I’m going to have to warn you straight up, there are going to be a lot of photos of rocks in this one. A lot! Like, seriously lots and lots.
While travelling between the East and West McDonnell Ranges, we stopped through Alice Springs and met a Sunny Coast couple who had relocated to Alice and taken over The Overlanders Steakhouse Restaurant. So we booked a table for the night of our reunion with The Stolls. That booking was then expanded to include The Tafai family, who we met at Palm Valley the day before.
It was great to see The Stolls, although I was reluctant to give them a hug after five days out bush without a shower and mostly two changes of clothes (I had to layer up due to the cold). What a fun night. We laughed till our cheeks hurt, thrust our hips around to the ‘home among the gum trees’ song and tried to pass Sol Tafai off as ‘The Rock’ on social media. A few people fell for it but most saw through my bluff.
We travelled to Kings Canyon Resort and took in the magnificent views from the Rim Walk at Kings Canyon. Rainer did the hard yards carrying Nathan up the steep ascent at the beginning. Craig also ended up doing some hard yards as Amelie decided to run up the climb. It could be that we’ve been watching a few Rocky films and she’s inspired to push herself or it could be that she chose to wear shorts, t-shirt and a flimsy jumper and needed to warm up! The rest of us were feeling the cold especially on the windy sections and were rugged up in puffy jackets, beanies and gloves. As Amelie and Craig reach the top of the steep section, she turns to her slightly out of breath father who had to actually work to catch her and said “I want to be an athlete when I grow up”. She is changing her mind about what she wants to be every week but I’m loving her choices, astronaut, teacher, doctor, scientist, veterinarian and now athlete.
Cotterral’s lookout was worth the extra walk and rewarded us with spectacular views. The other side trip we did was Eden’s Garden. That place was very serene, with remnants of rainforest vegetation a stark contrast to the red rock and spinifex. The Creek walk was blocked so we scrambled around the barricades and boulder hopped along the creek for a while.
Kathleen Springs was just down the road so after an epic days walking already, we made the kids do some more. It was an easy walk with cattle mustering ruins, hairy caterpillars, piggybacking bugs, “what are they doing dad?” along the way. At the end is a small waterhole. I didn’t read the sign and was imagining how much fun it would be to jump down from the cliff into the waterhole. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT jump into the water. I was quickly put in my place by Craig who read the sign about the aboriginal legend where they believe the Dreamtime serpent lived there and if you swam in the water, the water would dry up.
We’re off to The Rock! Craig got a little excited, as did we when he pointed out Uluru and then got on the UHF and pointed it out to the Stolls. About 5minutes passed before it twigged that it was actually Mt Connor. Common mistake apparently.
Uluru a.k.a ‘The Rock’ is impressive. Almost as impressive as the two backpackers in onesies, cooking pancakes for breakfast in the parking lot. Seriously, Uluru has a feeling of ‘something’. I don’t know if it’s the enormity of it or is there a sense of spirituality? Okay, now for the big question – did we climb it? No, we didn’t. The kids really wanted to, Craig had climbed it many years ago and I was in two minds about it. We had a healthy discussion about why the local aboriginals don’t want you to climb it and should you be able to. On the actual day the decision was taken out of our hands as the climb was closed due to forecast rain. The small walks along the bottom were great with informative signs of how the aboriginals used the small caves and overhangs, and explained some legends and stories about the rock. The majority of the base walk did not have much info and was very restrictive about photographing certain sections.
We all agreed Kata Tjuta was awesome! Walking in and among such large formations of rock offered great views pretty much everywhere you looked. It was also a fun walk with steep sections and a bit of bouldering. I don’t really know what else to say about this place that would do it justice. If I could whisper in print I would whisper “I liked it better than Uluru”. Shhhh.
At the Yulara campground Laura and I headed off on the bikes to buy groceries. Riding the fat boy bike definitely increased my street cred. Wearing a helmet, any helmet, leaves me looking like a mushroom as I have a small head and long neck so it all evens out. The point is, I felt cool even though I stopped and got off to ‘jump’ the gutters. Riding along however, people were giving the fat tyres appreciative nods and smiles. A gap toothed local gave me a massive grin and said ‘wicked!’ We met basketballer Joe Ingles who I let have a ride on the fat boy. Didn’t know who the hell he was and as usual was being cheeky. Laura found out he was competing at the Olympics and I said “Well, I suppose I’d better get a photo with you. You might be famous one day.” Laura googled him later and he earns over $2million US dollars playing for a team in the States. That and making the Australian Olympic team… yeah he might be famous… one day! Joe (sounds very casual), Mr Ingles (no, too formal), you know who I mean, anyway he loved the bike, so if you see any photos of him riding a fat boy, it’s because of Craig’s bike.
Laura suggested doing a dot painting class with an aboriginal elder. I thought this was a great idea. Alice spoke in her native language, drew and explained the art symbols in the sand while a University graduate translated for us. Each painting pretty much tells a story. At Hermannsberg in the Western McDonnell Ranges, we saw many paintings depicting the story of the ‘Seven Sisters‘. We were told to tell our own story in a painting. Now, I love playing with art but I didn’t do so well at dot painting. I think, I tried to tell too much of a story in one painting. Painting dots of a uniform size was a challenge and I couldn’t believe how long it took to paint dots. The kids really enjoyed it and it was great to see everyone’s story interpretation.
Our time with The Stolls, is coming to an end. We’ve seen so many rock formations together that it seemed fitting our last campsite together was near The Devil’s Marbles. After a pub dinner and kids playing in the starry light display the only thing we had left to do on this adventure with The Stolls was race to see who’d leave first in the morning. Stolls won!
We loved hanging out with those guys and while it was sad to part ways, they were looking forward to an island adventure before heading home, and we were dead keen to visit all the Top End has to offer!
Tent, check. Sleeping bags, check. Remainder of camping equipment, check. East MacDonnell Ranges here we come! Ruby Gap is as far east as the Ranges go and we decided to make that our first stop. All the guides advise this track is only for high clearance 4wd with experienced drivers. Our Ranger has stock road tyres and standard suspension. High clearance as defined by the National Parks is 20cm clearance from the ground. We’ve got 23cm so technically we make it even though we are locked and not lifted! The experienced drivers bit is debatable. After our Cape York adventure we are feeling a little more confident at being able to explore this track. Now when I say ‘we’, I mean Craig, he’s the one doing all the driving!
Another car arrives while we are filling in the camping permit at the track entrance. They go through first while the kids and I venture down to the riverbed. The kids are picking up garnets that are littered across the top of the sand. There are millions of them, all quite small but the kids have got the fever upon them and are scooping up as many as they can stuff into their pockets. Hence the name Ruby Gap. Early settlers mistook the garnets for Rubies.
The track and gorge
The 4wd warning
Driving along the sandy creek bed we caught up to the other car so we piggyback the lead along the track, keeping an eye out for each other on the more difficult sections. The track consisted of a steep water crossing, lots of bouldering and sections of driving through deep river sand. I hate to admit that my heart was in my mouth and every time we scraped along a boulder or banged on a rock I either said ‘Shit’ or made a high pitched intake of air sound. I was worried that we would do some damage to the fuel tank or something serious and be a looong way from getting towed out! Mostly it was the side steps copping the bangs as they are quite low. We made to the the end of the track where a sign stated ‘No vehicles beyond this point’. Fair enough. We had a beautiful camp spot uphill from the river and enjoyed the sun reflecting off the red cliffs and the sound of a babbling stream. Note to self, as nice as a babbling stream is, it also make me want to pee more often than usual. The kids continued to collect garnets and I’m sure Xav was thinking of how much money he was going to make. We had to break it to him that they were all too small to cut and polish therefore not of any value.
Just after the crack of dawn we set off on foot to check out Glen Annie Gorge. We crossed creeks, walked through scrub, mud and more river sand until the water and cliffs cut us off from going any further. Despite the earlier sign, there were car tracks quite far into the gorge. A couple of guys with cameras asked us about the gorge and when we told them it was nice they said with their heavy Eastern European accents “No! We will not walk further!” Okay then. They had parked near our vehicle and as we were taking it pretty slow offered that they could go first “No! You can go first”. Okay then.
We shifted camp to Trephina Gorge for a night. Who should turn up but ‘The Eastern Europeans’ with wives and teens in tow. Of course I go over and say hi. Why? Not sure if I’m friendly or weird. Possibly a mix of both. I asked the not so friendly guy from yesterday where they are from and he says with his heavy accent “Australa. Why?” Unfriendly and a smart-arse. It was a fine line to remain friendly or flip him the bird. Seeing as we were sharing the same camp ground, best to let it slide. Anyway it turns out they are from a country that borders Russia and perhaps that was why he was a bit cagey. Probably had some secrets or were on a mission or are in hiding. A healthy imagination is a good thing okay. Anyway, we then refer to them as ‘The Russians’ and use our best KGB accents.
We get up early to climb around the gorge. The kids are killing these walks. I’m timing them and they are undercutting the estimated walk time with a fat margin!
Now I haven’t mentioned how cold it was getting a night. Let’s just say, I was waking up grumpy every fricken morning! There is that saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”. I’m sure there’re exceptions but in our case it’s probably true. Planning which clothes to take while still on the sunny, warm Sunshine Coast, I’d probably underestimated how many cold nights in a tent we’d be having. In an effort to get warm at night I was wearing a singlet, tshirt, a long sleeve shirt, a jumper, ‘active wear’ tights, tracky-daks, flanny pj bottoms, two pairs of socks AND shoving my feet down the sleeves of a second jumper, and only then getting inside my sleeping bag. The area was very picturesque and I did want to explore it, so it was just a case off having to suck it up and lasting through a few cold nights.
A hop through Alice to restock on groceries and we are out to the West McDonnell Range. Simpson’s Gap was just a quick stop which ends at a small waterhole and very narrow gap. A cranky ranger yelled at some guys who had climbed the rocks. Fair call, there were signs that asked you not to as they are the habitat of the rock wallaby. One portly fellow was having all sorts of trouble getting back down from atop a large rock he’d climbed and I know it’s wrong, but it made me laugh. He had none of the characteristics of the nimble rock wallaby. He was desperately trying to get down after being roused on and was stretching his legs trying to make his feet touch the ground. His butt cheeks were holding onto the rock. His friends were trying to assist by holding his hands, but I think he actually needed to use them to lift his butt cheeks up. Definitely not PC to find this amusing but probably karma for not respecting the wildlife.
Setting up camp at Ellery Creek Big Hole we bump into a group of three families from the kids’ school. Kids had fun catching up with some old friends. The Rock pool was really cool actually pretty fricken cold. In the afternoon the light reflecting of the high walls of rock felt magical. We met some Larapinta walkers and it was fun to hear of their adventures and discuss lightweight gear. All of us want to do it! Kids may have to wait a couple of years but Craig and I could have a practice run. As long as one set of grandparents would be available for duty. Anyone? Anyone?
Passing on the temperature to the Larapinta Trail hikers.
Ellery Creek Big Hole
Ellery Creek Big Hole
Ellery Creek Big Hole
We ducked into Ormiston Gorge for a walk and some lunch where the local spinifex pigeons were hopeful of a few crumbs. We explored Redbank Gorge and a couple of times we thought we were at the end but decided to check out what was on the other side of the next set of boulders. We finally got to a point where we could walk no further and a large pool of water that disappeared through a narrow crack in the gorge. If you had a Li-Lo you could probably float through but nothing bigger. While we were enjoying the scenery we were lucky enough to spot two super agile rock wallabies on the other side of the gorge. Walking out, who do we see, none other than ‘The Russians’! Now I think they are following us. The fact that they are tourists just like us is more probable but also boring. So I greet them with “Ah, it’s the Russians!” This did elicit a couple of grins from a few of them and one of the ladies and I exchanged greeting kisses. Okay, highly likely they are not KGB.
There is a free camp opposite to Glen Helen Lodge called 2-mile, which is along the Finke River. It’s mostly driving on coarse sand and you just pick a spot, any spot. It was beautiful and peaceful there, and probably my favourite campsite in the Western Ranges.
Time to tackle Palm Valley. We set up our tent and get ready to go four wheel driving. We come to the first river crossing and two cars are stopped in front of us. We get out to check it out and it does look a bit sketchy. To get across requires a couple of tight turns that you can’t see as the path is under water. If you venture off the path you risk your wheels falling over the edge and getting stuck. A guy waiting with his family asks if he can follow us through as he’s not very experienced. Ha! It’s the blind leading the blind, or as Craig said the ‘Beginner Advanced’ leading the ‘Beginner’!
Craig and I have a pretty good walkie talkie system going when backing the van into caravan parks so we decide to use this system on the track. I’m barefoot in the water with walkie talkie in hand and he’s on the UHF in the car. “Right, now left, left, straight, you’re clear! Go, go, go.” So we continue this with me talking Craig over the obstacles and then the next family vehicle. It works well for us but I then have to jog barefoot back to our car to the next obstacle. I suspect Craig was sneaking in some cardio training for me as the distances he was stopping at seemed to get further and further along. We made it to the end with no complications and see a tour bus with complications. The cabs over and a mechanic is hard at work. We can’t offer any mechanical assistance but did offer use of the satellite phone if needed. No, they are all good, so we head off on our walk. The other family we were with were so nice we ended up walking and chatting the whole way.
We get back to camp and get a call on the UHF from the tour bus asking if anyone had a satellite phone. They broke down again! I bet the patience of some of the passengers was running thin by then. Craig drove off to take the sat phone to them. In the end they had to leave the bus and another one came out to collect all of the passengers.
Back at camp the kids of the family we met were of a similar age and all got on really well. We all hung out after dinner and worked out we’d be in Alice Springs together the next night when we planned to meet the Stolls. We made plans for Alice and packed up early after our last cold night in the McDonnell Ranges.
In hindsight, if we did the East and West McDonnell ranges again, we might have set up camp in a central location and drive out to each spot from our base location. It would have saved us much time with set-up and pack down of the tent, airbeds etc. However, like teenagers at their first all you can eat dining experience, we couldn’t help trying out all the different camp sites and staying at all those different camps was pretty good, so maybe not.
Hermannsberg was an interesting little town we stopped into on the way back to Alice Springs. It is also the birthplace of Albert Namatjira. His story is an interesting one and we visited his little two room home.
Lutheran Pastor Carl Strelow, was one of the first settlers to take an interest in the local aboriginals. He studied their culture and documented their language. The locals respected him and his son very much. So much so, that they gave them tribal skin names.
We are hooking up with The Stolls in Alice for our next adventure to the big rocks! The Red Centre stories shall continue…
Old Telegraph Track. Wakefields crossing in ‘Blue Thunder’
Old Telegraph Track. Maskiell’s crossing in ‘Ecto 1’
Bramwell Station is pretty much the last bit of civilisation before you hit the Old Telegraph Track (OTT). It is a working cattle station that also does a bit of road grading and tourism. Being novices at 4WDing, the plan was to mainly stay on the Peninsular Development Road (PDR) and head in to bits of the track we thought we could handle. So first thing we did was have a gander at the first crossing many people were talking about, the Palm Creek crossing.
We start along the track and there is a pretty rough section that had an easier looking side track. We took the easy track with The Wakefields following behind. Craig gets on the UHF and says “I think we made the right choice”. Amelie is sitting in the back, arms folded, wearing her poopy face and says “I think it was the sad choice!” The girl wants action and adventure! To bad if we break the car and end our holiday before we’re even a third of the way through it!
A small tributary possibly from Palm Creek is our first water crossing on the track and there is no ‘chicken track’ around it. Amelie is excited. The creek is a tiny, little stream but the crossing has been reduced to a big, muddy puddle. Craig checked it for hidden potholes and across we went. The kids loved it and were “Woo Hooing” in the back.
After a bit of a bumpy ride we reach Palm Creek. The track descends as a thick, muddy, sludge of road into a shallow, rocky, clear creek. The water itself wouldn’t have been a challenge. The challenge is getting out! There were two exits, one looked impossible and the other looked impossible-er! Very steep, soft and muddy. Craig and the kids start walking down towards the creek and all of a sudden they are playing a game of ‘Stuck in the Mud’ for real! Shoes, thongs and feet were stuck fast in the oozy track.
There was a walking track further around the bank with a wicked rope swing. If you swung into the creek from the bank, it would mean a long drop into some pretty shallow water. I’m talking ankle deep to calf deep! After checking for crocs in the clear water, everyone got busy washing their feet and footwear before we headed back to camp. Later in our trip we met a few people who tackled this crossing and pretty much everyone towing had to use all the recovery gear they had to get out the other side.
With the rain still looming we opted to use cabins at Bramwell Station for the night. The cabins aren’t much chop, but dinner was good! A great big feed of ‘not just boiled’ veggies along with an assortment of meats. All of the roadhouses and stations here in the Cape employed backpackers to work the season. It was at first a little shocking to see young English girls out in the middle of he bush with limited communications, flies, mozzies and crocs. Welcome to Australia!
A young Isreali girl here at Bramwell let the kids help bottle feed some abandoned calves. They also petted the horses, so now after horses at Hann River and here, every little girl wants a horsey. Fat chance Amelie. It ain’t gonna happen! We spent the night listening to some decent live music and playing card games. The Wakefields also had ‘Elastics’ and Renee even remembered the rhyme that goes with all the jumping, “England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Inside, Outside, Monkey tails.”
We head north on the PDR for a while until we venture in on the Telegraph Track to have lunch and a swim at Fruit Bat Falls. A short bit of track information for those who have never been – the road to the falls is short and easy with dedicated parking for trailers and ample space for you to turn around. The falls themselves were fantastic! Clear, cool, nice to swim in and pretty to look at. A definite must see up here.
We drove through to Bamaga, passing many wild brumbies along the way. How and why Brumbies are rampant just at this section of the tip, I cannot say. Our campsite was about 30km out of Bamaga and we stopped where the good road stops, at The Croc Tent. It is literally a large white tent with a feral, mohawked and pierced pig statue out the front keeping his croc and domestic pig statues company. The tent is full of souvenirs and doubles as an Information Centre. While it was fun to browse the croc t-shirts, the croc postcards, the croc feet back-scratchers and men’s croc g-strings, the information on the area map and local advice on which roads are worth tackling and which roads to avoid was invaluable.
The road to Punsand Bay is a bit rough but worth the destination. The campground fronts a beautiful sandy beach where you see reflections of both the sunrise and sunset over the water. It’s pretty hot and there’s still a bit of humidity hanging in the air. Once we’ve settled in, it’s togs on, towels over the shoulder and we head to the pool. The excitement ebbed away as we got closer to the red plastic tape surrounding what was supposed to be the pool area. The evidence that it was in fact the pool area, is an empty shell of a pool submerged in a sandy hole. There is no alternative to cooling off, as the beach and creeks are home to estuarine crocodiles.
I’ve got to talk about the bar area because 3 out of 4 of our family love pubs remember! It’s got a great name, ‘The Corrugation Bar’. Apt after all the corrugated roads and the use of corrugated iron sheets in the construction of the bar. A popular place for the staff, guests and tour groups at the end of the day.
The walk to the tip felt nostalgic even though I’d never been there before. Many of my ex-military friends have gone on exercise to Bamaga and walked over the same rocks and stood at the same sign. These people were in my thoughts for much of the walk. The view of the clear azure waters and surrounding islands was pretty magnificent. The islands are so close, the water so inviting, that the temptation to dive in and swim across is hard to resist. Crocs and a few lingering stingers kept that temptation in check. Craig also pointed out the strong current which would have made the swim across to the opposite sandy beach quiet treacherous.
A few people told me they had stayed at the resort up at the tip and I’m sorry to say it is now derelict. Apparently a fire in the generator shed destroyed the generator building and the resort was abandoned.
Somerset is a short drive from the tip of Cape York and is steeped in history. The Jardine family had a lot to do with the early settlement of the area. Frank Jardine nick-named ‘debil-debil Jardine’ by locals. The guide books and historical writings say he was named that because of his ‘ruthless dealings’. No doubt the man got a lot of stuff done but sounds like he must have been a right bastard too. Frank and his wife Sana are buried at Somerset, along with many asian settlers.
The ferry to Thursday Island leaves from Seisa, near Bamaga, and took us past many of the small islands and the very large Prince of Wales Island. Thursday Island itself is bustling with 3000 people living on the island. The pearling industry died out after buttons went from pearl shells to plastic, yet it is still a place with a lot of employment opportunity. The large number of residents is due to the many government agencies, a crayfish industry, tourism and the hospital which services all of the Torres Straight islands and much of the Cape York area. The residents of TI seemed to take real pride in their town and homes, which was not so evident on the mainland.
Dirk from Lax Charters and Tours took us on a personalised tour of Thursday Island which was great. He was born here and lives on Prince of Wales Island. A true local! He showed us through the crayfish factory, talked about a traditional drum, gave us a sample of some pickled fish, talked about their local burial customs and hunting practices. As I come from European stock and food is a very important part of my culture, of course I asked all the important questions, “what does turtle taste like?”, “what about dugong?”. Oh, and for all of my relatives the pickled fish was delicious. Not sure I remembered how he prepared it, but I might email and ask.
Dirk also taught us how to do the ‘Lax’ hand sign, which uses your right hand’s pointer finger parallel to the ground and your thumb toward the sky. Show the back of your hand to the recipient so they see the letter ‘L’ and say “Lax” with attitude. I can see why Dirk has used this for his business name and it pretty much sums up the tour. There is no polished script or formal program. He goes with the flow of the group that he has got and we were pretty happy to have been shown around by him. I might even drag Faz around to show us where he was born… probably in the hospital. It’d be a better story if it wasn’t.
Time to head out of the bush and back to civilisation. We couldn’t resist another swim at Fruit Bat Falls. Found another spot to jump off the rocks and into a deeper section of the pools. It was fun and the adults were jostling with the kids to have a go. The little turtle we spotted there earlier probably wasn’t so pleased about it!
Decide to tackle the Telegraph Track down to the northern Gunshot bypass. Most people drive the OTT from south to north so we would be going against the 4wd flow which can make passing tricky on such narrow and rough tracks. We check the map notes and our first creek, Sailor Creek is bridged. Sweet! Should be easy. We get there and are confronted with a picturesque wooden bridge with a great, big, friggen, gaping hole in it! The photo doesn’t depict the horror, honestly it was way worse than it looks! The only way across is to guide the wheels over the exposed support beam. Front wheels over, back wheels over, go, go, go! Guiding Pete with the trailer was even more nerve wracking! The responsibility of not stuffing this up weighed on me. I needed a stiff drink and unfortunately didn’t stock up before we left Bamaga! Thankfully Renae over catered with her cans of cider, has a goon bag of wine in reserve and is generous in sharing!
Onwards along the track to Cockatoo Creek. This one looks a little technical! It’s not deep, but it’s got a very rocky and uneven bottom with big potholes. We walked it several times and decided on the best line to take tomorrow. We set up camp on the northern side where there is a large undercover picnic table area and even some toilets. Unfortunately the small water tank is empty and the pipe to flush the foot pump toilets has been pulled out of the ground and was broken. Nothing a bucket of water or a really, really long wee can’t remedy to get the loo paper down!
We had packed all of our camping gear and clothes etc in the back of the ute. Every time the boys were talking about something camping or car related, Craig said “I have one of those” and would pull it out of the car. Pete would say “Really! What else have you got in there? It’s like the Tardis”, which eventually got nicknamed “The Cardis”.
While we were setting up camp we heard a 4wd approach. A guy got out walked the creek pretty carefully and we all stood on the bank to watch him cross. He picked the same line we did and with a bit of rocking and rolling got out the other side okay. Up next a convoy of four 4wds with trailers. This would be good to watch as the Wakefields are towing a trailer and we can see how these guys fare. Everyone seems to be more experienced than us with this 4wding gig and we look on with keen interest. The first few cars came out alright, not great but still okay, but the last guy took a totally different line and was scraping his car and trailer all along the rocks. Just went to show that those guys may be more experienced than us, perhaps not necessarily more wise.
This was a great camp and a great night. We enjoyed a spectacular light show in the clouds as the sun set. I was singing the praises of paper towel (a staple item to take camping) and said “Paper towel! What can’t it do?” Cue smart-arse older children, “It can’t fly”, “It can’t swim”, “It can’t make you dinner” etc. Noticing how this gave me the sh!ts, they promptly set about writing a list called ’50 things paper towel can’t do’. They didn’t stop at just a list. Oh no, no, no! They made up a story about the failings of ‘Jimmy the paper towel’ and turned it into a book. Bloody kids!
Craig started up a game of slaps with the kids. Now, I am going to blow some wind up my own butt here and say, I’m pretty good at this game. The kids eventually all wanted to challenge me at some stage. Alex really loved the game and he was pretty good at it too. Lauren and Xavier also tried their hand (literally). Slap! Slap! Slap! Take that you paper towel smart arses!
Another car crossed the creek the next morning and now it was our turn. Craig was so keen to cross he didn’t notice that I was still walking across trying not to slip over carrying the tripod and his iPhone! So no evidence of his crossing but I caught the Wakefields journey across.
About 95kms before we get to Coen, a road train throws up a rock and smashes our windscreen. One word, starts with F, it ain’t ‘fudge’ and rhymes with ‘bark!’ It’s too big to self repair but thankfully out of Craig’s direct line of vision. We arrive at a free camp called The Bend which is just out of town. It’s got a drop loo, a couple of bins and a creek you can swim in. We decide to cross the creek and camp on what is essentially a sandy, dry river bed. The sand is deep, grainy and very, very soft. Pete almost, but doesn’t quite make it out the other side, the sand is too soft and his rig is too heavy. Max tracks and a shovel to the rescue! The boys had prepared well for contingencies, so it was kind of fun to use a bit of recovery gear.
This would have to be one of the nicest spots we camped at. Bonus points for actually being able to get into the water! Apart from Fruit Bat Falls, this has been the only place we could swim at. The kids were catching tadpoles, we enjoyed lazing in the water and washed our hair in a bucket on the bank of the creek. Another bonus was we got mobile reception there, so Pete and I were posting some happy snaps of the family in the water on social media.
That night we turned off all of our camp lights and gazed at the millions of stars twinkling back at us. Mars could be seen clearly and we even saw a few shooting stars. It’s one of those nights we will all remember fondly.
Early on the 30th of May, I received a phone call from my sister. It appeared the country was waking up to the news that a woman in her mid 40s had been taken by a croc in Cape York… and my sister was just checking in to make sure it wasn’t me! Remember that just the day before I’ve posted photos of the family swimming in a water hole up at the Cape. Texts, messages and posts on Facebook were all trying to confirm the same thing and provide warnings. “It wasn’t you was it Suarez?” It wasn’t me! After living in Darwin for a couple of years, I have a healthy respect for the prowess and strength of the saltwater croc. You can translate that into I’m bloody shit scared of them and wouldn’t ever put myself in their territory on purpose. It’s a terribly sad event for this woman, her family and friends, however it must be said she was engaging in incredibly risky behaviour.
You can never be too safe anywhere but here was the scenario for us indulging in a dip. The Bend is a known swimming spot that is listed in the travel sites. When we arrived, we saw a large family of locals enjoying a picnic and a swim, and I asked them if the creek was safe which they confirmed it was. I know this is still not a 100% guarantee but it’s as good as you can get. The local guy at the servo who has lived in Coen all of his life has never seen or heard of a saltwater crocodile at that swimming hole. He did say a 1m freshie was found there once, but the locals caught it and ate it! I would too. Crocodile meat is quite delicious. I’m hoping there is still an opportunity to get a croc burger up in Darwin.
Another stop over at Cooktown allowed the kids to have a dip in the pool, access to real showers and toilets, and washing machines. Just in time too, we were out of clean undies. Craig was pretty stoked to have access to a washing bay and hose to get the red mud off the car. The two toned red and white look has gone and the car is shiny white again. It was kind of sad to see all the mud go. Felt like the car lost some of it’s Cape cred.
The next morning saw us pack up camp just before the rain came and make our way towards an even rainier Cape Tribulation along the Bloomfield track. We hoped to stay at Cape Tribulation for the night because it was such a nice spot. Neither family wanted to set up camp in the rain and decided to push on straight to Cairns. The Bloomfield track was pretty wet, slippery, it’s got trees and branches down and the last creek crossing almost made us have to change our undies! Just before we hit it, a convoy of three 4wds heading north asked us what the track was like further up. We gave them the run down and they told us the creek was flowing but they got across okay.
About 5 minutes later we get to the creek and it’s flowing alright! We go first and I’m trying to video it through the windscreen. When the water rushed over the bonnet and hit the bottom of the windscreen I started ‘packing my daks’ and my concern for the quality and steadiness of the camera was replaced with thoughts of which side of the car we should jump out of! The car was moving forward but it was also moving sidewards! We were pretty relieved when the front wheels hit the other side and we drove out. Now the worry was transferred to the Wakefields who had to do the same thing but with the added length of a trailer. They saw us cross and allowed for drift. Even so, the trailer came out with only a small margin of room to get passed the tree on the other side. Lucky neither family was in a Yaris. Apparently they float in 15cm of water! I’m guessing that will be our last water crossing for a while and maybe even for the rest of our trip, but who knows our luck in the outback!
Now that we’ve been up to the top of The Cape and back, we would absolutely consider doing it again. It was a fantastic experience. Maybe once we have a bit more experience under our belt and with a few more modifications to the car. We went pretty easy as we were mindful of not wrecking the car that was needed for the rest of our adventure. Speaking of which, see you at the next blog about the Savannah Way.
CAIRNS was our base for a few days before we left for the Cape and also when we got back. I’ll leave all of the Cairns info for our return journey but will share this little ditty Craig told me on the drive there…
The last time Craig came to Cairns was in 1994 when he was working as the fitness coach for an AFL club. It was an end of season footy trip to Cairns, with an organised boat trip to the reef. You know those bonding type of team things. A large number of players turned up the morning of the boat trip doing the walk of shame, still wearing their clothes from the nightclubs they’d been to the night before. Families were looking on in horror as their disheveled fellow passengers shuffled on board.
The boat gets out into the open water and a few guys start to look seedy. One of them breaks ranks, runs to the end of the boat and starts heaving his guts up. Well, that starts off a couple of the other players and it’s a case of ‘one in, all in’. One guy was so crook, he was begging the boat captain to help him charter a helicopter to get him off the boat!
The boat trip finally ends and the players all disappear to their rooms to recover. One player wasn’t seen for 24hours while another, who was sick for the entire boat ride, turned up after an hour, freshly showered and with a beer in hand. That’s a fine example of backing up!
The Wakefield family arrived in Cairns to join us on this leg of the journey with a schmicko looking camper trailer. Seriously, that thing had a nook and cranny for all the gizmos and gadgets. It was kind of impressive. We headed up to MOSSMAN GORGE for a swim and a lunch stop. It’d been 29 years since my last visit to Mossman Gorge. I remember how beautiful it was and how cold and refreshing the water was. It’s still very beautiful and the water is still cold. By cold, I mean inhaling sharply as the water reaches critical heights on your body. Best bet was to plunge in like the boys and kids did.
Cape Tribulation is really quite stunning. There’s no mistaking you are in the tropics and the place is as they describe it, ‘where the rainforest meets the sea’. We arrive at our campsite and the Wakefields have lost the Anderson plug off the back of their trailer! Sound familiar? It was kind of a vital repair as it was needed to keep the battery powered to keep their fridge cool. We shift to Plan B where we cut our stay at Cape Trib from two nights to one, and push on to Cooktown where we would have more chance of getting repairs completed.
So we spent our second night’s worth of camping fees on wood fired pizzas instead. I cannot tell you how much I love the no cook, no clean nights! Sunrise on the beach the next morning was picture perfect. The secluded beach, with palm trees fringing the sand, rainforest behind it and scattered coconuts on the sand, made me think of Gilligans Island and want to break out into song. “Well sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip…” you know the rest. The kids admired the view for about two seconds by saying ‘wow’ and then went scavenging for shells, coconuts, leaves, flower pods etc.
Back at camp I noticed a sign about an RACQ mechanic a few beaches away in Cow Bay. Pete organises to meet the guy just before lunch. The mechanic wasn’t there but his wife says, help yourself to a plug and a crimping tool. So the boys set about doing a self repair which Craig had actually studied up for by watching YouTube videos after we lost our Anderson plug in Hughenden. Time to put that knowledge to the test!
Meanwhile, the mums and kids were across the road at the homemade ice cream place buying up big. Repairs complete we are about to tackle our first bit of 4wd road but not before we see a ginger boar cross the road. It did make us ponder, ‘Why did the boar cross the road?’ If you have a better punchline than ‘He was hamming it up’, ‘He liked to go for a trotter’, ‘No snout about it, he was bristling with energy’, or ‘He thought there was a chance he might get porked’, let us know!
We hit the BLOOMFIELD TRACK, our first bit of ‘kinda’ 4WDing. Not long into it we come across the first creek crossing. It was flowing and only about 40cm but still kind of exciting and the kids were loving it! The drive is really beautiful and the road is pretty narrow with some steep ascents and descents. It wasn’t too bad to drive with just a 4WD but towing something up the hills and around some tight corners increased the degree of difficulty somewhat.
Across the new bridge over the Bloomfield river at the Wujal Wujal aboriginal community is a gallery and cafe overlooking the river. A great place to stop for lunch. The fish was barramundi of course and looked so fresh I can only imagine it was caught that morning! The government spent big bucks building that bridge which ensures this community are not cut off regularly with the flood waters. The resident 4-5m crocodile Brutus even turned up to the bridge opening ceremony and had taken a dog just a week prior to us passing through. Needless to say we didn’t venture down to the banks to see if we could spot him!
We stopped at COOKTOWN on our way up to the Cape and on our way back. It’s a pretty big town and a lot of travellers seem to venture as far north as Cooktown and then head off either south east or south west. We also saw a few trucks that had obviously just returned from the cape as they were carrying their orange coat of dust with pride! The kids loved the pool with lots of games of kids being crocodile and chasing the adults around. There was a teeny tiny creek flowing through the park and the kids built tiny canoes out of bark, vines and leaves, and floating, or attempting to float them down the creek.
The James Cook Museum is worth a visit with many old artefacts and stories. The kids had a treasure hunt of things to find within the museum. Cue five kids tearing from room to room, shouting “it’s over here!” and “I can’t find the trumpet!” The other museum visitors must have been enjoying the serenity while browsing serious artefacts. There was an old children’s rhyme on the wall that is sung to the tune of Jack and Jill, “Captain Cook chased a chook, all around Australia, lost his pants in the middle of France, and found them in Tasmania”. Couldn’t get that little ditty out of my head for ages!
It was a close sprint race to the views at the top of the Cooktown lookout. I can’t actually remember who won, so I’ll say I did. The views were great and you could work out where Captain Cook’s ship hit the reef and where they came around land.
Travelling along BATTLECAMP ROAD with the Wakefields meant we had a bit of UHF chit chat. They came up with an appropriate call sign ‘Blue Thunder’. The usual warnings of oncoming trucks, potholes, creek crossings made up most of the chatter but as the days wore on we ended up having music trivia quizzes. One car would play a snippet of a song from their playlist and the other car had to guess the song title and band. Craig and Pete were really good at it. Craig was also adding a heap of additional trivia such as that song came in the top 10 in 1998, but I think he was making it up and no one had reception to check on Google!
While we had a roadside picnic lunch at LAURA the kids found an old jail cell prompting a game of ‘Jail’. The good guys outweighed the bad who were chucked in the cell and had the door shut on them. Funny how it worked out that the younger kids were the ones who were chucked in the clink! The Old Laura Homestead was pretty cool. Apart from all the old history, buildings and structures, lessons were provided on having a bush wee behind a tree. Knickers to the knees and squat!
We detoured to SPLIT ROCK to view the aboriginal art. The open mouthed looks on the children’s faces were hilarious as I pointed out the difference between the male and female art figures. If you don’t know, well suffice to say sideways boobs or dangly bits. Craig and Alex raced to the top and now it was a race to the bottom. This was interspersed with conversations about who was the loudest and where they each get in trouble for their excessive volume.
Our camp for the night was at HANN RIVER ROADHOUSE where Craig and Pete bumped into Michael and Angela who work with them in Nambour! Small place huh? There were a heap of resident animals at Hann River Roadhouse such as Ossi the emu, a peacock, guinea fowl and a few horses. The kids collected feathers and tested their bravery by feeding the crazy, one-eyed horse who was labelled as ‘unpredictable’! Craig was having running races with Alex. I’m not sure who was tiring out who!
We were still travelling on the Peninsular Development Road (PDR) and here is a list of some of the things we saw along the way; roadkill – that’s a given, cows – on and off the road, a caravan with a steer stuck under it -not something you see everyday, a cyclist – Craig had cycle envy but not dust envy, and of course a gang of moped riders. That’s right mopeds in Cape York! Complete with high pitched, whinny engine noise. Fricken mopeds! What the? I thought mopeds struggled to go over a speed hump let alone tackle Cape York.
Massive termite mounds
A cyclist eating dust
Mopeds! Fricken mopeds!
With rain on the way we abandoned the idea of camping and headed for some cabins at MERLUNA STATION just north of ARCHER RIVER. It’s a cattle property with cabins and camping grounds. We head on up to reception where the proof that it’s a real cattle property is in progress, a large leg of beef is being being butchered on the counter.
This place even had a pool! The kids on approach weren’t too impressed. Kid: “It’s not a real pool”, Me:”Yes it is! It’s an above ground pool and you’ll still get wet”, Kid: “It’s very small, we won’t all fit”, Me: “Yes you will! And it’s the perfect size to make a whirlpool!” Craig arrives and so does the fun. He’s got a kid under each arm, one on his back, and the last two end up grabbing on to make a long chain. Craig charges around the pool, with all the kids hanging on and before you can say “whirlpool” the kids are flying around caught up in the current having a great time! Now most of you know Craig was an endurance athlete and he’s still got some long range stamina. However, whirlpool trains can be exhausting and Pete happily took over the whirlpool duties. Kids didn’t care,”This pony’s broken, get the next pony in!” The pool table was another source of entertainment, where the kids proclaimed the mums were ‘having a pool battle to the death!’ After giving Renae a few technique tips and talking myself up, she kicked my arse! Luckily I lived to tell the tale.
More rain is on the way and fortunately we had booked a couple of cabins in WEIPA. It rained and rained. The people camped in tents and camper trailers, looked sad and soggy. Thanking our lucky timing for the cabins as there is nothing worse than setting up or packing up a wet tent. We went on an eco tour keen to spot some crocs. The boys met Anne who they also knew from Nambour. Again small world. I was kind of disappointed at the size of the crocs we saw, they were only about 2m from head to tail and in the scheme of crocs that’s not very big. Never mind, being out on a boat was fun and we saw a fair bit of bird life including many herons, a pair of Jabirus and the elusive Greater Billed Heron.
Between the rain showers we made Mandalas on the beach, which are not called Mandelas apparently! The kids swam in the pool, we dipped our toes in the water at the beach, and tried to spot a big croc by driving to Red Beach. Apparently a favourite hang out of a 5m croc. We didn’t spot him as we crossed the bridge, so ventured down to the river edge! Stupid bloody tourists!
There was no turning back now, even if we wanted to (not that we wanted to anyway). There’s 1m of water flowing over the crossing at Archer River, north was the only way to go. After the rain, the road out from Weipa wasn’t as smooth as we remembered on the way in, but we made it to BRAMWELL STATION and the start of the Old Telegraph Track (OTT) without incident.
Will they lose another Anderson plug? How much of the Tele track will they do? Will they eventually see a decent sized croc! Will someone tell them to get off the UHF radio and shut the hell up? Stay tuned for the next episode in ‘The Days of our Cape York Adventures’.