13 tips for “The Tip”: How to prepare for a self-drive Cape York adventure
“All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare” – Barach Spinoza
Nothing rings more true of Cape York, the 1200km stretch of road that connects Cairns with the northernmost tip of Australia via rugged 4WD tracks and sealed roads.
With the promise of monsoonal wet seasons, piping hot summers and offroading nirvana, Cape York Peninsula is like a red rag to any intrepid traveller’s bull. It’s a destination that’s as enticing as it is elusive; because one does not simply point their bonnet north and make it to the tip, you have to work for it.
Planning how to experience everything this landscape has to offer is enough to leave the most experienced driver shaking in their road trip-boots, but if you’re ready to tick Cape York off your bucket list, you need our ultimate guide to self-driving Cape York Peninsula.
Psst! If you’re up for more driving adventures, check out these Great Queensland Drives.
1. Car keys to success: Research
You’ve heard of the three P’s of real estate, well, there’s three P’s for Cape York: Preparation, Preparation, Preparation.
Cape York isn’t a destination where you set your GPS and forget. With the right prep, it’s a trifecta of natural beauty, rich Aboriginal traditions and early settlement history rather than snatch straps, Maxtrax and recovery equipment (although you’ll need to pack them too just in case!).
You’re going to need to put more research into a Cape York holiday than your end-of-semester exams. But, good news trip-planners, there’s plenty of CliffNotes on Cape York to help map out your adventure.
At the very minimum you’ll need to map your trip around the Cape’s wet and dry seasons, so plan to travel between June and October. The roads close in the wet season as creek beds transform into thundering river systems when 2000mm of water drops over the Iron Range.
With weather changing in this neck of the woods faster than a Formula One race, bookmark this website to stay across park access and road conditions during travel.
2. Pack a spare
High range, low range, traction control, huh? It’s time to brush up on the mechanical basics and get familiar with your car’s manual before hitting the road.
It will be too late to start YouTubing how to change a tyre once you’re knee deep in mud on the Old Telegraph Track – so prepare with a few lessons in car care 101. It won’t be overkill to practice a tyre change before you leave – just to prove you can do it.
Two spare tyres for the journey should keep you out of trouble, but only if you know how to change them. There’s already a number of abandoned cars on the side of the road and you don’t want yours to join them.
Bear in mind, there are vehicle repair services in Cooktown, Coen, Weipa and Seisia, and several roadhouses, and if you really get stuck, RACQ services this area, so you aren’t entirely left to your own devices.
3. Camel pack your car with water
Even though the fresh water in the Cape is some of the cleanest in Australia, you’ll need to pack water for the drive. Hardcore adventurers recommend the equivalent of 4L a day per person, an allowance generous enough to allow for cooking (if you’re camping), but you’ll need to dial this up or down depending on how you plan on travelling.
Don’t forget to throw in spare water too – you always need a couple of days contingency in case you get stuck or come across someone else who might not have been as organised as you. Water treatment may be required in some spots (non-potable water will be signed), so pack something to treat water according to your preferred method.
4. Fuel up so you don’t fuel down
The saying “better safe than sorry” gains new meaning in the Cape, especially when there’s hundreds of clicks between you and the nearest bowser.
Save the stress and fill two jerry cans with spare fuel before you hit the road. Petrol is available up and down the Cape (note that some stations don’t open every day), but bear in mind it’s a “bull market” and you won’t find fuel at city prices.
Once you start 4WDing your fuel consumption can double with corrugations, wheel ruts, deep sand, rough and rocky sections and creek crossings – so keep a close eye on your tank because no two days are the same up here!
5. Pimp your ride
Every car needs a little customisation – and if you’ve ever needed an excuse to add a few mods to your ride – the Cape is it. You’ll want at least a bull bar, two recovery points and a snorkel if you intend on taking the off-road options not the development road – so suit up your chassis.
It seems that the further north of Cooktown you get, the cars get bigger and beastier – think chunky rims, after-market accessories and boats, fishing rods and kayaks strapped to the roof. Imagine ALL the floor stock of the caravan and camping show in one place and you get the Punsand Bay-picture.
Did I mention everyone likes talking about their modifications, too? Note to self: Learn to talk the torque before travel next time.
6. 10-4 10-4 Get your communications right, Over.
3G? 4G? Forget it. The only G’s you’ll find here is the G-force of a 4WD bouncing along Cape York’s corrugated tracks.
Enter UHF/HF radios, where you can unleash your inner truckie with radio calls to other drivers to check track conditions. A satellite phone is advisable too in case you need to make an emergency phone call. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.
You’ll say goodbye to Google Maps north of Cooktown, so make like a seasoned adventurer and download Hema Maps, which operate via satellite. Of course, a hard copy map is just as handy if you want to kick it old-school and have a backup for when technology fails.
Those who need their internet fix (I hear you) can chase down a rainbow of WiFi at selected accommodation and campgrounds via a service called ‘roaming wifi’ ($4.95 will secure you 100MB). In between bursts of data, relish the fact you can wake up to the sound of chirping birds and fall asleep to the hum of frogs, not the buzzing of a mobile phone.
7. Safety in numbers
A winch is only as good as another car to help use it, which is why seasoned Cape Yorker’s recommend travelling with another vehicle as you make your way up to The Tip. If you can’t convince any friends or family to go rogue with you, join a tag-along tour like Adventure Australia Treks and Tours, even if only for peace of mind.
8. The serious stuff
It’s the last frontier of Australia and downright wilderness, but good news for self-drivers, your trip is completely insurable! You’ll want to do your own research based on your length of stay, type of vehicle and existing policy, but some Cape York trippers I met along the way suggested travel insurance gave them better coverage than their regular vehicle insurance. Food for insurance thought…
Don’t forget to upgrade your RACQ coverage to unlimited towing and full breakdown cover, because it could be a couple of hundred clicks between mechanics. Of course, if things go pear-shaped and you find your car clapped out – don’t panic – stay with your car. You packed that satellite phone for something!
9. Be croc-wise
Stay croc wise self-drivers – they’ve been around for 220 million years, outlived the dinosaurs and call the Cape home. Be alert, not alarmed and keep out of the water (unless it’s Fruit Bat Falls which is gorgeous and completely safe for swimming).
The crocodile warning signs are everywhere, so you won’t forget about the crocodilians on a Cape trip anytime soon.
You’re more likely to be bitten by mosquitos and sandflies, so spend time investing in insect repellent and soothing bite cream than asking yourself that age-old Australian question: shark v crocodile.
10. Essential TOILETry supplies
What Cape York lacks in amenities, it makes up for in trees and modesty termite mounds, so pack your loo paper, hand sanitiser and sense of adventure. This is a road trip with very few loos.
Just beware green ant nests and spear grass – my fellow road tripper Rod found out the hard way!
11. It’s an #endlesssummer up here
The words “winter is coming” are about as dead as Ned Stark up here, and even though you might be travelling in the depths of August, don’t expect the mercury to drop much below 25 degrees.
Even though you’ll live in flip flops most of the time, pack closed-in shoes for the top. There’s 20 minutes of rock hopping required to get to the pièce de résistance, the northernmost point of Australia.
Snacks make or break any road trip and when there are hundreds of kilometres between breakfast and brunch, you don’t want to risk a plague of hanger breaking out amongst the group.
Food in Cape York comes in a few formats: Burger with chips, burger with mash, burger with chips and mash (no complaints from this girl) – but if you’re a fussy eater or have significant dietary requirements I would suggest BYOing some options.
For the foodies out there, check out Cape York Camping Punsand Bay for the best pizzas this side of Rome! Their Holy Mackerel had me shouting “holy mackerel” indeed.
If BYO-ing drinks, be aware that the Cape has a number of ‘dry’ communities where you’ll have to surrender alcohol just like customs at the airport.
13. Lights, Camera, Instagram Caption!
If a more Instagrammable moment exists than standing at the tip of Australia I’ll eat the felt hat I’m wearing in this picture!
The water is bright blue, the rocks are coloured limescale and best of all, the infamous sign is not guarded by a professional photographer forcing you to hand over bundles of cash just to get a piccy with it.
Have your own Mario Testino moment and get a photo of yourself with the sign – pack a camera and enjoy the moment. After all, you’ve just made it to the top and joined the few who can say they have ticked Cape York off their bucket list.
Have you driven to the tip? Do you have any words of wisdom to add?
This post was originally published in 2016 and updated on 17 January 2018.