We finally reach the most northerly tip of mainland Australia. Some climb the rocks others walk the sandy beach route. We’ve made it!
All respectable 4WD magazines highly recommend that any river crossing is walked to establish route, unseen obstructions and hazards. We’re above a latitude running through Cairns and that is significant. Guess who lives up here? Yes, crocs.
Never mind telling me it’s a freshie. It can’t eat you whole, or they won’t bite you, they’re crocs.
Even if you’re not freaked out by that, their bigger cousins are salties, estuarine crocs. Saltwater crocs grow as big as a Holden Commodore and are at least as fast. They eat you whole.
On the trip up to the area we stop for cuppas. I get out, wander over to the picnic spot and there, right in front of me, is a ten foot sign saying, Warning – Achtung Estuarine Crocs inhabit this area. They’ll eat you or tear off your arm. It didn’t quite say that, but my croc phobia has me sprinting back to the ute.
At every stop someone tells me a taller story about a croc near miss. About how big, mean and sneaky they are. You see my dilemma? We’re on a journey which is punctuated regularly with a croc infested creek crossing.
I’m encouraged to walk to the water’s edge at one crossing by Max and Malcolm. They offer words of encouragement then, just as I’m settling down, Malcolm strips to his jocks and leaps in. I almost faint. Max howls with laughter and Malcolm continues to splash around, calling, “there’s no crocs here, come on in.”
Up here, if there’s water there’s probably a croc, I’ve been told. Every time my fear subsides, a prank is formulated to restart my heart at an increased rate. It’s a newfound pastime for Howard, who thinks up new impressions of reptiles, leaps out or sneaks around waiting to startle the unexpected… usually me.
We arrive at another crossing. It looks like the site of an air crash. Devastation on the banks, car body parts decorate the trees. They could even be the Christmas trees displayed at a wreckers’ holiday party, baubles and tinsel replaced by Nissan bumpers, Landcruiser steps, the radiator and inter cooler from a large 4WD. This is a place where the gods of the crossings have to be appeased. The onward journey toll requires the traveller to deposit a body part. We pass toll free!
I ask Max about a tale Malcolm related of a creek crossing years earlier. Heather allegedly walked waist deep across a muddy brown fast flowing creek. Max laughs. “What you have to remember is that if you smack a croc on the nose with a thong, job’s done, it’ll move away”.
I look at him incredulously. “Oh, I agree, it’s not straightforward and it could get awkward if you catch the thong between your toes at a key moment.” He strolls off under a cloud of cigarette smoke, chuckling loudly. I can’t quite convince myself he’s joking.
Even though I’m joking about crocs, if you travel this way you’re going to invade the croc’s home. He’s protected and must be respected. Common sense has to prevail. Read the Crocwise signs and give all due respect to these ancient and wonderful beasts and then you’ll enjoy a fantastic trip through the areas where they live.
Oh, by the way, our unpaid crossing… We notice hours later Howard’s number plate has gone. The crossing gods have collected their toll.
Written by Richard
Frank was our taxi driver on Thursday island. He was a proud islander, so proud to share the history of his islands with us.
He was a big man with a broad grin. So what if the taxi had seen better days? We had Frank.
He drove us to the highest point on the island. There’s a fort there, built way back in the nineteenth century to ward off Russian attack.
But the attack when it came was not from Russians, but from Japan. He laughs. Who would have thought it? The Japanese were their friends, a high proportion of the island’s population were themselves Japanese pearl fishers. Although the other Torres Strait islands were attacked, he is sure Thursday island was spared the bombing in World War 2 because so many Japanese graves lie here.
We saw them in the cemetery, small, simple graves amongst the exuberant coloured and gold encrusted headstones of the islanders. Some of the islanders’ graves were wrapped in what looked like blue plastic tarp. Frank explained. When a family member dies, their in laws are responsible for organising and paying for the funeral and grave. One year later, the family repays them and the gravestone is unveiled, marking the end of the official year of mourning. And oh, what gravestones they were, made with marble from Italy, costing tens of thousands, the more elaborate the better.
There are fifteen different religious denominations on the island, fourteen christian churches and the fifteenth, the church of Rugby League! When we visited, the State of Origin match was about to be played. Houses were completely covered in awnings, displaying the colours of their team, NSW blue next door to Queensland maroon. The islanders take their rugby as seriously as their church attendance. Frank, together with about 90% of the population, can be seen in church on a Sunday morning.
The conversion to Christianity came in a flash, known as the Coming of the Light. An island elder received missionaries on to the island in the late nineteenth century and resisted the temptation to collect their skulls. Almost overnight he decreed that they would follow the new way. The islanders have thrown themselves into their new religion with gusto.
Soon our visit is over. It’s been an interesting trip. Thursday island feels like a foreign country. It’s not Australian, but it is part of Australia. The islanders, like Frank, have a pride in their identity. They laugh about their headhunting, cannibal forefathers. They seem to feel comfortable in themselves, markedly unlike the aboriginal people we have met on the mainland. Here they were not displaced. They have had to adapt to white colonial arrivals, but they are in their home and feel at home in it.
The boat trip back to the mainland is rough, the sea high in the rising wind. The boat crashes into the waves with the full force of its 500 HP motors. We leave Frank, the happy taxi driver, to his rugby, his church and his islander pride, an Australian from the Torres Strait.
It has been a peaceful night at Cockatoo Creek. We are up and about getting ready for another day on the Old Telegraph Track. A loud cry disturbs our morning ablutions. A vicious wasp like insect has descended unseen from a tree growing by the creek and stung Richard and Malcolm on ear and nose. We beat a hasty retreat before he attacks again. Never let your guard down when in the Australian bush. Around every corner, up every tree is a creature waiting to sting or bite.
Crossing the deep flowing water of Cockatoo Creek, we pass a sign warning of crocodiles, then see a young family bathing their baby in the shallows at the creek’s edge. What? Are they mad? I shake my head.
The landcruisers amble up the narrow track over potholes and water ruts. As the track widens the palette of colours expands from dusty red to vivid pink and almost fluorescent bright orange. I will never tire of the colours of the outback. Dreams are made of this.
The Old Telegraph Track joins the new Telegraph Road here. We are back in Pixieland. A sign post points to the turn off to Fruit Bat Falls and leads us into to an elaborate one way system around the car park. There are several parking sectors devoted to tour buses. It’s a shock to the senses after the aura of wilderness and adventure surrounding the old track.
There’s an opportunity for swimming at the falls, but we decide to wait. The sky is overcast and it is early in the day. We walk down the footpath to the falls, avoiding the roped off boardwalk. Why is it out of bounds? Has there been a murder at Fruit Bat Falls. Has someone slipped or been pushed into the crystal clear water? Or is this just an excuse to tell each other tall tales of disappearing heiresses and handsome detectives?Down by the water, pitcher plants grow among the ferns. I’ve never seen them in the wild before. Their strange flesh coloured cups are used to attract and catch insects for food. Fascinating, almost alien in appearance, they intrigue me.
Back to the track and another creek crossing. Into the water we drive as if this were an every day occurrence. Thank goodness for the snorkel.The true stars of today are Eliot and Twin Falls. Despite being in tour bus country, we are alone at Twin Falls and I watch as the others enjoy a swim in the cool clear water there. The falls thunder down over the rocks to form the perfect natural hydrotherapy shower to reinvigorate tired and aching limbs. I’m sitting it out this time, but enjoy the spray filled air and fresh clean scent of the water.
Leaving the falls behind we race towards Canal Creek and Sam Creek Crossings, the last before we leave the old track. On the way Malcolm’s vehicle gets a little too friendly with another 4WD as he squeezes past on the tight track. As the two cars drive up on to the sloping edges of the track, they lean inwards towards each other. Camper box makes contact with roof rack and they cling together in an unwanted embrace. Men rush to assist and like the crew of a racing yacht, jump to the far side of the ute to add the ballast needed to prise the vehicles apart.Sam Creek is the deepest crossing we have attempted so far. The creek flows rapidly between its white chalky banks, hiding deep pools below the surface, before it tumbles down a small waterfall downstream. The more experienced drivers cruise across without a care. We watch and wait before following in their wake.
The remaining stretch of the track includes the deep and dangerous crossings of Nolans Brook and Jardine River. The latter is crocodile infested and few dare to cross these days, when a diversion to the ferry is an easy few kilometres away. This is the end of our OTT adventure and we turn on to the bypass road and drive for the ferry.At the Jardine River ferry we meet up again with Roothy and his film crew. We join them on their trip across the river on the old chain ferry, trying to stay in shot when the cameras are running. I suspect we will end up on the cutting room floor, despite our attempts to look like the rough and tough off-road drivers Roothy would want to associate with.
There are no crocs visible in the river when we cross, but we know they are there.
The last few kilometres of the day’s driving take us into Injinoo and then on to Seisia. Six of us stay the night at Seisia, in easy reach of the boat wharf for our trip to Thursday island tomorrow. The others go on to Punsand Bay and wait for us there.
Soon our journey to the tip of mainland Australia will be over. Punsand Bay is the last stop before we reach our destination.
We race down the Old Telegraph Track in convoy, five landcruisers one after the other, like rats down a water pipe. Where the others go, we have to follow. There is only one way, forward.
The track runs from south to north, up through the Cape York peninsula. What was once the only route north to the topmost tip of Australia, is now a track for adventurers, for four wheel drivers who want to push themselves and their vehicles to their limits.
The already narrow track has deep water ruts. Our vehicles have to pick a route around the pot holes and widening cracks and crevices. Trees crowd the roadway, leaning into view as we pass, scratching a message on the side of the camper. It’s a bumpy ride, down into a hole here, up on a ridge there.
And soon we are at the next creek crossing. It’s Ducie Creek. We stop to take a look at what lies ahead. After Palm Creek, it doesn’t look so intimidating. There’s a good flow of water running and we drive straight into it, then turn right along the creek, sending a bow wave ahead of us. We take our time climbing the muddy channel up and out. It is gouged with holes that make the ute dip and bow. The cab rocks from side to side, but at least this time we keep all wheels on the ground.
Back on the track, red and green, red and green, the colours of the dusty road and the grasses and trees flash past us. Crossing North Alice Creek poses no problems. The entry ramp is steep, into the water and out.
We follow the old metal telegraph poles along the track. Many are bent, presumably by souvenir hunters reaching for the old insulators, looking for a piece of history to take home.
After lunch, it’s the big one…. Gunshot Creek. It lives up to its formidable reputation. Two deep gorges have been cut into the side of the creek. The drop is almost vertical. No one in their right mind would attempt to drive down there, yet recent tyre marks indicate some crazy fool has recently been this way.
I’m appalled by the destruction of the area around the creek crossing, the bare earth and vehicle debris hanging in the trees.
A bright blue Ulysses butterfly flies by and disappears into the bush around us.
Scouting around for an alternative route we find the chicken run, a bypass that crosses the creek downstream. This is challenging enough. We drive across, then on into a rabbit warren track that takes us up away from the creeks and into beautiful heathland. Like a garden it is vibrant with lush green growth and full of flowers after a recent burn off. Golden grevilleas line the track. Yellow flowers bloom. I see a white flower with huge droopy petals in among the pink green grasses.
The track seems to follow a dry creek bed, or the course of a wash away formed in the wet. It is a rough track, dusty and uneven. The landcruiser is surefooted on its heavy off road tyres and takes every craggy ridge in its stride.
We stop for the night just off Cockatoo Creek. A sign warns Achtung, crocodiles have been seen here. That does not deter some of the group who strip off and paddle.
When the river crossings of the Old Telegraph Track are mentioned, there are hushed tones and furtive glances for 4 WD killers, Nolans Creek, The Gunshot. I don’t recall Palm Creek hitting the headlines as a terroriser, but for our first intro to the OTT it got all our attention!
A small encampment of spectators have taken residence near the entrance. I walk with the group to survey the route, a steep slippery mudslide into a dirty brown knee deep creek. A 90 degree left turn then 90 degrees right to line up with the exit run. I glance up the bank, a muddy rutted and washed out ramp about as high as a two storey suburban house. My heart sinks.
I notice a battle scarred cruiser’s driver changing his tyre pressures. “What are you using?” “18 and 22”, he calls back and noticing my surprise adds “But only because I’m fully loaded, it would be lower otherwise”. I sprint back and lower mine.
Max is first to go, skidding down the approach, along the creek bed then gunning the big V8 until 10 m from the top. The familiar sound of tyres spinning with no traction echoes around the creek
Not for the last time my Gemini twin asks “Why exactly are you doing this?”
The electric winch whines and Max has reached the summit.
My turn arrives. Low 3, I hear advised. The cruiser slithers down the bank into the creek and I line up with the exit after a brief boat impression along the creek.
“Oh hell”, I utter as I see first hand the route I have to take. “Hold on”. And off we go, bucking and jumping, ascending with bone jarring leaps every few metres. I hear a scream, followed by soft sobbing. My passenger leans over, pats my arm comfortingly and says “Don’t worry, it’s nearly over.”
A last sickening thud and the windscreen fills with sky as the front rears up and over the lip of the escarpment, leaving terra firma briefly and all four wheels return to the ground well clear of the exit.
As a trainee pilot, I don’t remember a more a dramatic landing.
I slide out of the driver’s seat my legs shaking, striding back to the exit and the clapping spectator who grins and advises that our side awning almost replaced his moustache as the cruiser made its final jump to the top. I smile. “No seriously, my son has it on video”.
“It’s awesome” he says “I swear you shaved the old man’s moustache and just missed that tree by millimetres.”
I watch the video, the shaking of my legs returns.
Max strolls over, cigarette in hand and grins. “We made it”. I laugh nervously. Max adds, “These cruisers go anywhere”. He puffs his cigarette again. “Next time though I think we should use 4WD.”
I hear his gravelly chuckle as he saunters back to his mount.
Written by Richard
Bramwell Station is a day’s drive away from Pennefather River. The campground has space, shade and good hot showers. In the late afternoon, we watch the station hands sorting weaners from their mothers in the cattle yards next to the campsite.
It’s a big night at the station. There’s a smorgasbord dinner, with barbecued steak and sausage, a table groaning with vegetables and salads and a sweet sticky toffee sponge dessert. Music gets us up on the dance floor, winning a bottle of wine for the first to dance. Who would have thought the singer would include the theme to Gilligan’s Island in his set?
A surprise guest at the dinner is Roothie, with his old Toyota Landcruiser, Milo. He’s a four wheel drive legend and creates a buzz of excitement when he arrives with camera crew in tow. Malcolm chats up Roothie, while his wife, Olive, makes a beeline for the handsome young camera man.
A high spot is the duet singing “Love Potion Number 9”.
The night is hot and steamy. What sleep we grab is disturbed by the bellowing of the steers in the yard. There’s a nervousness in the camp this morning. Snatch straps are attached to the vehicles, just in case. Today we are tackling the Old Telegraph Track.
Roothie and crew follow us out as we leave the campsite. They are filming on the track today.
The track is narrow, tree lined, one car wide. It is deeply potholed. We soon arrive at Palm Creek, our first creek crossing. A steep mud slide runs into a wet clay hole before levelling off into the creek. The track runs through the creek to the left then up and out.
People are camped here, watching the attempts to cross. “I wouldn’t take my tractor down there”, says Howard. Cars are queueing behind us waiting to cross.
Max goes first. Down the slide and to the left. He tries to climb the steep exit out of the water and doesn’t make it. He winches out. Malcolm and Olive are through and then it’s our turn.
Richard is revved up, ready to go. I’m gripping the door handle. We scramble down the mud slide into the creek. The ute rolls from side to side. Richard turns the steering wheel left and we are driving up the creek. The water is not too high, then the steep slope out is in front of us. My heart pounds. The engine revs climb and we shoot up the slope, rocking from side to side.
I can tell you, if I could have opened the door and got out, I would have done so there and then. Christine, you would have had your eyes tightly closed.
I glimpse the track as we leave the creek behind us. There’s a deep pot hole on one side and a huge lump of clay on the other. The engine roars, one wheel drops into the hole and the ute twists sharply to one side. We fly forward at an angle. I can see only the sky. Time slows down. There’s a loud bang and we shoot out of the exit, landing on all four wheels.
Getting out, I look back at the vehicle. It seems to be intact. I hear later that our brand new ute missed a tree by a few inches.
I decide I’m not a fan of hard core four wheel driving.
The rest of the group make their way across without mishap. Our Old Telegraph Track experience has started.
Weipa is a mining town. Bauxite lies just under the surface here, an important input to the production of aluminium. Rio Tinto has the mining license and is the major employer in the town.
There is a tour of the mine advertised at the caravan park. It seems a good opportunity to see a working mine and find out how it operates.
Off we go, in the tour bus. Rio Tinto employees have to live in Weipa to work at the mine. There are no fly in fly out workers, except for some contractors. The focus is on building a strong community of long term workers at the mine. The bus driver tells us about the facilities Weipa has at its disposal, many sponsored by Rio, including a well equipped hospital. Minor operations can be carried out, but there is no maternity ward. Mothers to be have to fly to Cairns, four weeks before the baby is due.
The bus takes us across a long one way road and rail bridge to get to the mine. We are told bridge maintenance involves the most dangerous dive in the world. Divers have to work in an underwater cage because of the crocodiles, sharks and sea snakes in the water.
At the mine we watch massive water trucks drive along the wide roads, wetting them down to reduce dust. Driving one of these mammoth vehicles is a sought after job in the mine. We see huge haulage trucks thundering along the red orange roads, carrying tonnes of the valuable bauxite rocks. Production operates all day and all night. The mine has to constantly fill ships that carry the bauxite to Gladstone, Tasmania and NZ.
This is mining at its simplest. The vegetation and top soil are removed. Loaders dig out the bauxite layer and take it away. There is no processing required.
Once the bauxite layer has been exhausted, the top soil is replaced and contoured to replicate the landscape before mining. Seeds that were saved from the original vegetation are sown to regenerate the area exactly as it was before. Any animals, including reptiles, are captured and housed while the mining is taking place. The indigenous group that owns the land also retrieves any sacred objects and notes any off limits areas before the dozers go in. The recovery work is world leading, they say, and is very effective.
After the mine tour we head off to the mouth of Pennefather River for a beachside camp site. We cross the mining roads and watch and wait as the monster trucks rumble past. Down a narrow dusty track to the beach there’s a spot for lunch and time to prepare the vehicles for four wheel driving. Tyres are deflated and hubs are locked.
The beach is golden sand and the sea calm, blue and inviting. No one is swimming here, there are crocodiles and sharks. Even Aussies, who shrug their shoulders at venomous snakes and spiders, generally avoid swimming with these two apex predators.
Driving across the soft sand, our ute wags her tail in increasing arcs, trying to find grip in the loose sandy surface. We follow Beryl and Howard down to the water’s edge, looking for harder sand. As we start to climb back up the ridge to move away from the water, the tyres dig into the sand and we come to a standstill. Richard leaps out, lowers the tyre pressures a few more pounds and engages both diff locks. I stare at the water, just inches away. It is hot outside with the sun beating down, then reflected back by the crystalline sand. People call encouragement and ask questions on the radio. The ute is up and away and we drive on to find the camping spot at the mouth of the river.
There’s an old ranger station just off the beach and a satellite dish provides the fastest wifi I’ve come across since we left Victoria. Safari tents have been set up on the riverside and water is pumped to a basic shower in a tin shack. A long brown snake is seen disappearing into a hole by the shower door. A yellow and black spider sits inside, in an unusual web, marked with a white X. There are a few campers here already, and not all of them are human.
The view is idyllic. Sand, gentle lapping waves, swaying she oaks, blue sky. Picking up my binoculars to look at a sea eagle on the sand bar, I see a dark shape on the sand. It’s a croc. He’s small, about four feet long. As I watch he slides down into the water and lies in the warmth of the shallows. A little later his brother is spotted on the other bank of the river. I’m staying well away from the water tonight.
Max heads off to the beach, fishing rod in hand. Standing where the sand meets the sea, casting out a lure into the shimmering water, with one eye watching the line set with bait, he’s at one with the world.
The camp site is busy, with trucks and quad bikes driving past late into the evening. It’s a remote spot, but an easy weekend getaway for the workers of Weipa. The sand is lined with criss cross tracks from their vehicles.
Few have heard of Pennefather River, but the map shows that this was the site of the first recorded European landing on the Australian continent. A Dutchman, William Janszoon, landed here in 1606 and mapped the coastline. The chart he drew was so accurate it was only a metre out from modern GPS sightings
Every place has a story. The European story is now entangled with the story of those who have lived here for tens of thousands of years. Turn the page, let’s see what the next chapter brings.
We are on the road from our campsite near Bathurst Heads. This is not a place for people. It is a place for termites, mosquitoes and crocodiles – and decaying old carcasses of trucks.
Beryl walks out of the campsite in the heat. I wonder at her bravery to walk among the swamps and billabongs, crocodile habitat.
Despite the desolate landscape, we come upon occasional wild beauty. White water lilies shimmer on dark lagoons. A wild horse watches us as he drinks, then turns away. A horned bull stands and stares, daring us to come closer. Flocks of black cockatoos perch on the scrubby trees. There’s life in the scrub around us.
We turn towards Weipa at Kalpower campground. The Peninsula Development Road is red, full of corrugations, but light rain damps down the dust thrown up as we drive along. The roadsides are green with fresh new growth, grasses and eucalypts. Flat sided magnetic ant hills stand high, buttresses built to point to north. Tall striped grasses wave in the wind.
The road to Weipa is plagued by racing caravans, eager to book the last site at the caravan park. They overtake on blind bends in clouds of red dust.
We are lucky to find enough sites free at the campsite when we arrive and we settle in. Suzanne makes friends among the locals and is soon the newest member of the Weipa golf club. This exalted position brings privileges. She signs us all into the golf club for dinner and dancing, the best night in town. It’s a hike from the caravan park and Suzanne once again comes up trumps. She’s a hit with the local taxi driver, Steve, 59, and we travel by taxi bus to our evening out.
We dance the night away to seventies disco, night fever, hot stuff, Jive talkin, nut bush city limits. Heather and Max hit the dance floor rock and rolling to greased lightning. Through the evening, Suzanne sprays us with her magic mist, kept in a bottle at her side. Is it a secret recipe to keep mozzies at bay, or love potion number nine?
Weipa is a hit with us, and we are a hit with Weipa. As we leave a local says, “Don’t go. Youse was our excitement.”
Loathsome bloodsucker, vampire, oh
I do detest the mosquito.
Biting, stinging, I’m itching so
I do detest the mosquito.
Late at night I hear her whine, oh
I do detest the mosquito.
She’s hard to see, but bites me so,
I do detest the mosquito.
It’s not as if I’ve done her harm, oh
It’s hard to love the mosquito.
I don’t use Mortein or mozzie bombs, oh
It’s hard to love the mosquito.
I’ve tried it all, cream, spray and rub, oh
I do not love the mosquito.
Eucalyptus mist, soothing gel aloe
I do not love the mosquito.
So please little mozzie,
Let me be.
I’m red and lumpy and itchy you see.
I need a rest, a holiday,
So do me a favour fly away,
Oh, then I could love you mosquito.
Yes, then I could love you mosquito.