It was time for us to hit the road again and head off on our Cape York adventure! We had been travelling north for a bit over 2 months and we were finally on our way to ‘AUSTRALIA’S NORTHERN MOST TIP’
The area north of Cooktown is known as the Cape York Peninsula and at the very top is the ‘Tip’… and this, along with the ‘Old Telegraph Track’ were on the top of our ‘bucket-list’ of places to explore!
This untouched piece of Australia is apparently very beautiful; magical, vast and rugged… but potentially very dangerous, and we knew it wasn’t a matter of simply pointing Harry Hilux north to the ‘Tip’… we would have to work at it!
For this reason it was very important we were well prepared, our vehicle had all the offroad gear and we were up for the challenge before embarking on an adventure of corrugated roads and rough tracks!
This peninsula is bordered on three sides by water; to the North is Torres Strait, to the East, the Coral Sea and to the West, the Gulf of Carpentaria and the unofficial southern boundary runs a short distance south of Lakeland.
The population up here is sparse with the main settlements at Lakeland, Laura, Coen, Weipa and Bamaga with the only other services for locals and tourists at a number of roadhouses along the way selling basic supplies, fuel and takeaways. There are roadhouses at Hann River, Musgrave, Archer River, Moreton Telegraph Station and Bramwell Junction and outside of these areas mobile phone coverage, at best, is limited and in most places, non-existent… so for most of this trip we would be living the life of the Cape Yorker’s and relying on someone on the road or the track to offer a helping hand if need be!
We were travelling in convoy with a lovely couple from New Zealand we had met at Cooktown. Originally travelling on motorbikes, they had hired a landrover to tackle the Cape and we would spend the next week with them travelling to the ‘Tip’.
Our original plan had been to travel Battlecamp Road first up, but as Louise and Jeremy had only hired the 4WD for a week, and as we weren’t too sure of the condition of the the road, we decided to head straight to the top… and for us, with plenty of time to spare, we could take our time checking the tracks we hadn’t tested on the way back down and do the round trip back across Battlecamp Road to Hope Vale, Elim Beach, then back to Cooktown.
Leaving Cooktown we crossed the Little Annan River Gorge, passed Black Mountain and the turnoff to the coastal road and the Bloomfield Track we had come in on, then a bit over 74 kilometres after leaving Cooktown, we came to Lakeland, just a small township where there was really nothing much to see, only banana plantations!
Lakeland, sits on the crossroads of the Peninsula Development Road and the Mulligan Highway in the Laura River Valley, a basin, which was formed by volcanic activity, so consequently we were surrounded by beautiful fertile volcanic soils, just perfect for farming. Interestingly enough, the actual name of this town is Lakeland Downs and it was named after Billy Lakeland, a pioneer prospector who found some gold and wolfram in the area around the Rocky and Pascoe Rivers.
Continuing on there was barely a car in sight, or a person for that matter as we approached Laura. This little town was pretty much just a fuel stop, a general store come post office, a hotel and a local school and only about 80 people call Laura home!
It owes it existence to gold and apparently in its day, was a pretty lively little town with a telegraph station, post office, shops and hotels and the Quinkan Hotel, the original Peninsula pub that has since burned down but once served hearty meals for travellers boarding the train for Cooktown. It was here that the building of the Cooktown – Laura railway line stopped when gold and funds ran out. The remainder of the trip to Maytown (once the main township on the Palmer River goldfields that is now a ghost town), was by a coach along what today is known as the Old Coach Road.
It is also home to one of Australia’s oldest surviving homesteads on what was once a cattle station running about eight thousand head of cattle and providing beef for the hungry miners, but the biggest attraction today is the Quinkan Ancient Rock Art Trail .
The Laura River Valley is well known as the heart of ‘Quinkan Country’, where a visit to the art trail in the escarpment country around the town is a must. These 13,000 year old Quinkan Aboriginal rock paintings at Split Rock are one of the top 10 rock art sites in the world and when you see them, you’ll know why.
Laura is also where the traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘Dance Festival’ is held. Every odd year at the sacred bora ground (ceremony site) families meet kin, new and old, and pass on their ancestors’ rich history, with this month (June) being the next great gathering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people from across the Cape.
After a short stop at Laura to fill up with fuel and deflate our tyres to travel the Cape York dirt roads we turned off onto the Endeavour Battlecamp Road heading for Lakefield (Rinyirru) National Park. This meant we would bypass the Hann River Roadhouse, further up the Peninsula Development Track and exit the Lakelands Road at Musgrave Roadhouse. Just a little north of Laura are the crossroads of the Peninsula Development Track and the southern entrance to Lakefield (Rinyirru) National Park. Endeavour Battlecamp Road would take us through to a turnoff to Lakefield Road, just a bit before the Old Laura Homestead. Endeavour Battlecamp Road then continues on to Battle Camp Road, a road we would travel on our return journey.
The roads up and around the Cape are very corrugated and at times very sandy and we knew the air pressure we ran in our tyres was very important. Ideally, when on sandy and rocky terrain they should be much lower than for normal bitumen and for us the magic figure was 24PSI on the front and the rear, which proved to be just right… for safety as well as fuel economy!
A bit over an hour later we turned left just before Old Laura Homestead and continued along the rough road through the heart of Lakefield (Rinyirru) National Park. This beautiful park was full of birdlife, animal life, the odd brown snake that crossed the road, a number of campsites including the very popular Kalpowar on the Normanby River and two beautiful lagoons; White Lily Lagoon and Red Lily Lagoon where we stopped to take photos, take in the view and listen to a symphony of birds singing.
The wetlands here in Lakefield (Rinyirru) National Park are compared to the great Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory and certainly a bird watcher’s paradise… the lagoons were alive with brolgas, magpie geese and the black neck stork, to name a few!
Further north was the turnoff to Breeza and Breeza Plains, the site of an old mustering camp. Breeza Station was originally used to breed horses for the Palmer Goldfields. With the decline of the gold rush, horse breeding gave way to cattle breeding in the 1890s and after 23 years of harsh and difficult living, the family who ran the station abandoned the property. It was then used as a mustering outstation and a stopover point for the early pack-horse mail on route to Coen. All that is left today are remnant buildings, cattle yards and 100-year-old mango trees to mark the site.
Further afield we came to the seemingly endless Nifold Plains and dozens, upon dozens, upon dozens of termite mounds for as far as the eye can see, in all shapes and sizes… then we rejoined the PDR at the Musgrave Roadhouse.
Musgrave was originally an Overland Telegraph repeater station in 1887 and had gun turrets (since removed) on diagonal corners to resist attacks by Aboriginals. The Aboriginals also climbed the poles to steal the insulators and used them for spear heads.
It had been a long first day of travelling from Cooktown to Musgrave, mostly on very corrugated, bone shaking, dusty roads … and it was a welcome sight when we turned into Musgrave Roadhouse. Musgrave had great facilities; fuel, hot showers, a nice grassy camp area to pitch our rooftop tent and even an air strip.
We shared our evening with lovely travelling companions and heaps of other happy campers, either starting or finishing their adventure and all keen to share information about the roads and best spots to camp and it was all we needed to finish a great day! That night we fell asleep under a beautiful, clear sky full of stars and woke the next day to the most amazing sunrise in the big Cape York morning sky.
Leaving Musgrave on the dusty red corrugated road the next morning we travelled on to Coen and as we travelled, the road became more spectacular as we climbed the Bamboo Range to the top of the Great Dividing Range, with signs telling us it was a 270 metre climb. At the top we were privy to a few good views before the road descended again and we crossed into more hilly country. About half way between Musgrave and Coen we crossed Lukin River and passed the turnoff to Kendall River Road and the Port Stewart Area but with these not on our agenda, we continued on to Coen.
Coen was a small town with a grocery shop and basic services. We didn’t stop for much more than a quick look around and as we weren’t heading into Weipa, it was the last place to stock up for the Old Telegraph Track and the rest of the road to Bamaga… and we certainly put a smile on the store owners face… probably the first for the day when I asked if they were joking about the Coen bats! We were told by some overseas travellers at Musgrave Roadhouse campground (heading in the same direction), that they were told Coen was famous for bats and I might say I was a bit sceptical to say the least and my first thought was someone was joking with them about ‘Fruit Bat Falls’… and it appears I was right when the local store owner looked at me as if I was bats and said… ‘bats in Coen – you have got to be joking, but we do have a few batty tourists passing through!’
Coen was found when the first prospectors came to the area in the 1870s, though they soon left for the larger findings further south around Palmer River. In 1883 a bigger boom came to the town when new deposits of gold were found and the Great Northern Mine was established. This mine closed in 1916 but Coen still survived thanks to new discoveries of gold in the 1920s. In 1943 the town was destroyed by a tropiical cyclone and had to be rebuilt and the Old Telegraph Line that had opened just east of the town in the late 1800s was moved into town in 1950. Until Weipa was built in early 1960s, Coen was the largest town this far up on the Cape York Peninsular… but just an indication of how isolated it was here on the Cape; the power supply didn’t come to this town until 1979 and telephone and television only came 1982.
Around 25 kilometres further along the road we came to the Coen Quarantine Station and Information Centre. A free information pack was available here, containing all sorts of info from accommodation, plant diseases and general tourist info on the whole Cape area. Fruit and veg must be surrendered here when heading south, so we didn’t need to do anything on the way up, but we would have to stop and dispose of any we were carrying on the way back, they especially targetted mangoes and bananas incase they are hiding the red banded caterpillar.
The Peninsula Development Road was an interesting road to travel and varied from a well-formed wide gravel road, which old farts like us could travel along at 80 kph, to some very ordinary, sandy, corrugated stretches where our maximum speed was no more than 40 kph… then out of the blue the road had the occasional long stretch of bitumen and a safer stretch of road where we could at last glean some visibility from the cloudy sea of dust left behind as some crazy 4WDers roared past.
It was certainly not the most interesting of drives on this stretch of road so our trip was accompanied by another talking book by Len Beadell, having now finished his first and second books, we were on our third, ‘Too Long in the Bush’.
The Archer River, further up the road, consisted of a roadhouse and a river and their famous Archer hamburger and was a nice place to break our journey. Set along side the picturesque Archer River it was certainly a popular stop over for most travellers.
Turning off the Peninsula Development Road onto Portland Roads Road 35 kilometres further north of the roadhouse we drove another 97 kilometres along a well-formed gravel road into Iron Range National Park.
Our first port of call was a visit to the ranger staion just down the Lockhart River Road to book a site at Chili Beach where, after great difficulty with an online booking, the ranger finally rang through to Brisbane to secure for us the only site available which, lucky for us, was big enough to cater for our two 4WDs and our rooftop tent.
From the ranger station turnoff to Chili Beach we were told the track was a bit rough and just 16 kilometres into the scenic national park we came to the pumping Wenlock River crossing and our first deep crossing, which actually turned out to be an easy path as we followed the rocky bottom along the shallower sides.
With that crossing under our belt we continued on and 34 kilometres further down the track we came to the Pascoe River crossing. This long, wide, sandy, bottom crossing was a little fast too, but with a little momentum we were soon across and continuing our drive through the incredibly scenic ranges.
It had started to drizzle as we neared Mt Tozar lookout but we still had stunning views of Mt Tozar shrouded in mist providing an amazing backdrop for a photo.
This national park contains the largest area of lowland rainforest left in Australia, which is the remnant from the time there was a land bridge between Cape York and Papua New Guinea. The cuscus, palm cockatoos, eclectus parrots and green tree pythons that remain in this pocket of rainforest are only found on Cape York and Papua New Guinea. This was cassawary country again too, and we had been reading signs since leaving the rangers station, warning us to be cautious of this allusive creature; but we were still yet to see one, and I was really beginning to doubt they even existed!
As we drove on through the lush, wet rain forest, through woodland, then hinterland that soon turned into open forest we passed Rainforest, Cooks Hut and Gordon Creek camping areas then a further 17 kilometres past Gordon Creek and another shallow creek crossing we came to a turn-off, where in one direction the track led to Portlands Roads and the other track to Chili Beach, a further 6 kilometres on.
We camped two nights at Chili Beach and it was a beautiful beach but with one downside, it was more often than not windy, and our campsite was right on the beach. The ranger told us there are only 6 weeks of the year when it was not windy and that is when he takes his holidays.
As all the sheltered sites were taken we ended up on a very exposed, but very beautiful site just back from the beach, being buffeted by the southeasterly trade winds that blew pretty strong for the whole of our stay.
As soon as we had set up camp we strolled a few steps onto the beach, which appeared to be deserted as far as the eye could see, although we knew there were others here as we had seen a few 4WD’s. Most of the sites were mini-sanctuaries, hidden behind swaying palms right beside the beach and aside from these campsites, there was nothing but the elements and a long white beach littered with rubbish. That night we fell asleep to the sound of the wind whipping through the palms, intermittent showers of rain on our rooftop tent and the sea pounding the shore.
‘One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.’
It’s the people you meet travelling who shine a light on the places you are visiting and it is these people who give you a far better insight into places to visit and sights to see, than any guide book. Whether it’s someone you spend a day with, share a meal with or meet for 10 minutes you will always remember them clearly as an aspect of your travel experience.
I love to think back on the people I’ve met while traveling and I would like to welcome Marilla and Dick to our blog and the Outback Tour Guides, Jess and Gary and their lovely children. Thank you so much for sharing the Northern Territory and Western Australian ‘must see’ sights with us, we really enjoyed your company!
We had read of Chili Beach collecting so much rubbish and it certainly was a very untidy beach, but this only seemed to add to its character. The beach itself was very scenic with palms trees and rainforest bordering on white sand… and litter everywhere at the northern end where the ocean currents deposited it all. Apparently this rubbish washes ashore from as far away as Vanuatu and the Philippines and it did make for interesting beach combing with all sorts of containers, bottles and even an intact light bulb that had surprising survived the strong surf and wind… how long it had been swimming was anyones guess!
Some people, including ourselves had lots of fun with some of the debris adding to the many totems made up of old thongs or old bottles and in our own small way we helped to clean up the beach after reading signs in the toilet asking visitors to help stack the rubbish above the high tide mark. Apparently every August the national parks guys organise a volunteer working bee to clean up the beach… but the rubbish always comes back!
It was such a remote place that we felt like we were on our own desert island surrounded by thick groves of coconut palms and a beautiful beach! A setting that can only be described as a true paradise, symbolizing the laid-back lifestyle of the tropics and offering the promise of long lazy days spent swinging in hammocks, sipping a cool drink, and gazing out at the azure waters of the Coral Sea.
That is until a ‘lovely bunch of coconuts 🎶🎶‘ drop to the ground. Swaying coconut trees can easily drop their harvest but in this case some very skilled arborists spent the windy days we were at Chili Beach scaling the palms to cut the coconuts down before they fell on some unsuspecting tourist… and I must say we had a lovely feed of coconuts. Louise and Jeremy were well adept at cracking a coconut from their time on Vanuatu!
Apparently coconut palms are one of hundreds of thriving plant species introduced to Australia since British settlement in 1788 and were first planted here by 19th-century pioneers and later spread along the remote coastline of northern Queensland by postwar settlers and, in the 1970s, bands of hippies.
Aside from all the rubbish and the fact we couldn’t swim because of crocs and the wind blew constantly, we really loved Chili Beach but all good things must come to an end and it was time to hit the road again!
Just one thing to remember here, campers must be self-sufficient here as the only facilities provided are toilets at Chili Beach and Cooks Hut camping areas and there is no fresh water available in the park
Reluctantly leaving Chili Beach we headed back towards Portlands Roads, a lovely, quiet fishing village with all of about 10 homes and a lovely cafe, and was once home to a substantial WWII jetty… it was also a lot more sheltered around the point from Chili Beach.
Off shore from here was what has always been known as Australia’s best kept secret… Restoration Island…
… a tiny island that has never been named on a map, not even the HEMA map, and although it was almost swimming distance from the mainland it is the deserted island you see in documentaries around the world with Dave the only inhabitant… a very long term caretaker who you can only imagine is a recluse who survives on coconuts. Restoration Island was where Captain William Bligh and 18 loyal crew members landed in 1789 following the mutiny on the Bounty.
Lockhart River was next on the track. 40 kilometres southwest of Portland Roads on the way back out of the National Park is a small aboriginal community and the largest township in the area with around 600 people. We didn’t drive into Lockhart River but Louise and Jeremy did, to top up with fuel and visit the art gallery. Other main attractions here were the Iron Range Airfield, built during WWII and Quintel Beach with its famous granite rock formations, but be warned taking photos in this area is prohibited and like many other Aboriginal Communities in Cape York there are strict alcohol restrictions in place also. While we were allowed to carry alcohol along the road to Chili Beach, Portlands Roads and through the Iron Range National Park with a ‘bonafide’ traveller exception, taking alcohol to Lockhart River was totally banned and heavy penalties applied.
You can find out more information on what is allowed and alcohol possession limits at the Qld Government website https://www.datsip.qld.gov.au/programs-initiatives/community-alcohol-limits/northern-peninsula-area
Our trip back out to the Peninsula Development Road was again accompanied by our talking book, by Len Beadell, then back on the main road as red dust kicked up from our tyres on the sandy road, we bypassed Moreton Telegraph Station and headed straight to Bramwell Junction… and the start of the Old Telegraph Track, affectionately known as the ‘Old Tele Track’, the ‘Tele’ and the ‘OTT’!
The OTT started as a track through the dense forest of Cape York in 1885 and followed the path of the telegraph wires north, which was for many years the only means of communication between the residents of these remote areas and Cooktown.
The first car ever to travel from Cooktown to the ‘Tip’ of Cape York was a 7HP baby Austin owned and driven by two intrepid New Zealanders in 1928. It took them two months to travel what was then called the ‘goat’ track and they floated the car across the rivers including the crocodile infested Jardine. Just a bit different from the cars of today… we now have high clearance 4WDs with all the recovery gear – winches, Max Trax, offroad tyres, compressors…you name it we have it!
At Bramwell Junction Roadhouse we joined dozens of 4WDs, trailers and a few caravans (those brave enough to tackle the Cape road), all similarly covered with a coat of red dust. It was hot and everybody who could, had parked under what little shade was available while others filled their tanks with Cape York’s famous ‘high cost’ diesel!
As we waited I couldn’t resist a photo opportunity at the very impressive termite mounds, which surround Bramwell Junction. Some of the tallest mounds in Australia can be up to six metres high and they belong to Cathedral Termites like the ones here at the junction.
This wasn’t the first place we had seen them on the Cape, there were lots in Lakefield National Park, on the road into Iron Range National Park, Lockhart River and the Portlands Road and also along the Peninsula Development Road in places. They are an important part of tropical ecosystems, forming soils and recycling nutrients.
From Bramwell Junction our plan was to follow the Peninsula Development Road to the ‘The Tip’ and detour to sections of the OTT on the way back down.
For those who don’t want to give their vehicles a workout on the old track, they can continue following the Peninsula Development Road along 172 kilometres of fairly corrugated road, with red dust, dips and bulldust, similar to what we have already been on, and how bad depends on the time of year and when it was last graded.
The Southern Bypass is the first section of the old track that starts just north of Bramwell Junction and ends just south of Fruit Bat Falls. The Northern Bypass Road starts just north of Fruit Bat Falls and ends at the Jardine River Ferry Crossing. This is all that is left of the original track used to construct the telegraph line and covers a distance of 150 kilometres… and the track all the 4WD drive enthusiasts are itching to tackle, the ruggedness of a remote dirt track, creek crossings and the chance to really see what their vehicles are capable of.
Just 3 kilometres north of Bramwell Station is where this serious Cape York four-wheel driving action commences with the first real test at Palm Creek, so of course we popped in to see what all the fuss was about, and I couldn’t resist a photo of our car parked at the beginning of the track.
Photos over, it was time to head on and leaving Bramwell Junction behind we continued on the dusty Peninsular Development Road, more excited than ever to attempt some of the crossings, and it was only 100 kilometres up the road after we turned onto the OTT that leads to Fruit Bat and Eliot Falls that we joined in with the excitement and fun!
Fruit Bat Falls was absolutely beautiful and the perfect place for a cool dip before heading on… and then our real adventure began!
On the track between Fruit Bat and Eliot/Twin Falls is the Scrubby Creek crossing, which can be so deep it might be just about the best reason you should have a snorkel on your vehicle… and we chose to do it! Or rather ‘Swampy’ convinced us to do it!.
Since 2010 this crossing has gradually become a lot worse and is now one of the more serious crossing with some of the deepest water levels on the track… this was a significant water crossing with some deep holes and some rock ledges and in places a very soft bottom!
There were cars lined up behind us and a couple in front all contemplating the cross when all of a sudden a loud voice called from the front, ‘let’s wait for Swampy, he’ll know what to do’, and then of course when Swampy arrived and wizzed past us to the front, we all knew who he was… he had his name written all over this car!
We had already walked across to the other side to assess the situation and then Swampy walked it again, very cautious I might add of any crocs that may lurk in these murky waters!
Relucant to wait for the ok, his very skilled wife made a quick entrance into the depths in their 4WD, then a very quick exit out the way she went it. The cars behind chose to turn around and head back the way they had come… and the ones in front, Swampy’s crew, were full steam ahead with us in tow.
In the end it was too deep and the bottom too soft for us to go straight through so we all decided on the ‘Chicken Track’, which was not a whole lot better. The entrance was a bit rocky and steep and when we hit the water I have to admit, I was a bit edgy, but Harry Hilux drove us through without a hiccup and pulled us up the other side without a hitch… and even though it was a little deeper than we were expecting ,and a bit of a challenging crossing, in the end, with lots of encouragement from Swampy and his crew, it didn’t pose a problem at all, for us or our NZ friends!
Our amazing water crossing didn’t go unrecorded or so we thought. Louise filmed it all on the GoPro, but unfortunately we still have no photos to this day of this event as… she filmed the palm of her hand! Our first serious water crossing on the Cape was successful and without damage, and also without proof and has to be one of the highlights of our Cape trip.
After another quick swim at the beautiful Eliot Falls and a walk along the boardwalk to Twin Falls, we hopped back in the car in readiness to tackle another creek crossing.
Canal Creek, wasn’t too difficult or deep but it did have an uneven bottom and we did have to navigate a safe passage through. It was then a steep, heavily eroded exit and we were so thankful we had a UHF radio and Swampy and his crew close by, just in case we might need them!
We had considered camping on the banks of Canal Creek but it was a little crowded and very close to the track and to those passing through… and besides, another 9 kilometres down the track was another water crossing and a bit more excitement. Crossing Sams Creek was a bit like Canal Creek, with an uneven bottom, and again a tricky entry and a steep, slippery exit but we all made it through without a problem. This was where we farewelled Swampy and his crew, they were heading back to Bramwell Station… and as it was getting on dark, we decided to pull over and set up camp for the night.
The naturally formed shallow and deep pools surrounding us were the perfect swimming spots and there is nothing like a good splash to unwind after a challenging drive so it was straight to the waterhole we had just driven through to freshen up… and if you get lucky like we did, you may even get them all to yourself to enjoy!
Australians are a wonderfully inventive mob when it comes to nicknames and most are based on physical appearance but the best would reflect what their mates, affectionately see as their shortcomings. Showbags (full of it), Whispers (never shouts) or Pothole (best avoided) and I think Swampy actually lived up to his name… especially when it comes to water crossings! Welcome to our blog Swampy (and your family) and thankyou for your encouragement. I will always remember you saying… ‘You didn’t come all the way from Tassie not to do it’… and we didn’t let these water crossing stop us!
For the rest of the Northern Bypass section of the OTT we could follow the track north towards the Jardine River crossing Mistake Creek, Cannibal Creek, Cypress Creek, Logans Brook and Nolans Brook where all the 4WDs seem to drown, or take a track west out to meet up with the Peninsula Development Road… and although we had entertained the idea of continuing on, it was recommended we take the bypass road as many 4WDs had become stuck on that section of track over the past couple of weeks with quite a few pulled out by the local tow truck operator… and with charges anywhere up to $5000 we decided to take this advise very seriously!
The following morning we exited via the bypass track about 10 kilometres down the track with next following stop, the car ferry on the Southern Banks of the Jardine River.
We arrived aroung mid morning and waited for what seemed hours for the ticket office to open to purchase our ticket ($100 return), for a trip 25 metres across the river. Apparently the staff were on a break and one thing to remember up here is the locals work on ‘Cape Time’… or their own time up north!
Once we crossed the Jardine River we were in the NPA (Northern Peninsular Area), and all of a sudden the red dust ended and the bitumen welcomed us into the communities. Two thousand people make up the entire area of 5 semi nomadic clans here, from Cowal Creek to the ‘Tip’; the Atambaya, Anggamuthi, Yadaigana, Gudang and the Wuthathi people.
The Peninsula country has a mix of Aboriginals, Torres Strait Islanders, Europeans, Japanese, Chinese as well as other backgrounds with many of the Asian people arriving here during the pearling boom.
Originally this land was Injinoo land, that was up until 1947, when a group of Saibai Islanders from the very northern Torres Strait Islands (Australian islands), close to the coast of Papua New Guinea, decided to move to the mainland Australia.
Their first settlement was Mutee Head, which was initially convenient since there was a WWII jetty for their boats, but fresh water wasn’t sufficient enough here, so they decided to move again.
Mugal Elu, one of their representatives, asked the local Injinoo people for a suitable place with freshwater sources and thus they moved to Ichuru (today’s Bamaga) and Red Island Point (today’s Seisis). Bamaga, named after Bamaga Ginau, its founder, became the main settlement and once it was established more Saibai islanders moved to the mainland. Injinoo, Umagico and New Mapoon are now Aboriginal Communities while Bamaga and Seisia are the communities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Injinoo, the first permanent settlement in the NPA, was the first community we passed through. Umagico was the next community and 4 kilometres further on we came to Bamaga, the largest town and the administrative centre of the Northern Peninsula Area where the locals are very friendly and loved to call out greetings and wave as we drove past and when we stopped to pick up supplies they were right there at the car door as we got out! We were definitely the minority ethnic group here. There were lots of Aboriginals but mostly this was a Torres Strait Islander community!
Surprisingly Bamaga is not that old. WWII was already history when this community was founded.
Before Bamaga, Cape York was also an important outpost during WWII and there are still remnants scattered around the area with the two most accessable, the DC-3 and the Beaufort Bomber not far from the airport. Bamaga military airport was built during WWII and called Jackey Jackey Airport, named after Jackey Jackey an Aboriginal friend of Edmund Kennedy and the only survivor of the Kennedy expedition.
After stocking up on groceries and very expensive alcohol we headed out-of-town a short distance to Seisa. Be warned though, if you are planning on purchasing alcohol up here, be prepared to pay for it! Take away alcohol can be purchased from the Bamaga Tavern every day after 12pm except Sundays and we paid $82 for a carton of beer and $35 for a 3 litre wine cask (the only wine you can buy, you can’t buy bottles), and it was definitely the most expensive alcohol we have purchased to date! This bottle shop also cost me the front forks on my bike and Guy his bike seat when we drove straight through the undercover area and forgot our bikes were attached!
Seisia, pronounced (Say-Sha) so we are reliably informed, was actually named by taking the first letter for the names of the family members of Magai Elu, the earliest settlers’ family – Sagaukaz, Elu, Isua, Sunai, Ibuai and Aken.
There were a couple of campgrounds to choose from on the Peninsula and Seisa, Loyalty Beach, and Punsand Bay are probably the most popular. We chose to make Seisia our base because it was central for all we wanted to do and it didn’t matter if we had to pack up our rooftop tent each day… we got to drive more dirt tracks, there were the ruins of Somerset and Lockerbie, WWII relics… and of course ‘The Tip of Cape York’, the northernmost point of mainland Australia to visit.
It was a great little town just a few kilometres short of the ‘Tip’ and the beachfront camp sites were stunning. This caravan park was situated right on beachfront and had stunning views of Red Island to the west and the Torres Strait Islands to the northwest and after booking an unpowered site we sat and enjoyed a wine with Louise and Jeremy as we watched the sunset from our beachfront campsite and made friends with some locals, a couple of green tree frogs!
Right next to our campsite was a lovely beach hut, with power to charge our batteries, running water, a sink and it provided great protection from the rain… for a couple of days that was anyway, that was until other campers arrived! What we didn’t know was it cost a little more than our $24 a night to book this hut… it was just a bit more upmarket for those campers requiring ‘comfort camping’ at $24 per person per night!
Wild horses and thin mangy dogs roamed everywhere, they roamed through the campsites, raided food containers, attacked wheelie bins and made an absolute mess around the campsites.
We were warned against approaching the horses but that didn’t stop the Aboriginal kids from riding them bareback up the beach and some of the children in the park befriended the thin, mangy dogs that had obviously been a pet in a past life but were now left to fend for themselves… it was so sad to see!
And of course we couldn’t come all this way not to visit Thursday Island and our day trip to the island made for another great day of adventure to be completed with a refreshing beer at Australia’s northernmost pub.
The trip on the ferry took a bit over an hour (one way), and with seniors discount it cost $120 return for the two of us… much to the disgust of our New Zealand friends who, having been afforded seniors discount at most places in Australia, were refused for the trip to Thursday Island. They paid the total sum of $240 return for two!
The crossing was just a little lumpy as the ferry passed by the Torres Strait islands. It had been pretty windy over the last couple of days and the strait was well known for being a bit choppy.
The Torres Strait archipelago’s islands are scattered across a 150 kilometre stretch of ocean separating Cape York Peninsula from Papua New Guinea, and Thursday Island, although one of the smallest in size, is the government administrative centre for more than 100 islands in this group!
TI has a population of around 3,000 people with a large number of temporary residents providing support services but with a long history dating back before Captain Cook landed here and claimed the islands on behalf of the British Crown, the islanders still continue many of their age old traditions.
Up until WWII the pearl industry was once a lucrative industry on Thursday Island, attracting workers from all over Asia. Interestingly enough though, Thursday Island was the only island in this group of islands that was not bombed.
Our guide, Muttee, who, himself is a born and bred islander, told us it was most likely because of the Divers Memorial at the cemetry or because the Japanese believed that their kin were still residents here. Neighbouring Horn Island and Prince of Wales Island, the largest islands, were not so lucky though… they were bombed three times.
A drive around TI soon revealed its history with many churches dotted around. Muttee had an extensive knowledge of the area, especially of the pearl diving era, having been a pearl diver himself, and our first stop was the historic cemetery where elaborate headstones stood proud in sections divided to accommodate different faiths and denominations. It is also the last resting place for over 700 Japanese pearl divers who died plying their trade in these dangerous waters.
Next was Green Hill. On top of the hill was a big fort with canons, built in fear of a Russian invasion in the late 1800s. Beneath the steps in a labyrinth of corridors and rooms that was once the powder and munitions stores, lies a well laid out museum which houses the islands past military and maritime history, and many artifacts including an original full diving suit used by the pearl divers.
Standing on top of Green Hill we had panoramic view of the surrounding waters and islands and it was easy to see why the fort was built here.
Today, for a small island, it has a really good infrastructure with a strong Navy and Army prescence, border control, very good medical facility including specialist services and a huge hospital, very good educational facilities including a primary school, high school, Tafe and a small campus of Cook University and to complement this there is a large amount of accommodation to cater for the staff of all these services. There was also a football ground, (NRL) a swimming pool, four hotels, lots of cafes, a radio station, tours companies, an airport on Horn Island with regular shuttles to and from, and the Torres Hotel, Australia’s most Northern Pub where we enjoyed a nice cold beer!
Returning to Seisia after a long day in which we were blessed with good weather and calm waters, we chatted about the highlights of the day and events yet to come and with our very enjoyable day over, the boat trip back was thoroughly pleasant… the breeze was up and we were entertained by a lovely group of Bamaga primary school students who had been visiting TI for a sports day. It was the end of their school term and there were peels of laughter and lots of fun as they tried to dodge the salt spray as it splashed over the deck… and we were in good company as we sat back with our New Zealand friends, exhausted from our trip!
It had been a long and tiring day and that night we were expecting to find our site as quiet and empty as we had left it but we were confronted with a very unhappy family on the site next door when we arrived home from our day trip to Thursday Island… or rather a very unhappy woman who really didn’t want to be camping and after just getting through one day of her yelling at the children, another couple of families moved into the hut on the other side of us, complete with portable washing machines and a hoard of rowdy children! If this wasn’t enough the next group further up came stocked with their tinnies and after a 2am turn in, their laboured breathing and snoring made sleep almost impossible!
In saying that we also had a lovely couple from Brisbane park next to us… welcome to our blog Nhe Anh and Vu and your two beautiful children and thank you for your friendship and a lovely feed of fish!
We had one important mission left to achieve before our New Zealand friends left us on their trip south to Cairns, and that was to stand right on the very ‘Tip’ of Australia, the northernmost point.
Our plan was to head off very early the following day to reach the tip before the hordes turned up, so bright and early the next morning we drove through the famous Lockerbie Scrub rainforest to the car park beside the track leading to the ‘Tip’.
We weren’t the first to arrive in the carpark but we were almost the first to arrive at the ‘Tip’ (Pajinka)! Following the Punja track and scrambling over rocks for the next couple of kilometres we headed for our destinination.
We had little or no indication that we were on the right track except for some very faint pale white track indicators as we negotiated rocks and more rocks and boulders but it was a great walk with great views over emerald blue waters. A Navy ship had anchored just off the point and some of their crew had beached their rubber duckies on the southern beach to walk to the ‘Tip’.
Finally we saw an insignificant sign in the distance and, after making our way towards it and taking our place in the queue, we finally got to stand at the sign that said we had made it to the ‘Northernmost Point of the Australian Mainland’!
It was a beautiful spot set against the backdrop of the beautiful Coral Sea with a Navy boat bobbing just north of the rocks. Mother Nature certainly turned it on for a brief moment for us with one of her warmest welcomes, as the sun peeked out momentarily from behind the clouds in the big Cape sky… but our photos just couldn’t capture how beautifully blue that water really was here.
We had travelled a long way to get here and it was a strange feeling to think we were standing on the edge of the Australian Continent just over 400 years after the first European sightings of Cape York by Dutch navigator Abel Janszoon Tasman.
The atmosphere amongst other visitors was electric and I am sure they were tinged with a little bit of relief knowing how far they had travelled to get here, and as I sat and stared off in to the ocean, lost in my thoughts, I couldn’t help but think of our family back home… we were a long way from Tassie!
By the time we left the ‘Tip’ sign, a line of people were stretching for quite a way back along the rocks. It was obviously a pretty special place to a lot of people and this was clearly demonstrated at the memorial of ‘lost loved ones’ on a rock face as we headed back to the carpark!
Apparently on the top of the cape is also a secret ‘hidden treehouse’. I had read about it nestled in the middle of the rainforest and believe that it was an old bird-watching tower that was attached to the old, derelict Cape York Resort we had passed on the way in. Its location is kept secret and apparently it is very difficult to find and although we weren’t so lucky, perhaps if you are up this way someone may give you a hint as to where to find it! All we got to see was a photo but we would love to know where it is for our next trip!
The abandoned resort and the land it was on was originally owned by Qantas then bought back by the Government and given back to the original custodians, the local Indigenous people.
It had obviously been a walk out and no one walked in as it was left abandoned. There was still cooking equipment, washing machines, generators and solar panels, a swimming pool, all left there and such a shame to see it in total disrepair… and unfortunate that someone in the local community didn’t have the business mind to maintain it! It would have been a beautiful resort such a short distance from the northern most ‘Tip’ of Australia.
Back at the Lockerbie junction we turned on to the track heading to the failed trading post of Somerset, a small settlement that was established in 1864 by the first Government appointed resident, John Jardine. The surroundings in this neck of the woods are also home to some of the richest Aboriginal rock art in the world.
Somerset is home to some the most important historical sites on the peninsula and was the site of the first European settlement and the site where the peninsula and Torres Strait were first administered from. It was also home to the pioneering settlers who dared to carve out a life in this remote area over a century ago, namely, the peninsula’s biggest legend, Frank Jardine who lived and died here.
It had been known for quite a while that head hunting and cannibalism was going on in the Torres Strait and around the Cape York Peninsula so in the early 1860s in an attempt to control this and provide refuge for shipwreck castaways it was decided a white settlement was needed in the area and a whole town was planned, which would also become a trading post and would hopefully become the ‘Singapore of Australia’.
In 1864, a party of about 30 people arrived on a ship , including John Jardine, then a police magistrate in Rockhampton, who was going to take up the position as a police and government resident.
Originally the location was going to be on Albany Island but it was finally decided the mainland across the Albany pass had a better source of freshwater, and it was named Somerset after the Duke of Somerset, First Lord of the British Admiralty.
While the buildings were erected at Somerset – the police magistrate’s residence, mariners’ barracks and a hospital, the sons of Jardine, Frank and Alex, spent 10 months moving the beef up to the Cape, in Australia’s most amazing cattle drive. When you read these stories, You really start to appreciate the stuff people were made of to endure such a life as the Jardine’s did up here. A natural entrepreneur, Jardine recognized the need for supply of fresh meat and started the first cattle station five kilometres beyond Somerset at Vallack with 2000 head of cattle.
This little inlet of Somerset that was earmarked to be the capital of north Australia was later disbanned because of its poor location and water supply and Thursday Island got the gong instead. That’s when Frank bought Somerset off the government and lived here for another 40 years with his wife Sana. They had four children who looked after the homestead after they both died in the early 1900s, but then came WWII and the area was evacuated and the homestead was finally destroyed in a fire in the 1960s.
Today, all that is left of the once a bustling town, which was a hive of activity with ships in harbour and Chinese divers seeking pearls on the seabed of the coast leading into the Torres Straits, were some old gun barrels, exotic trees and plants that once grew in the beautiful gardens of the Jardine homestead and some old graves with headstones written in the language of the pearl divers. Just past the Somerset ruins was Somerset Beach, a beautiful white sandy beach with blue water and lined by palm trees and patches of mangroves at each end… and the resting place of Frank and Sana Jardine. Further on behind the mangroves were the remnants of an old windmill and well that was used for the homestead water supply.
Overlooking the point we were privy to the turbulent waters of the Gulf and the Coral Sea as they met to form an amazing ‘pot boil’ of water and beautiful ocean views, and less than a kilometre from Somerset Beach was Albany Island, a beautiful remote island that apparently has its own care taker and a tour operator.
Back at the Lockerbie Junction we stopped at the Croc Tent to buy a couple of things for the grandchildren before exploring the area. This is the place to go to for all your official Cape York merchandise, souvenirs and more importantly, local knowledge. The guys at the Croc Tent were a wealth of information on things to do and see, road closures and conditions, and basically anything else you need to know about the Cape.
Right opposite the croc tent, and just before the crossroads, were the ruins of the Lockerbie Homestead. This site was first established by Frank Jardine as his summer residence and the ruins are what are left of the homestead established in 1867, and well worth taking a photo of.
The original owners Frank and Sana Jardine experimented with crops of coffee, tea, sugar and various tropical fruits here (including 20 different kinds of mango trees), and all kinds of herbs and vegetables were grown in Sana’s rock gardens.
In 1913 a stockman by the name of Cyril Holland, also called Ginger Dick, arrived in the area and befriended Frank, who two years later, when Frank became too old to manage Lockerbie, offered Cyril a partnerships in running the most northern cattle station in Australia.
After some years away, while serving in the WWI in France and marrying Barbara Wilson in Scotland, Holland returned to Australia, and a few years later obtained the lease to Lockerbie. In 1931 he settled in Lockerbie, with his wife and five children where they spent 30 years pioneering. Frank Jardine had spent 50.
Lastly was Punsand Bay and Loyalty Beach as we made our way back to Seisia, so back at the crossroads again, we turned left to Punsand Bay following open, dry woodland past the turnoff to Roonga Point and then past Cable Bay. While the road to the ‘Tip’ took us through beautiful tropical rainforest the road to Punsand was very dry.
This road from Lockerbie to Punsand Bay also goes past a side track to Ginger Dick Mine, a WWII fuel dump as well as a WWII army communication sub-station. The old Ginger Dick’s Mine site is up on a hill and has a few old shafts, and old rusty relics scattered around the place, but the track is overgrown and in parts almost non existent and it would not be hard to get lost if we followed this track!
Situated on a beautiful bay with blue waters and long beaches Punsand Bay was a lovely campground where you can actually camp right next to a beach… but it was just a bit more touristy and resort style with a restuarant, bar, swimming pool and eco tents than Seisia.
The track through to Loyalty Beach Campground was rough and full of potholes and ruts with one rather precarious water crossing and it wasn’t until we saw a sign nailed to a tree trunk that we realised we were actually on ‘Private Land’!
Loyality Beach Campground boasts over 500 metres of grassed beachfront camping with no designated campsites – some powered, some unpowered, amenities, laundry facilities and a fully stocked kiosk and if I had a preference over Seisia, I would probably choose this campground!
Back at Seisia, after a wander along the beach to the jetty then a glass of champers to celebrate finally reach the very tip of Australia, we settled in for another night under the Cape stars. We had spotted a resident croc on the other side of bay basking in the sun most days and there were a couple of crocs and a shark under the jetty that frequented the waters each day, but the highlight of our stay at Seisia was the priviledge of watching a very entertaining performance by the Torres Strait Islander school children.
We had heard lots about the largest indigenous festival in Australia that was being held at Laura, on Macca’s ‘Australia All Over’, but unfortunately we couldn’t make it back to Laura in time to see it… but we were lucky enough to see a performance by the local children after being invited to their fundraiser at the local fishing club, and it was really spectacular with traditional displays of dancing from the very little people to the older high school children.
As mentioned earlier in the blog, the ‘Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival’ is when the whole town comes to life when Aboriginal communities travel far and wide from all over the Cape to participate… and we could feel the cultural energy as soon as we entered the hall at Seisia, even thought it was only a practice run.
These traditional performers were practising alongside their elders who are passing on their song and dance knowledge… then came the performance – full of colour and energy, and as we watched the children weave and create cultural masterpieces of their Dreamtime stories we witnessed some of Australia’s most authentic Indigenous dances. It was the ultimate behind the scenes preview of what was to come over the three days in Laura later in the month and this year apparently the festival included up to 1,000 performers from 20 different Aboriginal communities.
With our New Zealand friends having left a few day before us, and with a few days to spare before heading south ourselves, we decided to head back to the Somerset Ruins to tackle the 5 Beaches 4WD Track, 11 kilometres of pretty rough track over beach and sandy tracks. This track was no worse than the parts of the Telegraph Track we had driven with some corrugations and ruts and one deep sandy section, which we managed okay. It took us a couple hours to explore this track and it was a lovely drive across sand dunes and bays and through trees… and really beautiful place where the bush meets the beach.
The northern end of the track started at the Somerset ruins along a little track that went east to the beach, then from the beach we headed along a side track to Fly Point which was worth a visit just for the views and to see the Old Jardine Airstrip.
Turning back onto the Beaches Loop Road we continued along the beach at Freshwater Bay to Vallack Point where Frank Jardine’s cattle station once was. The track then continued on to
then off again as it headed onto the northern end of Narau Beach. The Beaches Loop Road then continued inland between Lake Wieheura and Lake Bronto and then we were back at the Somerset Road heading back towards Lockerbie.
Our visit to the top end of Cape York was almost over and it was time to head down the peninsula!
We had finally stood on The Northern Most Point of Australia!
It had rained continually over the past couple of days and it was still raining when we packed up to leave Siesia and head for the Jardine Ferry. It was a slow drive for a wet day on Cape York roads.
Our plan on the way back down the Cape was to visit the places we’d missed on the way up… so hop back in your car!