Cairns to Cape York Adventure
November 5, 2020 • Kevin Smith
7 min read
Cape York is on the bucket list for so many adventurous 4wders and fishing enthusiasts. Some say it's the last frontier where you can explore to your heart's content. It's been on my to-do list for many years, and after spending a few weeks in the area, it's got me hooked.
While it's true that the journey to the Cape can be hardcore, it doesn't have to be. Getting there and exploring can also be done on a budget, with less gear, by taking the easier routes.
While Cape York might seem a tad far away from Brisbane at 2,600+ kilometres, it's more about the journey than the destination. The last major port of call is Cairns, where nearly every available facility is on hand to stock up and prepare for the trip.
We found that the scenery got a whole lot better as we headed north, where the rainforest meets the sea and offers stunning views in every direction. There's so many spots where you can peel off to explore, and heading along the coast, through Mossman and into the Daintree is pure bliss. This is world heritage listed rainforest, regarded as the best and oldest in the world.
Crossing the Daintree River on the ferry feels like you are going into a different world, where ancient palms and ferns line the road as it winds around steep coastal headlands. A stop over at Cape Tribulation is a must. Pure white sands meet palms on the beach, and the Great Barrier Reef is only miles from shore.
As you head north along the Bloomfield Track for 30km of good dirt road, the scenery only gets better. There are some shallow creek crossings but it's here where you can stop awhile and soak in the pure, fresh water filtering down through the forest.
If the thought of getting your tyres dusty makes you shudder, head inland from Mossman up through Mount Lewis National Park where stunning coastal views can be seen through pockets of vine-choked rainforest. Both roads lead to Cooktown, a place steeped in history, from Captain Cook's landing back in 1770 through to the gold mining areas that this region is known for.
Cooktown is where the real dirt starts however the roads through Lakefield National Park are normally an easy drive. Within Lakefield there are a handful of great camping spots beside waterholes and river, but they must be booked online. CamperMate's maps are handy for planning where to stop and camp.
Crocs and an array of tropical birds can be spotted at most times, just be very croc-wise up here as there are some monsters. The Lakefield road eventually meets up with the Peninsular Developmental Road (PDR) and heads straight north towards the Cape.
Every couple of hours there’s always a roadhouse or cattle station that offers services like fuel, camping and food. Some of these places have been here for over 100 years and are iconic on the way to the tip. The PDR is constantly being maintained and some of the rough sections are being tarred, making travelling here just a little easier. But in saying that the PDR is renowned for miles of corrugations that can make or break the trip.
There are a host of different camping areas along the way, some along the PDR but quite a few a bit further afield. This is where you just need to do a little research and estimate where you’ll be at the end of a day's drive. Looking at the location of campsites on your CamperMate app is a great place to start.
The PDR peels off to the west and heads to Weipa where the dirt continues nearly all the way to town. Weipa is essentially a mining town that was developed by Comalco, but is also a hub for travellers who can relax for a few days and catch up on all things social. Some of the best fishing in the top end is claimed to be around Weipa. The rivers and bays are accessible but a boat makes things easier.
Theres a short-cut road back across to the PDR, now the Telegraph Road, where long straight sections take you closer to the tip, crossing well-known rivers like the Wenlock. One iconic stopover is Bramwell Station. The OTT (Old Telegraph Track) begins here and for some, this is where the real adventure starts.
This track is known all around the world for having some of the hardest 4WD sections and water crossings that at times can be well over the bonnet of a 4WD. The other option is to head up the main road, bypassing the ‘hard stuff’ up through the Jardine River National Park.
When driving the Cape, two must-dos are Fruit Bat Falls and Twin Falls. These picturesque waterfalls are a welcome place to wash off the dust and to soak for a while.
The falls are along the Old Tele Track (but are sign-posted off the easy route) which follows the original and traditional way to explore the Cape, and for many years this was the only way up. The track was pushed through back in the early 1880s with the construction of a telephone line between Cooktown and the tip. Come 1987 it was partially dismantled but you can still see the odd tele pole still standing.
Both roads lead to the Jardine Ferry which today is the only way across the infamous Jardine River, and your fee includes camping within national parks to the north. The ferry operates on Cape York time, so don’t be in a hurry to cross to the other side. From the ferry it's only an hour to real civilisation and the chance to refuel and restock.
Bamaga in the far north is full of friendly locals, amazing history and the area has some of the best beach camping around. The town's supermarket is the most northerly one in Australia and around town most essential services can be found.
Grab a tourist map at Bamaga and checkout the WW11 plane wrecks. They’re easily accessible for plane buffs, and for anyone interested in our history and just how close an invasion came to our shores. Between Bamaga and the the top of Australia there’s both free and paid campgrounds depending on what you're after.
The road to the iconic tip of Australia passes through a mixture of dry and thick rainforest but also the infamous Croc Tent where Cape York souvenirs can be bought. At the very least you must stop for a quick pic. It's only a stone's throw to the top and a scramble over the rocks for a photo with the famous Cape York sign. A well-earned moment after all the travelling and effort to arrive at this destination.
But the adventure shouldn’t stop here because around the Cape there’s a host camping areas across on the eastern side waiting to be explored, some with ancient Aboriginal art dating back hundreds of years, others with excellent beach fishing.
Solitude is easily found and at many camps it's all about the bliss of sitting under a coconut tree and disconnecting (whether you like it or not, as phone service is very intermittent in the top end).
"Doing” the Cape can be as easy or as hard as you want to make it. While you really don’t need a 4wd to explore the top end it certainly does help with some of the conditions. But we found that the more we delved into history and maps, the more we found.
Cape York has some of the oldest and most fascinating history that Australia can offer. It's hard to put in to so few words and photos what an amazing place it is, how great the locals are and the shared sense of adventure when meeting other travellers. I know that after a month exploring the Cape, we are itching to go back and discover more of what we missed.