DESTINATION: CAPE YORK (THE EASY WAY)
Don’t have a serious offroad RV? Never fear, there are other ways to explore the northernmost point of mainland Australia.
Many intrepid RVers with their 4WDs and offroad campers brave the dust and corrugations to reach the very tip of Australia – and good luck to them.
But for many of us with a yen to see Cape York without the driving, there are a number of attractive alternatives, including travelling on the freighter MV Trinity Bay and then coming back or up by air-conditioned 4WD coach. Or you could fly one way and use the coach one way. Then again, you might like to take your camper and 4WD up on the ship and drive back down.
There are other alternatives, but I chose to leave my little motorhome in secure storage at the Caravilla Caravan Park in Cairns before doing the fascinating three-day sea trip up to Horn and Thursday islands in the Torres Strait, coming ashore on the mainland at Seisia.
I also chose a seven-day accommodated tour with Oz-Tours, as I’m getting a bit old to be putting a tent up and down every day.
ON THE HIGH SEAS
Travelling on a working freighter is not the same as enjoying the ambience of an ocean liner with its waiter service and luxurious facilities. On the Trinity Bay, it’s serve-yourself meal service but there was a glorious range of food to choose from. There’s 24-hour coffee, tea and other beverages – again on a serve-yourself basis – and bar service when the purser is around.
The cabins are two or three-berth and I was lucky as my roommate, David, from WA was a great companion. We hit it off from day one. There were only about 40 passengers on the ship so we quickly got to know each other as we roamed around or sat for meals.
It was fascinating to watch the ship’s crew loading and unloading containers and other freight at stops along the way. The crane driver is highly skilled and his training included a year at the controls with an experienced operator standing in the small cabin behind him.
Will, the master of the vessel, gave us a talk and showed us the bridge and its instruments.
He’s an interesting fellow, originally from South Africa, and he worked in the mines at Kalgoorlie, WA, and on fishing vessels before settling with his family in Cairns. After a stint as mate, he became master of the MV Trinity Bay two years ago.
There were optional tours of Horn and Thursday islands with local guides. The museum showed an intriguing video about the servicemen on Horn Island during World War II.
A ferry then took us across to nearby Thursday Island, were there was another optional tour, and then it was time to re-board the ship for our last few hours of steaming before disembarking at the Seisia wharf on the mainland where we met Peter, our bus driver and tour guide for the next seven days.
The shortish ride to Punsand Bay gave us a taste of the corrugations that awaited us during the rest of our 4WD tour but Peter assured us that these were the worst of the trip and it would be better as we went south. He was partially right!
Peter made sure we were breakfasted and away by 8am each day and he made a number of unscheduled deviations to show us interesting areas not on the beaten track. This included a lovely swim at Fruit Bat Falls.
UP TO THE TIP
Travelling to the tip was completely contrary to my expectations. For much of the way we travelled through dense rainforest and when we reached the end of the road, I had no idea that reaching the tip would be so strenuous. The climb up and down the rocks was hard work and when I reached the highest point, I nearly gave up. I am 80 years old, remember! Then a bit of adrenalin kicked in.
"I’m not coming all this way to give up now," I thought, and headed on down to the northernmost piece of Australia.
When I got there, it was a great feeling made all the more sweet because I hadn’t given up.
BAUXITE MINING AT WEIPA
Another optional tour saw us exploring the bauxite mining operation at Weipa and, again, it was very different from my expectations.
I thought we were in for an unsightly open-cut mine or an underground network of tunnels and shafts. But I was very wrong.
The ore is not far from the surface and everything possible is done to ensure the site returns to the condition it was in before it was mined, or as close as possible.
Before clearing the site, great care is taken to record what was growing there. Then the area is cleared and the topsoil removed down to the ore, which is just a few feet from the surface.
The ore is then bulldozed into large heaps and large machines load it onto huge dump trucks to cart to the railhead where it is loaded onto rail trucks. It will eventually end up in huge ships at the docks. You will have to excuse my excessive use of ‘large’ and ‘huge’, because that is exactly what it was like.
Once all the ore has been taken offsite, the topsoil is returned and levelled before it is re-planted with vegetation. So when you look at places that have been mined some time previously, it’s not possible to see the difference from the pristine surroundings.
THE BLOOMFIELD TRACK
A journey to Cooktown is no big deal now that there’s a lovely sealed road all the way, but adventure still lies in the coastal route down the notorious Bloomfield Track. This is strictly 4WD territory, in my humble opinion, and I was delighted that Peter took us that way down to the Daintree and back to Cairns.
We stopped at the legendary Lions Den Hotel in Helenvale, near Cooktown, for our morning break and I was able to put some charge into my camera battery – thank goodness for fast chargers and cooperative bar staff!
The track itself is a great experience and Peter was kept very busy handling the fairly large Mitsubishi Cantor 4WD bus as we climbed and descended, constantly twisting and turning on the loose surface of the unsealed road.
Our last lunch together was at Cape Tribulation and one of our number made a little speech to tell Peter how much we had enjoyed his knowledge and skill and perpetual good humour, even when he had to change a wheel at Cooktown.
All too soon we were travelling down the lovely coastal road between Port Douglas and Cairns, where the rainforest meets the sea. And as Peter dropped us off at our various accommodations in Cairns, it was suddenly all over.
Fourteen strangers at the start of the adventure left as firm friends. It would have been hard to find a more congenial bunch of people to share a trip with. And as Peter kept telling us, we were not on holiday – we were enjoying an experience together. And he was right!
- Thursday Island, 39km north of Cape York Peninsula, is the commercial hub of the Torres Strait islands. It has an area of about 3.5sq km and stands 104m above sea level at its highest point. For information about tours, visit www.peddellsferry.com.au or email email@example.com
- Thanks to its airport, Horn Island – 55km north-west of the tip – serves as the gateway for travellers to and from the Torres Strait Islands. For information about tours of the island and its heritage museum, visit www.torresstraitheritage.com
- MV Trinity Bay: Booking information through Oz Tours, 1800 079 006, firstname.lastname@example.org or Freighter Expeditions, (02) 8270 4899, www.freighterexpeditions.com.au
- For more information about Weipa, visit www.weipaonline.com
- There are more than 20 national parks on the Cape York Peninsula. For more information, visit www.nprsr.qld.gov.au and follow the prompts.
Originally published in Caravan World #511, February 2013