Road trip: Cairns to Cape York

Beach Lockhart River Cairns to Cape York my nrma road trips
Beach Lockhart River Cairns to Cape York my nrma road trips
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It’s long way to the top – more than 1000km from Cairns straight to Pajinka, the traditional name for the northernmost point of mainland Australia at the top of the Cape York Peninsula – but it’s a blockbuster of a road trip through a wild and remote landscape.

Although the Peninsula Developmental Road (PDR) is being progressively sealed, you’ll still need a four wheel drive if you want to explore the national parks with their bird filled wetlands and rainforest, waterfalls and beaches – or tackle the infamously tough Old Telegraph Track with its steep and slippery water crossings. Whatever road you take, driving to The Tip is an adventure like no other.

Image credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Day 1: Cairns to Cooktown

6hr | 244km

Stop 1: See the sights of the Daintree

Kick off your road trip winding your way along one of the country’s most scenic seaside drives – the Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Port Douglas. Stretch your legs on a Dreamtime Walk with an Aboriginal guide in Mossman Gorge, take a crocodile watching cruise along the Daintree River or stroll the boardwalks through Daintree Rainforest, which flanks the beach at Cape Tribulation.

Mossman Gorge Cairns to Cape York my nrma road trips
Mossman Gorge (Photo credit: Tourism and Events Queensland)

Day 2: Cooktown to Laura

2hr | 175km

Stop 1: See rock art galleries in Laura

Laura is home to some of the most impressive rock art galleries in Queensland. Known as Quinkans, the strange long limbed spirits depicted on the many rocky overhangs around town are said to come out and frighten people at night. The displays at the Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre tell the story, and you can see them for yourself at Split Rock just a few kilometres east of town. Spend some time exploring Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park. Vast and untamed with fish filled rivers, lily covered billabongs and thousands of birds, it’s Queensland’s Kakadu. Keen to settle down for the night? There are basic rooms at the Quinkan Hotel in Laura, or set up camp beside Old Laura Homestead in Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park.

Day 3: Laura to Coen

5hr | 220km

Stop 1: Dine at a roadhouse

There are good lunch stops on the drive north to Coen, an old Overland Telegraph Repeater Station roughly halfway to The Tip. Drop into Hann River or Musgrave roadhouses, where you can chat with fellow travellers about the latest road conditions.

Stop 2: Step back in time in Coen

Coen Heritage House has some interesting historical displays, although the most photographed (and visited) building in town is the Exchange Hotel – local legend has it that the “S” affixed to the rooftop sign was put up as a dare back in the 1970s, and every time the publican removed it, it would mysteriously appear again overnight. The hotel has motel style rooms and cabins, or you could set up camp on a pretty bend of the Coen River on the outskirts of town.

Day 4: Coen to Lockhart River

6hr | 210km

Stop 1: Visit Portland Roads

Take a detour out to the eastern side of the peninsula though the largest remaining area of lowland rainforest in Australia. The beaches here are beautiful – all fine white sand flanked by leaning coconut palms – and the Out of the Blue Cafe in the tiny seaside community of Portland Roads makes a good spot for lunch.

Peninsula Cairns to Cape York my nrma road trips
Peninsula (Photo credit: Tourism and Events Queensland)
Stop 2: Buy Indigenous art in Lockhart River

If you’re in the market for unique souvenirs, browse the gallery at the Lockhart River Art Centre. Camp beside the sea on beautiful Chilli Beach or go for something more comfy at the Iron Range Cabins beside the historic aerodrome at Lockhart River.

Lockhart River Cairns to Cape York my nrma road trips
Lockhart River (Photo credit: Tourism and Events Queensland)

Day 5: Lockhart River to Bramwell Station

6hr | 154km

Stop 1: See the old Moreton Telegraph Station

Retrace your tracks back to the PDR, and head north on the Telegraph Road, stopping at the Old Moreton Telegraph Station beside the Wenlock River. Built in 1887, the original fort like structure featured turrets with gun ports to help defend the telegraph line in the event of attack from local Aborigines. Today it’s a great spot to stretch the legs and try your luck fishing for barramundi.

Day 6: Bramwell Station to Bamaga

6hr | 212km

Stop 1: Make a splash at Fruit Bat Falls

If you fancy some adrenalin fuelled four wheel drive thrills, take the Old Telegraph Track (OTT), although you’ll need a winch, snorkel and recovery gear and should be prepared to get stuck at least a couple of times – some creek crossings, like the legendary Gunshot with its near vertical drop, almost always take a couple of goes to get through. An easier option is the Bypass Road, which is still dusty and corrugated and a lot of fun. Don’t miss the chance to cool off in one of the few crocodile free swimming spots on the cape at Fruit Bat Falls.

Stop 2: Enjoy a rest at Balmaga

Once you take the ferry across the Jardine River you are technically in “The Tip”. Bamaga is the main town at the top, although The Tip is actually five communities, all just a couple of kilometres apart. Take a rest at Cape York Peninsula located in the heart of Bamaga. It offers a choice of rooms including suites, deluxe rooms and studios.

Day 7: The Tip

1hr | 35km

Stop 1: Stand at the northernmost point of the continent

It will take around an hour to drive the sandy track to The Tip, and then it’s a 20 minute walk from the beach to reach the spot with the iconic sign that says, “You are now standing at the northernmost point of the Australian Continent”. But it’s a selfie you have to take. The Tip is rich in history, with wrecked WWII planes rusting away in Lockerbie Scrub, old radar installations at Mutee Head and even older cannons and historic graves at the ruins of Somerset, the earliest – and for a long time, only – European settlement on the cape. Drop a fishing line off the wharf at Seisia and raise a glass to an epic adventure while you watch the sun slip into the sea from the beachside bar on Loyalty Beach, where there’s also a camping ground.

Northernmost Point Cairns to Cape York my nrma road trips
Northernmost point of the continent (Photo credit: Tourism and Events Queensland)


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