Page 1 of 3: Cape York Peninsula
The overland pilgrimage to Cape York Peninsula the tip of Australia is simply one of the greatest 4WD routes on the continent. This is one of the most untamed, primeval and lonesome areas of Australia, where clouds of red dust signal approaching vehicles and you’ll drive many kilometres on corrugated roads to reach the next ‘town’, usually an isolated roadhouse. While reaching the tip is an exhilarating effort, many of the highlights of this journey are found in the changing landscapes of the seasons and the detours, planned and unexpected. Along the way you’ll encounter big crocs, vehicle- and character-testing roads, tropical rainforests and wetlands to rival Kakadu with their rich bird life.
If you’re driving to the top, you’ll need preparation and a 4WD. The ideal set-up is companion vehicles: two 4WDs travelling together so one can haul the other out of trouble if necessary. The HEMA maps Cape York and Lakefield National Park, and the RACQ (www.racq.com.au) maps Cairns/Townsville and Cape York Peninsula
are the best. Of the numerous books about the Peninsula, Ron and Viv Moon’s Cape York – an Adventurer’s Guide
is the most comprehensive. Linda Rowe’s Paradise Found: A Cape York Adventure
is an entertaining yarn. Lonely Planet’s Queensland & the Great Barrier Reef guide
is also good. Don’t expect mobile phone coverage while travelling in the Cape’s unspoilt frontiers.
Information and Permits
The RACQ and QPWS offices in Cairns and Cooktown have a wealth of information and are recommended starting points for planning your itinerary and to obtain permits. Once north of the Dulhunty River you will need a permit to camp on Aboriginal land, which in effect is nearly all the land north of the river. The Injinoo people are the traditional custodians of much of this land. The Injinoo Community, which runs the ferry across the Jardine River, include a camping permit in the ferry fee.
Travelling across indigenous Australian land elsewhere on the Cape may require an additional permit from the relevant community council. The Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation (www.balkanu.com.au) website lists contact details for all the Cape York Aboriginal communities.
There are countless tour operators who run trips to the Cape. Tours last six to 14 days and take five to 12 passengers. Cairns is the main starting point for tours, which generally run between April and December, but dates may be affected by an early or late wet season. Cooktown also offers tours to the ‘Cape’. Most tours visit Laura, the Split Rock galleries, Lakefield National Park, Coen, Weipa, the Elliot River System (including Twin Falls), Bamaga, Somerset and Cape York itself; Thursday Island is usually an optional extra. Each tour has its own speciality (check with operators), but many offer different combinations of land, air and sea travel, and camping or motel-style accommodation. Prices include meals, twin share accommodation (often with an additional singles’ supplement for those requiring solo accommodation) and fares from Cairns.
Barts Bush Adventures (07-4069 6229; www.bartsbushadventures.com.au; camping safaris per day from $250) A range of Cape York tours from Cooktown.
Billy Tea Bush Safaris (07-4032 0077; www.billytea.com.au; 9-day fly-drive tours $2550, 13-day cruise-drive $2700, 14-day overland tours $2650) A good range of eco-certified tours.
Daintree Air Services (1800 246 206, 07-4034 9300; www.daintreeair.com.au; day tours $990) Flight tours depart Cairns Airport at 7.30am on Wednesdays.
Exploring Oz Safaris (1300 888 112, 07-4057 7905; www.exploring-oz.com.au; 6-day overland tours $850-1000) Takes in Musgrave Station, Coen, Wenlock River, Loyalty Beach, the Tip and Twin Falls. Additional fuel levy applies.
Heritage 4WD Tours (1800 775 533, 07-4054 7750; www.heritagetours.com.au; 6-day fly-drive tours $1095, 7-14 day cruise-drive-fly tours from $2395) Numerous tours and accommodation options including ‘swag’ stays.
Oz Tours Safaris (1800 079 006, 07-4055 9535; www.oztours.com.au; 7-day fly-drive tours low/high season $1695/1795, 12-day overland tours low/high season $2320/2480) Advanced eco tourism accredited tours with numerous combinations.
Getting there and away
(13 13 13) flies twice daily from Cairns to Horn Island and Weipa.
Regional Pacific Airlines (1300 797 667, 07-4040 1400) flies from Cairns to Bamaga on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Skytrans (1800 818 405; www.skytrans.com.au) flies from Cairns to Coen and Yorke Island, and offers a charter service.
MV Trinity Bay
(1800 424 422, 07-4035 1234; www.seaswift.com.au
) is a weekly cargo ferry that departs Cairns every Friday and reaches Thursday Island on Sunday and Bamaga on Monday morning. The five-day return trip costs from $970 per person (twin share) including meals.
May to November is the best time to access the Cape, but conditions fluctuate according to when the Wet arrives, which is when rivers become impassable. If you’re planning to head up outside these months, check road conditions with the RACQ. If you run into difficulty contact the local police:
- Bamaga (07-4069 3156)
- Coen (07-4060 1150)
- Cooktown (07-4069 5320)
- Laura (07-4060 3244)
- Lockhart River Community (07-4060 7120)
- Weipa (07-4069 9119)
Local police can also advise about alcohol restrictions that apply throughout Cape York but vary from place to place.
Even as late as June and July the rivers are fast-flowing, have steep banks and frequently alter course. The Great Dividing Range runs up the spine of the peninsula, and rivers run east and west from it. Although the rivers in the south of the peninsula flow only in the Wet, those further north flow year-round.
Lakeland and Laura
The Peninsula Developmental Rd turns off the Cairns–Cooktown Mulligan Hwy at Lakeland. Facilities here include a general store with food, petrol and diesel, a small caravan park and a hotel-motel. From Lakeland it’s 734km to Bamaga, almost at the top of the peninsula. The first stretch to Laura is not too bad, just some corrugation, potholes, grids and causeways – the creek crossings are bridged (although they flood in the Wet).
About 50km from Lakeland is the turn-off to Split Rock (Guguylangi) Galleries (Split Rock/entire trail $5/10). Pay in the honesty box; no photography is allowed. The galleries contain the best surviving examples of Quinkan rock painting, one of the most distinctive styles of Aboriginal art, and depictions here date back approximately 14,000 years. No-one has been able to fully interpret these paintings, as the tribe who painted them were all massacred or killed by disease during the 1873 gold rush. For more information, visit the Quinkan Regional Cultural Centre (07-4060 3457) in Laura.
This town, 12km north of Split Rock, has a general store with food and fuel, a place for minor mechanical repairs, a post office and Commonwealth Bank agency, and an airstrip.
The Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival is the major event here, bringing together Aboriginal peoples from all over Cape York and other parts of Australia for three days. The festival is held in June of odd-numbered years.
Lakefield National Park
The main turn-off to Lakefield National Park is a 45 minute drive north of Laura.
Lakefield National Park is the second-largest national park in Queensland, and the most accessible on Cape York Peninsula. The park is best known for its wetlands
and prolific bird life
. The extensive river system drains into Princess Charlotte Bay on its northern perimeter. This is the only national park on the peninsula where fishing is permitted.
Princess Charlotte Bay, which includes the coastal section of Lakefield National Park, is the site of some of Australia’s biggest rock-art galleries
. Unfortunately, the bay is extremely hard to reach except from the sea.
Northern National Parks
Three national parks can be reached from the main track north of Coen. To stay at them you must be totally self-sufficient. Only about 3km north of Coen, before the Archer River Roadhouse, you can turn west to the remote Mungkan Kandju National Park
. Contact the friendly Coen QPWS
(07-4060 1137; 8am-5pm Mon-Fri) for more information.
Roughly 21km north of the Archer River Roadhouse, a turn-off leads 135km through the Iron Range National Park to the tiny coastal settlement of Portland Roads. Although still pretty rough, this track has been improved. Register with the ranger (07-4060 7170) on arrival; camping is permitted at designated sites. The national park has Australia’s largest area of lowland rainforest, with some animals that are found no further south in Australia.
The region’s other park, Jardine River National Park, is much further to the north.
After Batavia Downs there is almost 200km of rough road and numerous river crossings (the Dulhunty being the major one) before you reach the Jardine River Ferry & Roadhouse
(07-4069 1369; unpowered sites $10; 8am-5pm), which offers camping with shower blocs and barbecue facilities and petrol (diesel fuel and unleaded). From the Wenlock River there are two possible routes to the Jardine ferry: the more direct but rougher old route (Telegraph Rd, 155km), and the longer but quicker bypass roads (193km), which branch off the old route about 40km north of the Wenlock River. Don’t miss Twin Falls
, one of the most popular camping and swimming spots on the Cape; there’s a signpost off the main road about 90km before the roadhouse.
The river crossing, run by the Injinoo Community Council, operates during the Dry only ($88 return, plus $10 for trailers). The fee includes a permit for bush camping in designated areas north of the river.
Stretching east to the coast from the main track is the impenetrable country of Jardine River National Park. It includes the headwaters of the Jardine and Escape Rivers, where explorer Edmund Kennedy was killed by Aborigines in 1848. The Jardine River spills more fresh water into the sea than any other river in Australia.
John Charlton’s Cape York Adventures (07-4069 3302; www.capeyorkadventures.com.au; charter service from $385) operates out of Bamaga and offers customised fishing and adventure trips. Six day packages including accommodation (twin share) and five days of activities cost between $2640 and $3000 per person.
The first settlement north of the Jardine River is Bamaga, home to Cape York Peninsula’s largest Torres Strait Islander community. There’s a post office (and Commonwealth Bank agency), hospital, supermarket, bakery, mechanic and some places to stay.
Northeast of Bamaga, off the Cape York track and about 11km southeast of Cape York, is Somerset, established in 1863 as a haven for shipwrecked sailors and a signal to the rest of the world that this was British territory. The aim was to become a major trading centre, but trading functions were moved to Thursday Island in 1879. There’s nothing much left now except lovely views.
Thursday Island and Torres Strait Islands
Torres Strait Islands have been a part of Queensland since 1879, the best known of them being Thursday Island
(or TI as it’s locally known). The 70 other islands are sprinkled from Cape York in the south to almost Papua New Guinea in the north. Erub
(Darnley Island as it is also known) is in the eastern group, and is of volcanic origin. It’s another important island in the region as it has come into the spotlight as a campaginer for equal recognition of Torres Strait Islanders’ rights.
Torres Strait Islanders came from Melanesia and Polynesia about 2000 years ago, bringing with them a more material culture than that of mainland Aboriginal people.
It was a claim by Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo to traditional ownership of Murray Island that led to the High Court handing down its groundbreaking Mabo ruling. The court’s decision in turn became the basis for the Federal government’s 1993 Native Title legislation.
Thursday Island is hilly and just over 3 sq km. It was once a major pearling centre, and the cemeteries tell the hard tale of that dangerous occupation. Some pearls are still produced here from seeded ‘culture farms’. The island is a friendly, easy-going place, and its main appeal is its cultural mix - Asians, Europeans and Pacific Islanders have all contributed to its history.
The Peddells Ferry Island Tourist Bureau (07-4069 1551; www.peddellsferry.com.au; Engineers Wharf; 8.30am-5pm, to noon Sat) will tell you everything you need to know.
Sights & Activities
There are fascinating reminders of Thursday Island’s rich history about town. The All Souls Quetta Memorial Church
was built in 1893 in memory of the shipwreck of the Quetta which struck an unchartered reef in the Adolphus Channel in 1890, with 133 lives lost.
The Japanese section of the town’s cemetery is crowded with hundreds of graves of pearl divers who died from decompression sickness. The Japanese Pearl Memorial is dedicated to them. Green Hill Fort, on the western side of town, was built in 1893, when there were fears of a Russian invasion.
The Gab Titui Cultural Centre (http://www.tsra.gov.au) offers visitors a window to the rich cultural history and diversity of Torres Strait. Located on the TI waterfront, this award-winning centre features a gallery for historical artefacts, exhibitions of local artists, community cultural events and a popular cafe and restaurant.
Situated on Horn Island, a short ferry trip from TI, the Gateway Torres Strait Resort features a Heritage Museum and offers local tours.
Getting there and around
(13 13 13; www.qantas.com.au
) flies daily from Cairns to Thursday Island (from $480 return). The airport is on Horn Island. Aero Tropics
(1300 656 110, 07-4040 1222; www.aero-tropics.com.au
) and Regional Pacific Airlines
(1300 797 667, 07-4040 1400; www.regionalpacific.com.au
) fly weekdays from Cairns to Bamaga (from $280 one way) flights cover Torres Strait.
There are regular ferry services between Seisia and Thursday Island (one way/return $47/94, one hour) run by Peddells Ferry Service (07-4069 1551; www.peddellsferry.com.au; Engineers Jetty, Thursday Island).
McDonald Ferry Service (1300 664 875, 07-4058 1344) operates between Thursday Island and Horn Island. The ferries run roughly hourly between 6am and 6pm ($9 one way, 15 minutes). Ferry and airport transfers are $16. Rebel Marine (07-4069 1586) operate a water taxi and bus service between TI and the Horn Island Airport connecting with all QantasLink flights ($20).