Cape York is renowned for its wild beauty and difficult 4WD tracks, which makes these off-road treks some of the toughest in Australia.
Away from the tropical jungles and savannah plains of Cape York’s most famous destinations are the dusty highlands of the Great Dividing Range, which are home to one of the Cape’s most challenging drives: the Old Coach Road. The track climbs up and over the range, delivering steep ascents and descents on rocky terrain, and includes unnerving washouts and rutted sections that can bring about a rollover if you’re not careful.
A spotter is essential for some obstacles and sections of track, while a winch and diff-locks – not to mention some solid experience behind the wheel – will make sure you can negotiate the drive safely.
The Palmer River Goldfields region was once the largest and highest-yielding alluvial goldfield in Australia, and so along the journey travellers will encounter numerous mining camps and batteries at which to marvel. These relics, combined with its rough tracks and unique environs, makes the Palmer River Goldfields one of Cape York’s most potent adventures.
A rough shortcut from the Old Telegraph Road at Batavia Downs out to Lockhart River, Frenchmans Track is memorable both for its scenery and its 4WD challenges. The drive cuts through low-lying heath and deep rainforest on its way to the coast, while the terrain changes from corrugated dirt to clay, sand, and exposed rock - within which are some of the toughest sections of track on the Cape.
The most famous obstacle along the track is the Pascoe River crossing (often the deepest in the region), which ends in a bare rock ascent that requires good planning and better driving to make it up the exit unscathed. Other parts of the track can be heavily corrugated, and can have large rutted sections and washouts with which to contend.
The trip also delivers ample scenery to match the challenge of the drive, including the lush rainforests of Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park and the sight of Black Mountain’s collection of huge granite boulders – not to mention the secluded beaches found at the end of the drive.
Cape York’s main artery pumps adventure travellers through its beating heart towards the outstretched limb that is the Tip, while placing a cavalcade of scenic highlights and off-road challenges in their path along the way. The OTT condenses so much of Cape York’s appeal into its length that it has become the definitive track in the region among seasoned veterans and the uninitiated alike, and despite this mantle the track still manages to deliver on its promise.
The Old Telegraph Track’s reputation is built largely on its array of water crossings, the most difficult of which – Palm Creek, Gunshot Creek and Nolan’s Brook – will test the mettle of any four-wheel driver; so much so that spectators can often be seen watching the action from the sidelines during the peak season. Traction aids, recovery gear, support vehicles and correct driving technique are all preferable (and most often necessary) for anyone thinking of taking on the Old Tele’.
4. CREB Track
A tropical drive with hill climbs you’d usually expect to find in High Country Victoria, the CREB Track is a short and sweet adventure that few are likely to forget. Its positioning south of Cooktown often makes it the first track on many a Cape York adventure, making it a baptism of fire for visitors to the region.
After a relatively easy start, the track ratchets up in intensity once it connects with the McDowall Range, its incredibly steep ascents and clay-based tracks making four-wheel driving experience a necessity, as the consequences of an error in judgement on these sections can be dire.
One of Cape York’s most remote regions is also home to some of its most testing drives, which ensures only the most prepared and able travellers make it out to Cape Melville. The drive from Cooktown to Starcke Station is relatively benign as it cuts through pastoral land and overhanging rainforest, but after this point it becomes a true four-wheel drive trek: bulldust, washouts, ruts, potholes and stone shelves litter the ensuing track, making the going slow and rough for much of the way.
With low-range gearing engaged for large sections of the drive through Cape Melville National Park and soft sand dominating the beach drive to the Cape itself, the journey is a challenge on multiple fronts, which includes the need for total self-sufficiency (as there aren’t any facilities to speak of for almost the entirety of the trip).