Race to the Cape: Part 1

By: Tim van Duyl, Photography by: Jack Murphy & Dan Everett


With the crew belted in and the rigs loaded up, it was time to explore the ultimate offroad destination, Cape York.

DAY 1

Trials and Tribulations

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Sunrise saw us head to Cape Tribulation after a quick stop for provisions in Cairns. We hit the road, heading past cane trains and clear coastline, before we reached the Daintree River ferry early in the afternoon. This was the gateway to our adventure.

The river is said to be packed with crocs — though we saw none on our passing — and marks the border between privately owned farms and the world heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. After the crossing we were immediately hit with steep climbs, creeks, rivers and more shades of green than I thought possible. As the light diffused and broke through in patches, the forest floor became alive with scavenging birds and lizards fleeing from sight. Our first stop, Cape Tribulation Camping, is a popular spot for campers; when we arrived at least 10 groups were still set up, holding out as long as possible before the wet pushed them off home. Complete with wet bar and direct beach access, our pause at Cape Trib Camping set the scene for the trip. We nailed one of our goals immediately, spotting two cassowaries crossing the road and one cruising the beach, as cool as can be.

DAY 2

Bloomin’ Marvellous

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From Cape Trib camping, it’s only one turn to the infamous Bloomfield Track.

The signs say 4WD only access — and this should be observed in the wet, especially. It’s a dangerous, difficult place to be driving. We began our passage at the end of the predicted dry season, weeks before the forecast rain, so we had no trouble with traction. The biggest danger was being distracted. We stopped to admire the mangroves, cassowary palms and seemingly endless forest vistas from every pass. The only advice, beyond maintaining safe distances and speeds, is to keep an eye out for the steep climbs either side of Cowie Beach and Wujal Wujal, they require low-range for heavy haulers and an eye on coolant temperatures.

Breaking out of the rainforest into Degarra country, the feeling becomes more familiar. On both sides of the forest’s fringe, the land is used for agriculture and its is more developed here. The Wujal Wujal Arts Centre on the way to the popular Bloomfield Falls however, gives a good insight to how the traditional owners see the land and connect with the fauna and flora. Locals produce artwork on site and sell it with the proceeds helping the community.

The falls are easy to access and an impressive sight with a drop of around 20m. However, don’t be drawn to the cool and clear water, a 500kg croc awaits patiently at the edge of the pool, locals told us.

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Our day two stop was one I was most looking forward to: Elim Beach. Also known as Eddie's Beach or Eddie's Camp, named after its caretaker, Eddie, obviously. It sits on a remote headland far away from phone coverage and the distraction of crowds. Getting there, you must pass through Cooktown, legendary for its big-game fishing opportunities off the reef and a good option for restocking to boot. En route to Eddie's you will pass through Hope Vale too, a town populated mainly by traditional owners looking to celebrate culture and history.

The campsite is massive and with a ‘set-up where you want’ system, we found ourselves beachside overlooking a wide, shallow bay by nightfall. The close of day two gave us a taste of life in the Cape that we could definitely get used to – cold beer, a barbecue,  and plenty of laughs as we relaxed in camp chairs with tunes playing, courtesy of the Zone RV sound system, a fresh adventure awaiting tomorrow.

DAY 3

Rock and Rollin’

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The day started with an unhitched 4WD run to the coloured sands, an area of massive significance for Australia’s first people. The low-tide only access was a good test run for the team. Soft sand met quicksand ‘round turns, and with signs reminding of us of the $2000 tow-out-fee, we were especially careful. The sands in the dunes are collected for traditional artwork and we found bright reds, deep oranges and near perfect whites all in one small stretch.

It was day three that brought the highlight of the trip for many, Battlecamp Road. After more than an hour preparing and talking about the day ahead, we hit the road with some trepidation of what awaited. The roads deteriorated quickly but never enough to truly slow us down. We hit dust bowls, with pillowy powder nearly half a metre deep but, mercifully, solid bottoms.

We had lunch at Laura Station, though only briefly as we were well behind our scheduled stop at Laura itself, a common theme for the trip.

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As we ventured deeper along the Battlecamp through Lakeland National Park, our long day drew on as the scenery became awe inspiring. Our radio chatter turned from funny anecdotes to cries of ‘look at that’ and ‘I’ve never seen colours like this’. The roads turned blood red, which together with the forest’s infinite shades of green created a contrast so Australian we all look back at it as one of the trip highlights. Enjoying it meant multiple stops for camera changes, turnarounds and reframing which lead to delays — but they were delays that lead to more wonder and amazement.

No one wanted to push on, but Musgrave Roadhouse only serves dinner till 7pm sharp so the only option was to push on fast to make it in time for nosh. There were no takers of the full bushman option — having to catch and roast a goanna. Musgrave Roadhouse offers accommodation, good meals and stocks enough cold mid-strength to keep the flocks happy. It also has an airstrip, which, after discovering had no scheduled flights, was mooted as an ideal spot for a drag race, trailers included. Where better a location to figure out, once and for all, who really was the quickest?

DAY 4

Where there’s smoke...

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Our morning gave us the chance to buy some cold iced coffee which hit our caffeine cravings before a date with the roadhouse at Archer River. The drive there, up the Peninsula Development Road, gave us our first taste of mighty roadtrains. Unladen, they travel at decent speed towards the centre of the road, unlike when they’re full and to the side. Be aware of them and always radio through when passing.

Getting to Archer River was a non-event, only a surprise chat with a Rio Tinto rep offering us free sunscreen and advice on how to work around the roadtrains was worth mentioning but at the ‘house itself, we discovered that living so closely for four days made us closer; Archer River Roadhouse burgers all round!

Our next stop was the Rio Tinto support town of Weipa. Like Cooktown, it’s also well known for its fishing, though we didn’t head out. Weipa is well stocked and has a strong labour based residency. A major highlight coming into the town on well-maintained roads were the many burn-offs. Local rangers were getting in early, keeping the undergrowth down to prevent catastrophic fires wiping the area clean. The fire’s smoke darkened crow-filled skies, escaping the heat and smoke. Stopping for a photo op and a better look, we all agreed we felt like we were in a warzone but never unsafe. 

We stayed at Weipa Caravan Park having read about the famous Barramunchies restaurant, a BYO garden fish and chip shop known for, well, barra. A big feed and a few beers later and the previous massive day caught up with us and an early night followed.

DAY 5

Blood, Bogs and Big Ol’ Waterfalls

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We started with a visit to the hospital. No, Barramunchies did not serve up a bad meal. Jack, our shooter for the trip carried with him a lingering illness that only worsened as the trip progressed so the call was made to take him in for a look. A blood test later and some consideration of water intake and a follow-up consult for later in the trip and we were mobile, a half-day late but our next stop was only meant to be an hour up the road at Pennefather Beach.   

Pennefather almost ruined us. Within the space of 30 minutes we had the Zone, the Land Rover and Mars camper well stuck in the soft sands at the entrance to the beach. Our goal, to get all vehicles onto the beach for a video and photography shoot, was in doubt. Dan, his knowledge and well-set-up Ranger came to the rescue of the Landie. Beached at the high-water mark, he liberated it through some long-extension winch pulls, while we all toiled on the belied 200 Series towing the 18ft, 2000kg Zone. Try as we might, the Wrangler didn’t carry the momentum to get the heavy combo moving forward so the call was made for a vehicle to find a way back off the beach to reverse pull the pair out. Two hours later and the affectionately called ‘Big Dog’ was free but in the time of the extraction, Celso, his Prado and the Mars camper found themselves belly deep on a tight turn seaside of where we wanted to be. Dan took charge and through the use of every MaxTrax we could find (six in total), winching, using another car as a tackle-block holder and a couple of hours, we were free — including being free of the bead of one tyre on the trailer.

No blood, no broken bones or gear but some sweaty, sandy people needing a rest meant we turned back to Weipa, not our original plan, for another feast of barra and a comfy night.

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Bramwell Station was our next port of call and with a hardly signposted tight right hand turn onto Batavia Downs Road an hour out of Weipa, communicating to the Mars crew who were delayed to reset their tyre had us stressing we would become disbanded. No such issue as Celso navigated his way easily to catch us near Bramwell Station. We offloaded and set up camp hoping to be able to head into the surrounding bush for some 4WDing only to be denied by the station manager. Knowing it was a popular area to explore and one on our list of to-dos, it was a disappointment to be denied but the Old Tele was just around the corner...

The Old Telegraph Track is awesome. We’d only hit the start, and without our convoy of trailers, but immediately it lived up to the hype. The aptly named ‘Chicken Track’ — the bypass around the worst of the drops and climbs — is still only suitable for proper 4WDs, while the pro-route will likely lead to panel damage and definitely requires the ability to self-rescue and also of support vehicles. We scraped through only about 20km before the Discovery support car tore a sidewall on a tree root. As great as low-profile tyres are on the road, they were never cut out for the tight, sharp rock and root lined Old Tele. Back to camp and arriving to an already set up swag felt great. We had achieved some of the Old Tele, recovered a couple of times and only torn one tyre, a decent effort rewarded with cold beer and a barbecue couresty of Celso that will go down as one of the trip's most enjoyed meals.

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Then it was onto Fruit Bat and Elliot Falls. Paradise found. Check them out online if you don't believe me and you will quickly realise the trip north is worth it for these falls alone. High enough to be croc-free, the water runs clear, warm and down cascading sets of falls into deep pools perfect for swimming.

We pushed onto the Jardine River ferry crossing making it at 4:13 pm, 17 minutes before our agreed deadline but where were the campers and Land Rover? We had only till 5pm for the last sailing of the barge. With less than 10 minutes to go, the familiar blue hue of Dan’s Ranger appeared and we were off on the barge. Yes it's true, the barge is over a hundred bucks per vehicle but the fees cover camping north of the river and the money goes to maintaining the area. Cash is accepted but they also take card.

Part two of our epic journey continues next issue, where we hit the beaches at Mutee Head, hunt crocs at Loyalty and discover a cheat on our Race to the Cape.

Check out the full feature in issue #120 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.