Creek crossing old telegraph track Cape york

  Driving on the Old Telegraph Track

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.

Old Telegraph Track, Cape York Old Telegraph Track, Cape York

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.

Gunshot Creek Old Telegraph Track Gunshot Creek Old Telegraph Track

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.

Landcruiser 4WD

OTT – a driver’s perspective

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

 Old Telegraph Track

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?

Malcolm and Roothie

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.

Old Telegraph Track

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 to Pennefather River

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.

Haulage truck

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.

Penñefather beach

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.

Penne father sunset Penne father spider

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.

Deb Pennefather Max fishing pennefather

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.

A night at Weipa

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.”

Ode to the mosquito

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.

Inland to Bathurst Heads

It’s 10th June, Richard’s birthday.   We drive inland from Endeavour Falls along Battlecamp Road.   The red dirt is back.

The landscape has changed.  It’s the opposite to the rainforest.  The red roads gradually turn yellow as we drive through the low growing scrub and splash through the Normanby River creek crossing.

Old Laura homestead still stands.  A wide verandah tin and timber house, an old well, workers’ housing and the old forge remain.    The house is protected with chicken wire, to keep out tourists and perhaps the wildlife.  It must have been a hard existence living here in the heat, eking a living from the land.

Steel grey ant hills dot the country as we drive on from Laura.  This is national park land.  New regulations require all campsites to be prebooked online or by telephone.   This is bureaucracy at its best.   It’s totally impractical in an area with no mobile reception, public telephones or wifi.    It’s not in the spirit of bush camping to plan ahead and book the week in advance from Cooktown.   Plans have to change when a closed road, a vehicle repair or a fascinating side track delay the camper.   We shrug.  We will look outside the national park for our spot tonight.

The Kalpower River crossing is wide and flat, water tumbling down on the rocks below.  We drive on corrugated public roads through aboriginal freehold land.  The ant hills grow as tall as the scrubby trees.  Sculpted and impassive they look like druids’ standing stones dotted across an ancient woodland.  Wild horses gallop away as we pass.

There are two options when we cross the Marrett River, through the water or on a rough timber bridge, a few tree trunks slung across bank to bank.  Taking the bridge, we wonder if it will be strong enough to take the weight of the car.   Just to be sure we stall the engine as we cross and spend a few moments gazing down at the river, proving the bridge is strong.

Olive tells us tales of the old Kalpower homestead that is nearby.   It must be deep in the bush now, because our search is in vain.  There are no signs of habitation except an old Bedford truck that gave up the ghost many years ago.

Further down the road,a muddy four wheel drive approaches us, containing two young men.   Don’t bother trying to get to Bathurst Heads, they say.  They have been bogged down in a mud hole for three days and have had to winch themselves out.  The road is impassable.

We make do with a campsite just off the road, towards the river.  It’s a rough, scrubby spot.  Max heads off to the river to fish.   We make camp and get a fire started.

Richard, Dom and Beryl head down to the river to see how the fishing is going.  Richard, axe in hand, ready to fight off any crocodiles who may make their home here.  This morning we heard a crocodile story from the owner of the campsite.  A man was fishing in the river near the campsite and was grabbed by a four metre crocodile.  They had never seen one in that area before.  Male crocodiles have to find their own territory and move out into new areas as the population increases.

Rich and Max and axe

Luckily, the axe is not needed.   Max catches a lovely Mangrove Jack and a Bream, and Dom another Mangrove Jack.  The fish are cooked on the campfire for dinner.   The delicate taste of the fresh fish is better than any haute cuisine.

The mosquitoes are vicious.  Long trousers and sleeved shirts are essential.   They force an early retirement to our beds, after a fine ginger beer scone dessert, cooked for Richard’s birthday by chef Howard.