Once the domain of 4WD adventure seekers, Cape York is slowly becoming more accessible to tourists of all kinds. The first time I visited Cape York – some ten years ago – you could only drive as far as Cooktown on bitumen. But now bitumen is on its way to Weipa on the western cape and due for completion in 2020 and that means that the tourism experience on the Cape is in for some changes.
Cape York is one of the last wild frontiers in Australia. A complex mix of vegetation types, rugged landscapes and unique coastlines, it’s long been included on Australian bucket-lists because it’s mainland Australia’s most northerly point. It’s the terrain and relative inaccessibility that makes Cape York journeys so memorable . 4WD and outdoor enthusiasts flock to Cape York, mostly to tackle the Old Telegraph Line, but also to revel in free camping in unspoilt locations, incredible national parks, Indigenous art and culture and some of the world’s best tropical fishing.
Isha Segboer is the Manager of Tourism Cape York as well as our host when we visited in October. He says it’s not just “The Tip” of Cape York that keeps people coming back.
There is something about the sense of adventure you feel as you wind your way through these beautiful, yet harsh landscapes, hundreds of kilometres from civilisation and phone reception, relying only on your vehicle and the gear you packed with it.
And it’s not for the faint of heart. During my week-long trip from Cooktown to Seisia, there were corrugations that go on forever (seriously, if you carry beer in cans, they’ll rub together, make holes and leak), deep river crossings with entry and exit points that seem absolutely impossible and long distances between communities. There is at times searing heat (although If you go late in the season it’ll likely be mild), a very wet wet season and the ever-present notion that you could be on the menu (for critters big and small).
“This remoteness is the appeal for many, and it rewards travellers with secluded beaches, pristine waterways, and a feeling of accomplishment,” Isha said.
Even though visitation has been increasing, especially since Tourism Cape York – the Local Tourism Organisation for Cape York – was established in 2012 it’s undoubtedly still one of Australia’s final frontiers. According to Isha, between 50,000 – 70,000 people visit Cape York every year. Some only make it as far as Cooktown – which is accessible by bitumen road from Cairns and the tablelands but for most, it’s “The Tip” that’s on the radar.
Cooktown is the first major town along the coast and ust a four hour drive from Cairns on easy bitumen road. From Cooktown there’s a mix of bitumen and graded dirt roads to Weipa on the western Cape (although a 4WD is still recommended) and dirt through to most other communities.
The road to Weipa is currently being sealed which will bring many more people to the Cape, but Isha reassures me that this won’t change the dynamic too much.
“It won’t make it any easier to access the iconic 4WD tracks and remote beaches and campsites,” he said. “This is what return visitors have fallen in love with.”
As well as the self-drive option, you can also take a formal tour where everything is provided, right down to the tent. You can join a tag-along-tour or you can jump in a boat from Cairns and make your way at a leisurely pace along the eastern Cape right up to the Torres Strait Islands via the only working cargo vessel in Australia that also carries passengers. You can also fly into Weipa, Horn Island, Bamaga, Doomadgee and Cooktown with some of those towns offering car hire services. Self-drive is by far the most common way to visit Cape York.
What to see, do and know
Let me be very clear in saying this, Cape York is not the kinda place you go for just a few days. There’s a reason people spend entire vacations on the Cape – and that’s because it’s a vast and wild landscape, with long distances between towns and plenty to see along the way. If you’re expecting tourist “attractions”, turmeric lattes and fast internet, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for natural attractions, adventure at every turn, big burgers and plenty of down time driving and in nature, then you’ve found your nirvana.
- Indigenous culture – Aurukun artists are famous for carvings and basket-work. There are Indigenous art centres at Lockhart River (home to internally-acclaimed artists who exhibit works world-wide), Pormpuraaw and New Mapoon and Cultural Centres at Weipa (featuring works by western cape artists) and Thursday Island where you’ll find the acclaimed Gab Titui Cultural Centre which exhibits cultural artifacts as well as local art.
- Vegetation and landscapes – I’ve honestly never seen so many vegetation types in such a short distance before I visited Cape York. Dry open woodlands cover the majority of the Peninsula, with one of the most common trees the Darwin Stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta). This tree, alongside gigantic termite mounds, dominates the landscape with stands of grass trees (xanthoroeae) and cycads also occurring in open woodland and savannah areas – Cape York is second only to Africa for the diversity of such landscapes. “From sandstone escarpments and vast wetlands, to heathlands and eucalypt forests, dotted with prehistoric plants such as cycads and grass trees, these diverse landscapes give Cape York its unique character,” said Isha Segboer.
- Fishing – from remote freshwater billabongs, rivers and estuaries, beaches and headlands, reefs and islands, Cape York is a fishers’ dream and there are a tonne of fishing charter companies operating from major regional centres. Get more information about fishing Cape York at tourismcapeyork.com.
- Old Telegraph Line – Otherwise known as the Overland Telegraph Track, this is Cape York’s most famous track. It’s an unmaintained route following the path of the original overland telegraph line and runs from Bramwell Junction to the Jardine River. There’s simply no point taking this route if you don’t have the right gear and a sense of adventure – if you’re going to tackle this route you need at least a winch or a friend with a recovery vehicle – Tourism Cape York recommends travelling in a group. The track has earned its reputation by claiming many vehicles each season, especially as people try and cross deep creeks early in the year. But when you make the effort, you’re rewarded with stunning vegetation, crystal-clear creeks and bush camps at just about every crossing. Most visitors take the track north and return south on the bypass roads. There are two which allow you to drive to The Tip without having to navigate creek crossings and 4WD tracks.
- Waterfalls – Isabella Falls is one of the first swimming opportunities for those heading north from Cooktown and it’s located at the start of Battlecamp Road. Assuming you’re headed to the Telegraph Track, you’ll then encounter small falls at Dulhunty River – the Old Telegraph Track’s first water crossing. Fruit Bat Falls and Twin Falls – both on Eliot Creek and accessible via either the OTL or the bypass road, are probably the two most photographed natural landmarks across Cape York, and for good reason. The crystal clear waters of both falls stand in stark contrast to the dusty, dirty landscape you drove through to get there. At the Sam Creek crossing on the Old Telegraph Track you can also seek out Hidden Waterfall – located downstream from the crossing, it’s not as crystal clear as other falls – but the possibility of having a secluded grove all to yourself makes it worth the short walk.
- Wildlife – there’s no shortage of wildlife on Cape York – from Palm Cockatoos to Crocodiles, it’s a region that has wilderness at its core. Tourism Cape York prefers not to give advice on crocodiles on the Cape rather encouraging tourists to do their own research. Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service is one of the best sources of information but keep your eyes peeled on FB / social media for local reports of croc sightings and there regular haunts and if in doubt, don’t swim, especially after dark or early in the morning as marine animals are most active at these times. Nothing beats local knowledge, so be sure to ask people on route for news of sightings.
- Alcohol restrictions – 19 Indigenous communities in Queensland have community-driven alcohol management plans and this means alcohol restrictions may be in place. There are strict penalties in place for possession of alcohol in those areas.
Increased access to travel information, and the sealing of the Peninsula Development Road, is putting Cape York within reach of more and more Australians, and International visitors. Isha is optimistic about tourism numbers looking forward and concedes that the Cape will slowly change as a result, but in the meantime he has some sage advice for tourists wanting to visit.
“Don’t be in a rush,” he said.
“Have a loose plan, and be prepared to go with the flow. Visit later in the year – September to November, and you might even have the place to yourself.”
Follow @tourismcapeyork on Instagram or visit tourismcapeyork.com for the latest information on pre-mapped journeys, accommodation and tour providers as well as road conditions.