Cooktown, QLD. 22nd July 2015.
Back with the time line now, after that little diversion, and here’s some background information regarding the next stage of my journey.
Cape York, which includes James Cook’s first Australian landing point, at Cooktown, was first settled by cattlemen in the 1860’s. More stations followed, especially after the Palmer River gold rush increased demand. No roads existed at that time, only local tracks through the bush. Supplies and export of produce was by sea. The geography is heavily influenced by the Great Dividing Range, low hills running north to south, and the huge numbers of waterways, especially on the west side. In the dry winter they are mostly waterholes but in the wet summer they create huge floodplains. The east side is drier and this is where the cattle stations were set up. Pearl fishing was the major maritime industry, not only on the east coast but also among the Torres Strait islands.
In the 1880’s it was decided to build a telegraph line to link Cape York, its cattle stations and settlements, as well as Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait, with the rest of Australia. In order to construct it a track had to be laid up the cape, from south to north. Completed in 1887, the telegraph line finally fell into disuse and was dismantled in the 1980’s. It had been upgraded to a telephone line in the 1930’s and had other improvements during WW2. Eventually modern radio technology rendered it redundant. But the access track is still there, albeit no longer maintained. The Cape was hugely important in WW2, when further development took place to accommodate the American troops and airmen stationed there.
The Peninsular Development Road runs up the cape and its main purpose was to open it up for development and to link the various towns on the cape to the rest of Australia. Prior to this the only link was by sea. Even now, sea transport has to be used because the road is closed for about four months of the year during the wet.
The cape has many national parks and they have great numbers of attractions, often only reachable by challenging 4×4 tracks. It isn’t just the Tele Track that provides a challenge, but that’s the biggie.
Thirty years with no maintenance changes a difficult track into a challenge and Australians love to test their 4×4 and motorcycle driving skills. So this route is now an icon for two and four wheel off-road fans. It’s renowned for its difficult surface and, in particular, its sometimes impassable creek crossings. It is reached via the PDR but is then bypassed for most of its length by much better, although much longer, roads. Even then, all these roads are unsealed. If you know anything about me by now, it will be that I like to have a go so the Tele Track was not to be missed.
As well as the Tele Track, Aussies like to make the journey up to the Cape York Tip, Australia’s most northerly point. It’s another iconic journey which can include the Tele Track if desired. The Gromads, towing trailers and caravans, don’t usually have that desire.
At the camp site in Cooktown I’d chatted to various people. Most campers are either on their way north to Cape York or are on the way back. Everyone is keen to share their knowledge and experience.
There are two routes that can be taken from Cooktown. The first is to head south west, inland, for the Peninsular Development Road, then north along it. This route is sealed as far as the beginning of the PDR. The second is to take a route that goes west along Battle Camp Road then either head straight for the PDR or divert north through Lakefield National park. Corrugations can be a real problem on the PDR. Road trains use it to get to Weipa, a mining town on the west coast of the peninsular.
The campers I spoke to had varying opinions. One said to stick with the PDR as it’s more scenic. Others said to avoid the PDR at all costs as it’s ‘rough as guts’. The map suggested the national park route would be more interesting so that was the decision. It seemed to me that keeping off it was the thing to do.
My ride through the Lakefield National Park was fabulous. The surface was dirt, packed down hard and with no particular challenges. That gave me the opportunity to watch the wildlife, mostly birds. White Eagles; some large, black birds which have red beneath their wings; beautiful, small green ones. At one point a large lizard ran across the track and seemed quite unconcerned when I stopped to take photos.
The track passes a couple of lagoons covered in lilies. The first one had plenty of white wading birds around the edge, feeding busily. The second one had so many lilies that the water couldn’t be seen. Unfortunately the flowers are out early in the day so there were none to be seen when I was there.
I stopped to look at Old Laura Homestead, unoccupied since the 1960’s and now a monument to the harsh life in the area. These places had to be pretty much independent, needing to be able make and mend much of their equipment. Supplies often only arrived every six months. The buildings had wooden frames with corrugated iron walls and roofs. I can’t begin to imagine how hot it must have been in the summer nor how noisy in the rain. Extremely hardy folk.
There are lots of National Park camping sites along this route but Queensland operates a stupidly restrictive system where you have to buy a permit to use them then have to pre-book a space. This can be done on-line or by phone. In most cases there is no phone signal in these areas so to travellers like me, who plan day to day, they are effectively unavailable. Very often people book them months in advance then don’t show up. Other states don’t use this system, preferring to use an honesty system and to have a ranger available to keep an eye on it.
The track eventually took me back to the PDR but just before I joined it I was passing a camping area when I spotted what I thought was a trike parked up. I turned back and headed across to it and discovered it was a Ural sidecar outfit, ridden by Karen with husband Dave as passenger. They’d ridden up from Melbourne and were doing the Tele Track. It was only a year old, nice and shiny red, with all the essential sidecar modifications on it, such as leading link forks. It looked really nice. We chatted for a while. They were waiting for some family members to arrive in a fourby. We hoped to meet again further up the track.
I joined the PDR at Musgrave Roadhouse, a convenient place to stop for the night. These places are a lifeline for travellers as they have food, fuel and camping. Some have accommodation too. They’re situated at intervals along the track, often near small communities. Truckers park up there too so they do a good trade while the road is passable. Only ten dollars for my little patch of grass and a nice, refreshing shower. Because they’re so remote though, fuel prices tend to be very high – typically 50 cents per litre more than the towns.
I bought a meal in the café and had an informative conversation with a trucker. He told me that American trucks are the most popular, usually Macks, but that they have to be built stronger for Australia, adding over two tonnes of weight in the process. Those that haul the road trains are over 600BHP but they need it as they’re pulling over eighty tonnes. By comparison, European trucks pull forty four. With three trailers on, they have a maximum length of 53.5 metres. That is one hell of a rig!
The next section of the PDR was also ‘rough as guts’ but I had another card up my sleeve. One of my maps had shown a track that went north, leaving the Lakefield track before it joined the PDR and going through the Lama Lama National Park. This, and the Lakefield NP, both come under the banner of CYPAL – Cape York Peninsular Aboriginal Land. Many of Australia’s remote areas have been returned to the indigenous tribes that used to occupy them and they now manage them for their own benefit. Some are restricted and permission has to be sought to enter them, although this doesn’t apply to the national parks, which are jointly managed by Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services. All national parks on the Cape will eventually become CYPAL.
I left Musgrave Roadhouse in the morning, retraced my route for twenty kilometres, waving to Dave and Karen as they came towards me, then turned up the track towards Lilly Vale homestead. It was nicely graded but I was passing through the cattle station and there were plenty of gates to deal with. When I came to the homestead I stopped to chat to a woman there. Her daughter was there too so I asked her about schooling for her. She is home schooled, using one of several distance learning schemes that operate in Australia. I had seen quite a few families travelling around and the woman said that many parents just take their kids out of school while they see a bit of their country. There appears to be no embargo against doing this, it seems. Very different to the UK.
The terrain was mostly light scrub, with some bigger trees among it. I saw some emus, kangaroos and a good variety of birds too. The track twisted around and had some tricky sections, but generally was a pleasant ride. I met two other vehicles, stopped to chat to the driver of one of them, and made good progress with the idea firmly in my mind that this route was far more enjoyable than the PDR could possibly be.
One fascinating thing I saw was plenty of Magnetic Termite mounds. In one of those interesting quirks of early discovery, naturalists realised that these very thin mounds were built on a north/south axis. For a long time they puzzled as to the reason. Why would termites want to take notice of the compass? In the end they worked out that the reason was simply to help them deal with the heat. In the morning the western side of the mound was out of the sun and therefore cool. In the afternoon the opposite was the case. The termites simply travelled along passages from one side to the other as necessary. A simple answer in the end.
The track eventually joined the road that runs from Coen, a small town on the PDR, to Port Stewart, which lies on the coast. Although in the wrong direction, I went down there for a look only to find no port to speak of and no activity. I could see a cattle station and the estuary of the Stewart River, but that was all. So I turned around and enjoyed a fast ride along the wide, well graded gravel road back to the PDR. On the straight sections it’s easy to ride at 100kph or more but you have to watch out for bends, dips and floodways. Piles of gravel can often build up on the bends, pushed out by trucks and fourbys. A good rider on a light bike would be having great fun under these circumstances, probably powering through the bends on opposite lock and in a controlled power slide. ‘That could be you Geoff,’ my imagination tells me. ‘Sod off’ my sensible head replies.
Dips occur when the road crosses a narrow creek, dry this time of year but often with a residue of stones and maybe sand. The floodways are bigger creek crossing where a concrete base has been laid. No problem with the surface but the road usually narrows down significantly at that point. So the rule is to ‘give it gas’ provided you can see what’s in front of you. It makes for interesting riding. Challenging sometimes, but fun always.
As I neared the PDR again I saw a sign saying Wunthulpu Cultural Centre, just by a turn off. Thinking there was a place to visit just up the track I took the turning. Twelve kilometres of twisty, rocky track later, having forded three creeks, I came out on the PDR opposite the building. I’d come up the old road, according to the girl inside.
I bought a coffee and read the display boards describing some history relating to the local tribe. It wasn’t very happy reading to be honest. Having been driven off the land where they lived the Aboriginals were more or less forced to work on the cattle stations that now occupied it, often for no, or very low, wages. Badly treated generally, the only positive was that it helped them maintain some contact with the land and gave them back some dignity, especially as they tended to be very good at it. Ironically their free labour helped to cement their misfortune because many of these cattle stations would have been uneconomic without them and would have shut down.
The small town of Coen contains the Sex Change Hotel, a garage-cum-supermarket and very little else. I bought a few bits I needed and carried on north, up the PDR. A nice twenty kilometres of asphalt brought me to the Quarantine Checkpoint, where all southbound traffic has to stop to check what is on board. The government is serious about stopping the spread of crop based diseases. Here they also hand out Cape York Information Packs, a very useful idea aimed at assisting northbound tourists, and full of useful and interesting information.
Off the asphalt and onto the gravel, with plenty of corrugations to ‘enjoy’. I felt sorry for the fourby drivers as it’s harder for them to avoid them, especially it they’re towing. A bike can often find a ‘chicken track’ at the edge of the road and thereby get a smoother ride. Otherwise it’s a case of keeping the speed as high as you dare so that you float over them. Whenever I saw a road train or truck coming towards me I found it best just to stop, let it go by and wait for the dust to settle. Forward vision is impossible.
Eventually I reached my haven for the night, the Archer River Roadhouse. More camping, a fish burger for dinner and a quiet night in.
The next day was spent on the PDR and although the ride was relatively short, it was very, VERY annoying. After about 50kms I came to a sealed section of road and went to check that my fuel bladder was still on top of the pannier where I’d securely strapped it that morning. It was gone! Not as securely strapped as I’d thought. I swore, loud and long, before turning back to re-ride the track. This item cost around £70 and, more to the point, I was going to need the extra fuel it carried on a future ride I had planned.
I searched the track back as far as the roadhouse, turned round and searched again. No joy. Not happy. Nothing to do but carry on. I was very fed up so when I reached Bramwell Roadhouse mid-afternoon I decided to stop for the night. This was the point at which the Tele Track began anyway and I deemed it better to tackle that on a fresh morning, in a better mood. I told the guy at the roadhouse about my loss, just in case anyone had handed it in. Later on I was chatting to some fellow campers, telling them about it too, and some of them said they’d driven past it lying in the road. So it seems that someone saw it and stopped to pick it up. No more to be said then.
When I headed on to the Tele Track next morning it was easy to see why it’s regarded as such a challenge. The surface was deformed in many places, mostly by water, although it wasn’t difficult for a single track vehicle. I felt sorry for the fourby drivers though. In return I hope they felt sorry for me because much of the surface was loose sand and, back to my Mongolia experience, off I came. Several times. Coming off is all well and good. It was a familiar routine to take my bags off the back, pick up the bike, reload my bags and carry on. Then do it again!
There were several creeks to cross on the first section of track and at the first one I saw a couple of people just hanging around. I asked them if they were going across but they said they were just watching the fun. That was my first inkling of the challenges that might lie ahead. I got over the first four creeks with no problem. One was a bit deep so I took my bags off and carried them over. Firstly to make the bike easier to handle, secondly in case I dropped the bike in the water.
What made the day stick in my memory for all the wrong reasons was a series of minor but very annoying incidents caused by the nature of the track. The second time I came off my right side pannier collided with a termite mound. They are rock hard and the impact broke all three mounting straps. One temporary repair later and I was under way. Another fall tore the bag which contained my spare riding gear. I had a another that would do the job. The track is very narrow and riding close to the edge can’t be avoided. So the third incident was when the bag with my sleeping gear in it got caught by a tree and tore the bottom out of it. I didn’t notice it until later and then discovered my silk sleeping bag liner had fallen out at the same time. I was getting a bit fed up with this!
The last time I came off, things improved. I’d just removed the luggage, prior to picking the bike up, when a couple of fourbys came up behind me. I waited until they’d stopped and let the drivers help me to pick the bike up. This was where I first met Mick and Carley, Mike and Angela and their various kids. Mick offered to take my bags, immediately making my bike far easier to handle in the sand.
I pushed on and we met again at Gunshot Creek. This is one of the ‘biggies’ in terms of Tele Track creek crossings. It was easy for me because there was a small track down the bank, the water wasn’t deep and the exit was easy. But boy, was it ever different for the fourbys! All of the access slopes had big, muddy pools at the bottom of them. The steepest slope had the least difficult pool and that was the one used by most people, despite the fact that it looked the worst. Mike went down that one and was OK. Mick chose one of the others and proved how deep the mud was by getting firmly stuck in it. Mike came round and winched him out. Then we became spectators and enjoyed everybody else’s antics. We were seriously impressed by one guy who came down the steepest slope, same as Mike had, but with a trailer attached. That took plenty of courage and finesse.
We camped at Gunshot Creek and Mick volunteered to carry my luggage to the end of the track and on into Bamaga. Fantastic! A nice, light bike to ride. I knew there were yet more difficult creek crossings further up and I was happy to have my burden eased.
Next morning we carried on and had a much better day. The track was easier, with far less sand, and the three creeks we crossed didn’t present too much of a challenge. One was shallow but with a difficult exit. Another was a bit deep but with easy entry and exit. The third had a bridge over it.
The Tele Track joined up with the PDR again for a short way. Once back on it we came to Fruit Bat Falls, on Eliot Creek. We had en told how nice they are and it’s true. They are only about a metre high but they’re quite wide and have warm and shallow pools either side of them. Great for swimming so we stayed there a couple of hours and enjoyed a nice swim.
Further on there is a camp site at Eliot Falls. We considered staying there but as we hadn’t booked sites we decided not to. The place looked empty but there’s no way of telling who might turn up later, demanding to know what you’re doing on their pitch. So we carried on up the Tele Track, not bothering to visit the falls. The northern bypass road had veered off to the left and we were on what was reckoned to be the hardest part of it. Before long we came to Canal Creek and quickly decided to stay there. The creek was really nice, with small pools for the kids to play in and little runs of fast flowing water too, easily good enough to drink. So we decided to stay for two nights. The families wanted to let their kids have some fun. That was fine by me as I had some repairs to do.
We enjoyed a very nice evening, sitting around and chatting, enabling me to get to know my new friends a bit better. As referred to previously, they had no qualms about taking their school age kids away with them for a few months. I don’t think they were using any of the distant learning facilities that Australia has. They were just happy to let them catch up when they returned. The oldest is nine so I suppose it’s not too difficult.
Next morning I set to and repaired my pannier and did a few other jobs too. Then I decided to go for a swim. Please refer to the previous blog post, Swimming Against the Tide, in order to learn about that sorry incident. I’ll pick up the story again from when I arrived in Bamaga, via Eliot Creek, a helicopter and Thursday Island hospital.
So here I am in a very expensive lodge/hotel in the small town of Bamaga. I needed the rest time to let my feet heal before I could carry on. My bike, tent and all personal gear was still at Canal Creek. The police had brought back my wallet and passport, laptop but not the charger, a phone that wasn’t my Aussie one, and the folder with my journal in it. No wash kit or spare clothes.
I spent the time writing up my exploits and watching lots of TV. Endless news programmes running two main stories. One about Adam Goodes, an Aussie Rules footballer of Aboriginal origin. The second about an expenses scandal surrounding Bronwyn Bishop,the speaker of the House of Representatives.
Goodes, a nationally acclaimed sporting figure, had been suffering racist based booing from away supporters which had got so bad he’d temporarily taken a break from the game. He is back playing now.
The expenses scandal had some interesting parallels with UK politics. First the accusations, heavily denied. Then more accusations, still denied and support given by the Prime Minister. Then a forced and hollow apology from Bishop among voices of dissent from her party colleagues. Finally, her resignation, necessary to prevent her friend the PM from being politically weakened. No different to so many scandals in Britain. It seems it’s not just language and culture we share with Aussies.
One day I was walking down to the supermarket when a couple of fourbys pulled up and out jumped Mick and Cary, Mike and Angela. They were very pleased to see me, I was delighted to see them. I’d already spoken to Mick on the hotel phone but was able to thank them all personally and apologise profusely for all the hassle and inconvenience I’d caused them. They would have none of it and assured me the important thing was that it all ended well. Mick had already mentioned a little present that Shakira had picked out and she handed me one of those small plastic squares which you stick in the rear window of your car. It said: ‘Don’t follow me I’m lost too. Where the hell is Cape York, Australia.’ Very apt and very funny. I promised it would go onto my bike as soon as possible. I hope to meet up with them again when I get down their way during my journey. They had been up to the tip and were on their way back south.
On another day I bumped into Dave and Karen again, but without their Ural. It seems it had broken down as they crossed a creek, with water getting into the electronic controls. My first surprise was to learn that Urals now have electronics. Whatever next! I could only sympathise with them and I hope to see them again when I get to Melbourne.
On Sunday I had a good, long talk with Brad, my police rescuer – as already described – and while I was there got a lift back to Canal Creek organised. On Monday I was taken up there by Alex and I was finally reunited with Doris and all my camping gear. Everything was exactly as I, and the police, had left it apart from the tent now being occupied by a small colony of ants. ‘Tenants’, as one of my friends commented. Nice one Bruce.
Alex had agreed to take some of my gear back so I got all that sorted out so he could leave and then got one with packing away my tent etc. I got talking to some people who were camping nearby and they said because no-one came back to the tent the previous night they’d contacted the National Park Ranger that morning to find out if the occupant was OK. They were assured he was. How nice of them. I’d already felt the benefit of the sense of community this journey creates among people on the Tele Track, and this was another example of it.
I took the bypass road on the way back to Bamaga, my feet being too sore to attempt the final part of the track. On the way I called round to have a look at Eliot Falls. After all that drama I wanted to make sure I actually saw them. The ride included crossing the Jardine River via the ferry. It is run by, and for, the Aboriginal community and is very expensive, considering the river is about twenty metres wide and the ferry takes three minutes to cross it. $39 return for a bike, $99 for a car. It seems pretty outrageous but the money goes to the community so I suppose it’s worth it. Maybe.
Back at the police station I sorted out my gear, loaded it onto the bike and finally set off to complete my journey to the Cape York Tip.
I didn’t have far to go as my destination was a campsite on the seashore in Punsand Bay. A delightful place where swimming in the sea could have been a real pleasure if it wasn’t for the crocs waiting to take snaps of you – and not with a camera.
The final leg of the journey up to the Tip took place next morning, using a short cut track which was good fun in a sandy, creek crossing kind of way. The terrain was very pleasant, riding through sun dappled woods on a very nice morning. There was a car park near to the beach and the final walk could be taken up and over a hill or, as the tide was out, along the beach and up onto the promontory where the sign was mounted. I chose the beach.
There were various people there, taking photos of the sign. I took some for a nice couple, they took some for me. We all milled around, admiring the scenery and enjoying the moment. I’ve now been to the east and north tips. West next, and then south.
I climbed the hill behind the promontory, where there were plaques and memorials attached to a monument, which people had left to remember loved ones. The views out across the bay were stunning on such a sunny day. There are islands close to the shore which also looked pretty damn nice too.
When I’d climbed down to the car park, I was just leaving when I met another biker. Scott is Canadian and is on a three month break from his Tasmanian job as an Adventure Activity Guide. He’s riding a BMW GS650 and as he was also staying at the campsite we agreed to meet up later.
Another very nice ride through the wood, but forgoing the sandy track, got me back to my tent. Time to make coffee and relax. My feet felt pretty good, despite all the walking in my riding boots. I stayed there three days in total and enjoyed some nice chats with Scott while catching up on some writing and generally relaxing. It was strange to think that a week earlier I had been swimming against the tide.