This great big chunk of Australia’s north, refreshed every summer when the rivers swell and wipe the Cape clean like a wet rag across a blackboard, is the natural home for adventure. Up here, a 4WD is mandatory if you want the family to see anything more than Development Road dust, and the camping is some of the best on earth.
For those reasons and more, the Cape is almost a place of pilgrimage for Aussie adventurers. Everybody should make the effort to get up there some time in their lives, experience the vast remoteness, the isolated beaches, the amazing fishing and get to the tip of Australia too!
Check your vehicle every day. Have a look at the fluids, give the fan belt, battery brackets and radiator a wiggle, take a look underneath to make sure there's nothing dripping or missing, and carry basic spares, tools, some wire and tape. Remember, even if you can't fix it, the next bloke along the track might be able to.
Modern vehicle reliability and a better road up the middle don’t change the basic fact that the Cape is hard on machinery, and repairs and recoveries aren’t cheap.
Travel with other people if you’re seriously adventuring. One of the basic tricks to travelling is to keep it as light as possible, too.
The Cape, named by Captain Cook after the Duke of York, has a fascinating history and it adds a whole new dimension to the trip if you’re familiar with some of it. The Jardine brothers drove a mob of cattle from Rockhampton — still Queensland’s beef capital — to the top in 1864, becoming the first white men to blaze the trail. The ruins of their dad’s old homestead — John Jardine was the first police magistrate at Somerset (1859) — still stand south-east of the tip.
Twenty years later, the two-wire telegraph punched through the bush in almost a straight line from Laura, and Australia was connected to the world. And that track’s still the one to do!
Even in the Dry, the further north you go the more chance you’ve got of finding water across the track. A Tele Track trip makes water crossings almost mandatory and, while I’ve done it with a tarp wrapped around the bonnet, the best insurance is a good snorkel. Early in the season (May-ish), expect to find more water in all the crossings. Watch Nolans at the end of the TT: it’s softer where it’s shallow!
COMMON SENSE CAMPING
There’s a new pre-booking scheme for camping in parks in Queensland and lots of regulations to be aware of. Fortunately, there’s also a whole lot of common sense up the Cape amongst the QPWS rangers because a lot of them are locals who know the place better than anyone.
So, I’m on a family trip and the last thing I want to do is pull a recovery. I’ve got the 76 Series, which is double E-locked, fat Mickey T’d and super competent... and we get bogged! Yep, that’s the Cape for you. When you’re not looking for adventure, it’ll still bite you on the bum.
This is a place where some good barwork, a winch and decent suspension really pay off. And take quality recovery gear, too.
Try to put some money aside for a flight or helicopter ride and also a day out fishing with someone who knows the area. Seeing the Cape from the sky gives you a whole new concept of how huge and wonderful the place is, and the experience of catching big fish is something you rarely get in Australia’s more populated regions.
Plenty of people think “Cape trip” and fly right past the southernmost areas to get to the Tele Track as soon as possible. Fair enough, but some of the best adventures get missed that way. Palmer River Roadhouse is a great place to stay: ask Andy about some of the tracks nearby. Maytown, an easy drive to the west, was the richest alluvial gold town in Australia in the 1870s and there’s lots to see. The drive from here north, up the old coach road to Laura, is a fair dinkum 4WD adventure that needs experience and a few mates to tackle.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT TYRES
A successful Cape trip is all about tyres. The distances, the heat, the corrugations and the sharp stakes from dry season burn-offs take their toll. There’s a bit of luck involved but good tyres, a second spare, a tyre repair kit and a compressor make for great insurance. Most of the roadhouses make a decent quid out of stocking a few second-hand tyres, which pretty much says it all.
Having said that, I’ve had about 10 flats in 40 years and most of those were on motorbikes. Coopers have usually been my choice for their stiff sidewall construction, which means you can run lower pressures (25psi) safely on the tracks for more comfort, better traction and less chance of punctures.
Good mates make the trip. Seriously, know the people you’re planning to travel with well because the Cape is guaranteed to expose personality flaws bigger than the potholes after wet season. Some people want to rigidly stick to the plan, while others don’t like sharing. I travelled with a bloke who lectured every night on religion until we lost him, err, totally by accident.
Relax and be patient because there’s always one in every group. And if you don’t know who it is, then get worried because it might be you!
The Cape is not a good place to prang — up here if you get it wrong, you’ll really pay for the privilege. Don’t drink and drive and pay particular attention to the local grog rules around small communities because they’re serious about enforcing them. It’s not always easy to understand local rules, especially from a distance, so take time out to talk to the locals and fellow travellers along the way.
Check out the full feature in issue #91 August 2015 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine.