Friday, July 24, 2009

Cape Fear Part 1 - Cooktown to Cockatoo Creek

Ness and I are currently taking some stress leave at Punsand Bay, a remote beachside paradise just shy of the tip of Cape York.

It's been an interesting and nail-biting ride to get here.

We stocked up at Cooktown IGA, bottleshop and butcher before heading out into Lakefield National Park.

First stop was Old Laura Station where Ness prepared some cracking sambos with our fresh supplies.

Lakefield has extensive camping options and for the more popular spots there is a self registration whiteboard to reserve your site. Surprisingly Kalpower (which had been recommended to us by heaps of people) looked to be almost empty so we fished out a felt tip pen (the one supplied wasn't working) and booked our spot.

When we got to Kalpower, we found our spot, along with most of the others, had been taken by people who'd also struggled with the faulty felt tip. Not to worry, we nipped back to the rego board and moved our names to one we knew was free and settled in for two nights of guilt free camping.

Despite a recent croc sighting, the causeway proved too tempting for me not to risk a spot of fishing. No luck this time and I don't suppose I'll catch anything else after forking out for a proper filleting knife when we were in Katherine.

We had two nights at Kalpower, and had the place pretty much to ourselves during the daytime. There were some steps just adjacent to our campsite provided a shortcut straight down to the Normanby River.

Fully restored we drove on through the varied landscape of Lakefield and hitting the bigger road north at Musgrave. Just north of Coen we went through the Quarantine Station where Ness picked up a showbag of information. The area north of here is so close to New Guinea that you're not allowed to bring any local produce out for fear of spreading tropical bugs.

Just past Archer River Roadhouse (where we saw this suped up Bug from Victoria) we turned on the side road to Portland Roads and a cheeky bush camp just across the Wenlock River.

It wasn't so long ago that whitefellas like us passing through these areas got stuck on the wrong end of a spear and we weren't sure if we'd strayed on to some Aboriginal Land. We kept things nice and quiet and I refrained from having a fire. We were both in one piece when we woke up the next morning, and pushed on along the road to Iron Range National Park.

[Crossing the Pascoe River on the Portland Roads Road. This is the easy way across, as you'll see further below].

Iron Range National Park protects Australia's largest area of lowland tropical rainforest, so for our first camp we opted for a rainforest camp. Pretty authentic, and it absolutely poured with rain.

The rain made getting the all important fire going a little more tricky than usual, so it was a good job that my lung capacity is so much bigger now I'm not smoking.

After our night in the jungle, we made a quick stop at Portland Roads (a lovely little remote community, very reminiscent of Dangar Island, but with crocodiles), and then pulled in to Chili Beach.

To me, Chili Beach was more like being stranded on a desert island than anywhere else we've been on this trip. Long stretch of deserted beach, offshore reefs, and coconut palms everywhere.

The weather at Chili Beach varied from sunny and windy, to rainy and windy. The wind howled and howled non stop for the two days we were there, bringing with it a fair amount of plastic waste from the Coral Sea. Luckily we were nicely tucked up into the rainforest a little way back from the beach and I was also able to tune in to the last two days of the second test (which went badly but is all part of Ricky's plan I'm sure).

We got to talk to people who'd come down from the cape and got some views on the road conditions. Generally people will look at the troopy, head tilted, then to us, then back at the car, and in the great Australian tradition for understatement, say 'you'll be right, track's fine'.

Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. All depends what you're used to and what you've just come from I guess.

To toughen ourselves up for the Old Telegraph Track, we decided to take a look at the Frenchman's track. The Frenchman's Track promised a short cut, shaving about 60kms off our route.

Around ten kilometers into the Frenchman's Track coming from the east you reach the dreaded Pascoe River crossing.

Those ten kilometers took us probably forty minutes as the narrow track was horrifically washed out. The one downside of the rooftop tent is that it somewhat raises the troopy's centre of gravity. Not a good thing when you spend so much time at a 45 degree lean.

I did my best to straddle the ruts to keep her level, but sometimes the ruts get wider and wider until eventually something has to give! Ness walked ahead with the spare UHF handset for a fair bit to talk me through it.

We'd always said that if we didn't like the look of the Pascoe once we got there we could always turn back and go back to the the road we'd taken into Iron Range.

Ness bravely talked across to test the depth of the water (about bum height) and to look for obstacles (big rock to the left).

The crossing itself wasn't really too bad, the scary bit was the entry (steep and muddy so little control on my descent) and the exit (massively rocky and extended steep climb). Plenty of opportunity to come to grief here I thought but didn't really fancy going back the way we'd come as my nerves were already quite shot!

We had some spectators to add to the pressure (although they'd come from the same way as us and had decided not to cross as they were pulling a trailer). We had put the recovery gear in a more sensible place but the thought of having to use a manual hand winch to pull four tonnes of Troopy up that rocky slope if something went wrong was far from appealing.

Best therefore to get things right first time, which luckily I managed.

Hopefully we'll bump into the spectators as they were taking heaps of shots as I made the crossing. Ness was going to be too busy on the radio giving me instructions and didn't want to risk dropping it as she walked across.

It's hard to get the driver's perspective from these photos but take my word for it. When I got to the top the other side it immediately became one of lifetime greatest achievements.

Things didn't get much easier once we were across and I was pretty happy to pull up for the day on the banks of the Wenlock (downstream from where we'd camped a few nights before).

It was beautiful spot to camp and if you ignore the first couple of rules about camping up here (ie not in creek beds in case of flash flood, and out of reach of crocs) it ticked all the boxes.

Next morning we headed on to the Old Telegraph Track ('OTT') proper. We filled up with diesel at Bramwell Junction where we were horrified to learn that they no longer did takeaway beers. Our first night on the OTT was to be alcohol free.

We got some more info on the OTT, including the great news that the worst crossings were probably the first (Palm Creek) and the last one (Nolan's Brook). The twelve crossings in between were all supposed to be pretty tough and certainly worse than anything we'd coped with before, so this made us even more glad we'd gotten our eye in with the Pascoe the day before.

After an extensive inspection it was time to take on Palm Creek. An absolute doozy of an entry - rough, muddy, and with an almost vertical four foot drop in the middle. It was the first time I've had the Troopy on two wheels but somehow she held together and we picked Ness up on the other side.

The remainder of the crossings on Day 1 of the OTT were OK with hindsight, but a bit nerve racking at the time. Careful inspection and common sense was the key.

Cockatoo Creek was probably the toughest with lots of deep holes and opportunities to get wheels stuck. Some guys from the local outstation were sat at the far end of the crossing knocking down beers and enjoying the show.

Long and the short of it was we came through just fine. It's a
huge learning curve, and I can't tell you how many times we've appreciated the two days training we got back at the start of the trip. Not that Mick showed us how to do water crossings - it was in Broken Hill and they never get any rain - but it did give us some confidence in what the vehicle is capable of, and, importantly how far you can tip her before she'll fall over.

More news of our Cape Fear adventure to follow ...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Dash across the gulf

A week ago we were in Katherine,which according to google maps is 2,328.9kms or 1 day 5 hours (with traffic) from Cooktown where we are now.

It's been a week of hard driving and I've not even been able to fall back on the consolation of Champion Ruby tobacco. But somehow I've made it through, and Ness and I are still together (for the moment at least).

After leaving Katherine we headed down the Stuart highway and then got back on the off-road with a left hand turn at Mataranka. We fueled up on diesel and pies (and my last Paul's milk) at the surprisingly well stocked Roper Bar store before entering Limmen National Park (proposed).

Anyone with a passing knowledge of quantum mechanics would quickly recognise Limmen as the Schrodinger's Cat of national parks, being a national park in a real sense on the macroscopic scale (camping facilities, park rangers, signs, leaflets, long drop dunnies etc), but only proposed in a legal sense (probably caught up in the red tape of aboriginal land claims). Anyhow, the good news was that (1) the camping is free (they're not allowed to collect camping fees from a proposed park) and (2) it was far enough off the beaten track that there was almost no one around despite it being school holidays.

We found a top camp spot on the Towns River and it was even cool enough to warrant a campfire (and Ness sorted us out with a beautiful damper for tea).

Next stop was the Southern Lost City, essentially a load of bungly sandstone formations with a beautiful walking trail through the middle of them. If the Southern Lost City was within 100kms of Sydney it would be world famous.

But luckily it's not and we had the place almost to ourselves.

The road through Limmen was pretty tough going, lots of corrugations, lots of potholes and washouts, and a fair amount of wildlife.

We thought things might get better when we rejoined the National One Highway just short of Borroloola, but I think conditions actually deteriorated.

It's hard to remember absolute road conditions but it was pretty bad. Fuel economy was about 80% of the usual amount as a result of the constant breaking for dips and crests and water crossings.

The annual rainfall in those parts gets to 2m and there are a huge number of waterways that drain into the Gulf of Carpentaria. We crossed each of those waterways and there wasn't one bridge for around 1,000kms.

One of the many water crossings on the National Highway 1 across the gulf.

While the road conditions might have been fairly ordinary, the opportunity for bush camping was pretty sensational.

Yet another Surprise Creek camp surpassed expectations and this one had heaps of firewood just waiting to be burned.

We saw our last night in the Territory out in style with the biggest fire of the trip and one of the best cheese dampers. No risk of burning the place down as there had already been a fire through the place, which was one of the reasons my feet got so dirty.

In the morning all of the trees around our car were covered in blood, which seemed a bit weird. I was about to get on the phone to the Vatican when Ness explained that they were bloodwood trees, and it was only sap.

Another creek crossing on Highway 1.

On the third day after leaving Katherine we sadly said goodbye to the Northern Territory and crossed into Queensland. Unfortunately the 'Morning Glory' phenomenon doesn't get going until August.

We stopped in Burketown for longer than planned thanks to a power outage which meant the pumps weren't working at the servo. It also meant we couldn't get chips with our burgers for lunch.

Power was restored around 3pm and we had just enough time to push on to Leichardt Falls where we secured a top, albeit rocky, bush camping spot. This was night 2 of the first Ashes test and I finally had radio reception again so it was a fairly late night for me.

Saturday saw the end of the rough Highway 1 and we got back on the bitumen just short of Normanton. We checked out the Purple Pub, and Krys the Crocodile - a life size replica of what at 28.2 ft 4 inches is considered to be the largest croc ever shot. It has a girth of 13 feet.

This isn't Krys, but is a similar size.

Troopy getting a well needed clean (aka weed removal).

We spent Saturday night at Georgetown where we headed to the pub for a feed, filled with anticipation for some Ashes on the TV. They insisted on showing an ordinary NRL game but did flick to the cricket during the half time break. We saw about two overs and chewed our way through the worst steak of the trip. On the plus side at some point in the evening I was (unknowingly) over-changed to the tune of fifty dollars which almost made for a free night so I'll stop complaining.

On the Sunday (after another night of two, maybe three hours, sleep) the landscape and weather suddenly changed as we hit the great dividing range. Up and up we went, and before long we were experiencing our first rain since Kununurra in May.

Another tip from Savage/Lewis had us camping on the shores of Lake Tinaroo. A must do trip if you ever come up to Cairns.

The good news was that at 11.50am we suddenly (and for the first time since Perth) picked up Triple J, just in time for part two of the Hottest ever 100. We huddled together for warmth under the shelter of the tent and 'smashed beers'. During a break in the rain we managed to bit of frisby.

After another night of two hours sleep (and with the disappointing result of an undeserved draw in the first test) we awoke to a beautiful clear and sunny day.

Lake Tinaroo was shining and with many Top 100 songs in our hearts we put our trust in Google Maps to take us further up the Great Dividing Range to Mareeba for our first espresso coffee in a long long time.

After a brief stint of unscheduled work at Mossman, we carried on to the Cape Tribulation Ferry, where we had massive deja vu, triggering memories from our second trial trek to Wisemans Ferry last year.

Wisemans Ferry, NSW, September 2008.

Daintree Ferry, QLD, July 2009

Queensland are fairly organised when it comes to National Park campground bookings and it all has to happen on line. We already knew there was no availability in the Daintree so we stopped at one of the few commercial campground - Cape Tribulation Camping.

While $30 is a lot to pay for an unpowered site with a miniscule dunny to person ratio, it was right on the beach. Ness also got to speak to some people who'd just completed the trip to Cape York which we're about to embark upon.

The drive up through the Daintree, especially once the road was unsealed, was dramatic, exciting, scenic, and altogether reminiscent of the Victorian high country (lots of low range on the hills, leaning forward and willing the Troopy onwards and upwards etc).

A taste of what we have to come too. Fraser Island aside, Cape York is really the last of our 4WD adventures of this trip, and in a real sense the last opportunity for us to come to serious grief in a remote area. Stay tuned. No news is bad news.