Right at the tippy top of Queensland, way off the beaten path and well off the radar of most other travellers driving a lap of the country, Cape York is one of the most renowned four-wheel drive spots in Australia.
North of the tourist traps of Cairns and Port Douglas, this is one of the world’s wildest and most undeveloped expanses, covered in luscious rainforest and tropical wetlands that could rival Kakadu. Other than the Peninsula Developmental Road (the northern Cape’s only substantial throughway, reaching Weipa, a small fishing village about 200 kilometres below the state’s tip, on the west coast), the map is a big, green vastness of off-roading possibilities.
Cooktown is the last major centre on Australia’s east coast, reached via the paved Mulligan Highway, approximately four hours from Cairns; but if adventure is what you seek, the coastal route along Bloom eld Track offers just that, with steep gradients, narrow, claustrophobia-inducing sections, ditches and dust in the dry season, and mires of mud in the wet. This is an off-roader’s paradise.
Experienced off-roaders won’t find Bloomfield Track particularly tough to drive, but rather a dirt track with pleasant panoramas to get you limbered up for the rougher trails north of here. The landscape really is something else – it crosses through the rainforests of Daintree and Ceder Bay National Parks, with turquoise waters running alongside, and the Great Barrier Reef a little further offshore.
If you like a track to yourself, it’s best to avoid Cape York in the school holidays, which is generally its busiest period. In the dry season, the water crossings along the track generally don’t pose much of a challenge, but they can be much deeper in the wet season, which runs roughly from December to April. There are also some steep ascents and descents, but nothing too daunting.
Cooktown is technically the site of the first true European settlement in Australia. Captain James Cook landed here on 17 June 1770 when the Great Barrier Reef took a hunk out of the Endeavour, north of Cape Tribulation. The crew managed to get the ship into an estuary and onto the banks of what would later be known as Endeavour River (but please don’t endeavour to cool off in here – crocs aren’t uncommon!). They remained there for almost seven weeks, the longest stopover Cook ever made in Australia.
Cooktown has enjoyed an interesting history, and was once home to 27 pubs during the gold rush of the late 1800s. As the availability of gold dwindled, so went Cooktown, and most of what was left behind was further ravaged by the 1907 cyclone. There is still some remaining architectural evidence of this bygone era, such as the James Cook Museum, which displays extensive material on the town’s early history, as well as artefacts from the Endeavour.
The most notorious four-wheel drive track on the Cape is Old Telegraph Track, beginning roughly 600 kilometres north of Cooktown at Bramwell Junction, just below Jardine River National Park. The track ventures into one of the most thinly inhabited areas in Australia. It’s dense, rough and visually stunning – unabated wilderness.
The Old Telegraph Track roughly follows the Overland Telegraph Line, which was the only method of communication for residents on the Cape from the gold rush until 1962 and comprised two wires sending Morse code via repeater stations.
The track is generally only accessible during the dry season, crossing rough terrain. It passes through varied but beautiful and undisturbed wilderness, with several creek and river crossings, as well as several patches of deep sand requiring careful navigation. Some of the creeks are tough to gauge, and so require you to disembark to check their depth. As a general rule, if a creek is too deep to navigate on foot, then the same applies for driving (note: your vehicle will require a snorkel to penetrate any further!). As we’re in the extreme north, testing the creek on foot is only an option for clear, spring-fed creeks with good visibility – crocs lie in wait in the muddier streams close to rivers.
There are two bypass roads that allow you to get from the Peninsula Development Road to the Peninsula’s tip without having to navigate creek crossings.
They pass mainly through the highlands to the east and west of the route, but are still heavily corrugated and are a fairly rough drive. Several freshwater swimming spots adorn the Old Telegraph Track, and free bush camping areas are set up on the banks of most creek and river crossings.
Once you’ve successfully traversed the dense vegetation, swamps, heaths and tumbling riverbanks of Jardine River National Park, a ferry takes vehicles across the Jardine River in the park’s north. It’s a 70-kilometre trip from here to Australia’s northernmost tip. The point where James Cook raised the English ag in possession of New South Wales is marked by his monument.
There is a multitude of other tracks in Cape York. Some highlights include the CREB Track, which is slightly inland from Bloomfield Track, offering more advanced terrain; and Frenchman’s Track, which is up in the north and also an advanced course, running towards the tip of the Cape through remote saltbush flats, quagmire and dense rainforest.