More than just a detour on the way to The Tip, Lakefield National Park is the most accessible park on the Cape York Peninsula and a destination in its own right.
When to visit: Between July and November
Beyond the popular tourist destinations of tropical north Queensland lies the Cape York Peninsula, a rugged landscape that can chew up and spit out well-meaning travellers whose vehicles succumb to the extreme conditions and endless corrugations. A trip to the tip of Cape York is an ambitious adventure that requires a lot of preparation and a capable rig, but for confident caravanners who want a taste of the peninsula without days of bone-rattling roads, Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park is the perfect destination.
Lakefield National Park rests within the Laura Basin, a low-lying landscape intersected by a vast network of rivers, floodplains and wetlands that drain into Princess Charlotte Bay. It’s the second largest National Park in Queensland and is said to be the most accessible of the peninsula’s parks. It’s possible to drive from Cairns to the park’s southern entrance near Laura in around five to six hours without ever leaving the blacktop and then once inside the park, the unsealed yet well-maintained Lakefield Road runs north-west through the centre, with dozens of tracks branching off to serene campsites and scenic destinations.
Lakefield National Park is closed for six months of every year, when the wet season makes the majority of tracks impassable as swaths of land are swallowed up by floods. It’s open to the public between July 1 and November 30 when smaller waterways run dry and driving surfaces that weave between waterholes and lagoons dry out enough for easy four-wheeling. It’s best to visit between July and September, when daytime temperatures sit in the low-30s and night-times drop to a comfortable range in the mid-teens. From October until the park closes at the end of November, the temperatures move into the mid-30s, while storms become more common and the humidity soars.
THE MAP PATROL
My opportunity to visit Lakefield National Park came on the back of a Hema Map Patrol trip to the area in early-September. I joined up with the team in Cairns, after they had pushed the LandCruiser 79 Dual Cab up from Brisbane over the course of a weekend. I was greeted by Bryce, who works as a cartographer and GIS analyst, and is the man responsible for organising and carrying out the bulk of the Map Patrol’s work in the field, with him was Tim, who works in tech support and is the go-to guy for all things HX-1. And of course, myself, editor of Hema’s print and digital publications.
We drove north from Cairns along the Peninsula Developmental Road, passing by Laura on our way to the park’s north-western entrance, which can be reached by heading east at Musgrave. Our first night saw us unfurling swags at the Musgrave roadhouse, where an eclectic crowd of campers were gathered; dusty-skinned enduro-bike riders returning from the cape, caravanners passing through on their big lap, a family of bird watchers from Japan with zoom lenses longer than my forearm and four-wheel drivers of all shapes and sizes.
In the morning we topped up our diesel (the Map Patrol truck carries a whopping 180-litres between two tanks, plus jerry cans if need be), ran through our daily vehicle checks and hit the road.
THE DRY SEASON
We rolled through the north-western entrance to the park and pulled up at the first of many information boards. Once upon a time, this is where we’d have filled out paper slips to register our camping; these days, however, that’s all taken care of online. The board hasn’t been replaced since this new system was adopted, it’s simply been updated with a laminated sheet of paper that gives a phone number and web address you can use to book sites if you haven’t already. Considering that none of us had any mobile reception since the afternoon before, this struck me as a fairly useless system for anyone on a spontaneous detour, since the only practical option would be to drive directly to the ranger station to register there – but that’s at least another couple of hours drive from that point.
Fortunately for us, Bryce had organised our campsites well in advance, so we were soon back in our air-conditioned cabin, rumbling up Marina Plains Road. The landscape that rolled past my window was dry. Brown grasslands gave way to eucalypt woodland, stretches of bloodwoods and large stands of Moreton Bay ash, which tapered back to grasslands as we continued along. Hulking termite mounds are peppered across the open grassy plains, some are slim and pointy ‘magnetic’ mounds that are oriented north-south to regulate temperatures for the residents’ comfort; others known as ‘bulbous’ mounds house spinifex termites and range in shape and size from squat blobs to towering flanged structures. The largest mounds in the park reach up to six metres, though the majority seem to range from around one to three metres.
We crossed over several dry creek beds, which could present challenging water crossings in wetter months, but offer little more than vaguely steep, occasionally sandy dips in the dry. On this kind of trip, the goal is to drive all the tracks, visiting all the campsites and points of interest in the park, so that we can record them via GPS geographic information systems (GIS). That data is logged and later used to update maps, navigation devices and apps. So, Bryce checks and records each of these dry crossings as we pass. It takes a lot of planning and a precise schedule to ensure every bit of the park is covered, which means the billowing smoke we noticed in the distance wasn’t a great sign.
Before long we came across a number of smouldering grass fires. As far as we could see, they weren’t controlled fires, so we stopped for lunch to re-evaluate our day’s plans, watching eagles and hawks float above the burning edges to dive on the critters driven out by flames. But by the time we’d eaten, the fires had more or less run their course, so we proceeded as planned.
RIVERS AND CAMPSITES
Lakefield has somewhere in the region of 200 individual campsites. Our mapping duties required that we visit each and every one so that we could verify its location and note down any additional features, such as boat ramps. We found just about every site was nestled alongside one of the park’s major rivers, which retain water all year round, nurturing shady trees along their banks for respite from the sun.
Overall, the campsites turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag. On our second day in the park we began to realise that some were no more than dusty patches of land with few trees, while others were lush hideaways that seemed to have been torn out of pages describing paradise. At many of the nicest sites, we found groups of campers with serious setups; UTVs and trailbikes lined up, tinnies perched at the waterline and tales of monster barra – some caught, others lost. These folks weren’t new to Lakefield, many had been fishing there for decades and all of them told us that theirs was ‘the best site in the park’. As someone who’s now visited every one of the sites in the park, it’s hard to say which is the absolute best, but if you roll the dice without having seen your destination, you’ll most likely be pleased with where you end up. The majority of sites are comfortable, shaded, flat and accessible, though some are more difficult to access than others.
You must be self-sufficient to camp at any of Lakefield’s sites, none of which have their own toilets or water. There’s a toilet block at Hann Crossing, though it’s not particularly close to any of the spread-out sites. Kalpower Crossing, the campsite nearest the main ranger base, features several sites grouped around a toilet block and a shower block (cold water only), and there’s access to bore water for washing up and such. Visitors need to carry out every bit of rubbish they bring, and if doing business anywhere that’s not one of the park’s toilet blocks then waste and toilet paper must be well buried – a couple of seasoned off-roaders remarked how disappointed they were by the amount of loose TP they’d seen in the park, and we had to agree.
While it’s preferable to be camped in a shady spot by one of the park’s rivers, don’t forget that these rivers are home to some fairly hefty saltwater crocodiles, which won’t hesitate to make a meal out of anything within reach. In fact, Lakefield has the highest concentration of crocs out of any park in Queensland. Seeing as not all campsites have steep banks, rooftop tents are popular in Lakefield.
On days three and four we continued toward the southern entrance, detouring and stopping to record every little detail along the way. It’s an unusual way to experience a place like Lakefield, but I enjoyed the opportunity to hop out of the car and explore the park in its entirety. The diverse landscape varied from lily-covered lagoons that brimmed with birdlife to wide open grass plains; weeping paperbarks leaned over rivers, while nearby cabbage palms took on an almost other-worldly appearance in the evening light.
In the late-afternoon there were wallabies everywhere, we found it was best to be off the road by around four o’clock, when the ‘kamikaze kangaroos’ – as they came to be known on this trip – would begin darting out onto the road with little to no warning. Surprisingly, none of us saw any snakes over four whole days in the park, the closest we got were a few yellow-spotted goannas.
The main drawcards to the park, however, are fishing and birdwatching. A few keen fishos were quick to show us their barramundi, others told us of perch, catfish, tarpon and mangrove jack catches, and we heard the mud crabs weren’t too bad either. As far as birds go, we saw plenty of birds of prey, parrots, brolgas, magpie geese, black cockatoo, finches and countless others – we even shared our campsite with a rather bold owl one night, who was thankful for the light of our kitchen and the big bugs it attracted.
DONE AND DUSTY
After four days in Lakefield, Bryce and Tim pushed me out at the Palmer River Roadhouse, where I waited for a bus back to Cairns before flying back to Brisbane. While the two-and-a-bit hour bus-ride wasn’t the most luxurious experience of my life, I was content scrolling through the hundreds of photos I’d taken of Lakefield’s simple beauties. After a busy work week in such a wonderful place, and uncomfortable bus ride seemed like a fair commute.
If you have the opportunity to visit Lakefield National Park on your own time, or on someone else’s, it’s well worth it. If you’re in the northern reaches of Queensland then it’s an easy enough detour and well worth the petrol, as long as the time is right.