6 mins

A wild road trip through Australia's Cape York

Dotted above Australia’s north-eastern tip are its Pacific outposts. We road-trip through rugged Cape York and then indulge in a spot of island-hopping through the Torres Strait for a real Oz adventure

Vehicle in northeast Australia (Tourism & Events Queenslan)
Our 4WD ploughed along Coloured Sands Beach, as the milky turquoise Coral Sea ebbed by our flank. The backing dunes, white like pure driven snow and covered by blood red staining, inspired an aboriginal creation myth that tells of a fight between a brown snake warrior and an eagle with a taste for rainbow lorikeets. The eagle eviscerates the serpent and it bleeds over the soft white dunes. Fantastical stuff, but the beach is so otherworldly that the gap between Dreamtime – the Aboriginal symbolist mythology that explains how the world exists – and science did start to feel somewhat blurred.

The Cape York Peninsula is a sort of Shangri-La Down Under. For centuries it has magnetically drawn frontier characters dreaming of prosperity to its deep forests. Nowadays, for Australians, the idea of taking a 4WD up to the northernmost tip of their country represents the road trip of a lifetime. Yet outside Australia, the Cape remains virtually unknown to travellers.

Named in tribute to the recently departed Duke of York in 1770 by Captain Cook, the Cape is a shark-fin-shaped peninsula topping tropical northern Queensland. Warmed by the Southern Pacific Ocean, it remains ruggedly inaccessible, swathed in deep forests, fringed by mangroves and virgin beaches, and incised by crocodile-filled creeks. Aborigine ‘traditional owners’ make up 60% of a meagre 20,000 inhabitants.

But fantasy beaches were only part of the plan. I’d arrived in Queensland to travel from Cairns by 4WD to Cape York’s tip, zigzagging across the peninsula in a 2,000km drive. But why stop there? From the top of Australia, I’d then cross into the Torres Strait to experience the unique island cultures sitting just off the mainland before returning to Cairns along the Great Barrier Reef by cargo vessel. And all in two weeks.

The Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia (Dreamstime)
The Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia (Dreamstime)

Magical history tour

The first 300km took us through the Daintree National Park. Jiggling around in the 4WD alongside me was Karlina See Kee, a Torres Strait Islander who helped organise the logistics of my trip, such as campsites, supplies and vehicle; behind the wheel was Karlina’s Aborigine friend, Brian.

Our first stop was Mossman Gorge in Daintree’s southern section. At over 120 million years old, it hosts the world’s oldest continuous rainforest. Among a sultry greenhouse-moist canopy of epiphytic bird’s-nest ferns and strangler figs, we spotted terrapins, dragon lizards, iridescent-blue butterflies and golden orb spiders the size of saucers. Near the Cape Tribulation section of the park, we were treated to a rare sighting of a cassowary, a stocky flightless bird skulking in the undergrowth. “They’re the world’s most dangerous bird,” claimed local tour guide David Nielsen. “Mate of mine had his heart nicked by their talons and spent months in hospital.” I added murderous birds to my list of deadly things to avoid alongside man-eating crocs, killer jellyfish and death adders.

Continuing to push north, Cooktown is the final frontier before the Cape gets truly adventurous. Named after Captain Cook, who holed up here for 48 days after his ship hit a nearby reef, Cooktown’s Wild West-looking architecture hails from halcyon days never recaptured from the 1870s, when it grew rich servicing a gold rush that brought in 35,000 prospectors. We passed the night enjoying a sunset cruise on the Endeavour River, watching a large saltwater croc munching through a fisherman’s pot.

Beyond Cooktown, iconic Cape York emerges. Unsealed dirt roads impassable in the wet season; thousands of square kilometres of emerald-green eucalyptus and gum-tree forests that echo with chattering flocks of parrots, sulphur-crested cockatoos and lorikeets; long, straight ochre-hued roads where plumes of coloured dust erupt whenever vehicles hurry by and wallabies bounded; creeks with some nasty surprises; and skyrocket termite mounds that rose metres from the primitive soil; they all gave a taste of the more rugged northerly adventures to come.

Mining for a dream

At our campsite near Coloured Sands Beach, we met its titular owner Uncle Eddie and his son Ivan. After settling in, we later yarned on their veranda under a mango tree. Ivan nodded to Eddie and said: “He’s 90… same age as your Queen.”

After explaining the beach’s creation according to his local Thiitharr clan’s dreamtime myth, Ivan recounted a troubled history familiar across a cape that had been home to Aborigines for maybe 50,000 years. “There were massacres here when the prospectors came in the 1870s,” he started. “Then the German missionaries came and we lost a lot of our cultural practices and language before we were forced from our land.” The removal of the Aborigines during the 20th century continued into the 1960s on Cape York. Though high unemployment, alcoholism and poor health remain rife, Ivan explained that traditional land rights have been restored to his ‘mob’ (clan), as is happening across Australia with the implementation of the 1993 Native Title Act.

The lyrical side to their ancient culture lives on too. Dreamtime is alive in the rock-art of Quinkan Gallery, a rugged drive along Battle Camp Road to Laura. Among primeval sandstone boulders that were streaked yellow and maroon and had been baked for eternity, we hiked through thorny scrub to Split Rock’s overhangs to see pictographs described by UNESCO as some of the world finest. Across three vivid rock-faces, dingoes, echidnas, flying foxes and crocodiles are daubed in ochre and purple paints alongside tall Lowry-like spirits called ‘quinkan’. The art may date over 25,000 years in age.

Quinkan Gallery's rock-art (Mark Stratton)
Quinkan Gallery's rock-art (Mark Stratton)

Beyond Laura, the arterial Peninsula Development Road (PDR) took us north and inland, tracing the billion-year-old Great Dividing Range. Small, one-street settlements and roadhouses arrive every 100 kilometres or so. Some of these service stations (or ‘servos’), such as Musgrave, are old Telegraph Repeater Stations from the 1880s. By the third evening we’d made Coen, where we bush-camped by the local creek. “I’m 95% sure there’s no crocs around here,” said Brian, facilitating the quickest river wash ever as I tried not to dwell upon that crucial missing percentage.

Backwater Coen was one of the towns that bloomed briefly during a late 19th-century gold rush, as testified by the carcasses of discarded machinery, such as the steam traction engines that we spotted rusting around town. Elsewhere, some wag had taken pains to clamber onto the hot tin roof of the Exchange Hotel and prefix it with an ‘S’.

For some, the spirit of the Gold Rush lives on. “I’m the last gold miner of Coen,” proclaimed 70-year-old Charlie Spiteri. This Maltese migrant’s mock Mediterranean villa was decorated, in somewhat Gaudi-esque fashion, with recycled beer bottles. “When people ask about the bottles, I say I’m the biggest pisshead in town,” Charlie roared, a huge gold nugget dangling from his neck. He still works his own mineshaft. “Gold mining is like a sickness that’s never cured.”

Tip top

Cape York’s current treasure is bauxite, a basis for aluminium. We veered off the PDR and swapped over to the western side of Queensland’s northern fin to experience the beguiling cape on the Gulf of Carpentaria, where Weipa town services the world’s largest bauxite mine. We camped by a golden sandy beach on Albatross Bay. The sea felt tempting in 36ºC heat, at least until the croc signs dampened my enthusiasm. I made do with watching dozens of frigatebirds patrol the sunset.

Further north at Mapoon is a memorial to the Dutch ship Duyfken, which made first European contact with Australia on this coast in 1606. The memorial records a later Dutch captain, Jan Carstenszoon, returning in 1623 to fight pitched battles with local Aborigines that he dismissed as ‘armed savages’. Alongside the memorial is a ruined mission where, in 1963, its last Aborigine residents were forcibly removed as their land was appropriated for bauxite mining.

Second World War relics in Horn Island (Mark Stratton)
Second World War relics in Horn Island (Mark Stratton)

Rejoining the PDR, we pushed on towards the Jardine River. A pleasant stop is Moreton Telegraph Station by the Wenlock River. It has several nature trails, including the 4km ‘Desert’ trek, and when we met station manager Pete, he certainly looked like a true bushman, replete with a brushy moustache buried beneath the brim of his Akubra. He was holding a wild snake.

“Is it poisonous?” I wondered out loud. “Dunno mate, just grabbed it to show you,” he said. Pete told me he’d just spent four days mowing the flying doctors’ airstrip. “It gets a little boring in the tractor, so I listen to The Beach Boys. Beyoncé isn’t too bad either,” he laughed. In the dry season, the PDR can just about be driven by 2WD, so thrillseekers heading north can attempt the notorious Old Telegraph Line beyond Bramwell Junction. Running parallel to the PDR, this is an appallingly rutted track that involves deep creek crossings. Sadly, we could only have a little play on it – we had neither a winch nor a convoy – but we still got to bounce and wheelspin into Cockatoo Creek, where I’d earlier spotted a noticeboard warning about a troublesome three-metre croc.

Cycling in the northern tip of Cape York (Mark Stratton)
Cycling in the northern tip of Cape York (Mark Stratton)

I was told some 70 vehicles are written off each year in attempting Cape York, and it was easy to see how. At the next creek we plunged through water that almost overtopped the bonnet, only to find a family in a waterlogged Jeep waiting there. After hauling them out, we followed the track deeper into the Jardine River National Park’s wild forests to Eliot Falls Campsite. Here we soaked off our week of dusty driving with a swim in a series of terraced, croc-free cascades, amid gorge walls covered in pitcher plants.

The next day, we explored one of the little islands just off the coast, where the Gulf of Carpentaria and Southern Pacific pinch together. On Roko Island, I watched Jason Tchen-Pan cultivate pearls. As he teased open the oysters, I experienced a sort of lottery-ticket fever, and each time the Tahitian pulled out a glistening pearl. Later, we watched indigenous dancers Berliba (‘New Dawning’) perform at Cape York Peninsula Lodge in Bamaga. They migrated to Cape York in the 1950s to escape the flooding on Saibai Island, just off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Their elder, Clifford Wasiu, explained to me why passing down their PNG culture through the generations was important. “It gives the young men the discipline to tackle issues such as alcoholism and unemployment.”

The following day, back on the mainland, Karlina and I bid farewell to Brian and our 4WD and borrowed bicycles to complete the last 14km of our epic road trip. From Punsand Bay’s beachside campsite, we pedalled through jungle and creeks (I found an extra gear through ‘Big Croc Creek’) to reach a rocky promontory at the end of the crescent-shaped Frangipani Beach. A sign heralded: ‘You are standing at the northernmost point of the Australian Continent’. I soaked in a wondrous view across a horizon of islands spraying north into the Torres Strait: stepping-stones to Papua New Guinea, just 150km away.

“It’s the best view in Australia,” reckoned Rod Colquhoun, owner of Punsand Bay’s campsite, as he served us a celebratory mackerel pizza from their beachside oven. “Who wouldn’t want to be standing on top of 24 million Australians?”

Seeing strait

“It is like being in another country,” said ferry-owner Christine Peddell upon our arrival on Thursday Island, 36km later. This is the most populated stop in the Torres Strait archipelago but I could scarcely believe I was still in Australia. “White people are a minority here and many island languages remain in use,” she said.

Seventeen of the 70-odd scatter of coral and volcanic islands are inhabited. The original seafaring Melanesians, the Kaurareg, have long intermingled with influxes of Japanese pearl divers and Asian traders. Karlina, a fifth-generation islander with mixed Chinese heritage, reckoned that it was hard to say what typical islanders looked like because everybody had intermarried.

With a few days to explore before the MV Trinity Bay sailed back to Cairns, Karlina’s tour guide cousin, Liberty, took me around Thursday Island, where 3,500 people squeeze onto this petite hilly outpost. There were several quaint 19th-century churches at the seafront, which thrummed to the constant phut-phutting from outboards as boats conveyed everything from crayfish to schoolchildren between islands.
The jade-blue waters of Horn Island (Mark Stratton)
The jade-blue waters of Horn Island (Mark Stratton)

Liberty took me through the quarter once called ‘JapTown’, where 3,100 Japanese lived in un-PC 1900. “This was the peak of pearl-diving,” he said, explaining how they had coveted mother-of-pearl for products like buttons. His father worked on a pearl-lugger. “It was dangerous. My father said the best way to escape a poisonous sea-snake was to swim towards somebody else and hope it followed them.” Those hazards were illustrated at the cemetery, where a memorial still exists for 700 dead divers.

On neighbouring Horn Island, population 260, Liberty’s wife, Vanessa, ran an war-themed tour out of Gateway Torres Strait Resort, which had a homemade museum chronicling Horn Island’s importance in defending Australia during the Second World War. Among hundreds of black-and-white wartime photographs, I shuddered at one of an eight-metre-long crocodile being slit open to reveal human remains.

War historian Vanessa then took us to visit anti-aircraft machine-gun pits and the wreckage of a B17 bomber strewn across the jungle. She explained that, at its peak, 5,000 soldiers were billeted on Horn Island to protect an airstrip that was pivotal to launching attacks against Japan’s South Pacific advance. Horn Island never fell. “If it had,” Vanessa said, “the outcome of the war on several fronts might have been different.”

Final ferry from fantasyland

I craved to explore more of these islands, yet the once-weekly Trinity Bay service was ready to depart, laden with cargo and 27 passengers for a 53-hour journey back to Cairns. The ship tucked into the calm tropical waters between Cape York and the northern Great Barrier Reef, slipping past coral cays and dropping off cargo to remote settlements such as Lockhart. Meanwhile, I sat on deck, gazing back at Cape York’s pure beaches and forested bluffs, measuring time by meals.

Somewhere between a saffron chicken lunch and evening mandarin orange cake, I was on the bridge with Captain ‘Scotty’ Rae. We were passing Restoration Island where Captain Bligh – he of the ‘mutiny on The Bounty’ – briefly stopped. Nowadays a hermit with a beached yacht inhabits the island. “He calls himself Captain Seaweed and lives off crayfish and rum,” said Scotty. Another fanciful existence, I reflected, as the warm trade winds prickled my skin, on this extraordinary Cape of Dreams.

The author travelled with Karlina See Kee (+61 417 645 521, info@islandgirldiscovery.com.au), a one-stop shop for arranging trip logistics for travelling through Cape York, the Torres Strait islands and the Great Barrier Reef.

Main Image: vehicle in northeast Australia (Tourism & Events Queenslan)

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