Travel: conquering Cape York
After two years’ planning, the Howell family fled mid-winter Melbourne and found 4WD camper trailer travel heaven at Cape York.
A Cape York adventure had been on our list of 'must do' trips for a while now. The pinnacle destination for many 4WD and camping enthusiasts, it's one of the most common trips written about, bragged about and dreamed of. Its remote terrain offers stunning environmental beauty, fishing, culture, history and, most importantly, the ultimate 4WD playground.
On a cold and wintry Melbourne day in June, after two years' planning and budgeting, we were more than a little excited to be setting off on our first Cape York adventure. My husband Rob and I, with our children Jack (8 years) and Alyssa (5 years), eagerly set off in our Land Rover and shiny new Conqueror UEV-490. Our itinerary was intentionally vague, to give us the freedom to follow our wheels. We allowed eight weeks overall: two weeks to travel from Melbourne to Cape York via inland roads, four weeks in Cape York and two weeks to get home via the East Coast. This was a reasonable timeframe, but with a lot of kilometres to cover there were many long driving days before we reached north Queensland.
Our Cape York trip really started in Cairns. It was here that we took the opportunity to stay in one place for longer than a night, refresh and get down to the more serious aspects of the trip. How much food would we need? What precautions should we take? Is the Land Rover mechanically A1? Do we have everything we need? We saw Cairns as our last opportunity to have access to supplies and services that may not otherwise be available in Cape York - time would prove we were right to do so. We purchased an extra box to store dried and tinned foods with long shelf lives, ordered a large quantity of cryovac meats from the local butcher and replaced the leaking Land Rover water pump as a precaution.
Restocked and refreshed, we set off through Mareeba and up the Peninsula Developmental Road. The transition into Cape York was almost instantaneous. From the moment we passed through the small town of Laura, the bitumen gave way to dirt and there was an immediate change of landscape and sense of remoteness. The landscape was buildingless and the road was rarely broken by crossroads. Only a few small towns and the occasional roadhouse broke the drive.
In contrast, it was somewhat surprising to see the overflow of tourists, with road traffic as busy as any city highway and campgrounds at the back of roadhouses full each night with hundreds of visitors.
The wide, unsealed roads had ever changing conditions, from red dust to white bull dust, dips through dry creeks and high river crossings, occasional bitumen stretches, patches of corrugations and concealed pot holes. Many a fellow traveller lamented the road conditions and bemoaned the corrugations, but with a change of tyre pressure and a steady, unhurried pace we found the journey better than expected. Considering the high volume of traffic this road endures during peak season from June through to October, we thought it was in pretty good shape.
OLD TELEGRAPH TRACK
Bramwell Junction, at the start of the Old Telegraph Track, has a roadhouse with fuel, food and a comfortable campground. It was here that we chose to leave our trailer. While the Conqueror is more than capable of offroad travel, we decided to liberate the Land Rover for the really gnarly 4WD tracks ahead. We tented along the southern end of the track, looping back later through the Gunshot Bypass road and picking up the trailer for the northern section.
The anticipation of some serious four-wheel driving, mud, water crossings, challenges and fun had the kids (and the big kid in the driver's seat) almost bursting with excitement.
From the very first river crossing at Palm Creek, the Old Telegraph Track did not disappoint. The steep muddy banks with rocky drops and high slippery exits often required a winch or snatch strap assistance. Every successful vehicle crossing was met with applause from the small crowd that gathered to watch and assist.
Despite the many visitors to the area the path remains a lovely single tyre track with great scenery and tricky creek crossings, including the infamous Gun Shot. While the kids tackled Gun Shot with their matchbox cars, we were happy to take the 'chicken track', which was by no means a walk in the park.
With lots of camping sites along the Dulhunty River that were picturesque, spacious and not confined to marked sites or bollards, we were spoilt for choice. After a restful night at Dulhunty River, we awoke to discover the back door on our Land Rover jammed shut with all our food and equipment inside! The vehicle's keyless entry, barrier cage and drawer unit made it impossible to unlock or reach from the inside, leaving us no choice but to let the neighbours feed the kids breakfast and pack up as best we could. At the end of the day, after some choice words, numerous river crossings, pummelling, a husband tantrum and an entire can of WD40, the lock finally released.
FALLING FOR CAPE YORK
After looping back to get the Conqueror, we continued along the Peninsula Development Road to the northern section of the Old Telegraph Track and the popular Fruit Bat Falls, Twin Falls and Eliot Falls area. The Eliot Falls campground required pre-booking online or by telephone, so without phone or internet service we were unable to camp there. Instead, we camped just 100m from the Eliot Falls campground turnoff at the delightful Canal Creek free camping area. This was our favourite camp of the trip. The clear, aqua green waters were always the perfect temperature for a swim and the shallow pools were perfect for young children. Spotting pitcher plants and sundews, swimming and playing in nearby waterfalls and the challenge of a creek crossing by push bike kept the kids amused for hours.
From our camp at Canal Creek we did a day trip along the northern section of the Old Telegraph Track, once again leaving the trailer behind. This section of the track was full of challenging crossings and steep banks, with a log bridge crossing at Cypress Creek and the deep water crossing of Nolans Brook. The latter was rumoured to be so deep that more than 50 vehicles this season had gone home on a tow truck, swamped.
At the crossing, an ominous handwritten sign with the local mechanic's phone number should probably have been a warning, but Rob was determined to take on the challenge. As he dropped the Landie into the drink his nervous accelerator foot went hard, pushing the bonnet underwater before emerging successfully out the other side. Mission accomplished!
Well, almost. The Land Rover's computer got wet and the car coughed and jerked back to camp, having to be towed the final kilometre by friends in their Nissan. We dried the computer over the gas stove and the next morning the car starting like nothing had happened. The awful prospect of breaking down in remote Cape York with no telephone service was daunting, but for the thrill and childish glory of saying 'we did it', it was worth all the nail biting.
With the challenges of the Old Telegraph Track behind us, we enjoyed exploring the towns of Injanoo, Bamaga and Seisia. After crossing the Jardine River by ferry we were struck by the area's distinctly island vibe, with jungle-like rainforests, wild frangipanis, palm trees, coconuts and hibiscus.
The kids noticed a variety of different animals too, with regular visits from bush turkeys, goannas, bandicoots, crocodiles and even wild horses. The latter are abundant around the towns and while free roaming, seem to be cared for and friendly. "A horse just ate my breakfast," Alyssa giggled one morning. I didn't believe her until I saw him myself.
While staying at Loyalty Beach, Seisia Campground and Punsand Bay we enjoyed the simple pleasures of hot showers, flushing toilets, laundries and beachside camping with gorgeous sunsets.
On the fourth week of our trip we reached the Tip. We were surprised to find an unsigned car park and track, a sort of 'find it yourself' challenge across the rocky headland. The kids were drawn to the sign telling them they were standing at the northernmost point of the Australian continent, and despite their young age they understood the significance of the location.
After weeks of driving, exploring and meeting the challenges of the Old Telegraph Track, we felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment to finally reach the Tip - the pinnacle of our journey.
As we prepared to travel back down the Cape, shopping at the local supermarket gave me yet another reason to appreciate the little things in my everyday life - the shelves were almost bare. Locals explained the weekly barge with food supplies had been delayed for three weeks. I was never more grateful for my ability to over-shop, as we had extra food crammed into every available space in the camper.
It's hard to resist the numerous possible detours off the Peninsula Development Road. With so many to choose from we couldn't resist taking a peek at some of the tourist favourites; Vrilya Point, Weipa and Chili Beach.
A pleasant 10km beach drive took us past a light shipwreck to the Vrilya Point northern camp. Sheltered by she-oaks, the beachside camping at the inlet was plentiful and well protected from the wind. The tinkling of seashells hanging on fishing line from the she oaks captured the free, easy pace of the area, while Weipa delighted us with its vibrant red sunsets over the ocean. A spot of fishing with the kids was fun, but unfortunately nothing big enough for dinner.
It was in Weipa that we reluctantly telephoned the National Parks and made a pre-booking for the Chili Beach campground. The drive was rushed to get there in a day, but we were treated to a rare windless evening on the palm-lined beach and an area suitable for the Conqueror. It's hard to know if a campsite will be the right size without seeing it, but in this instance we were pleasantly surprised.
With our Cape York curiosity deeply sated, we turned our wheels south and reluctantly headed home. Together we'd met the challenges of the tracks, overcome mechanical hiccups, survived the odd kiddy meltdown and recovered from numerous medical emergencies including a tick and gastro, which Rob swears was the worst he has ever endured, though I suspect it was a bit like the man-flu.
It will be difficult to forget our Cape York adventure, especially with a hard drive full of great photos, lingering red dust in the Land Rover and a sticker on the toilet lid that reads 'Crocodiles - No Swimming'.
One of Cape York's most popular tourist activities is to take the ferry from Seisia through the Torres Strait Islands to Thursday Island.
The hour-long ferry ride across the turquoise Torres Strait is in a comfortable, 17.5m catamaran. With streets full of many interesting shops, parks, information and galleries, there was plenty for us to see and do on Thursday Island. Watching the NAIDOC celebrations with traditional dancing and singing in the park was a 'lucky timing' highlight that gave us a fascinating cultural experience enjoyed by the whole family. Lunch was a bucket of local prawns at Australia's Top Pub, literally served in a bucket!
Bookings are essential and can fill quickly in peak season. Visit www.peddellsferry.com.au for more information.
OUT OF SCHOOL EDUCATION IDEAS
Up to 12 weeks away from school isn't likely to have a negative impact on your child's education. quite the opposite, in fact.
Talk with your child's teacher prior to travelling, they need to know your estimated leave and return dates.
Ask your child's teacher to determine one key learning area your child could benefit from targeting while you are away, rather than trying to tackle everything. Choose a specific area such as multiplication, writing full sentences, handwriting or reading. Reassure the teacher that your child's learning while away may not be the usual curriculum, but will be just as enriching.
Setting times/days for homework while travelling can quickly become a chore. Instead, try to incorporate learning into your travelling by asking them to read travel brochures, add up how many kilometres to the next town, write a journal using photos from travel brochures, read signs and posters and talk about the changing landscape and different animals they might see.
Rainy days, long days in the car, and 'I'm bored' situations are great times to work on journals or any set homework requirements.
Online maths programs such as Mathletics (www.mathletics.com.au) are a fun way to learn, while a Skype call to your child's class allows them to instantly share their experiences and be an online teacher. A Skype call with Thursday Island in the background will never be forgotten by their classmates!
On returning to school, your child could do a slideshow presentation to the class. This serves as a great demonstration to the teacher and class of the wonderful experiences your child has had and the new things they have learned.