IT’S A LONG WAY TO THE TOP
Prepare properly and pick your travel time carefully before heading to the far north, then reap the rewards of sparkling waterfalls, unspoilt beaches and clear lagoons
IN the late autumn, after the wet season eases on Cape York Peninsula, gravel roads are graded in time for the winter peak when visitors dragging boats, campers, caravans and just about anything else that has wheels, hit the road for Australia’s last great wilderness adventure, the drive to the northern tip of the continent.
Some prefer the coast road that winds up from Cairns through rainforest, past hidden beaches and waterfalls and sealed as far as Cape Tribulation, while others take the inland route via the Peninsula Developmental Rd through Mareeba and the Atherton Tableland and the lush agricultural cane farms, orchards and market gardens.
By June, the swollen creeks and rivers that put the Cape off-limits surging over gullies and dips in the road at the height of the wet, have usually shrunk to kneedeep or turned to dust making the Cape once again accessible.
Before the winter school holiday rush, Kuranda-based Tourism Cape York coordinator, environmental scientist and allround good bloke, Isha Segboer, set out to make sure and invited me along for the ride.
It was a magical drive north from Cairns in a vintage Nissan Patrol four-wheel drive past beaches, forested hills, cloud-capped mountains and canefields where flocks of white egrets picked through the newly tilled earth, to Port Douglas, Mossman and Wonga before boarding the ferry crossing the Daintree River.
Driving through Daintree National Park, it’s easy to see why UNESCO has lists this a Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The thick, dark jungle of rainforest decorated with palm trees and exotic ferns towers right up to the edge of the sealed road that twists and turns through the dappled sunlight. With the chance of spotting an elusive cassowary it was altogether an exquisite experience.
North of Cape Tribulation, the bitumen gives way to ochre-coloured gravel – the recently graded Bloomfield Track stretching up across the Donovan Range to the Bloomfield River.
We stop for a burger and beer at the celebrated Lions Den Hotel, once a tiny haven for “feral” Cape York characters, now an expanded, regular stop on the tourist trail.
Past Cooktown, after we had stashed the precious pilsner behind a bunch of logs felled by the last cyclone, we drove through Hope Vale to Elim Beach where elder, Eddie Deemal and son, Ivan, run the campground right on the beach under a canopy of paperbark trees ($10 per night per person).
Next morning, still mellow from the lamb racks, the light beer and pinot, we rescued the pilsner intact and head west along Battle Camp Rd.
There was light traffic on the gravel road, corrugated in parts, but quite comfortable apart from car-driven dust as thick as a London fog, conditions when headlights are essential.
The bad news is some drivers are still neglecting to switch on headlights while others barrel into the water-covered dips, especially those with Rough Surface signs, some with deep, concealed holes. The good news is the roads are open but caution, care and common sense are still called for.
We crossed a shallow watercourse, a tributary of Endeavour River and stopped to see the pretty Isabella Falls a few metres downstream where it’s safe to swim (no saltwater crocodiles) before splashing through the Normanby River, where swimming is definitely not safe.
Near Battle Camp Station we turned into Rinyirru National Park past the historic Old Laura Homestead, once headquarters of the original Laura Station. Formerly known as Lakefield, Queensland’s second-largest national park (after the Simpson Desert) is mostly grassy tropical savannah with paperbark and eucalypt forests that become vast wetlands in the northern wet season from November to April.