Race to the Cape: Part 1

By: Tim van Duyl, Natalie Cavallaro, Photography by: Cam Inniss, Jack Murphy, Dan Everett


With the crew belted in and the rigs loaded up, it was time to explore the ultimate offroad destination, Cape York.

We kicked off at sunrise, with Cape Tribulation ahead of us after a quick stop in Cairns. We passed cane trains and clear coastline before reaching the Daintree River ferry crossing early in the afternoon – the gateway to our adventure, Day 1 on our trip to Cape York.

The river is said to be packed with crocs – though we saw none – and marks the border between privately-owned farms and the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. After the crossing we were immediately hit with steep climbs, creeks, rivers and more shades of green than I thought possible. As the light diffused and broke through in patches, the forest floor became alive with scavenging birds and lizards fleeing from sight. Our first stop, Cape Tribulation Camping, is a popular spot for campers; when we arrived at least 10 groups were still set up, holding out as long as possible before the wet pushed them off home. Complete with wet bar and direct beach access, our pause at Cape Trib Camping set the scene for the trip. People wandered the beaches looking afar in absolute silence as the sun set and birds hit full noise. We nailed one of our goals immediately, spotting two cassowaries crossing the road and one cruising the beach, as cool as can be.

BLOOMIN’ MARVELLOUS

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From Cape Trib Camping, it’s only one turn to the infamous Bloomfield Track.

The signs say 4WD-only access – and this should be observed in the wet, especially. It’s a dangerous, difficult place to drive. We began our passage weeks before the forecast rain, so traction wasn’t the issue, more distraction, with mangroves, cassowary palms and seemingly endless forest vistas at every pass. Be sure to keep an eye out for the steep climbs either side of Cowie Beach and Wujal Wujal, though, as they require low-range for heavy haulers and an eye on coolant temperatures.

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Breaking out of the rainforest, Degarra country feels more familiar. The Wujal Wujal Arts Centre on the way to Bloomfield Falls, however, gives a good insight to how the traditional owners see the land and connect with the fauna and flora.

The falls are easy to access and an impressive sight with a drop of around 20m. However, don’t be drawn to the cool and clear water, a 500kg croc waits patiently at the edge of the pool, locals told us.

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I was looking forward to our next stop Elim Beach. Also known as Eddie’s Beach or Eddie’s Camp, named after its caretaker, Eddie, obviously. It sits on a remote headland far away from phone coverage and the distraction of crowds. Up at his beach, Eddie is one of the most interesting people I have met, and within seconds he’ll regale stories so well remembered it’s as if you were there. The campsite is massive and with a ‘set up where you want’ system; we established camp overlooking a wide, shallow bay and were ready to enjoy a cold beer, barbecue, and a few laughs and tunes, courtesy of the Zone RV sound system by nightfall.

ROCK AND ROLLIN’

The day started with an unhitched 4WD run to the coloured sands, an area of massive significance for Australia’s first people. The low-tide only access was a good test run for the team. Soft sand met quicksand ’round turns, and with signs reminding of us of the $2000 tow-out-fee, we were especially careful. The sands in the dunes are collected for traditional artwork and we found bright reds, deep oranges and near perfect whites all in one small stretch.

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Ahead of us was the highlight of the trip for many: Battlecamp Road. After more than an hour preparing and talking about the day ahead, we hit the road with some trepidation. The roads deteriorated quickly but never enough to truly slow us down. We hit dust bowls, with pillowy powder nearly half a metre deep but, mercifully, solid bottoms.

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Our lunch at Laura Station was quick, as we were well behind our scheduled stop at Laura itself, a common theme for the trip. It’s hard to believe now but as the founding location for trade in the far north, this ghost station was vital to the surrounding stations. The signposted buildings document the history alongside a plantation growing some of the biggest mango trees you’ll ever see.

Pushing on to Laura we took a tour of the Split Rock rock art galleries. The region is home to more than 350 individual sets of rock art with Split Rock and the Quinkan Galleries the standouts. Split Rock tells the stories of travellers and their encounters. Drawings of food sources, spirits and people of significance are only a short walk and a small entry fee from a good-sized car park complete with space for trailers.

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As we ventured deeper along the Battle Camp through Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park, our long day drew on as the scenery became awe inspiring. Our radio chatter turned from funny anecdotes to cries of ‘look at that’ and ‘I’ve never seen colours like this’. The roads turned blood red, which together with the forest’s infinite shades of green created a contrast so Australian we all look back at it as one of the trip highlights. Enjoying it meant multiple delays for camera changes, turnarounds and reframing which led to delays that were well worth the wonder.

MUSGRAVE ROADHOUSE

As the road draws near Musgrave and the Peninsula Development Road, the landscape flattens and opens out of forest and into broken scrubland. The savanna sunset is so spectacular you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the depths of Africa. Surrounded by magnetic and cathedral termite mounds, clean skin stock wandered looking for edible grass as the sky flipped from blue to rust-red and the land was cut by long shadows. No one wanted to push on, but Musgrave Roadhouse only serves dinner till 7pm sharp so we made pace, passing up on the full bushman option of roasted freshly-caught goanna. Musgrave Roadhouse offers accommodation, good meals and stocks enough cold mid-strength to keep the flocks happy. It also has an airstrip, which, after discovering had no scheduled flights, was mooted as an ideal spot for a drag race, trailers included. Where better a location to figure out, once and for all, who really was the quickest?

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But first a trip to ‘the pond’ behind the pub. Only about 20m from where we set up our swags, the pond is full of freshwater crocs happy to come to the edge for a feed of frozen chicken or leftovers. Don’t worry too much about them, they’re certainly not in the same league as salties, but still, probably best not to go swimming.

WHERE THERE’S SMOKE...

Cold iced coffee quenched our caffeine cravings ahead of a roadhouse feast at Archer River. The drive there, up the Peninsula Development Road, gave us our first taste of mighty roadtrains. Unladen, they travel at decent speed towards the centre of the road, unlike when they’re full and to the side. Be aware of them and always radio through when passing.

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Getting to Archer River was a non-event, save a surprise chat and sage advice from a Rio Tinto rep on how to work around the roadtrains but at the ’house itself, we cemented our road-trip bond with Archer River Roadhouse burgers all round!

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Our next stop was the Rio Tinto support town of Weipa. Like Cooktown, it’s well known for its fishing, though we didn’t head out. Weipa is well stocked and has a strong labour-based residency. A major highlight coming into the town on well-maintained roads were the many burn-offs. Local rangers were getting in early, taming the undergrowth as smoke darkened the crow-filled skies as they fled. Stopping for a photo op and a better look, it was as if we were in a war zone but we never felt unsafe. Once in the town, be aware of the mine site highways – massive haul roads made especially for mining vehicles to deliver their loads directly to port without using public space.

We stayed at Weipa Caravan Park having read about the famous Barramunchies restaurant, a BYO garden fish and chip shop known for, well, barra. A big feed and a few beers later and the previous massive day caught up with us and an early night followed.

BLOOD, BOGS AND BIG OL’ WATERFALLS

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Our next stop was only meant to be an hour up the road at Pennefather Beach but Pennefather almost ruined us. Within the space of 30 minutes we had the Zone, the Land Rover and Mars camper well stuck in the soft sands at the entrance to the beach. Our goal, to get all vehicles onto the beach for a video and photography shoot, was in doubt. Dan, his knowledge and well-set-up Ranger came to the rescue of the Landie. Beached at the high-water mark, he liberated it through some long-extension winch pulls, while we all toiled on the belied 200 Series towing the 18ft, 2000kg Zone. Try as we might, the Wrangler didn’t carry the momentum to get the heavy combo moving forward so the call was made for a vehicle to find a way back off the beach to reverse pull the pair out. Two hours later and the affectionately called ‘Big Dog’ was free but in the time of the extraction, Celso, his Prado and the Mars camper found themselves belly deep on a tight turn seaside of where we wanted to be. Dan took charge and through the use of every MaxTrax we could find (six in total), winching, using another car as a tackle-block holder and a couple of hours, we were free – including being free of the bead of one tyre on the trailer.

No blood, no broken bones or gear but some sweaty, sandy people needing a rest meant we turned back to Weipa, not our original plan, for another feast of barra and a comfy night.

The full feature appeared in Caravan World #572. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!