Cape York is a destination on many people’s bucket list. It’s remote, it’s beautiful, and with the right knowledge and preparation, it’s a lot of fun. We’ve put together our ultimate guide to Cape York, with some must see spots and some tips and tricks to make your trip as smooth as possible.
When To Go
Ask anyone who’s done Cape York and they’ll tell you that the only time it’s possible to go is during the dry season, from May to October. From October to May is the wet season, when The Cape is extremely humid and the rain floods the rivers and roads, making many of them impassable. During the dry season, the days are still warm but much less humid, roads become passable, and many of the local businesses and communities reopen their doors to welcome visitors.
If it’s quiet tracks and campsites you’re after, it’s recommended to head up earlier in the season though you’ll need to be prepared with a lot of your own recovery gear. With less crowds, there’s more chance of fallen trees across the track and obstacles that need to be cleared. There are also less people around to pull you out of a hole if you do get stuck.
This isn’t to say that heading up in the more popular parts of the season – school holidays and the like – means a bad Cape York trip. If you get to campsites early you shouldn’t have much of an issue finding a spot, and watching people get their rigs unstuck always provides a bit of afternoon entertainment.
How Long To Explore The Cape
Everyone who’s tackled Cape York seems to share the same opinion when it comes to how long you should go for, “The more time you spend there, the better.” Depending on where you’re coming from recommended trip times can be difficult but if you’re beginning your trip in Cairns, you can explore The Cape – including doing the Old Telegraph Track – in a minimum of two weeks. Though if you really want to get the most out of your trip, three even four weeks means you won’t be rushing from campsite to campsite.
A 4WD is recommended for anyone considering tackling the trip to Cape York. While many of the unsealed roads are in good condition, the further north you go the more these roads can become corrugated and bumpy depending on the conditions. If you’re wanting to have a go at the Old Telegraph Track a capable 4WD is essential.
Before heading on any extended driving trip, it pays to make sure your rig is in good working order. This can include checking tyres, getting it serviced, and making sure everything is working without a hitch, as although RACQ does service the area it is sure to be an expensive tow. Travelling with at least one other vehicle is also recommended. Whether it’s for getting you unstuck, sharing supplies, or just to experience the trip with friends – two vehicles are often more prepared for the unexpected than one.
Having a capable dual battery setup in your rig is another thing many experienced Cape York travellers would recommend. Being able to charge and run accessories off grid means you’ll never be stuck without power or a flat starter battery halfway down the Old Telegraph Track. To learn more about dual battery setups and choosing the right accessories for your vehicle check out our post on nailing your 12v system for extended travel or our range of selector tools and calculators.
Things to See
The southern part of Cape York starts in Lakeland or Cooktown, depending on the route you choose. Coming from Cairns there are two ways to get to Cooktown. The coastal road is the shorter route, and because part of it is sealed and part is unsealed, you will need a high clearance vehicle. The inland road – although longer and more remote – is sealed the whole length and perfect for any vehicle.
When travelling the inland route, Cape York officially starts when you reach Lakeland Downs. From here if you continue on the Peninsula Developmental Road, you’ll pass through a series of small towns and roadhouses including Laura, Hann River and Musgrave. These roadhouses often have camping facilities as well as food and fuel available. The Hann River Roadhouse even has a nice swimming hole out the back, perfect after a long day of driving.
If you choose to go the coastal way, follow the road from Cairns to Cape Tribulation, Bloomfield Road, and Bloomfield to Rossville Road and you’ll come to Cooktown. Cooktown is worth a look, either on the way up The Cape or the way back. It’s full of good fishing, interesting history, and beautiful scenery. It’s also the perfect spot to fuel up and stock up on food and supplies.
As you head up The Cape the peninsula becomes narrower, which means costal spots become closer and easier to access. The Central Cape begins north of Musgrave. From Cooktown – if you head inland and get onto the Peninsula Developmental Road – you’ll eventually reach Musgrave. If you continue to follow the Peninsula Developmental Road north, you’ll pass through Coen and the Mungkan Kaanju National Park. Coen is the only town in the area and there’s not much more there than a pub, some heritage sites, camping ground, small grocery store, and post office. If natural flora and fauna is more your speed, Mangkan Kaanju National Park is worth checking out. Heading further north of Mangkan Kaanju National Park, the Archer River Roadhouse is perfect for a spot of camping, a big meal, and a cold beer.
If you choose to head up the east coast of Central Cape York, you’ll be passing through The Iron Range Area and National Park, and the Lockhart River. The Iron Range Area is the way to go if you want to hit some of the better 4WD tracks on the eastern side of the peninsula. At the centre of the Iron Range Area is the Lockhart River. As the largest community in this region, Lockhart River has a lot of history and some beautiful beaches. The Iron Range National Park is the perfect location if bird and wildlife watching is something you enjoy, with many of the unique native species being shared with Papua New Guinea rather than the rest of Australia.
Travelling up the western coast of Central Cape York, there are two main stops – Weipa and Mapoon. Though there isn’t much for travellers stopping through these towns if fishing is for you, they’re a must do. Weipa is a bauxite mining town which means it’s mostly industrial and can tend to be quite expensive, but with red dirt and some awesome fishing spots many people still choose to stop through. If you enjoy a bit of indigenous history, Mapoon is the oldest Aboriginal community in Queensland and has spots to camp as well as fish.
The northern part of The Cape is where things start to get really exciting and where many people experience the highlight of their trip, the Old Telegraph Track. While you can take bypass roads to get around it and access some side 4WD tracks the OTT is well worth travelling, especially if it’s your first time to The Cape.
Old Telegraph Track
If it’s the full 4WD experience you’re after the Old Telegraph Track is where it’s at. Starting at Bramwell Junction the OTT is full of challenging 4WD obstacles, river crossings, and plenty of history. To get to the OTT, you’ll need to follow Telegraph Road from where the Peninsula Developmental Road turns west to Weipa. This unsealed road is generally in good condition and ends at Bramwell Junction.
The OTT starts at a left turn just before the Bramwell Junction roadhouse. Though if you’re looking for somewhere to stay the night, top up your fuel, and have a meal, the Bramwell Junction roadhouse is worth a stop. There are a thousand guides to the Old Telegraph Track out there so we won’t run you through every obstacle and creek crossing, but if you’re looking for an especially detailed one be sure to checkout Destination Cape York.
If you’ve headed to the OTT to really push your rig to its 4WD limits be sure to have a go at Palm Creek and Gunshot Creek. Both obstacles are steep and having a good recovery plan is recommended before attempting them. With river crossings scattered along the whole track, Nolan’s Creek is notorious for flooding cars, with its multiple entry points and very soft, sandy base. Cyprus Creek is another famous Cape York obstacle. With the narrow wooden bridge looking sketchy even on a good day, it always pays to have someone spotting as you drive these obstacles and making sure you’re taking the right line to avoid disaster.
After a long day of driving in the Queensland heat, there is often nothing better than to cool off with a nice swim. On the OTT you’re in luck, with some of the most beautiful swimming holes in Australia right off the track. Two of the most popular are Eliot Falls and Fruit Bat Falls. Both are a must do along the track, and you can even camp at Eliot Falls and wake up with a nice swim in the morning. Beware though, being Queensland crocodiles are abundant and many swimming holes are off limits because of them so always check for signs that swimming is safe.
Getting to The Tip
After the OTT you’ll enter the Jardine River National Park before coming to the Jardine River. You’ll need to use the ferry to cross the Jardine, but make sure not to be late as it runs on very strict opening and closing hours and arriving even a few minutes after close could mean missing the last crossing of the day.
To get to the tip of Australia and get your picture with the infamous sign, you’ll need to do a little bit of walking. About 30km north of Bamaga there’s a carpark, from there you’ll either take the top walk or the bottom walk to get to the tip. The top walk is not tide dependant but does pass over some rocky terrain and is a bit of a climb. The bottom walk can only be accessed at low tide and means you avoid climbing over the headland by walking along the beach. And then you’ve done it, you’re standing at the northern most part of Australia!
Things to Bring
Recovery gear is essential, especially if your goal is to drive the Old Telegraph Track. Having a recovery kit that includes, at a minimum, a snatch strap and extension strap, strap shackles, a shovel, a winch damper and a set of recovery tracks – and knowing how to use them – means you should be able to get yourself out of most situations. Travelling with another vehicle and even a winch, means you should be covered for almost any sticky situation you might get yourself in.
Camping is the most accessible form of accommodation up and down Cape York, with campgrounds at almost every roadhouse and national park. Some awesome free campsites are also littered up and down The Cape if you know where to look. If you’re wanting to take a caravan or camper trailer, it is possible as many of the roads are well looked after. If you want to take a camper trailer along the Old Telegraph Track though, it will need to be 4WD capable. You will also need a 4WD capable electric brake controller to keep your trailer controlled while on the road.
If roughing it isn’t your style, most station stays, and roadhouses have accommodation and facilities to make your trip a little more comfortable. Some of the bigger towns also have caravan parks and resorts with cabins and units perfect for winding down after a long day of exploring.
- Especially along the Old Telegraph Track you’ll need to be able to take all your rubbish with you as there are no bins along the route. Taking sturdy garbage bags that aren’t going to tear or break during a bumpy ride is the way to go.
- It always pays to research all your planned stops before you leave home as many of the local Cape York aboriginal communities have alcohol restrictions. This is to improve the health and wellbeing of these communities and either bans or limits the amount and type of alcohol you can take into the community.
- While Cape York was once an incredibly remote destination exclusively for hardcore 4WDers, it becomes more accessible to families and regular campers every year. One of the main examples of this is fuel and water availability. Once upon a time, you’d have to take jerry cans full of fuel to make it to the tip and back. Nowadays you’re never more than half a tank from the nearest fuel and water refill station. For better or worse, this means that while it’s handy to have at least some spare fuel in case of emergency, it’s not a necessity.
- River crossings are abundant on the Old Telegraph Track and to make sure you come out the other side unscathed it always pays to walk them first, be confident with your driving skills, and air down your tyres in preparation for the soft riverbeds.
- Having an air compressor and being able to air up or down, and check your tyre pressure along the track will make the off road driving a lot more comfortable for both you and your passengers, and a lot gentler on your rig.
We hope we’ve answer some of your questions about getting around and embracing all Cape York has to offer. For more information and to see how the pros do it check out Shaun Whale’s recent Cape York trip below.