One man, one motorcycle and 1800 kilometres of white-knuckle terrain: how did our off-road novice, Steve Madgwick, fare on the long way down adventure from Cape York to Cairns?
One unassuming sentence detonates the full-body panic. ‘The first thing you have to do is acknowledge your mortality,’ the prep notes state in bold, presumably because it’s kind of important.
I scrawl my signature across the waiver anyway; more seismographic than usual because my hand quivers like a puppy in autumn rain. I read on: ‘There are things out to get you; highly polished bullbars, wild pigs, bull-dust, crocs, little old men in caps. Not to mention your own limitations!’
The last one reverberates: it’s been years since I’ve been near a motorcycle. The next eight days – 1800 kilometres from Cape York to Cairns, the long way around, through swallowing sands and beast-harbouring creeks – should be a doddle then.
Torres (not-so) Strait to it
The ferry terminal on Thursday Island. QLD (photo: Steve Madgwick).
Just to reach the starting line, Seisia, I ride two planes, a bus, a speedboat, a mini-bus and finally a ferry across the Torres Strait to the mainland.
I chinwag away the pre-ferry wait with Thursday Islander, Morgan, while the island’s harbour puts on a hyper-colour aqua display solely for our entertainment.
Morgan dives 25 metres deep in these waters for crayfish, dragging 100 metres behind a boat on a ‘lifeline’, for 10 days at a stretch. He’s survived two separate irukandji stings.
“So you’ve ridden motocross, then?” he asks.
“Nah, I’ve never really ridden off-road at all,” I say.
“Bull-****,” he coughs, almost spraying beer.
His look says he’s diagnosed a fundamental psychological flaw in me that years of educators and employers missed.
Meet the Cape crusader
Fuel up at this outback petrol station (photo: Steve Madgwick).
Cape York Motorcycle Adventures’ head honcho, Roy Kunda, was born in Iraq, but he could be Robert De Niro’s lovechild, such is the resemblance.
He’s been motorcycle guiding for a quarter century, so he can do important things like single-handedly ‘undrown’ a bike in the wilderness and smoke a rollie through his helmet while riding.
He introduces us to his fruity-yellow-fleet of “forgiving” Suzuki DR-Z400Es, affectionately (acronymically) christened ‘Dog Rooters’. I brush past number 13 and lunge at the last unclaimed bike, number 11, my (hopefully) faithful steed.
Feral horses rummage through bins, curlews beckon with supernatural whistling howls, and mozzies drone under the stars of the Loyalty Beach campground; but it’s tomorrow’s ride that keeps my eyes open wider than a meth-smoking boobok owl’s.
At sun-up, my viscera churn like a NutriBullet, but settle after campfire bacon and eggs. Miraculously, I only stall the bike twice departing camp. My seven uber-experienced co-riders benevolently ignore my faux pas.
The broad corrugated dirt road is a reasonably amicable re-acquaintance with motorcycling, but I’m tense; I strangle the handlebars so hard that my fingers stop working.
I fall behind the pack immediately, but we regroup at The Croc Tent to browse stupefyingly expensive, Chinese-made Cape-aphernalia.
The hard-packed clay road coils in and out of forest shadows in the final few Ks to ‘the tip’. Before parking up, I explore derelict eco-tourism afterthought Pajinka; the ’70s ghost resort surrenders a little more to nature each day.
My nylon protective gear retains every single drop of the Queensland humidity during the rocky 15-minute hike to the mainland’s most northerly point. 4WDers swarm around ‘the sign’ for pictures; their quest complete.
Ours starts now, because we’re turning the traditional Cairns to Cape York pilgrimage on its head. 1800 Ks to go, through what, only God and Roy know.
Enter sand, man
Snap, snap, snap. The handlebars chuck a diabolical tantrum through the pudding-like sand. I over-correct and, then, thump. Off. Again! Only isolation stops me from taking my bat and ball and sooking home.
“I should charge you for that,” says Roy. “The bruise, I mean. It’s a souvenir isn’t it?”
I survey the prone bike for mutilation. I smell petrol, but that’s it. I wrestle it upright with an old-man-noise soundtrack.
“In the dunes, sit back and really put the power on,” says Roy. It sounds hazardously counterintuitive, but I try it. Better, but I still execute a couple more ‘sand-offs’ in quick succession.
At least the landings are soft-ish.
Out of the sand, we find a plane wreck, immovable since plummeting into the Cape’s bush in 1945. A memorial plaque to six victims next to the oxidising fuselage takes my mind off my own mortality, for now.
The Bloomfield River snakes into the ocean (photo: Steve Madgwick).
The OTT OTT
The 350-kilometre Old Telegraph Track (OTT) is the Promised Land for Australian 4WDers. For a novice dirtbiker, however, its engulfing ‘washouts’ and unceasing creek crossings are a demented joke conjured up by Mother Nature’s malevolent cackling stepsister.
Still, I out-nimble lumbering battle-prepared 4WDs; the drivers’ eyes betray surprise (to see an un-laden bike in the wilderness) and often jealousy.
Pilfered road signs, single thongs and souvenir singlets decorate the branches of the tree that marks Gunshot’s entrance, like pagan offerings. This is the Mother Superior of all creek crossings, where transmissions and differentials go to perish.
Being able to navigate the precariously muddy creek-bank is clearly out of my skillset so I ride upstream (literally) to tackle a less evil exit. I scale another bank but the track quickly dead-ends into bush. I stall it and bail out backwards.
Piercing electric-shock-like pain suddenly peppers my neck and backs of my gloved hands. A guy runs at me to help free the bike but he pirouettes and legs it, swiping at his helmet like it’s ablaze. I sprint too.
For the record, while you can’t outrun seething paper wasps in waterlogged motocross boots, you damn well have to try.
All the way from PNG
Beautiful clear waters of Eliot Falls, Cape York (photo: Steve Madgwick).
Eliot Falls exude a sense of mirage: untainted blue waters plunge deep into a swimmable, potable and supposedly croc-free channel. Legend has is it, their artisanal flow begins its journey in Papua New Guinea.
I pencil-dive in, try to touch the bottom, until my ears shriek. I exhale and try again. And again. I go to refill my CamelBak and recoil: a toilet-brush-sized stick insect has hitched a ride. I free her, after I freak out my Kiwi co-riders, of course.
The OTT isn’t finished with me yet. This time, I hold the throttle on a smidge too long over a rise and the Dog Rooter bucks me on to my bum. It tries to run for home without me and then, thwack: snap goes the blinker, crack goes the mirror, slosh goes the fuel.
Later, we rendezvous with Roy’s Transformer-esque support truck, The Kitchen Sink, at an impossible-to-find-again creek-side locale; I set up my camp stretcher metres from a gurgling stream.
Dinner smells ready, the campfire calls, so I reach into the bottomless esky for an ice-cold ‘Panadol’.
The Big Red Road
An unusual tree marks the start (or end) of the OTT at the Bramwell Junction Roadhouse (photo: Steve Madgwick).
The OTT’s southern end, Bramwell Junction, harbours two kinds of people, strutters and milkers. I strut around the Roadhouse like I’ve just returned from a tour of duty; limp more pronounced than needs be.
Those heading north nervously milk us veterans for tips. I oblige with fantastic tales and gross exaggerations.
We space out, kilometres apart, to minimise the dust-ocalypse on the bauxite-orange road that funnels us south. I stand on the footpegs for long stretches, verge after verge, to give my tushie some time-out.
The sky opens up briefly. Hitting the raindrops at speed triggers a wasp flashback, but then calms the tropical stickiness. The rain leaves a wet-ant scent around the towering termite mounds that try to colonise the Cape.
On the sandy banks of Archer River (at another of Roy’s top-secret spots) paperbarks lean over us for a drink, while some of the guys throw out a line.
I snack on green ants for the second time in my life and wash them down with another amber ‘Panadol’.
Crossing Normanby River while keeping a lookout for crocs (photo: Steve Madgwick).
We take big bites of open country, eat up national parks with strange names, like Lama Lama, that we’ll probably never see again.
I find rhythm. No longer looking just 20 metres in front of my tyre, I drink in the vastness. I sing embarrassing songs loudly to myself. In a helmet, no one can hear you sing.
A flock of black cockatoos ushers us into Kalpowar, Normanby River, where signs shout ‘Warning’ and ‘Achtung’ (for the Germans) about the reptilian pitfalls of our next (200-metre-wide) water crossing.
The trick is to fall downstream, jokes Roy, because crocs prefer the smooth up-stream water. My front tyre parts the weir’s flow Moses-like. I over-rev the engine to scare lurking crocs away.
With every kilometre south, creeping civilisation tarnishes my wilderness high.
Outside Coen, signs trumpet ‘good tucker’ and ‘clean fuel’. The main street is completely bare, but there’s commotion down at the footie oval.
The solitary pub, which smells like last night, embraces its unofficial name change: a rogue S on the rooftop sign a permanent fixture at (S) exchange Hotel.
Passing the pastoral
James Cook Museum in Cooktown (photo: Steve Madgwick).
Riding into Old Laura Homestead, an irrational bush turkey plays chicken with me at 100 kilometres per hour; turkey and human lives flash before respective eyes.
The abandoned station is actually an outdoor museum: manicured lawns, various well-preserved hardwood and corrugated iron structures, plus a rusty truck, thrown in for good measure.
The bucolic scene stands testament to a time where the interests of toiling pastoralists and the area’s indigenous people fiercely diverged.
Towards Cooktown, on tarmac briefly, deep-green paddocks poke their heads out of the bush and smoky agricultural aromas linger. The local constabulary tails me for a couple of laps of the town – nothing to see here, officers.
The grand colonial buildings set against tropicana gift Cooktown a Caribbean flavour. From the lookout high above, the Endeavour River snakes all the way to the Reef, where Cook beached his Endeavour.
At the legendary Lion’s Den pub, on the banks of the Little Annan, locals with self-taught guitar abilities and refreshing voices entertain us while dumbfounded backpackers serve behind the bar so they’ve got stories to send home.
The muscly pub owner is the Jimi Hendrix of castanets. My first night under a roof for a few days triggers currents of claustrophobia.
We climb our way around the forests of aboriginal community Wujal Wujal (‘so nice you say it twice!’ goes the community’s motto), home to thundering Bloomfield Falls.
On a sunny riverbank, I spy a five-metre bull croc. A few bends further along one of his girlfriends sunbakes; it’s a croc’s life.
Down on the beach, by Bloomfield River’s mouth, Roy points out possibly the exact point where bush mutates into the Daintree’s Narnia-like tangles.
Into Cape Tribulation, the Suzuki’s thumping throaty bass bounces back off the rainforest canopy; a tribal soundtrack. The fresh air flushes humidity from my lungs.
That ubiquitous introduced species, the backpacker, starts to appear everywhere: from the bush, in streams, parked dangerously on tight bends.
A pack of them witness me fly through a clear stream on the belching yellow beast. “Nice one, bro,” shoots an Irish brogue.
I retire exhausted among them at PK’s Jungle Village in Cape Trib, too pooped to party in that awesomely uncivilised way.
Reality: the final frontier
The ferry delivers us across the Daintree River, civilisation’s demarcation. A little red sugar train chugs along Mossman’s main street; molasses vapours annex my nostrils.
It’s a short ride from here to Cairns on the ‘blacktop’, but Roy insists on the long-and-muddy way around: it’s the ‘Bump Track’ for us.
“I’ve seen worse riders,” says Roy, over a steak sandwich and an organic mango and banana smoothie in charming Mount Molloy. I don’t care if he’s lying; it’s the thought that counts.
During the final splendid bends in the forest trails above Cairns, the Dog Rooter and I come to a new understanding. The fear isn’t gone but it doesn’t own me, either.
Everything on me is irretrievably stained red, my socks honk like blue-vein cheese and my bum will never talk again. Yet I have indeed acknowledged my mortality. I’ve done so, in fact, every day over the past week.
Optimistically I’ve decided to file it away for later, hopefully after half a lifetime of more life-affirming epic crusades like this one.
Posing for a team shot on a beach near Cape York.
The details: Cape York Motorcycle Adventures
Playing there: Steve went with Cairns-based Cape York Motorcycle Adventures (CYMCA) on the ‘7 Day Cape York Adventures’, which costs $5550 and includes bike, protective gear, food and flights from Cairns to Horn Island (or vice versa). CYMCA (and other operators) offers a range of tours, from one to seven days.
Can I do it? Technically, all you need is a learner motorcycle licence and the ‘desire to try new styles of riding’. We recommend off-road training or practice before tackling the seven-day tour – it’s an intense trip. Obviously motorcycling is a dangerous activity, but the CYMCA guides are patient, sticklers for safety, and always let you ride at your own pace.
Interested in exploring more of Cape York? See our Cape York guide for everything you need to know before you go.