One of Cape York's most challenging 4WD tracks straddles the Great Dividing Range in the dusty highlands of the Palmer River Goldfields region.
|Grading||Low range gearing and high ground clearance|
|Distance||154km, Laura to Peninsula Developmental Rd|
|171km, Laura to Palmer River Roadhouse|
|Best time of year||Dry season (May – October)|
|Warnings||Extremely steep-banked, dry creek crossings. Fossicking is prohibited in the Regional Park. There is current mining activity in the Park, so stay on signposted tracks and avoid any side tracks that lead to mining leases.|
|Permits and fees||Camping in the Regional Park requires a permit. Campers must buy an e-permit before arriving: book online at https://qpws.usedirect.com/qpws/ or phone 13 QGOV (13 74 68). Fees apply for camping at Jowalbinna.|
|Facilities||Laura, Palmer River Roadhouse|
||Jowalbinna, Palmer River Goldfield Resource Reserve|
|Important contacts||QPWS Cairns Ph (07) 4222 5303; Cook Shire Council Ph (07) 4069 5444, www.cook.qld.gov.au; Jowalbinna Homestead, Matt & Steve Trezise Ph (07) 4060 3236, www.jowalbinna.com.au|
The beginning of this track is on the Peninsula Development Rd (PDR), just north of Laura on the left about 100m past the Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park turnoff. A large sign for Jowalbinna marks the turn.
The first 32km of the track is easy going until you get to the Jowalbinna turnoff. About three quarters of the way to Jowalbinna you cross the Little Laura River, which is a shallow, rocky-bottomed ford.
At the junction of the Shepherd Creek with the Little Laura River, the road deteriorates into a very rough track until Maytown.
The Old Coach Road is now the most difficult track on the Cape. It’s definitely not for the inexperienced, but a very competent four wheel-driver with a very capable vehicle fitted with a winch and at least one difflock. Don’t go it alone – you'll need a spotter to guide you over massive, steep, eroded, tyre-blocking ascents and once over the range, descents.
This is a track with a real risk of panel damage or rollover, so make sure you have a satphone or a PLB. The ability to pick the right line and an appreciation of subtle throttle pressure is critical and concentration is demanded 100% of the time. It’s relentless, with one obstacle immediately followed by another, and once you reach the top, the track winds between fallen trees. It’s 56km of hard going, and will take you at least seven hours.
There are signs that keep you on the right track towards Maytown if you are coming from the north. There isn’t as much help if you do this track from the south.
When you get to the monument at Maytown, the track south requires a left turn, which takes you past more ruins and old cobblestones still visible on the trackside and down to the Palmer River ford. A sign advises that crossing not advised, but the crossing is shallow and rocky.
The excellent graded 79km road out to the Peninsula Development Rd is an easy run with a few steep sections, and the Palmer River Roadhouse is only 17km north of its exit on the PDR. This track is an epic journey, reminiscent of what more of the roads up here were like for a long time, and a time capsule in its own right.
Things to do
Near Maytown there are numerous mining camps and batteries, including the Queen of the North Mine and Battery, the Ida Mine and the Mabel Louise and Comet Batteries. The Comet Battery has much of the original equipment in relatively good condition. Aside from building foundations and the remnants of stone curbs in Maytown, not much has survived of this ghost town. It once hosted 12 hotels, several Chinese general stores, three bakers, a butcher, lemonade factory, chemist and surgeon. The telegraph poles that have survived still have little corrugated A-frame roofs to protect them from rot.
If gold-mining history isn’t your thing, Jowalbinna offers guided rock art tours of some of the extensive Quinkan Aboriginal rock art sites in the region – with 4WD and walking tours available.
Gold, Gold, Gold
The Palmer River Goldfield was the largest and best producing alluvial goldfield in Australia, and it isn’t a stretch to say that this field was essentially responsible for the growth of places like Cooktown, Port Douglas and Cairns. Some estimates place the weight of gold retrieved from this area in excess of 1.25 million ounces – a figure worth several billion dollars in today’s currency. The field is still producing for small leases in the area.
There was a dark side to this boom, though. The Cape is an unforgiving country, and there are tales of men stranded on one side of swollen rivers, their pockets loaded with gold nuggets, starving to death while merchants across the river waited with food they could not sell.