time for a story. He’s a man of rare timing. You train your eyes on every rising ripple of potential reptilian predator as he spins his yarn. It turns out – surprise! – it’s about crocs. He reckons the biggest he’s ever seen in his 31 years in Weipa was a 6.5 metre monster that blocked the path of his boat when he was checking his crab pots. As Viv potted, the croc all but licked his lips. Viv might as well have been Captain Hook.
“The tide was going out fast and it was getting pretty dangerous,” he tells you. “So I took off at full throttle over the top of it.” The end.
Viv made it, as we seem destined to do. A good thing, too, because around here, you don’t want to tumble out of the boat. Beyond crocs, there are marine stingers, venomous sea snakes and sharks. At least Viv and the locals above water are friendly.
While this part of Australia is definitely not the spot to be strapping on the snorkelling gear, Cape York is a great place to get way out there. It’s so remote, it’s practically another country. With the sun blazing overhead, the thick mangroves cocooning the tidal estuaries and the sights and sounds of flora and fauna familiar only through postcards, it’s a hell of a long way from racing home to watch Desperate Housewives.
Chugging down river with the increasingly narrow waterway covered by a canopy of trees, it feels almost like a scene from an Aussie adaptation of The African Queen. Viv, however, doesn’t look like Humphrey Bogart. He’s brawny and sun-wizened; a single remaining tooth appears when he smiles. He’s taken us out as a special favour – there’s other fishermen and guides in Weipa who will treat travellers to “croc spotting” tours of the rivers and surrounds. Viv’s here to show us something a little different.
An hour later, and a world away from Weipa, Viv ties the boat to a tree and we make our way across flat scrub spiked with bright red, two-metre tall termite mounds towards a small hill in the distance. It’s an Aboriginal shell “midden”, one of around 300 mounds in the Weipa area thought to date back at least 1200 years. The ancient midden, about the size of a two-storey house, consists of the remains of fish and shellfish discarded after millions of meals consumed over the centuries. It’s an archaeologist’s dream garbage dump; a tourist’s strange and singular reward at the end of this river run.
As we start to make our way back to the boat, about 20 wild pigs appear from nowhere to occupy the ground between us and the safety of Viv’s tinny. And I thought the crocs were ugly. Two huge boars start a fight, kicking up billows of dust. “I’d be a bit worried,” says bare-footed Viv, “if there were only three of us, but seeing as there’s four she’ll be right.” I stay close to Viv and colleague David Crofts, while photographer Dieu Tan bravely brings up the rear. Scrambling into the boat, we roar back along the river to Weipa, where we head straight to the Albatross Hotel. If ever a girl needed a drink…
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.
The following day we head north on the 317 km journey to the tip of Cape York, driving through Aboriginal tribal lands and the massive Batavia Downs cattle station on the way. The road is rough, and we pass several river crossings and pockets of rainforest as we make our way to the Wenlock River and the old Morton Telegraph Station on the banks of the river. The station has cabin tent accommodation (twin share tents) and shared facilities (gas-powered hot showers and an outdoor dining area). At night, the world turns quiet up here, with a riot of stars performing their own celestial show.
After crossing the Wenlock you can either continue along the telegraph track, which is direct but rough, or take the longer but quicker Bypass Road. We take the old road, built in 1885-87 to link Brisbane with communities at the top of Australia. A few bent poles are all that remain of the line. The narrow, winding track is slow going, with deep corrugations and plenty of creek crossings.
We stop for a swim in the pristine spring-fed pools of Indian Head at Eliot Falls – another croc-free oasis, they boast – and, refreshed, push onward towards the formidable Jardine River, Queensland’s largest perennial stream. Crossing the river by vehicular ferry, we look out for the big crocs known to inhabit these waters, and enter the Jardine River National Park, which covers around 235,000 hectares and has an abundance of birdlife. More than 300 species of birds have been recorded across the Cape, along with more than 70 species of mammals including gliders, possums, wallabies, kangaroos, pademelons and bats. Most choose to ignore us completely.
Sixty kilometres north of the Jardine is Bamaga, an isolated community of around 2000 residents and Australia’s most northerly mainland township. The quiet little town has a small hospital, bank, supermarket and service station. Six kilometres north of the town is Seisia, which has a foreshore camping ground and basic units – which, after the long drive, appear as luxurious as a five star hotel. From Seisia you can organise a ferry trip to nearby Thursday Island, book fishing safaris, and arrange to visit the nearby communities of Injinoo, Umagico and New Mapoon.
Thirty-two kilometres north of Bamaga is the tip of Cape York, just 10 degrees south of the equator and a mere 180 kms from Papua New Guinea. The tip can be reached only on foot using a walking track that starts at Pajinka. After all the driving, we make the 1.5 km trek along a boardwalk and steep, rocky ground to reach the country’s pinnacle. It’s awesome to be standing on the edge. The scenery is dramatic at the rocky tip, with strong currents rushing between the shore and a small offshore island. The place is marked with a solitary sign to tell you that you’ve finally made it. In such a setting there’s no need for over-statement.
Back in Weipa we meet up with Viv and some other friends before winding up for the trip back to our distant cities. “I reckon Cape York is God’s own country,” observes the dentally challenged bloke as we watch a golden sunset from Weipa’s Rocky Point boat ramp. Not everyone will agree, but if you enjoy untrammelled wilderness, the Cape will burn a hole in your memory for all the right reasons.
Cape York Peninsula Details
Tropical North Qld
Willem Janszoon (believed to be the first European to spot the coast of Australia)
If it wasn’t for Janszoon’s unfortunate habit of walking his men into flying spears, there could have been a decidedly Dutch influence on Australia. Janszoon was the captain of the Duyfken, and in 1605 he was given a mission to have a scout around the south side of New Guinea. With much gusto he took a party of 12 ashore, whereupon they were promptly ambushed by some very territorial natives; eight of the 12 ended up with spears through them at various odd angles.
Somewhat deterred, Janszoon south and came across Cape York, some 165 years before it would be named as such by Captain James Cook. Still thinking it was part of New Guinea, he attempted landfall again and a ninth member of his small crew got skewered. Despite only having half a crew, he powered on another 450-odd kilometres down the Queensland coast before turning back. Interestingly, Janszoon wished to name his discovery “Nieu Zelandt”, but it didn’t take. At least not until some years later when Abel Janszoon Tasman revived it and gave it to the land of the long white cloud.
While even the remotest Outback areas of Australia seem fairly accessible now, Cape York is a true wilderness that requires huge amounts of preparation to tackle (think tropical jungles of Borneo, without the orangutans, and you’re getting close). However, if you have the gear – or the money to pay someone who has – it’s totally different to the rest of the country, beautiful, and a genuine adventure at the same time.