We met our fellow adventurers and guide, John, in a Cairns car park at 8 am on a Sunday morning. We’d decided some time before, that an Australian road trip wouldn’t be complete without reaching the top of Cape York, the most northern point of the Australian mainland. However, we were also aware that to make the most of it, some fairly challenging four-wheel driving had to be undertaken. Given that our 4WD experience wasn’t that extensive we booked a tagalong trip with Tagalong Tours of Australia. We’d be driving in a convoy of vehicles with a tour leader and we figured we’d learn a fair bit for the rest of our trip.
We set off at a pretty cracking pace over The Great Dividing Range to Mareeba and on to Dimbulah for morning tea. After our break we had our first dirt road experience on the way to Chillagoe. We also had our first casualty as the corrugations on the road shook our UHF radio aerial off.
Along the way we began to see the benefit of travelling in the company of John, as we stopped at The Old Lappa pub and at a great lookout to Castle Rock, neither of which we would have known were there. At Chillagoe, as well as visiting the old copper smelter and Tom Prior’s impressive collection of historic Ford motors, we were booked on a tour of the famous limestone caves, notably Royal Arch Cave. The caves were awe inspiring and Andy got to squeeze belly first through one of the tighter passages. It was an optional part of the tour and Jane decided it wasn’t for her. The day finished with an impressive dinner provided at the camp kitchen of Chillagoe Observatory and eco lodge complete with table cloths and candles. Beef stew and fire cooked damper followed by apple crumble – a great meal and a great way to start to get to know some of our fellow travellers.
Day 2 started with us wondering what to do about our UHF radio aerial. Travelling in a convoy, the UHF radio is an essential communication tool and there was nowhere in Chillagoe to purchase a new one. Luckily, we’d been able to stop and retrieve the section that had fallen off, and with ingenious use of the camping essentials, duct tape and zip ties we were able to fasten it back on. Unbelievably, when we got underway, we able to ascertain that it actually still worked and communication was resumed.
The first drive of the day made us think that the Chillagoe to Dimbulah Road had it in for us as another unfortunate casualty was a wallaby that jumped into the side of OTIS. We didn’t see it at all, just heard a loud bang and pulled over fearing the worst. There was minimal damage to OTIS but the same can’t be said for the poor wallaby who we had to leave at the side of the road. Not a great start to the day but we carried on along dirt roads to Tyrconnel gold mine which dated from the 19thcentury gold rush, but had been in action until 5 years ago. Our final stop of the day was at Mount Mulligan, the site of a 1921 coal mine explosion which killed 95% of the men of the township. The cemetery was sobering but a great memorial to their lives. We set up camp at Palmer River Roadhouse and sat around the fire gazing at the clear skies and the bright stars.
Over the next couple of days we continued north driving around 500 km on roads that at times were uncomfortable to say the least. The traffic on dirt roads causes it to form corrugations and holes which means that the driving takes a fair bit of concentration, and the dust thrown up by other vehicles reduces visibility too. On the way we saw fantastic aboriginal art at Split Rock, learnt about the indigenous history of Laura at Quinkan Cultural Centre, visited Coen biosecurity station and and camped overnight at Musgrave Roadhouse. Our fourth night was at Merluna cattle station where we had another great Aussie feed of corned beef, veggies and white sauce with sticky date pudding for dessert. It was our 21st wedding anniversary and it was pretty special way to finish the day under the stars.
By now, OTIS had started to change to a lovely shade of red from all the dust we were driving through. It really did get everywhere although we had a useful tip from John, our tour guide to keep it out of the cabin. The obvious thing to do would be to switch the aircon to recycled air. However, counterintuitively, it’s actually better to have external air coming in but keep the fan on full. This keeps the cabin pressurised and stops the dust infiltrating. This didn’t stop the dust getting into everything outside the car including the zips on our roof bag which holds our tent, table and chairs. They started to get gummed up and really hard to open and not having access to our tent would be a bit of a problem. The solution, another camping essential – a spray of WD40 and they were sliding effortlessly again.
After Merluna we had a relatively short drive into Weipa, a mining town on the western side of the cape. The township was named after an aboriginal settlement but the town as it is today was effectively created by the mining companies, as extraction of bauxite, aluminium ore, is the primary industry. Our first stop was for a Western Cape Eco Tour which took us across the Embley river to look at the varied birdlife including Jabirus, White Bellied Sea Eagles and the Great Billed Heron. We were also lucky enough to catch a few glimpses of saltwater crocodiles – no swimming in this part of the world. The croc tour was fabulous but Weipa itself probably isn’t somewhere we’d go out of our way to visit again. As you’d expect, its basically a service town for the mine. We did, however, get to see a sunset over the ocean and stocked up on provisions and fuel before continuing north. We also had chance to make some minor tent repairs, employing duct tape and zip ties once again.
Our next stop before we hit the Old Telegraph Track was Bramwell Station. Another cattle station, Bramwell also takes its role as a holiday stop seriously. We were camping but you could also choose to stay in a range of units. In the evening the restaurant and bar provides entertainment every night. We’re really enjoying staying at roadhouses and stations and we’ll be looking out for them as we continue our travels around Australia after our Cape York adventure.
Day 7 was when the rubber really hit the road, or The Old Telegraph Track to be specific. This track is notorious amongst 4wd enthusiasts and follows the path of the original telegraph line that extended up Cape York. Of interest are the numerous creek crossings which put drivers and their vehicles to the test. Many have very steep descents and ascents and several also have fairly deep water to traverse, even though we were in dry season. The first two crossings, Palm Creek and Ducie Creek, were some of the trickiest we were going to attempt so we were really pleased to have John, who walked them first then guided us through on the UHF radio. We got through them safely even though OTIS’s front weels were airborne coming out of Ducie. Although challenging, it was great fun and we’d certainly recommend giving it a go. Andy was helped along by the cold drip coffee given to him by Kellie from Leaf & Bean cafe on the day we left Bundaberg – he was saving it for a special occasion and this certainly counted as that.
As we approached the end of the day with only two more crossings to drive, disaster struck, the axle on John, our guide’s, trusty Nissan completely sheared off – leaving him with three wheels. There’s no phone service on the track and even the satellite phone performance was variable. He managed eventually to get through to a recovery service but they weren’t able to come out to him until the morning. He was therefore going to have to sleep by his car overnight whilst we made our way on to our camp. One of the great things about travelling in the group is that you have a mixture of skills and abilities. Some drivers were fairly novice like us, but others were well experienced. One of these couples, Steve and Joanne volunteered to lead the group and did a fantastic job. We successfully traversed the final two crossings, including Scrubby Creek which was a fairly long water crossing.
By the time we got to the Queensland Parks bush camp at Eliot Falls we were fairly exhausted and ready to just set up, grab some dinner and turn in for the night.
We woke and were keen to explore the falls, not least as these would be our showers substitute for the next day as we were staying there for 2 nights. Walking down the track to the falls we were awestruck as they opened up before us. Three pristine swimming pools looking like a 5 star resort. We couldn’t imagine a better way to finish our first week and wash away the red dust of the track. The first stage of the adventure had been everything we wished for despite the need to employ those camping essentials; Duct Tape, Zip Ties and WD40.