17/9/2020 – 4/10/2020
We were really happy to be finally travelling northwards again on what we hoped would be our biggest adventure yet to the northern most tip of the Australian continent. The rough plan was to go up the fast way via the Peninsula Development Road or PDR and the Bypass Roads of the Old Telegraph Track, because I was worried about the possibility of an early wet season with all the clouds and rain we’d had in Cairns, and then travel slowly, zig-zagging to wherever we wanted to go on the way back down.
First stop was at Mt Carbine where we set up camp under a tree with a couple of tawny frogmouths. We also checked out the rock paintings at Split Rock. More of a simple style than the rock art we’ve seen in Kakadu, but no less beautiful.
We drove into Weipa to get some fuel and groceries but decided not to stay there because it was too early in the day to finish driving and there wasn’t much there that we were interested in. We stayed a night at the Morton Telegraph Station though, which is on the Wenlock River. It’s a large cattle station that also hosts campers with great facilities. The manager told us that the river can get really high in the wet season with flows coming into it from the Jardine and Archer rivers. The rain station there had rain gauges all the way up the banks to the campground with depths measuring up to 17 metres, although currently it was only 2 metres deep. We found a little green friend sitting on our door at night time catching bugs. Moreton also has a caves creek where you can see the water running through a little cave, as well as old mango trees in the campground dripping with green fruit.
The bypass roads around the Old Telegraph Track are wide and reasonably well maintained, although there are plenty of corrugations, dips and the odd bulldust hole to be aware of.
The Jardine River can now only be crossed by the ferry run by the indigenous land owners. At $100 return for our motorhome, it might seem a bit steep, but when you find out you get use of the indigenous free camps and that money assists with maintaining all the lands and roads, you realise it’s well worth it.
Near the top, we stayed at Seisia campground, which is close to a supermarket, an art and craft store with a cafe and a wharf, and we scored a beachfront unpowered site. We ended up staying 4 nights.
The road to the northern Tip of Australia is pretty good running through a beautiful rainforest, but with a tree down to be skirted around, and more red dirt and corrugations. After a short walk around the beach as it was low tide, we got to the Tip where there is a metal plaque which everyone stands around to take a photo, without thinking that the real tip is about 5 metres on the rocks further back. Mark and I took a photo around the plaque as well as on the real tip. We also took a photo of Katya which, for about hour, was the northern most vehicle on the mainland!
We checked out Somerset, Roonga (or Wroonga) Point and Punsand Bay campgrounds after we left the Tip but were happy with our choice at Seisia. Loyalty campground is just up the beach from Seisia and is supposed to be pretty good but we didn’t go there.
We visited Thursday Island, or TI as the locals call it, by taking the ferry that leaves from Seisia every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8am. On the ferry there was no hand sanitiser before we embarked and no social distancing, which I would have thought would be important to protect the islanders. TI is quite a busy place with people coming and going from the mainland and other Torres Strait islands.
It was hot but a strong cool wind made it just bearable walking around and up Green Hill to the old fort built to protect Australia in 1893 from a suspected Russian invasion. There is also an historic cemetery where we saw graves from the 1880’s as well as the grave of the man who designed the Torres Strait islands flag, Bernard Namok. Many of the graves were beautifully decorated with artificial flowers. We had lunch at Australia’s literal top pub, along with many of the other people that came over on the ferry.
When we returned to the mainland, we bought a shell necklace and a coffee from Simona’s arts and crafts shop. We sat down and shortly a beautiful lady named Rose and her sister Annie came in and joined us. Their father was one of the original Torres Strait islanders to establish the Seisia community on the mainland. Their island of Saibai is being affected by rising tides and the local indigenous people gave them the land around Seisia to live in 70 years ago. There’s a couple of articles here about the 70th anniversary 2 years ago, when Rose was addressing the crowd at the celebrations and about Rose herself:
Rose shared other stories with us, including one about a rainbow that their father told them is proof that God loves all colours. The meaning behind the story is to love all colours of humankind and to put a roof over everyone’s head. The campground has individual huts for all the campers to use which reflects this philosophy.
Mark told her that Seisia was beautiful but there is one problem – you can’t swim here (because of crocodiles). Rose replied, “It’s not that you can’t swim here, it’s how fast can you swim?!!”.
Rose, who is in her 70s, was educated in Melbourne, has travelled all over the world, has a law degree and now works in counselling, helping indigenous mainland and Torres Strait people. It’s encounters like this that make travelling so worthwhile.
For the sake of variety we thought we’d better move on from Seisia although we enjoyed it there so much, and we set up camp at Mutee Head, a free camp to the west. Again we got a lovely beachfront camp with some shady trees and an occasional bar or two of phone reception, but had to negotiate a small section of deep black sand. Up the hill there is a WW2 radar still standing and the graves of some of the original Torres Strait islanders who established the mainland community. There are no facilities here but we had a full fridge, a full water tank and an empty toilet so we wouldn’t need anything for a while. We were entertained by green ants that used the 3rd wire on the fence between us and the beach to travel during the mornings and evenings. It doesn’t take much to entertain us these days!
We walked one morning up to the Jardine River mouth, 8km return from Mutee Head, over mostly soft black sand. Thankfully there was some cloud cover and it was not as hot. There was a mysterious small grass fire near some huge ant mounds that we couldn’t work out how it had started. The river mouth is very wide with sandbanks dotted across it making it look shallow, but we’ve heard that people catch barramundi here and there are crocodiles, although we didn’t see any.
Beautiful as Mutee Head was, you still can’t swim and the need for a good shower and air conditioning had us moving after 3 days up to Alau Beach campground with powered sites for $30 a night. It’s on the beachfront in the community of Umagico, which you have to drive through to get there. We asked for a quiet spot, and ended up on a dirt patch away from the beach. The campground is basic but has a swimming pool and there are a lot of abandoned or locked up infrastructure like sheds and amenities blocks, I presume due to Covid-19 keeping many travellers away. It was Yom Kippur and Mark spent the time praying while I busied myself washing everything inside that had a red tinge of dust.
The time had come to leave the communities of the Tip and head back south, back over the Jardine River by ferry and we headed into the middle section of the Old Telegraph Track where Fruit Bat Falls and Eliot Falls campground is. It’s a National Park so we had to book ahead while we still had internet access, and booked 2 nights at site 23 close to ‘The Saucepan’ which is one of the larger waterholes in the river. In fact, this campsite also had direct access to the river rather than having to go around to the main track, and we almost felt like we had the river to ourselves up there! There’s also Twin Falls further down which was also beautiful to swim in.
We could have stayed another couple of nights easily, but without internet you can’t book more nights. We walked to Canal Creek which was 1.5km away and caught up with Andrew and Janelle who run a 4WD coffee truck business Espresso 79 while they’re on the road! The road into Canal Creek was a bit rougher than the one to Eliot Falls, but I’m sure Katya could have made it if we’d tried. What do you think?
To complete our tour of Cape York we spent a night at one of the free camps on the Coen River and another night at Lakefield National Park at Kalpowar campground. The Coen River was very low and didn’t look very inviting although I believe people do swim there. We managed to get the Kalpowar campsite for free as there were no campsites available in the whole park due to Queensland school holidays still being on, and when we talked to the ranger she told us we could use one of the corporate campsites which are not currently in use.
We drove in to Lakefield National Park from the north which didn’t give us a great first impression, as a lot of it has been back-burned recently, but further south closer to Cooktown there was more forest and creeks where people were camping. The main reason for going to Lakefield is fishing with 9 out of 10 vehicles towing some sort of boat. You can’t go swimming as per the usual Croc-wise advice, and so unless you’re a fisherman there’s not much to do. We did stop and have a look around the listed Old Laura cattle station and Isabella Falls before we left the park.
Having only been allowed 1 free night at Kalpowar, we left for Cooktown the next day, happy to get back to a town with phone reception and internet so we can catch up with things, only to find there was a bushfire close by that had taken out the phone tower! You can see the smoke in the previous photo at Isabella Falls. Phone reception was rectified by the afternoon though.
At this point we are looking forward to getting back down south. It is an experience to see how different life is up here, with beautiful turquoise waters and rugged bushland and rainforest, where people live much more simply and freely, albeit also with the heat, dust, crocodiles and mosquitoes.
Katya did well with the corrugations and rough tracks, although we didn’t push her too much. Do you like her new red pinstripes? If we come up here again by ourselves, we would just have a normal 4WD vehicle and camp in a tent. There’s plenty to see without getting into the really difficult terrain, although it would have been fun to be able to do the harder 4WD tracks.