Cape York 2019
Roger and Karen – 4.2tdi Nissan GU Patrol and Follow Me camper trailer
Richard and Catherine – 3.0tdi Toyota Prado and Cub Supermatic camper trailer
Don and Jane – 4.2tdi Nissan GU Patrol and Cub Brumby camper trailer
Bill and Christal – 4.5tdi Toyota 76 series Landcruiser and Conquer 490 caravan
Joel and Bek – 4.2tdi Nissan GU Patrol and Swag
The planning and preparation for this trip had taken the better part of a year and realistically brought together a group of people who could have fun and cope with the difficulties that a long trip sometimes produces, and there were some. Having Joel, a mechanic on this trip was a bonus. He taught us some new skills and introduced us to some new toys. I can now regrease wheel bearings and have a rattle gun, it beats using a wheel brace.
This particular trip had been on my and other peoples bucket list for a long time, but most of us had never thought of actually doing it as we live so far away from Queensland. Karen and I had lived on the east coast for years, but never had the time to do the trip before heading back to the west 25 years ago. With my retirement and Karen’s long service we suddenly thought we could do this trip, and asked a bunch of other intrepid 4WDers if they were mad enough to come along for the ride.
Most of the group assembled at the crack of dawn at Bakers Hill Bakery for breakfast, before heading along the Great Eastern Highway to Kalgoorlie then heading north east towards the Great Central Road (GCR). Don and Jane were delayed due to a brake malfunction but caught up on the first day which was good. Heading north east a drama was unfolding with the advice that there was no diesel at Menzies or the next few fuel stops. We were then warned not to pick up fuel at Warburton because they had water in their fuel tanks but to go onto Giles, another 100 kilometres. It was a nervous run to Giles, I don’t like being on reserve but we all got to the servo. I had 20 litres to spare out of 217, so it was a costly fill at $2.49 a litre for a 197 litres.
The Great Central Road
Travelling along the GCR our day started around 0830. We drove until 4.30 and then looked for somewhere to camp, usually a flat area for everyone with a place for a central fire as it got cold very quickly as soon as the sun went down. The temperature dropped to 1 degree overnight so everyone went to bed early.
Travelling on the GCR was an experience. It is seen as a more direct route but its condition of corrugations and red dust also takes its toll on vehicles making the bitumen a quicker and easier option. The dust would see our convoy spread out a considerable distance to avoid the dust of each other while still maintaining some contact via our UHF radios, and we would often have to relay messages as the convoy spread . Mobile phone coverage even with Telstra is very poor, until you encounter a town or mine site. As a group no one had purchased or rented a satellite phone due to the costs of the calls. Karen and I were using our HF radio to call into the VKS 737 network each day to let them know where we were. One of the advantages of the HF radio is that you can get a weather update, listen to other people calling in from all over the outback, and to know that people are listening out for your call-in, just to make sure you are ok. We had provided the network with a rough itinerary and if we hadn’t called in after a few days they would start to call us. HF radio calls are free and membership to VKS 737 is only $144 a year. We brought a second hand CODAN NGT AR which was the run out model before the current model. It has worked perfectly and gives us the ability to call for help if required at a reasonable cost. We were able to pick up Perth from the tip of Queensland, not bad and gives you a lot of confidence that you could get assistance if required.
West McDonald Ranges
Ormiston Gorge was our next stop and is located 135 kilometres west of Alice springs in the West McDonnell Ranges National park. Some of the group enjoyed the three to four hour walk circuit of the gorge, while others settled for a more leisurely walk to the nearby permanent water hole of the gorge. The water hole was surprisingly full despite the area not having had any rain for two years but did look a bit green and uninviting. After the walkers returned, everyone attended a talk by a local park ranger about the animals we were most likely to encounter in the park. She illustrated her talk with a large tarp which had all the footprints of the animals printed on it which was most interesting. Unfortunately she didn’t have any handouts which would have been most useful. This ranger was also most helpful in directing us to somewhere to camp as Ormiston Gorge was full, by suggesting a place just outside of the national park, where we could camp as a group, and have a fire as the nights were still very cold. We were amazed by her positive attitude to 4WDers, as compared to some of our (very negative and rude) park rangers in WA. The only negative aspect of our visit to Ormiston Gorge was when we encountered a tour operator from Emu Run Tours who abused our group for parking in a bus bay. Given that there wasn’t anywhere else to park vehicles with trailers didn’t make any difference to this individual who was a real cowboy. A formal letter of complaint to NT Tourism has led to his termination of employment from the tour company.
The Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)
Seeing Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) from a distance was spectacular, they are much higher than Uluru which was also breath taking. Unfortunately Uluru was beset with herds of tourists, many wanting to climb the rock before it closes. As a group most of us couldn’t be bothered or our knees would not have coped, but Joel had a life-long dream for a 20 year old to climb the rock. Unfortunately the accommodation was pretty average, we were jammed into a overflow, overflow caravan park site that was just dusty and not much fun, so we were glad to move on. Moving East we now headed for Alice Springs and a much nicer caravan park with clean amenities. It’s amazing how much difference a nice shower makes to your sense of well being. While at Alice we were able to get some welding done for Richard and I, both of our rear light brackets had fractured from the constant pounding of corrugations on the GCR. We also had to replace Richard’s camper trailer shocks which had failed completely. Following all our repairs we were joined by our club editor Sean, whose FIFO work in Alice coincided with our visit.
Moving from Alice to Cairns was to be a bit of a push, we needed to make tracks as we had a deadline to meet Joel’s partner Bek who was joining the group for four weeks. We also had all the vehicles booked in for a 5000 km service in Cairns.
Cairns was a welcome change from the dryness of the interior which is desperate for rain, seeing sugarcane and beautiful tropical rainforest was fantastic.
Moving north from Cairns we arrived at the Daintree which is an area of 1200 sq km of rainforest which stretches from Daintree River to near Cooktown. Much of the area is mountainous and rises steeply from the sea making for some spectacular views of the coastline. The group tackled the Bloomfield track that despite its recent improvements, is still a challenge with its inclines of 31 degrees and narrowness that making passing other vehicles a real challenge. The Bloomfield runs from Daintree to Cooktown. It was funny how we all looked forward to getting on any bitumen just for a rest from the constant corrugations and dust. Arriving at Lockhart River was a real disappointment, it was dirty and uninviting, there was an art gallery of note, but that was closed as was everything else, so we simply drove through and left.
The Frenchmans track was certainly one of the best tracks on the Cape. Three of us tackled and forded the Pascoe River which was a real challenge with the water being more than waist deep with a rocky bottom. Thankfully we didn’t get any water in the camper but did get a weep in the Patrol around an aerial grommet . The rest of the group met us on the Peninsular Development road that led northwards. Bramwell Station was the start of the southern section of the Old Telegraph Track, which was part of the challenge of doing the trip to the tip for some of us, with its many river crossings and challenging entry and exits. Visiting and swimming in the iconic Elliot and Twin waterfalls was fantastic and memorable after some hot and dry days, and seeing so much water was delightful. Gunshot Creek was great but a low hanging branch caused considerable damage to Joel’s patrol and our camper trailer after we both clipped it. Moving right along Joel and Bek successfully completed Noland Brook, crossing the deepest creek by himself while the rest of us opted for the safer development road. Arriving at the Jardine River the group crossed via ferry. It’s interesting that the river banks have been dug out purposely to deter people from fording the river these days.
Seisia was a beautiful place, even if the camping ground was a bit run down and pricy, as it was nice and central to everything. The fishing club was great for a feed, we had some of the best fish and chips there and then played a great game of Bocce with the locals. While at Seisia we all completed some repairs to our vehicles or camper trailers, we replaced a wheel hub, and I learnt to repack a bearing under the tutelage of Joel.
During our stay at Seisia we also headed off to the tip of Australia, it’s actually quite a strenuous walk if you go across the headland but you have great views. We came back via the beach, a much easier walk. On another day we took a boat trip to Thursday Island which was delightful. It’s so different from the mainland, the locals have a real purpose and are moving forward with their lives. The boat trip back was a blast, we were sitting on 47 knots, the fastest that I’ve been in a boat for a while.
After a week of R ‘n’ R we were off again, first all back to Cairns to drop off Bek who was flying back to Perth for work as she only had 4 weeks of leave, not like the rest of us who had more. Karen and I, and Joel decided that we were going to get back to Perth ASAP because both Karen and Joel had appointments to meet while the rest of the group could take a more leisurely pace. We decided on a more bitumen orientated route because the trailer couldn’t be closed up properly, so we opted for the Barkly Highway. This was great until Joel had a front wheel bearing fail, leaving him stranded on the side of the road, without any mobile phone reception for 24 hrs as we drove to Alice springs to get a trailer.
Unfortunately we couldn’t hire a trailer from anyone and had to pay for a flat bed instead to go and pick him up. The cost $5300, the driver of the flat bed covered the 752k in 8hs to pick Joel up. They had a power nap for two hours, then Joel and the Patrol were finally back to Alice about 8 hours after that. Not bad for a truck. The rest of the group who had taken the Plenty Highway, a gravel road, were also experiencing some drama of their own with Richard blowing a tyre, then wearing the tyre down to the rim and breaking a shock on their camper trailer. Finally everyone arrived and once again booked into the Wintersun Caravan park where we had stayed before, it was great. This time they were really understanding that we’re going to be working on Joel’s car, so we had a back lot with all of us together which was great. To get Joel’s car back on the road he brought a complete axle that we picked up from an old style wrecker. Thankfully as a mechanic he could do all the work himself with some assistance from the rest of us at times. With repairs completed the group headed west wards, Karen and I and Joel were travelling faster as we had some deadlines to meet and decided to tackle Googs track which was like a mini Simpson Desert with only 300 sand dunes to cross. The track cuts off 800 k but isn’t really any quicker but it’s a lot nicer than being on the bitumen for another day and brings you out at Ceduna. Hitting the road again we started once more heading west, the Nullarbor with it straight stretches of bitumen really cries out for a 130 k limit like the NT but we are limited to 110 k.
The rest of the group also found a short cut and enjoyed a short venture off the bitumen. Don and Jane had a breakdown on the Nullarbor, and had to be towed into Norseman and wait out there until after the long weekend before being able to get their car repaired. Consequently everyone arrived home at different times, although we communicated most days via either phone or HF.
Lessons learnt from this trip
Get to know the people you are going to camp with before you go on a big trip with them.
HF Radio enables you to stay in contact at reasonable cost and you have a community that you can talk to, mobile phones aren’t sufficient by themselves or you hire or rent a satellite phone.
People need to be competent in using a 4wd before coming on a long trip.
Corrugations can really hurt a vehicle and trailers – and hearing aids.
Wheel bearing, tyres, suspension, and batteries need to be new or in really good condition before the start of a big outback trip.
Trailers need to be checked and serviced by a competent mechanic.
Roger and Karen