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 ...


Si and Charl said...

Tip for Nolan's - easier going south so you don't get stuck in the sand bank. Glad you did Pascoe's - sure it looked like some nice soul had moved all the big rocks out your way though :)

Good effort guys, we look forward to the next instalment


Rebecca Otis said...

where's the next instalment? you can't leave me hanging like this! xx