Cape York by 4WD with 3 Generations!

Late in June 2010 my two sons and I left for Cape York, an 8500km round trip from Sydney. Family and some friends joined us in Cairns. We left Sydney with trailer and tinnie and transferred boat and supplies including two fridges to a V8 Landcruiser (hired from Britz) and a Prado Landcruiser fitted with a rollbar (hired from Sargents). These are sought after cars and need to be hired up to 12 months early. The Patrol traveled in front, then came the Prado with me alternating the driving with a neighbour and the V8 at the back. The theory and practice was that the inexperienced Prado drivers could either get pulled out or pulled back.

We left Sydney south after 11am to avoid traffic and drove through Brisbane after midnight to again avoid peak hour congestion. Finally coming to Eumundi we pitched our tent in a new estate around 2am and were on the road again just as builders started arriving for work, none the wiser for our stay.  The Wednesday Eumundi Markets beckoned for breakfast and purchases of fresh fruit.

After only one more night we reached the outskirts of Cairns and camped by a river to await the arrival of family. Fish made themselves scarce, maybe because we were watched over by a large crocodile. Unfortunately, we got our first taste of sandflies and mosquitoes at this site.

The next morning our party left the comfort of villas in Port Douglas and set off to the Cape via Cape Tribulation and then straight up to Cooktown via tracks suited only to 4WDs. It rained on and off so it was fortunate the Queensland government has concreted the steepest section.  Otherwise I doubt even 4WDs would have negotiated this section in the slippery conditions.  It was thought wise to ease our group, including a 7 month old,  into the conditions by camping in a caravan park at Endeavour Falls about 30kms north of Cooktown for the first night (on bitumen which is opening up the whole area to development).  A large barramundi kept in a large glass tank puts on an awesome and frightening display when offered a prawn!

Next stop was Eliot Falls and Twin Falls. We arrived late afternoon after a number of river crossings watched by a lively audience which awarded points for the best display and the degree of  difficulty attempted.  Mosquito numbers were down because some 10000 bats eat up to 1000 each when hungry. We were very lucky to score a small plot to pitch our 3 tent group. Because the Falls are crocodile free it’s like bees to a honeypot for swimmers. The main road before Coen was in great shape but slippery because of unseasonal rain. Oncoming traffic blinded us momentarily with their mudspray. Most cars were covered with mud for days after and no one seemed in a hurry to remove the mud. It was like a badge of honour, proving you had done it tough when in actual fact the Queensland government has road building and maintenance crews on the entire Cape main road system. Mind you there are still plenty of challenges on the side roads to quiet locations.

At Vrilya Point we stayed a few nights and soon caught our best catch of the whole trip, a 1.2m COBIA weighing at least 15kgs. It was a tough job getting that one in the boat. There was only room for 3 in the boat so we took it in turns to fish.  I kept the fire stoked and the billy boiling. To reach Vrilya Point, which is on the Gulf side of the Cape we drove half an hour over the beach to a huge inlet.

We spent another few nights at Mutee Head and the Jardine river mouth before arriving at Punsand Bay, which is within 50 kms of the Tip of Cape York. Again you should book early for this site which has good facilities, a bar, a restaurant and pool. From there we took a boat trip to Thursday Island, TI, as it is called.  TI was a surprise. It has a good shopping centre, port, Customs boats and wharf facilities, hospital, schools, TAFE, power station, joint defence complex, seafood factory and good accommodation, hotels, and an ultra modern art gallery. In addition it has a 150 yr old fort with British built guns facing the narrow strategic channel allowing ships to pass from the Gulf to the east coast. This fortress on the peak of the island was built because of the Russian threat during the Crimean war! (as was Sydney’s Fort Denison.) An amazing place with expensive real estate and very little undeveloped land left. Most properties have wonderful views. The tour included a visit to a lobster factory featuring the most beautifully coloured lobsters I have ever seen.  The return trip was in very rough seas and had I not had the distraction of holding a baby I would have been green, for sure.  TI is a must if you go to the Cape.

We farewelled our womenfolk from Weipa airport. Rio Tinto owns the 16m tonnes per annum bauxite mine in and around Weipa. The company has built the township, port, airport, railway line, dam, bridges and brilliant roads in and around Weipa with military precision. Ships take the ore to Gladstone where cheap coal power is available for refining the bauxite into alumina and then aluminium. We supplemented our supplies at the local Woolies and took off to our secret location. In Weipa we were joined by a biology teacher from Trinity Grammar School. He also happens to be a fishing genius and gourmet cook so by nightfall we were feasting on whitebait cooked to perfection. We were very lucky because on arrival it was plain to see that hundreds of terns were diving into wave after wave of fish that were jumping for their lives.  Sharks could be plainly seen herding the fish.  The team soon had caught a good selection of golden trevallies and queenies, most going straight back into the water. Several sharks took our bait but all broke their respective lines, that first night.

After dinner, reels were repaired and wire added which sharks could not bite through.

A suitable sized fish bait was attached and the rod was left in the boat.  When the shark took the bait I was encouraged to go for it, hop in the boat and let it pull me upriver. Other sharks had jumped full length out of the water to break free so this time we thought we had a big fish because it strictly hugged the bottom.  An hour later I finally land a 2m shark. I don’t know who was the more exhausted, the shark or me. The only part not recorded on video was me begging for my son to take over and the journey 500m upriver and back.  The shark recovered more quickly than I did when released. It was the only catch I made.

We stayed a full 3 nights at this location, which is exceptionally remote but beautiful. The snatchropes had to be used to get us there and one tree just would not budge for the Prado which came off the worse for wear. Fish heads, etc. were initially left on the lagoon bank but this was frowned upon by our neighbours, because it encouraged the resident crocodiles to come out of the water. Wised up we threw remaining fishscraps into the water. By day beautiful eagles swooped on the scraps and by night crocs noisily took what was left.  This was within 30m of our tents, up a slight slope. Mind you we did keep our fire going 24 hours with driftwood logs, gathered along the beach by 4WD.

On the last evening, just before dark, we were all sitting round the fire enjoying a cup of tea in a semicircle around the campfire and facing the lagoon when along came “Darren from Liverpool” in his Toyota ute with outsized wheels and collapsed tent on top of his tool trays. He stopped in front of our campfire on the sandtrack with the lagoon the other side of him. He was soon out of his ute lighting up a cigarette with a lighter twice the size of his cigarette pack and opening up a VB in defiance of fines of up to $35000. Darren was soon impressing us with his freighttrain horn and remote controlled searchlight. He also offered to catch the local croc.  He suggested we should attach our bait to his winch! He invited himself to sit round our campfire eating his dinner  before we had even started thinking about ours. Gradually he got louder and the boys revved him up see what other surprises he might have for us. Sure enough, out came a special rifle with scopes, tripod, special high powered bullets and a silencer, just in case we needed protection from the crocs. We set up target practice for him on the other side of the lagoon about 150 m away. He took aim……but didn’t fire, much to my relief. Our neighbours, to our disgust, had a generator going, so they would not have heard any noise, had he fired. Darren too thought the generator was a bit much so he entertained us with loud John Williams music from his ute which he positioned in what little space was left between us and our former neighbours.  These neighbours seemed settled in for a long stay and even had a truck which had been used to bring in a caravan, I don’t know how.

Darren certainly entertained us and left with us and watched over us like a mother hen, offering to reflate our tyres with his compressor after we got back onto solid ground. It’s Aussie characters like Darren, Darren of Liverpool and their equipment which make trips like ours so interesting. He would have helped pull the V8 out of the sea, when it got too close in its run-up off the beach, but we had to work fast to avoid imminent disaster and a full uninsured writeoff. The Patrol raced back to help and with more than a few silent prayers, on the second attempt, with a dropped clutch at high revs it came out of the water.

We left our campsite on a Thursday about lunchtime and were home in Sydney about 7pm on the following Monday. Dinner, the first night,  was cooked on a memorable campfire at the Archer river crossing. Friday night, after handing back two rentals, one the worse for wear, we loaded up the Nissan Patrol with 5 men and a trailer with boat and belongings of 10 people and headed for Sydney, stopping for dinner in a wild west pub in Tully which, true to form was the wettest place in Australia at the time as well as normally. The backpacker staff favoured us quickly with some other table’s order so we had upgraded dinner and cleared out before anyone caused trouble.

By Saturday 11am we stopped for coffee in AYR. Because of the cramped conditions we drove in 2 hour shifts from 7am till 10 or 11pm with breaks for comfort stops at changeover times. The driver would move to the driver’s side of the back seat and that person would move to the worst spot in the middle of the back seat etc. He would make sure the driver did not cheat and remain driving more than 2 hours or the proverbial would go numb. In AYR a person who shall remain nameless put a tank full of unleaded petrol in the diesel Nissan.  Local workshops were closed  so one of us jumped a fence because he saw a garage door open and this good Samaritan towed us to his workshop siphoned the petrol out, changed our oil and sent us on our way again with the loss of about 4 hours prime driving time. From then on an engine warning light spelled disaster and the turbo cut in and out but the Patrol kept going, if a lot more slowly. By the time we reached Sydney it had fully recovered. John Piotti the engineer who helped us would only charge us for the parts. We coaxed him to show us his magnificent FORD drag machine.

Because of John’s help we stopped to help 2 French tourists in their outsized RV which they had backed into the slightest of ditches but had no hope of getting out of without help.  We were warned early of trouble when a B-double truck rounded a corner on the highway flashing its lights. The RV had its nose stuck well out onto the highway.

Saturday night we erected our tents under power poles beside the highway short of Gladstone. We were used to one or two trains each night, but not the endless procession of coal trains on twin electrified tracks that we parked next to that night. No wonder Queensland is booming and on my return to Sydney I read that 16 Bowen Basin coal companies are getting together to buy the train tracks and spend huge amounts to build another coal loader on Wiggins Island at Gladstone. That is over and above the existing coal loaders at Hay Point and Abbott Point. You could see the spinoff in Mackay which was humming. In fact, Cairns, Townsville and Rockhampton all seem to be thriving. The Townsville bypass is impressive as are all the roads in Queensland. They are so much better than in northern NSW than it is embarrassing.

Sunday night we dined with a friend at the Mermaid Beach Surf Club.  They let us in despite our 10 day beards. That night we erected our tents at another friend’s unfinished Bali style mansion on 11 acres overlooking the whole of BYRON BAY.

Three nights to travel 3500kms with plenty of time for heated discussion about politics, religion and the work we were unfortunately rushing back to.


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