Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

Part 2 - Cape York and Lawn Hill

20. A Month around the Cape

When Karen and I left Sydney in April 1995, we knew that we would probably not be cycling around Australia in one continuous, single journey. It was extremely likely that our trip would be divided into different segments. By waiting for Karen's five year anniversary with Coca-Cola to arrive before we left our jobs and began cycling, we had virtually ensured that we would not have enough time to travel up the coast and across the top of Australia during the 1995 dry season. And we had no desire to cycle across tropical Australia during the Wet.

In Sydney prior to the trip, when trying to work out how far we would ride per day, and therefore how long it would take us to get to Cairns, we had worked on a daily average of sixty to seventy kilometres. This was then halved, as we estimated that on average, we would spend one day resting or doing tourist things, for every day we rode. The resultant figure of thirty to thirty five kilometres turned out to be slightly optimistic, with an actual daily average closer to twenty nine kilometres by the time we arrived in Cairns. Still, it was not a bad guess for two people whose longest previous ride had only been over a long weekend, and it only made a difference of a few days anyway.

We had calculated that if our figures were correct, we would arrive in Cairns sometime in August, and arrive back in Cairns sometime in September after touring the Cape. The only real constraint on our travelling was the Wet season. We had to be in the tropics in the winter months, and in the south in summer. If we were in Cairns in September, and had to be halfway down the Western Australian coast by December when the Wet was due to begin, we would have to travel about six thousand kilometres in three months, or almost seventy kilometres per day, every day, with no rest days, side trips or sightseeing. Because we had no intention of touring like that, it had seemed likely to us even before we began our travels that we would have to begin making our way south almost immediately after the completion of the Cape York 4WD trip in September.

There was another factor that would draw us south as well. In late 1994 we had agreed to crew on a friend's yacht for a voyage from Sydney to Lord Howe Island a year later. Realising that a year is a very long time, and that plans can change for many reasons, we had not based our planning on the certainty that the voyage would go ahead, but it was always a factor in our thinking. We stayed in regular contact with Peter, the captain of the boat, throughout 1995, and his certainty that the Lord Howe trip would go ahead never diminished. He had sailed there on six previous occasions, and as the year wore on, it became more and more likely that we would have to be back in Sydney by early December.

Kevin and Barbara arrived in Cairns a day after us, just in time for Karen's birthday on September 1st. After setting up our tents on a shared site, we spent the rest of the morning seeing what the city had to offer, visiting art galleries, shops and the NPWS, and generally just walking around the city centre. It was lovely to be chauffeured around in the car. Shortly after lunch at the Pizza Hut, Karen and I ran into a guy named Patrick who had been camped next to us on Magnetic Island four weeks earlier. It sure is a small world, we thought, still finding the coincidences remarkable, but they were gradually becoming more and more accepted and even expected. In the afternoon we shopped for supplies for the trip, including spares for the Patrol, later spending the evening celebrating Karen's thirty fourth with a couple of neighbours from the caravan park, Kevin and Lorna.

We spent one more day in Cairns, touring the Flecker Gardens, the Botanical Gardens and the Whitfield Environmental Park. Some preliminary packing was begun in the late afternoon before catching a taxi into town for drinks at the Hilton with a guy I had known for over twenty years. I had first met Brian when we were both working on the production line at the Chrysler car factory in Adelaide in the seventies. He was now a pilot with Qantas, and was in Cairns on a brief stopover. We all had dinner together at an all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant on the Esplanade named Charlie's. It was good catching up with an old friend.

Karen and Barbara packing the Nissan Patrol

The Cape York trip began early the next day. Karen and I wheeled our bikes into the backyard of the caravan park managers, who had kindly offered to store them for the four weeks or so we would be away. After goodbyes to Kevin and Lorna we were off. Just past Mount Molloy we pulled into a rest-stop for a late morning tea and were amazed to see a platypus in the adjacent creek. Perhaps even more amazing were the amenities here - absolutely the best public dunnies I have ever seen, a shining and spotless construction of white tiles and stainless steel. We also saw our first Great Bowerbird at our Palmer River roadhouse lunch-stop, an extremely common Top End bird, but a first for us. Then the dirt roads began.

My diary entry for the following day describes the roads as "fair - corrugated only thirty percent of the time, with only a few bulldust holes, but thank God we didn't ride the bikes - it would have been putrid!" And this was when the road was pretty good - it got much, much worse later on.

Split Rock aboriginal art site

Our first real encounters with aboriginal people came during the second day of the trip around Cape York, at the Split Rock art site. A young aboriginal guy was working at the site as a ranger, culture interpreter and money collector. We spoke to him at some length after viewing the art work of the rock, and he told us of the difficulties he was having with the elders of his tribe, one of whom was his grandfather. A lot of aboriginal culture was being lost because the elders were refusing to impart their knowledge, not only to white men, but also to the younger members of their own tribe. The ranger explained that in an aboriginal society, the rights to knowledge have to be earned, and each lesson is not given until the student, in the eyes of the teacher, is ready for it. Many young aboriginals, who lived in a white man's world but were still trying to follow the ways of their ancestors, were being deprived of their inheritance. It seemed such a shame, and such a waste. It was not until more than a year later that Karen and I would more fully appreciate the workings, and the shortcomings, of such a system.

A Quinkan - an aboriginal spirit

Two days later, after camping by the Archer River, we backtracked a few hundred metres to the Archer River Station for petrol, and to fix a flat tyre. After struggling to jack the car up, undo the wheel-nuts and lift the tyre off, I put my sunglasses on the ground while I took a break in the shade. Barbara promptly trod on them, smashing them completely. It was my own stupid fault. After seeing the flat tyre fixed on the Nissan, I swore that I would never again complain about flat tyres on our pushbikes. A mechanic at the station was highly efficient, removing the tyre from the rim, inserting a plug and applying a sleeve to the inside of the tubeless tyre. I'm sure glad I did not have to do all that!

The Archer River

Me, Kevin and Barbara fixing the flat

We turned off the main north-south road a few kilometres north of Archer River and headed for the Iron Range, a renowned bird watching habitat on the eastern coast of the Cape. The crossings of the upper reaches of the Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers produced no dramas. Indeed, most of the rain of the previous month had now either soaked into the ground or disappeared down the rivers into the Coral Sea or the Gulf of Carpentaria. We stayed in the area for a couple of nights, birdwatching at every opportunity. Despite sightings of a few new birds, including the frilled monarch, magnificent rifle bird and the double-eyed fig parrot, all good ticks, the prize we were after eluded us. Confined exclusively to the rainforests and savannah woodlands of Cape York, the Eclectus parrot was conspicuous by its absence. When we visited a parrot breeding centre later in our trip and saw a pair up close, Karen and I knew that if there had been any around, we would have spotted them. They are unmistakable, a surprisingly large bird with the male bright green and the female scarlet and blue. Oh well, such is life.

Our second crossing of the Pascoe, lower down the river, was a lot more adventurous than the first. Karen and I walked the river to check the depth - mid thigh - and placed sticks to show our driver the route. Barbara, the only real four wheel driver amongst us, was keen to attempt the crossing, so with everyone else watching from the opposite bank, in she went. Kevin must have felt some trepidation, probably thinking back to a previous river crossing near Yalwal, inland from Nowra, when the water had been so deep that Barbara had actually floated the Patrol at one stage, relying on the vehicle's momentum to get it across the river.

This time, however, there were no problems, except for Karen. I was following the action through the viewfinder of my camera, waiting to snap the crossing at the deepest and most crucial part of the river. At the critical moment, Karen appeared at the edge of the picture. I yelled at her to get out of the way, and she ducked down. I now have a lovely picture of Karen, head down and bum up, while in the background the Patrol has almost cleared the river.

Crossing the Pascoe

The following day we bypassed the infamous "Gunshot", a steep sided creek crossing where many vehicles have come to grief, and took a couple of small detours to Eliot and Twin Falls. These were the scenic highlight of the Cape York trip. Cool, crystal clear water and a starkly brilliant sunny day combined to polarise the scene, making for impressive viewing and photos. For such a huge area, the Cape has surprisingly few spectacular features.

Eliot Falls

Canal Creek proved a surprisingly difficult crossing. The tyres on the Patrol were more suited to highway or sandy driving than to muddy and slippery creek banks - I was driving at the time so that is my excuse and I am sticking to it. The corrugations on all of the roads we had travelled, the main road, the bypass road and Frenchman's Road had begun to get on everyone's nerves. Just before the Jardine River, they were truly atrocious.

Our second encounter with aboriginal "culture" came at the Jardine River ferry crossing. At the river, which must be crossed in order to reach the tip of Cape York, the traveller has two choices, to cross via the ferry, or to risk a crossing through the water. During the dry, the water in the river reaches a low enough level for the intrepid four wheel driver to attempt such crossings. And with the sixty metre return trip on the ferry costing eighty dollars, there was a sound financial reason to consider the alternative. We were not tempted at all, however. There are saltwater crocs in the Jardine River, and people have been taken at the crossing. It would not be pleasant to reach the middle of the river only to stall the engine. None of us fancied the wade or the swim back to the shore for help.

Jardine River ferry

So we opted to pay the money. We parked the car near the ferry and waited. A few minutes later an aboriginal gentleman sauntered down towards us from a cabin further removed from the river. He was in uniform, but was barefoot, wore a headband, and his shirt was completely unbuttoned revealing a belly of generous proportions. He took our eighty dollars without a smile or a thank you, handed us our bag of information and a permit to camp anywhere on native land in the Cape York area, and wandered off in the direction of the ferry. We hopped back in the car and followed, feeling ripped off.

The next day we drove to the most northerly carpark on mainland Australia, walked through the most northerly rainforest over the most northerly boardwalk, traversed the most northerly headland and arrived at the most northerly point. The surroundings are fairly anti-climactic - a sloping rock ledge that simply wanders into the water near a small, plain sign while a couple of offshore islands look on, but the concept of being at one of the extremities of a continent is mind-blowing. This was the second time we had reached such a point since leaving Sydney. Two down, two to go, or so we thought. For one reason or another, we were never to reach the other two during our travels, although we did get to the southern tip of the continent on Wilson's Promontory a couple of years later.

Karen and me at the tip of the Cape

The Cape York towns of Seisia, Bamaga and Umagico were an eye-sore - run down, dirty, untidy and uncared for. In contrast, when we visited Thursday Island for a day trip the next day, the town there was well maintained, orderly and attractive - a real breath of fresh air. Perhaps, we thought, the aboriginal culture does not place a great emphasis on material things, or on the trappings of their westernised environment.

Thursday Island is well worth the visit. Not only does it have excellent scenery, lovely people and heaps of history, it also has the most northerly pub in Australia - a perfect excuse (as if any are really needed) for a beer, and a photograph. I was also able to buy a pair of sunglasses in a pharmacy on the island, to replace the ones I had destroyed a few days earlier.

The most northerly pub in Australia

We had the misfortune to run out of wine a day or two later. The Bamaga pub had closed down, but we heard of a pub at Umagico. When Kevin and I walked into the pub it was like a scene from an old western movie. There was a sudden hush. All eyes focused on us. We became aware that we were the only people with pale complexions in the entire establishment. We walked up to the bar and asked the barman if he sold casks of wine, only to learn after a long series of broken English words and hand gestures that there was no wine for sale. So out we walked. I have no idea whether the pub had wine for sale or not, but both Kevin and I were feeling like trespassers in our own country, unwelcome and deliberately misunderstood. I suspect that most of the aboriginal people in the pub have felt exactly the same when they have visited "white" towns.

We began our return journey on the tenth day of the Cape York trip. Fifty two kilometres to the Jardine ferry, another one hundred and ten to Fruit Bat Falls again for a great swim, then another one hundred and eight kilometres to a campsite on the Wenlock River. Two hundred and seventy kilometres is a long way on dirt roads, especially on the corrugations south of the Jardine. At the end of the day we cooled off with a dip in the Wenlock River, right at the crossing. During the swim Karen and I wondered which was the greater danger - being taken by a croc, or being run over by a car!

Fruit Bat Falls

Next morning we turned off the Telegraph Road about twenty two kilometres south of the Wenlock for forty kilometres of a half good and half abysmally corrugated shortcut road to link up with the main road to Weipa. At a morning tea stop beside a dry creekbed, Kevin noticed petrol leaking from under the back of the Patrol. I crawled under the car and saw a crack near the top of the fuel tank - it would stop leaking when the fuel level was lower and would not prevent us from reaching Weipa. We had heard horror stories from fellow travellers about the variety of car parts and accessories that had fallen off their vehicles due to the roughness of the roads - bull bars, bumper bars, tow bars and overhead racks being the most common. The corrugations had finally taken a toll on our vehicle.

When we reached the road into Weipa, we discovered that it was perfect, as good as a dirt road can get. We later learned that an airforce base was being constructed on the outskirts of town using rock trucked in from east of the Archer River for the runway. Part of the deal included maintenance of the road over which the trucks would travel. As we cruised along at one hundred kilometres per hour over the smooth as silk road, we all felt that it was a pity that the base had not been located closer to the tip of the Cape.

On our arrival in Weipa we wasted no time finding someone to fix the tank. One slight problem was what to do with one hundred and thirty litres of petrol - worth one hundred and seventeen dollars - while the tank was being welded. Oh, well, not my problem. The car was booked in for the next morning. We booked a tour of the aluminium mine for 9am, then set up and had lunch.

Afterwards, with the temperature of the day well into the thirties, Karen became as sick as a dog, and it was all she could do to lie down in the shade and vomit occasionally. The attack coincided with Karen's menstrual period, and set a precedent that would be repeated in the future whenever a hot day occurred at that time of the month. By dinner time, Karen said she was feeling a bit better. Judging by her appetite, she was actually feeling a lot better. Karen would have to be almost at death's door to miss a meal.

Weipa is a company town, its sole purpose being the mining of bauxite for the production of aluminium. The tour of the Comalco bauxite mine was very good - interesting, worthwhile, and professionally conducted with an excellent commentary. Very aluminating - sorry about that. While we were away the car had been repaired, and Kevin had also tried to get the car-fridge fixed as well - it worked okay on mains power but not on battery power. It is a well known fact that everyone who owns a car fridge has problems with it. The easiest way to start a conversation with a touring four wheel driver is to ask how his car-fridge is going.

Weipa machinery

In the late afternoon we visited the waste water lakes at the Uningan Nature Reserve. Sewerage works always attract birds, and therefore birdwatchers as well. We ticked off another couple of new birds - a gull billed tern and a Burdekin duck. Then, despite Karen's directions, we made it back to the caravan park in time for happy hour, dinner and a fierce mozzie attack.

Next day we left Weipa and drove to a campsite by the Coen River. Shortly after our arrival we spotted a couple of great bowerbirds in the initial stages of courtship. As Karen and I watched, we noticed a small patch of purple on top of the head of the pursuing bird, obviously the male.

"What's that?" I asked. "Maybe it's got some fluff caught in its feathers?" Karen suggested.

To our surprise, the purple patch began to get larger, opening up like a flower on the top of the male's head. Both Karen and I realised somewhat sheepishly that it was a crest, but both of us felt indignant at the same time. Why hadn't we seen this before? Why hadn't there been a television special about this? Why hadn't we been told!? We watched the male's pursuit of the female for some time, amused at its wings-down posture and absolutely amazed by the purple crest on its head. Because of the sheer unexpectedness of it, I voted this the most remarkable sight I witnessed in all of 1995.

Karen later found the male's bower. It was a perfect corridor of dried grass, open at both ends and decorated with a variety of objects. Unlike the satin bowerbird which collects blue objects and which Karen and I have seen quite often, the great bowerbird has a fondness for white. Bleached shells, white rocks, clear glass, aluminium foil and toilet paper made up the bulk of the display. The bird itself is very plain, a dull, light brown. It obviously lets its constructions and collections attract females, rather than its plumage.

After a night punctuated by the sounds of an impromptu party held by a ute-load of aborigines across the creek, we drove south through Coen. Sixty five kilometres later Karen and I saw a familiar figure walking along the road. It was Victor again! Rainbow was still tagging along at his side. As we drew nearer, Victor took an empty bowl out of his dilly bag and pointed into it, his signal for wanting food. Karen and I quickly described our previous meetings with Victor and Rainbow, the last one seven weeks earlier and a thousand kilometres further south.

Victor and Rainbow

We stopped and hopped out of the car, saying hello and calling Victor by name. He was obviously at a loss as to who we were - Karen and I had been cyclists the last time he had seen us. Now we were passengers in a four wheel drive vehicle. We reminded him of our previous encounters as Karen introduced the Inlaws. We made him a couple of salad sandwiches, which he shared with his dog, while Kevin and Barbara asked similar questions to those described above. At one point someone commented about the roughness of the road, and Victor made the comment "There are no corrugations when you walk." Was this simply an obvious statement, or something deeper, a parable to the masses, advising us that when the paths our lives are following become bumpy and difficult, then we should slow down, take our time, relax, and life will become easier?

Victor then removed a slice of cucumber from his last mouthful and walked a few paces off the road. He bent down and scooped a small depression in the dry, red earth and placed the piece of cucumber into it, covering it and patting it down smoothly.

"It will probably come to nothing," he said. "An animal might dig it up, or it will just dry up completely and blow away, but perhaps it will grow, and some day another person might get to this place feeling hungry and find there will be something to eat here." It is a remarkable human being who has so much courage in his own convictions that even when he is not sure where his next meal might come from, he will give up some of his food now in the hope that it might grow and help out others in the future.

We soon left Victor and Rainbow behind as we drove south to Musgrave for petrol and turned east towards Lakefield national park. Excellent wetlands, and a couple of new birds, then it was on towards Hann River Crossing. We crossed an amazing grassy plain dotted with termite mounds where I stopped to take a photo. Fifteen minutes later I realised my new sunglasses were missing - I must have lost them when I took the photo. We turned around and drove back the way we had come, scouring the roadsides in case I had placed the glasses on top of the car and they had fallen off. Eventually we reached a spot we knew was beyond where I had taken the photo, so we stopped and turned around again, and returned to the photo spot. We all got out to search for the glasses but found nothing. When we returned to the car, I found them behind my seat. Karen nagged me unmercifully for the remainder of the day.

We camped beside the Hann River, on a flat area above a very steep bank close to the water. Karen was concerned that we would be attacked by crocodiles during the night, and my strongest and most convincing arguments as to why this would not happen fell on deaf ears. What did I know? I could not even look after a pair of sunglasses, so how could I possibly handle the threat of our imminent consumption? Karen stayed awake for most of the night on horizontal sentry duty, protecting everybody from crocs, snakes, bats, head-hunters, meteorites etc. None of these was sighted of course, but Karen did beat the shit out of a near-sighted frog who took a fancy to our purple tent during the night.

Two mornings later we arrived in Cooktown where we took photos of Captain Cook's statue and visited the Cook Museum. While cycling up the coast, I had been scathing in my criticism of James Cook, as he had often described islands as mainland capes, or had thought capes were islands and had tried to sail between them and the coast. I already knew that he had also run aground on the reef near what is now Cooktown, so it was worth the price of admission to the museum to also discover that Captain Cook could not swim! In addition, he had come out of retirement for his third voyage, the one on which he had died when attacked by natives in Hawaii. Serves him right.

After touring the beaches and lookouts near Cooktown, we continued south past Black Mountain and stopped overnight at the Lion's Den Pub. While we were wandering around the grounds looking for birds early in the morning, Karen thought she recognised a lady who was walking her dog, so she walked over and said hullo. Karen had not been mistaken. She had worked with Jenny fifteen years earlier, when Karen had been at one of her first jobs. They had lived in the same suburb in Sydney, and Karen regularly ran into Jenny around the neighbourhood, when Jenny had been walking the same dog! Yet another interesting coincidence.

The scenery had improved dramatically since reaching the coast, and we were taking every opportunity to visit all the attractions on offer. We backtracked slightly from the Lion's Den, passing by Black Mountain again on our way to a walk up and down the Annam River gorge. Then it was down to the Bloomfield River for a look at its impressive falls before crossing a causeway that had seen much better days. The road to Cape Tribulation had a reasonable surface, but was steep on the ups and precipitous on the downs. Some sections had been improved with the addition of concrete to prevent erosion and improve traction, but they were still difficult to negotiate. We would not have liked travelling in the opposite direction (north) if the road was wet.

We did all the tourist things at Cape Trib, walking the boardwalk and the beach, but I was more impressed with the design of the Coconut Beach Resort - a great timber building, with lots of space. I wanted a house just like it, and added it to my wish list.

After checking out a couple of caravan parks - one of which resembled a scene from Deliverance - we eventually camped at the Cape Kimberley and Club Daintree Resort. At eight dollars per person per night it was the most expensive place we had stayed in since leaving Sydney, and not worth the money. Karen hated the place on principle, but beggars can't be choosers so we made the most of it. Prior to leaving the next morning, we all walked down to the beach and made our way south for about an hour to the mouth of the Daintree River at Hall's Point. The highlight of the walk back was an extended game of soccer with a flat, but serviceable ball we found washed up on the beach.

The towns of Daintree and Mossman were next on our agenda, followed by a walk in the rainforest at Mossman Gorge. An overturned semi-trailer, carrying bananas, partially blocking the highway was the only other significant occurrence as we made our way back to Cairns and the Cool Water caravan park.

I rang Peter in Sydney to find out whether the Lord Howe Island sailing trip was still a happening thing, and it was, so Karen and I now had to decide what we would do for the next three months, where we would go, and how we would get back to Sydney. Karen priced a trip to the Lawn Hill national park in north western Queensland, finding that it would cost us six hundred dollars each for a three day trip to and from Mount Isa. However, there was a minimum booking number of four, and although two other people had expressed an interest in the tour, they had not paid a deposit so the tour was not certain of going ahead.

It was not much of an option - cycle a thousand kilometres to Mount Isa and pay a lot of money for a very short trip that may not even take place. Karen and I went for a dip in the caravan park pool while we considered our immediate future. We were soon joined by Barbara, who suggested that we all go to the Undara lava tubes, Normanton, Karumba, Lawn Hill and Mount Isa. From there Karen and I could either cycle back to Sydney through central Queensland and New South Wales, or we could get a lift back to Sydney with Kevin and Barbara, perhaps getting off along the way to resume cycling again. The offer was too good to refuse.

My only reservation about further travelling with the Inlaws was Karen. She was becoming a bit too comfortable with the four wheel drive touring lifestyle. I had visions of dragging her kicking and screaming out of the car sometime in the future and forcing her back into the saddle again.

Next Chapter
Back to Contents