Itinerary: 7 days road tripping from Cairns to Cape York
If music is the soundtrack to our lives, there’s no better muse for natural beauty and raw appeal than Cape York.
Driving from Cairns to the top of Australia affords you 1000-kilometers of thinking time, to remember songs that stand out in your life. For me, Cape York begged the question – when was the last time I was ‘…taken by the sky’? Full-blown, Fleetwood Mac Rhiannon taken by the sky.
It was years between stopping just to watch the clouds float past. But standing transfixed to the blue abyss at the northern-most point of the country, I entered a serious relationship with the sky. As Stevie Nicks would say, “‘Oooh, Taken by… Taken by the sky. Taken by… Taken by the sky…”
My obsession with Fleetwood’s soulful sounds aside, I think everything about Cape York, especially the sky, captivates you to the point where time stands still. In fact, the remoteness of Cape York forces you to stop clock-watching. Here, seasons and nature are the only things worth setting your watch to. That, and the fact you can’t plan Cape York down to the minute, no matter how hard you try.
Whether you self-drive or take a guided tour like we did with Adventure Australia Treks and Tours, one thing’s for certain, you’re missing out on something special if you don’t answer Cape York’s call.
Day 1: Cairns to Cooktown
Any trip to the tip kicks off in Cairns, which holds pole position to discovering the Peninsula.
Between Cairns and Cooktown, you’ll wind your way up The Bloomfield Track, a 4WD trail that easily holds its own against The Old Telegraph Track and Frenchman’s Road for Best in [Cape York] Show.
You’ll need 5-6 hours to cover just 234km if you want a pit stop at the historic Lion’s Den Hotel (est. 1875), where you can knock back a coldie, meet the locals and write a memorable quote on their famous pub wall.
If you’re a fan of Crocodile Dundee, don’t miss a visit to the Croc Shop, even if only to meet Linda, the original gun-slinging, bikini-clad answer to the iconic film’s Linda Kozlowski. She’s the heroine behind this store with an autobiography to prove it. What’s more, you can also pick up a crocodile cod piece! What happens in the Cape stays in the Cape… apparently.
Finish the day pulling up handbrakes in Cooktown, where the architecture is more reminiscent of Hobart than a seaside town 340 clicks north of Cairns; all thanks to none other than Captain James Cook, who beached the HMS Endeavour here in the 1700s.
Overnight: Seaview Motel, Cooktown
Day 2: Cooktown to Musgrave Station
With Day 1 under your belt, head north out of phone range. Your Mission: to reach Musgrave Station in time for sundowners.
Today is about off-roading through the lowest-lying part of the peninsula, Lakefield National Park, known for its wet to dry transformation of ShamWow proportions. Each wet season, Lakefield’s vast plains completely flood, only to dehydrate into isolated lagoons filled with red and white lilies in the dry season.
This sort of landscape roulette is not uncommon here. Cape York is like an all-you-can-eat-landscape buffet, changing between rainforest, red dirt, termite mounds, white sand and ocean – just like looking through a kaleidoscope at every turn.
Musgrave Station, marks the first ‘real’ night on the Cape commute – where cars and caravans pull up and travellers swap stories, most commonly prompted by the same two questions:
“North or South?” followed swiftly by “Where did you come from?”
Don’t worry though, you have the next 800km to sharpen your responses if your small talk needs work.
Overnight: Musgrave Station
Day 3: Musgrave to Lockhart River
As a seasoned road-tripper from way back (check out my other adventures: Birdsville track and Fraser Island), I can tell you that snacks make or break a journey – but there’s no fear of that here. The Archer River Roadhouse’s ‘Archer Burger’ has been designed to sate even the most seasoned trucker’s appetite. It’s big and beefy, and so good it hits all food groups at least twice!
Physically fuelled, you’ll be in good stead to continue onto Chilli Beach, where lush green rainforest opens dramatically to white quartz sands, in a way that’s worthy of a crown in a Miss Beach contest.
From here, head inland to Lockhart River and pay a visit to the Lockhart River Art Gallery and swap settlement history for 40,000 year-old dreamtime stories, told by Aboriginal artists. It’s a challenge to leave the Lockhart River Art Gallery empty-handed, especially after meeting the artists (some of them octogenarians!) as they create masterpieces from this breezy art centre.
We settle for the night at Iron Range Cabins on the edge of town, which pays homage to Lockhart River’s World War II history, with cabins named after the US army battalions stationed here.
Overnight: Iron Range Cabins
Day 4: Lockhart River to Moreton Telegraph Station
It’s time to flex your 4WDing muscle by upping the off-roading ante on the Frenchman’s Track. This off-road nirvana guarantees a gold-medal worthy obstacle – the Pascoe River crossing.
If the Pascoe was on Survivor, it would win, hands-down. It’s the toughest thing since Bear Grylls was dropped into the Amazon with just a pocket knife – and the source of thousands of conversation threads and armchair experts on 4WDing forums.
Put simply, the Pascoe is the deepest and fastest-flowing river on the peninsula. Bucket list adventure? Oui Oui!
You can guarantee your tyres (and even your tootsies inside the vehicle) will get wet today – as you take two-tonne of truck across slippery river stones with the dexterity of a washing machine on legs.
With your Pascoe badge of honour on your sleeve, treat yourself to an overnight stay at Moreton Telegraph Station. The tin and timber riggings might date back to 1887, but it pushes the 21st century boundaries in terms of hospitality.
We tuck into a three-course delight of pumpkin soup, confit duck and vanilla bean cheesecake, before settling into safari-style tents; Cape York’s answer to glamping, nestled in a secluded woodland area.
An open fire, Tim Tams and bottle of shiraz are the perfect accompaniment to a Fleetwood Mac big sky.
Overnight: Moreton Telegraph Station
Day 5: Moreton Telegraph Station to Bramwell Station
Aside from the convenience of travelling in kitted-out 4WDs with drivers who know what they’re doing, the beauty of travelling with Adventure Australia Treks and Tours is they have an access-all-areas pass to Cape York, including Steve Irwin’s Wildlife Reserve.
If you haven’t heard of Steve’s Reserve, you’re not alone. Until this year no general public could enter this sprawling refuge of rainforests, wetlands and savannahs.
Aside from the two tours, APT and AATT, which cross the Wenlock River to see the Irwin’s backyard, the reserve attracts scientists from around the world, chasing their own David Attenborough moments to uncover new animal species.
It’s fitting that the Wenlock River, the most crocodile-infested waterway in Australia, cuts through the Irwin’s property – it’s a living Petri dish for the rangers who research and tag these prehistoric reptiles. In fact, they have some 138 crocs within the reserve’s geo-tagging radius.
I’m equal parts relieved and disappointed not to have laid eyes on Yugan the 15-foot, 5.5-inch croc who is the largest #bosscroc in the river system. But there’s always their annual crocodile tagging mission to join in August if you’re after the full Irwin-immersion.
Fuelled with adventure, check into Bramwell Station, a 1,330,000km2 Brahman cattle station that stretches so far west, that any further west, you’d actually hit Darwin… or so the larrikin behind the bar says.
Bramwell is about as far away from phone reception as you’ll get on the Cape, leaving more time for buffet dining, bush poetry and beer. Did I mention there’s lots of Great Northern Beer up here?
Overnight: Bramwell Station
Day 6: Bramwell Station to Punsand Bay Resort
Tyres, get ready to meet your traction match. The Old Telegraph Track is the kind of road your diff-lock would swipe right for.
OTT by name, this road is truly OTT by nature, following the original telegraph line that ran up the peninsula. Only a few original telegraph poles still remain today, like symbolic goal posts on either side of the winding track.
The Gunshot Creek Crossing is the crème de la crème of this 4WD journey – a near vertical drop, worthy of a look, even if you aren’t game to go down. Either way, there’s five or six pathways to Gun Shot graduation, all as rutted, steep and adrenaline-inducing as each other.
Cleanse your efforts with a dip at Fruit Bat Falls, one of the only watering holes not part of croc country in the Cape – with emerald water, cascading falls and a rock jump that begs for a bomb dive.
Arrive at Punsand Bay Campground in time for sunset and make the most of watching the sun go down over both the Pacific and Indian Oceans at the same time – a rare treat in this eastern-facing state.
Aside from tent sites with million-dollar views, you’ll find Australia’s most northern tap beer, and a pizza menu that’s as good as any true Calabrese creation.
Overnight: Punsand Bay Campground
Day 7: Punsand Bay to ‘The Top’
There’s something rewarding about reaching a destination you had to work for – and the tip of Australia is just that.
Even walking the final 20-30 minutes from the carpark to the famous sign, across jagged molten rocks, is Cape York’s last challenge, as though to prove you are made of more than just city-slicker muscle.
You’ll be pleased to know the top of Australia is still unmistakably Australian. It’s marked by a sign post, no security, no photographer (read: no tourist traps), and there’s nothing but blue sky and endless water around you.
Mark my words. Standing here, you’ll be “taken by the sky”.