Gulf Country - Cape York Peninsula
|Cape York Peninsula - Quick Facts|
The trek from Lakeland to Cape York is around 700km. Lakeland is around 240km north of Cairns.
Coen to Bamaga turnoff
Bamaga turnoff to Weipa
Bamaga turnoff to Southern Bypass intersection
Southern Bypass intersection to Bamaga via the Telegraph Track
North of Bamaga
Lakeland to Cape York (743km)
This is one of the great treks, largely following the tracks established by builders of the Overland Telegraph Track in the 1880s. Meandering across the tip of the Great Dividing Range, the route encompasses wild and rugged country with tropical forests, spectacular waterways and relics of Aboriginal and European history. It is an amazing and eye-opening journey, but not one to be undertaken lightly.
Forget about tackling the track during the wet season as it's just about impossible to get through. You can get as far as Coen in a conventional vehicle between May and November and possibly even to Weipa with care, providing the wet season hasn't started early or been prolonged and you don't mind the corrugations (which are severe). North of Coen, the route to the tip is positively 4WD only and you'll need to be experienced in four-wheel-driving and creek crossings to do it.
You no longer need specific permits to camp or to travel through land belonging to the Injinoo people; it is included in the Jardine Ferry fee.
Something you should take into consideration are snakes and estuarine or saltwater crocodiles, omnipresent throughout the peninsula.
Take care when walking through creek crossings and camping near watercourses, heed any signs and be especially wary when it comes to swimming! Crocs are particularly attracted to dogs, something to remember if you're travelling with one. On that subject, note that dogs are not allowed in national parks on Cape York Peninsula.
Conditions on the peninsula change from season to season -you should always do your homework before you go to get an update on the latest conditions and carry good maps with you. The severity of the corrugations and creek crossings varies with the seasons but they will always be something to contend with. This trek is unsuitable for people with little or no four-wheel-driving experience - it is an arduous trip, requires a vehicle in top condition and if not prepared for it, you could easily find yourself stranded, in extreme difficulty or in a life-threatening situation.
Lakeland to Coen (298km)
From Lakeland, you can either head north-east to Cooktown or take the Peninsula Developmental Road, which strikes out north-west in the direction of Laura. Lakeland is a tiny place, with facilities including a hotel/motel, caravan park and a roadhouse offering leaded, unleaded and diesel fuel as well as basic mechanical repairs. The Peninsula Road from Lakeland features bumps and potholes and can be dusty when dry. Although not recommended, you can take a caravan as far as Laura, 64km from Lakeland, where the road becomes sandy and corrugated, but no further.
About 10km south of Laura lies Split Rock, one of a series of natural galleries of Aboriginal Quinkan art that is unique to the Cape York area. Detailed information, permission to enter the galleries, maps for a self-guided tour or organised tours are available from the rangers at the Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation in Laura.
Laura is a three dog town - on a sunny afternoon, the local mutts gather outside the Quinkan Hotel for a pat and a belly rub. Here you'll find such facilities as a caravan park, fuel, limited mechanical repairs, a police station, post office and a general store.
Leaving Laura, you can head east to Cooktown or north to Lakefield National Park, rejoining the Peninsula Road at Musgrave Homestead. This is a fascinating alternative to the main route, taking you through superb riverlands, lagoons and woodlands that teem with wildlife - you'll see brolgas, jabiru and sarus cranes if you're lucky and plenty of smaller birds as well. Old Laura Homestead is particularly worth a look for a realisation of how harsh life on the peninsula can be. There are some great places to camp along the way; for permission to camp and detailed information on the park, contact the ranger stations at Lakefield, New Laura and Bizant. There are no fuel or food facilities within Lakefield.
From Laura, the Peninsula Road runs fairly straight through open woodland studded with termite mounds and can be rough with ruts, grids and corrugations. Many of the watercourses are dry in the high season and some provide good camping spots. The Hann River Roadhouse, 76km north of Laura, has fuel, meals, supplies, showers, laundry facilities and a camping area near the Hann River. You can also find basic facilities at Mary Valley, a cattle station 26km further north.
Heading north again, once you cross the Morehead River it's 34km to Musgrave Station Roadhouse. An old telegraph station, built in 1886 as part of the Overland Telegraph Line and converted to a homestead during the 1920s, today Musgrave offers fuel, meals, amenities, an airstrip, limited accommodation and camping areas. They do a mean lamington here and on a hot day, sitting under the verandah, they really hit the spot. The country around Musgrave offers a couple of diversions. You can turn off to Lakefield National Park here or spend time in some of the local accommodation options - the roadhouse can advise.
Near Bamboo Homestead, the road starts to climb the Great Dividing Range, here just a series of large hills with an average elevation of 250m. The road narrows as its dips and winds along the top of the range and about 80km from Musgrave, veers off to the left to Coen, 27km away. This is a deviation designed to bypass the Stewart River crossings that have caused travellers such headaches in the past. You can still take the old road by turning off to the right but it's much rougher. A further 13km up this track is the turnoff to Port Stewart, where you can go fishing or just take in the treasures of the Great Barrier Reef, and to Silver Plains Homestead, where you can find basic facilities. From the turnoff, it's 16km to Coen.
Coen (population 300) grew out of a goldrush during the 1880s and evidence of mining activity is plentiful around the town. Surviving as a service town for locals and tourists, Coen is the largest settlement on the peninsula after Weipa and it's an interesting place with plenty of facilities for travellers. Every June or July the town also stages the Coen Races, a highlight of the peninsula's social calendar and well worth seeing. If you're after bush campsites, try along the Coen River north of town.
Coen to Bamaga turnoff (117km)
From Coen, the road is formed gravel and pretty good although severely corrugated. In 22km, you'll reach the turnoff to the airport, which was used as a major base for allied forces during World War II, and just past the aerodrome, the turnoff to Mungkan Kaanju National Park. A little further on, a track off to the left will take you through the heart of the park to the Rokeby ranger station. Comprising what was Rokeby and Archer Bend National Parks, Mungkan Kaanju takes in the tract of land between the Archer and Coen Rivers. The 291,000ha park is a relatively pristine wilderness with scenes typical of this part of the peninsula - open woodland, seasonal swamps and lagoons and abundant birdlife. You'll need a permit to camp here, available from the ranger.
At the start of the dry season, the route north of Coen aerodrome is a relatively smooth, sandy track but as the dry continues and tourist traffic intensifies, severe corrugations and ruts form. The Archer River Roadhouse is the next feature and has the usual roadhouse facilities such as fuel, meals, accommodation, a camping area and amenities. There is a memorial to Toots Holzheimer, legendary female truckie of Cape York who died in a loading accident in 1992.
North of the Archer basically offers more of the same scenery but the road is often smoother and less corrugated. There's a turnoff 20km up the track to the Aboriginal communities of Lockhart River and Portland Roads and to Iron Range National Park, a magnificent place covering 34,600ha of which around 17,000ha are rainforest stretching to the palm-fringed beaches of the coast. There are only limited facilities at Lockhart River and none at Portland Roads; camping at Portland Roads is forbidden, but you can pitch a tent at Chili Beach, a windswept but sublime spot in the national park. You'll need a permit to camp from the ranger at the King Park Homestead on the Lockhart River road. It's 30km from the Iron Range turnoff to the Bamaga turnoff (the Telegraph Track) where you can either head west to Weipa or north to Bamaga and Cape York.
Bamaga turnoff to Weipa (143km)
If you decide to head for Weipa, you're looking at about 143km of fair but corrugated gravel road from the Bamaga turnoff. The road is generally kept in good condition for the mining and defence industry traffic.
Situated on Albatross Bay at the mouths of the Mission and Embley Rivers, Weipa is a sizeable town (population 2000) centred on a bauxite mining industry. Many facilities are available here including accommodation, fuel, mechanical repairs, a shopping centre, pool, cinema, hospital, restaurants, hotel and post office. The camping ground acts as the local tourist centre and can organise fishing safaris and tours of the town and bauxite mine. The best sunsets on the peninsula occur here, where the sun turns into an enormous red ball and drops delicately into the sea. This has to be seen to be believed.
When the time comes to tear yourself away and set out for the Cape, you won't have to double back all the way to the Bamaga turnoff. About 70km out of town on the Peninsula Road heading east, a track leads off to the left; take this and it's only 40km to Batavia Downs Homestead (no facilities). This shortcut knocks about 80km off the trip and the going isn't too bad.
Bamaga turnoff to Southern Bypass intersection (115km)
This part of the trip features many creek crossings, usually dry and dusty but severe after rain and you should be careful - they can appear suddenly and are large and deep. The corrugations get worse (if that's possible!) around the Batavia Downs airstrip; the back road to Weipa runs off to the left; Frenchmans Road opposite leads to Iron Range National Park, Lockhart River and Portland Roads.
The Moreton Telegraph Station is 24km from Batavia Downs on the northern banks of the Wenlock River, a popular place to stop and spend some time and particularly fine for birdwatching. You can camp here or find a bed for the night and can offer information regarding the condition of the river crossing. Supplies and meals are not available.
The Wenlock is one of the peninsula's largest rivers and at the start of the dry season has a lot of water in it, making the crossing difficult. Rocks have been placed on the riverbed to form a makeshift causeway, but it can still be tough going and the current is often strong. Well into the dry season, it should pose few problems.
From Moreton, the track continues in more or less a straight line, passing through open woodland with xanthorrea and zamia palms. After 28km, you'll reach a crossroad where a right turn will take you to Bramwell Station, the most northerly cattle station in Australia. Here you'll find shady grounds with mango and frangipani trees, limited supplies and accommodation by way of cabins and campsites. The road to the left is a private road to Stones Crossing; another turnoff a little further up the track also leads there and provides access to Bertiehaugh Station.
From here, it's about 15km to where the Southern Bypass leaves the Telegraph Track, a good route if you want to avoid the rigours of the creek crossings on the main track. It veers eastwards, with access roads to Shelburne Bay and Heathlands running off it at various intervals. You may wish to save the bypass for the return journey, when the novelty of difficult creek crossings has worn off.
Southern Bypass intersection to Bamaga via the Telegraph Track (221km)
The Telegraph Track follows the course taken by the Overland Telegraph Line, built in 1885-87 to link Brisbane with communities at the top of Australia. Bent steel poles at irregular intervals are all that remain of the telegraph line, which was replaced by modern technology 100 years later. The track, once used to maintain the line, is no longer kept up and has degenerated into a rough 4WD trail that is narrow, winding and slow going. Running through the heart of the peninsula, it embodies the spirit of the entire Cape York trek - this is what it's all about!
Ignore the bypass and continue straight ahead. Once you have negotiated a number of uncomplicated creek crossings, the Dulhunty River (great campsites) comes into view about 30km up the track. Beyond this is Bertie Creek, where you'll need to be careful on the angled approach and potholed bed and be prepared for a scrabble in the sand to get out. Soon you'll enter a signposted quarantine buffer zone, an attempt to stop the spread throughout the peninsula of the spiralling whitefly, and shortly afterwards, a track to the right leads to the Heathlands Ranger Base, headquarters for the ranger at the Jardine River National Park.
This route is useful for a couple of reasons. One is that it provides access to Captain Billy Landing, a stretch of spectacular beach at the edge of the Coral Sea, via a track running off 36km to the right. You'll need written permission from the ranger to take the Captain Billy run and you're not allowed to drive on the beaches once you get there. Pay your camping fees for the national park at Heathlands, itself an interesting place - a 126,000ha reserve that borders the national park and is quite different in character. Originally cleared for use as a cattle station, the unstable sandy soils collapsed under hoof and although improved, the pasture simply couldn't survive and the venture failed. Relics of the station remain. It's a surprisingly open area dominated by low vegetation and the birdlife is splendid.
The other useful aspect of the Heathlands diversion is that it bypasses Gunshot Creek, forming a loop that emerges 2km north of the crossing. Take the detour - the Gunshot crossing is probably the nastiest on the peninsula with a southern bank that is almost vertical. Many a 4WD has ended up on its nose and up to its windscreen in the sludge and muck at the bottom but if you do decide to tackle it, make sure you're carrying a winch for you will more than likely need to use it.
The road is winding, sandy and corrugated after the Gunshot but improves after the Cockatoo Creek crossing, which has sheer, sandy banks and a camping area. The Southern Bypass cuts in up the hill from Sailor Creek - it will take you to Captain Billy Landing - and about 9km past this, a track to the left directs you to the "Bypass Track via Ferry". This is the Northern Bypass Road, which avoids some of the hazardous creek crossings on the old route and offers a vehicular ferry crossing of the Jardine River. It's a practical route, but much less scenic than the Telegraph Track.
The turnoff to Fruit Bat Falls is 200m beyond the bypass and about 2.6km along the Telegraph Track. This is the first of a series of waterfalls occurring between here and the tip and, while you can't camp here, it is definitely worth a visit for a swim in Eliot Creek.
It's 7km from Fruit Bat to the turnoff to Eliot, Indian Head and Twin Falls, some of a series of falls on Eliot and Canal Creeks and another highlight of the peninsula. Camping areas have been set above the banks with new toilet facilities and separate areas for tour groups, and permission to camp is obtainable from the ranger at Heathlands. You can swim here, go liloing, stroll through the bush or just lounge about in a hammock and relax. There is some confusion as to the names of the falls - Indian Head doubles as Eliot and Eliot doubles as the Saucepan - but whatever their true names, they're great to camp beside for a couple of days. Be careful at Indian Head - the flow of Eliot Creek and the drop in the creek bed combine to form what's known as a sieve at the top of the falls. Being swallowed up by this can, and has been fatal.
Between the falls and the Jardine River there are numerous creek crossings, all of them unpredictable. Take your time. You will pass a couple of tracks to the left leading to the Northern Bypass Road and you will need to take one of them to reach the Jardine River Ferry.
You are strongly advised against trying to ford the Jardine at the old crossing. This enormous, swiftly flowing river is 200m wide with an average depth at the peak of the dry season of around a metre. It is a dangerous crossing whose characteristics change from season to season and there are plenty of crocodiles around. If you get bogged halfway, as many have done in the past, you might find the prospect of jumping in the river and winching your vehicle out of trouble somewhat daunting. Some will tell you that you are no longer allowed to ford the river at the old crossing, but at the time of writing this was not the case. You can certainly take a chance with the Jardine crossing but it is at your own risk - you have been warned.
The ferry service operates daily from 8am-5pm during the dry season only. A fee of $88 return for private vehicles (extra $11 for a trailer), $10 for bicycles and $30 for motorcycles covers the ferry crossing (both ways). If you arrive after 5pm, you'll have to pitch your tent and wait until morning - there is a free riverside camping area with tables and good amenities on the southern bank. Diesel and unleaded are available.
Once across the river, you'll be in the Jardine River National Park. Follow the track and bear right at all intersections. You will see a trail to the right leading to Ussher Point on the coast (permit required) and 10km later a T-intersection where you should turn left for Bamaga. Just before the intersection, 100m off the road, lie the ruins of a DC3 that crashed just short of the landing strip during World War II. It has been fenced off and a memorial plaque dedicated to its crew and passengers. These are some of the many remnants of World War II aircraft scattered across the area - Cape York Peninsula witnessed a flurry of wartime activity with the establishment of bases and training grounds. Tired airstrips, aircraft wreckage, rusting radar towers and fuel drums are all that remain. From here, follow the signs for the easy 5km into Bamaga.
Bamaga is an Islander community and the northernmost settlement of any size. Many facilities are on offer here including fuel, accommodation, mechanical repairs, shops, a post office, hospital, banking agencies, an airport and police station. You can't camp in Bamaga but you can camp next to the beach at Seisia, 6km away.
Seisia (pronounced "Say-sia"), while not as big as Bamaga, also offers facilities such as accommodation, fuel, mechanical repairs, food and supplies and it's a pretty spot. You can obtain tourist information, organise trips to Thursday Island and book into a variety of tours and fishing safaris at the campground. You can also arrange scenic flights here from Bamaga to Saibai, Australia's northernmost island- these are excellent value and well worth the cost involved!
From Bamaga, it's a mere 32km to Cape York.
North of Bamaga
The influence of the Jardine family is strong on the peninsula. Frank Jardine was a major force in the area during the mid to late 1800s, through his vast beef holdings and his work as a magistrate and government representative. Ruins of Somerset, one of the family's homesteads, lie north-east of Bamaga. Nothing much is left of it, but it's worth looking at for insight into the European history of the region and the impact of the Jardines on the peninsula.
Lockerbie, once a Jardine holding, is about 16km from Bamaga opposite the turnoff to Punsand Bay. A small shop at this intersection opens during the dry season for cold drinks, souvenirs and the like.
A delightful campground, Loyalty Beach, has been established by the people of New Mapoon and is situated 3km east of Seisia. The camping area is somewhat quieter than Seisia and is managed by the Lennox family, again a very pretty spot.
Punsand Bay is a private resort with long, white beaches, a licensed restaurant, camping areas, cabins and amenities. Like Seisia, it's a very pretty place and lies 11km from Lockerbie along a sandy, often bumpy track. Unfortunately, you can't swim here because of the crocs and sharks, but the beach is great for a stroll at sunset and there's an interesting wreck to poke around at the southern end. Fishing tours and pre-arranged transport to Thursday Island are also available from Punsand Bay.
North of Lockerbie, the track passes through the Lockerbie Scrub, an outstanding example of monsoonal rainforest which you can explore on foot - the Injinoo Handbook has details of a walking trail. Keep going and you'll see a track to the right signposted to Somerset. This is a rewarding detour but by this stage you'll probably want to press on to the Cape, so save it for the return trip. You can camp at Somerset down from the ruins of the homestead on the shores of glorious Albany Passage but you should carry your own water supplies. You'll also find some of the Jardine and associated Vidgen family graves here. This is truly beautiful country.
From the Somerset turnoff, it's 10km to Cape York. Set out on foot through the rainforest and along Frangipani Bay or take the track that runs across Mount Bremer to the tip of Cape York. A sign perched on the rocks will tell you when "you are standing at the northernmost point of the Australian continent".
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Image courtesy of Tourism QLD.
When traveling on secluded roads that are rough and could have flooded creek crossings like the roads in the gulf, it is a good idea to travel with another vehicle if possible. Brenden, Emerald
We got sick of the corrugations and came back down from the tip on a cargo vessel called the Trinity Bay. Visit Sea Swift at the Seisia wharf, or better still, call Sea Swift Cairns and book ahead. You usually need to book ahead for June through August. You could also travel north on the boat, then drive back to Cairns. Carmel, Cairns
Don't expect to be able to stay at the Pajinka Resort on the tip. It has been abandoned. This is a shame as the equipment and facilities just left to rot indicate it had a lot going for it. Derrick, Collaroy
Highlights of our trip to Cape York included: the works burger at Archer Rive Roadhouse, Chilli Beach where the wind always blows and Bramwell Station where we stopped on the way up and back. Wendy the owner was undoubtably one of the nicest people we met on the trip, great food and cold beer. We are going back to the Cape just to stay at Bramwell again. Bruce, San Diego
New owners at Bramwell Station. Station stay is excellent, very friendly. Wenlock River is very shallow and the banks are littered with toilet rubbish. Karen, Brisbane
Take the ferry to Thursday Island for a day trip with a stop at Horn Island for the best lunch on the cape and a most interesting tour of WW2 sites and the museum. Tour leaves from Seisia Wharf. Steven, Wingham
Note the Jardine River Ferry fee is cash only and no ticket is issued. Camping at Bramwell Station is poor, so go on to Morton Telegraph Stn. You can rest here and have a fish. There's also an excellent ramp to service your vehicle at no cost. Steven, Wingham
The Wenlock River crossing has now been replaced with a bridge.Tim, Sydney
Try to avoid the area from November to May, as that's the wet season and many of the roads become impossible to pass. Skye, Cairns
If you get the time, take a helicopter tour from Cape York around the area. It gives you great views and lets you see the different terrain, from water, to forest, to dry vacant land. Megan, Gold Coast
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