Words and photos by Carlisle Rogers, Publisher & Editor of 4WD Touring Australia
Heading up to the Cape in May was always going to be an interesting experience. While the wet season this year was relatively dry, recent downpours ensured that the tracks would be slippery, and in some places, impassable.
There are parts of the Cape that can be closed, and parts that no man can tell you not to go. The Overland Telegraph Track is one of the latter – a place with a law unto itself: if you can make it through, it’s open.
The journey from Cooktown up the Peninsula Development Road is great when you’re travelling in the Map Patrol. Everyone is happy to see us up here, as they all depend so much on Hema maps to get around. Being a Map Patrol explorer with a responsibility to update Hema's Cape York Atlas & Guide seemed more important after these interactions, so it was almost our duty to map and explore the wild tip of North Queensland.
The plan to head north into Cape Melville were delayed, with late closures in place from the late wet, so we hightailed it up the PDR through Lakeland and Laura, pushing past the Hann River Roadhouse and up to Musgrave Roadhouse to say hello and check out the track conditions east and west of this unofficial gateway to the ‘real Cape York’.
Cape York Navigation & Maps
LEFT TO RIGHT: The Map Patrol heading up Cape York's Peninsula Developmental Road; Stopping in at the Musgrave Roadhouse; Rinyirru NP would have been an ideal detour had it not been so early in the season.
The Archer River Roadhouse is a beautiful place to camp for several excellent reasons: the attached bottle shop that sells XXXX cans with Styrofoam stubby coolers, the grassy campground with picnic tables and fire pits, and more than each of those combined, the Archer Burger. It is a beautiful monstrosity, a conglomeration of meat, vegetables and bread that defies even the most limber lips. It is an edible rite of passage, a fitting prelude to the OTT and not an entirely different kind of adventure - you come out of both a different man, with stories to tell and the desire to lie down for a while.
Sleeping out under the stars again, we begin to slip into the tropical rhythm, the warm breeze blowing all night long from the east, still hot this early in the season, someone breathing on you all night. A new moon leaves the sky pitch black between stars, and the Milky Way stands out like a violet plasma arc this far away from civilization…fading into a milky sludge closer to the horizon, blurred by so much moisture in the air.
We crossed the Wenlock at Moreton Telegraph Station, a much easier crossing than the last time I crossed it on the Frenchman's Track! The girls at Bramwell Junction are entertaining a couple of elderly ladies who just rode down the Tele Track on bicycles from the northern end, telling stories of unbridled mud and inconceivable creek crossings.
Sitting there, just a few short kilometres from the first real obstacle on the track, Palm Creek, we contemplate the news that several vehicles have already tried to cross it and headed back south with broken spirits and a shrug of their shoulders. Another bloke was in the campground with a Cruiser he had just flooded, nearly beyond repair, in Nolan’s Brook trying to cross from the north.
These aren’t omens or vague admonitions, they are flat out warnings. But being an explorer isn’t about taking the easy route, or the hardest one: it is about getting the job done no matter what gets in the way. So we pushed past the old wooden sign and made our way towards Palm Creek. And I realised then that this was going to be a long day. Creeks that we have marked on the map, usually dry even this early in the season, were long muddy slogs, and we were digging out the MaxTrax and shovels long before we got to Palm Creek.
Palm Creek is the metaphorical and the physical gateway of the OTT. If you can pass this test, you will do fine the rest of the way, and if Palm Creek is beyond you or your vehicle, then you don’t deserve the rest of the journey, you haven’t earned it. And this time, Palm Creek was as bad as I’ve seen it.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Managing Director of Hema Maps, Rob Boegheim, gets to digging with his MaxTrax; Palm Creek took almost an entire day to negotiate; Bramwell Junction is a hotbed of horror stories from further up the OTT.
We literally lowered the Map Patrol down the first step with the winch on the wagon. It was the only way to make it down without slamming the paintwork into a clay outcrop. In our wake that outcrop has been demolished by other vehicles, but we worked our way around it with a bit more finesse. That was winch number one.
We laid MaxTrax in the soft mud of the entry to try to keep the Patrol’s momentum up, but when you’re starting from a dead stop and going straight into a long deep clay mud pit, momentum is something you don’t have much to start with, and you end up finishing with very little, in the end. Winch number two pulled the Patrol into the hard sandy bottom of the creek bed where we could make a proper run at the exit. Now, I’ve seen deep mud before, but this gray clay was thigh-deep, and nearly claimed a pair of boots.
We spent some time filling in the deeper holes with dry dirt and laying MaxTrax on the exit and in the softest sections, but it wasn’t going to be enough. The Map Patrol hit the mud full noise in low range second gear and made it a few metres through the soup, but no machine could push through that clay stew and up the greasy hill.
The mud was above the hubs on all four wheels when they began to spin…time for winch number three! With a winch extension wrapped around two trees on opposite sides of the track at the top of the hill, a snatch block and mud up both legs from hooking everything up, it was time to jump back in the cab and make the long, slow winch run up the hill, keeping the wheels slowly spinning in the muddy mess.
Four hours later and one vehicle was through to the other side of Palm Creek. With slightly less work we managed to get the wagon through, spending a couple more hours now that we knew what we were doing.We ended up making it as far north as Mistake Creek before turning aside to avoid Nolan’s Brook, which was reportedly two metres deep at the time.
Along the way the obvious highlights were swims at Fruitbat and Eliot Falls, coming down Gunshot the easy way (the last passable tough track collapsed in on itself and won’t be fun until a few crazy souls smash it to bits again) and another grueling multi-winch recovery just to get into Cockatoo Creek.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Cape York's crystalline waters is part of what makes the many falls of the region so stunning; Vrilya Point was a one-night stopover that is worthy of a fortnight.
From there we headed out to Vrilya Point, the track in an easy stroll with a few corrugations, but otherwise uneventful until we hit the beach. Always soft at the northern end, we pushed south past the rock reefs that extend a few hundred metres out into the shallow turquoise water for several kilometres, until the beach flattens and widens out into a long runway of a beach. At high tide, popeye mullet jump out of the water like spray from the bow of a boat as the 4WDs pass by close to the water’s edge on the hard packed sand.
To the north the wreck of the lightship is half-buried in sand, the mast fell over around 2008-2009 and it isn’t the tourist attraction it once was, and the camping is better down at the mouth of the Cottrell River anyway, with epic fishing if you catch the tides right, and muddies in the river too.
One of the vagaries of working for a company like Hema is that you get to some beautiful places, and you have to leave far too soon! A single night on Vrilya is worth dozens elsewhere, watching the sun set over the Arafura Sea, the breeze blowing up under our awnings, the stars coming out, reflected in the still water that runs along between the beach and the sand bar out the front.
From Vrilya we headed back over the log bridge, always a nail-biting exercise, you never quite get used to it, and headed north again for the tip.