Cape York was not what we expected. We thought it would be lush and tropical with thick rainforest everywhere, but it wasn’t like that at all. The roads were dry and dusty, and there was a lot of mining activity around Weipa because of the bauxite mine. Also, an unusual blanket of cloud was cast over the sky for a number of days, which was both welcomed because of the coolness of the days but cursed because sometimes you just want sunshine.
The landscape of the Cape is very diverse and includes areas of bush scrub and heath lands, pockets of rainforest and coastal scrub with coconut trees and mangroves. All the rivers rise from the Great Dividing Range, which extends all the way to the Tip. The road conditions are also variable, with corrugated dirt roads broken up by sections of sealed road, as well as sandy or eroded 4WD tracks.
The main attractions of Cape York are the Tip and the Overland Telegraph Track. Many 4WD enthusiasts flock to the Cape for some serious off-road action, while a picture at the northernmost point of Australia is worth framing. There is also plenty of fishing to be done, as well as camping and bird watching.
Before you head to the Cape, check out information on camping permits, alcohol restrictions and quarantine zones.
We woke up at Rifle Creek Rest Area just south of Mount Molloy and got going fairly early. The plan was to get all the way to Coen before dinner and we had about 450km to travel.
As we passed through Mount Carbine, we saw the open mine to the right, and stopped at Bob’s Lookout as we travelled along the windy road past Mount Desailly and Mount Elephant. We had a quick lunch at Musgrave Roadhouse before finishing the last stretch to Coen.
A very small town with all the basics – the SExchange Hotel, a post office combined with a grocery store, a takeaway joint and a mechanic, as well as a health centre and other government buildings. It was established as a fort on the river in 1873 due to a gold rush in the area. We went straight to the SExchange for a beer and were a little surprised that we were the only ‘white fellas’ in the place, other than the tiny Asian bar wench. It’s to be expected, considering that 80% of Coen’s population are indigenous.
That night, we camped at the Bend a few clicks out of town. It’s a beautiful spot right on the Coen River, with clear water for bathing and plenty of birdlife to gawk at in the morning.
Today was Dave’s Birthday and his present was a tilt level orb for the Troopy – it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time with all the 4WDing that was ahead of us.
We continued on the Peninsula Developmental Road for another 25km and arrived at the quarantine check point, where we learnt that we can bring fruit into the Cape but can’t take any fruit that we’ve picked off trees out of the Cape. Many pest insects have blown over from PNG and infected fruit trees such as mangos, bananas and any other tropical fruits.
The road to Weipa was shithouse – full of corrugation, bouncy bumps and bull dust with only a few sections that are paved.
Weipa is an odd town, with a landscape ruined by the local mining industry. It’s not organised like other towns – there is no main street with all the shops that you need, everything is spread out, which is a little inconvenient. There’s a Woolies supermarket for stocking up on groceries, Telstra reception (but no Optus), cheap fuel ($1.63 for diesel), and camping permits can be booked at the caravan park.
Our first stop was the Albatross Hotel for a drink, and we were inundated with friendly locals who, after about 20 minutes, revealed their motivations for chatting to us – they wanted a lift to Mapoon, about 90km to the north. We then moved to the Weipa Bowls Club for Dave’s birthday lunch.
Once we had done everything we needed to do, we did some sight-seeing near Evan’s Landing and continued our journey to the Tip. On the way, we crossed the Wenlock River and noticed a sign in the tree…
Moreton Telegraph Station
With no free camps in the area, we pulled in at Moreton Station. It cost $10 each to camp and we had the luxury of a hot shower and flushing toilets but the annoyance of generators running until about 10pm. Camping permits can also be booked at reception.
In the morning, we were woken up by the hideous squawk of birds that sounded like the freakish score from Psycho. We packed up, showered again and hit the road.
Bramwell Junction Roadhouse
This is a great place to stop before embarking on the Old Telegraph Track. Get information about the condition of the track, top up your fuel tank or tuck into some food. There are also toilets and a tap with drinkable water, if required.
Old Telegraph Track
The OTT is remnants of the original telegraph track from the 1880s that connected Cairns with Thursday Island. The last Morse code message was sent in 1962 and then systems upgraded to microwave repeater towers. The Cape York Developmental Road replaced the track in the 1970s but it’s still used today by 4WD enthusiasts.
We loved the Old Telegraph Track – check out our post here.
The price for the ferry might be extortion, but it’s the only way to get to the Tip by road. Not too many years ago, you could follow the OTT all the way to up to the Jardine River east of where the ferry runs. The crossing point has now been conveniently dredged and is unpassable, thereby forcing everyone to use the ferry. The $129 fare is supposed to maintain the ferry and other stuff, but we didn’t see how that could be true considering the state of the place. The ferry is owned by the Northern Peninsula Area council, who hiked up the price in 2013 because they were financially screwed. Until they build a bridge, tourists heading to the top are going to have to pay the piper.
We cruised through the aboriginal communities and headed straight for the Tip, but we did stop at the Croc Tent, and we recommend that you do too. It was by far the most informative place we stopped at since we left Mareeba. The guy gave us a free map of the Tip, and made a few recommendations on where to camp.
We made it to the Tip car park just before sunset and because the tide was down, we walked along the beach to the rocky headland to find the infamous sign. The Tip of Australia is located 10° south of the equator and is only 180km from PNG. After Dave made a phone call to a mate, we headed back to the Troopy for some dinner.
In the meantime, a guy we met on the OTT, Tony, rocked up with his friend Tim. After a quick chat in the dimming light, we went to check out a nearby abandoned resort for a potential place to camp. We found an overgrown driveway, slowly inched the Troopy in but found the whole place way too creepy, so we slowly inched the Troopy back down the driveway and CLUNK! We couldn’t figure out what we had hit so we turned the Troopy around and went back to the beach.
Tony and Tim were just about to set up on the beach when we returned. We let them know that the resort was not an option, and the beach was too risky because of the tides, so we ended up setting up camp in the car park. This is when the CLUNK revealed its point of impact – the Troopy’s bumper, which bent upwards to jam the back door – where we sleep, where our food is, where Dave’s tools are to fix the bumper. We spent the rest of the evening laughing at how funny it all was, while Tony and Tim helped out with tools and beer.
We had a slow start in the morning because the bumper and rear lights needed to be put back on, and we didn’t leave the car park until about 10am. We explored the abandoned resort and it was much less scary than it was the night before. We then went to check out a camping spot near Somerset that was recommended by the guy at the croc tent.
Despite being a dull, cloudy day, the beach at Somerset was beautiful but there was still a lot of junk everywhere. There was even some sort of junk shrine, decorated with thongs, bottles, buoys and hats. The hellish toilets show no sign of benefitting from the Jardine Ferry fare and the campground was scattered with collapsed humpies.
5 Beaches Track
Following the coast in a south easterly direction from Somerset, the 5 Beaches 4WD track crosses rocky headlands and sandy beaches, and is a relatively easy track with some great views. There is plenty of colourful washed-up rubbish and coral on the beaches if you’re into fossicking for crap that may have potentially floated over from PNG. We spotted bush tucker on the side of the track too, and would have tried to get some if the bushes weren’t infested with green ants.
Once we got to the 4th beach, we found a track leading to a clearing of oak trees that was reasonably sheltered from the wind. We set up camp and tried a new SPAM recipe – Spam Bacon Carbonara – which ended up being quite good. Check out the recipe here.