Laura to Weipa:
Past rainforested tropical beaches, spring-fed waterfalls and remote, barramundi-filled waterways, the rugged run to the very tip of Cape York is the highly rated bucket-list adventure almost every off-roader dreams of. To stand at the most northern point of Australia is ultimately the goal, but it’s the journey itself that makes memories.
Cape York’s bone-jarring corrugations are the stuff of legends,
but you can expect a smoother ride by setting out early in the winter dry season, just after the graders have groomed the track and before the crowds arrive to deepen the grooves. Although some national park camps remained closed at this time, you can expect more secluded camping and a much more comfortable trip to the tip.
In Part One of this adventure series, we follow the Peninsula Development Road from Laura over the Bamboo Range to set up camp on the Coen River, swimming in crystal-clear pools and feasting on just-caught cherabin, before fording the mighty Archer River to end the trip as the sun sets over the world-famous fishing Mecca of Weipa.
The Expedition Begins
Almost 90 years have passed since the first car reached the tip of Cape York, and since then a cavalcade of adventurers have embarked on their own journeys across this invigorating, inhospitable landscape. We’ve watched them walk, run, ride horses, push wheelbarrows and drive lawnmowers, but it was pioneering explorer Edmund Kennedy who paved the way north back in 1848. Famed as the man who almost made it to the tip, Kennedy’s disastrous, seven month-long struggle from the seaside town of Cardwell across Cape York ended tantalisingly close to the Tip when he was fatally speared on the Escape River.
That he was ill-prepared and ill-informed only amplifies the determination of this hardy explorer, and it’s his saga that has me spellbound as we rattle off the bitumen north of Laura to begin the 510km-long journey to Weipa. So early in the dry season, we find the roads into Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park (CYPA) on Laura’s outskirts still sodden so we stick to the main track, our sights set on a stop at Musgrave Station and the Indigenous town of Coen en route to our seaside camp at Weipa.
Speed-demons might conquer the distance in a day, but that would be at the expense of enjoying some quiet bush camps on tranquil rivers that run deep enough early in the dry season for a sunny, midday dip. On the 250km stretch between Laura and Coen there’s a choice of three, free riverside camping spots and two roadhouses that lure dusty travellers with hot showers and cold beers. Add to this two possible detours to the coast at Port Stewart and Pormpuraaw and, if it’s open, a circuit west of Laura through Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park (CYPAL), and Weipa might be weeks away.
Just north of Hann Roadhouse and less than 200km north of Laura, we spot brolgas, herons and egrets stalking the banks of Morehead River and pull into this grassy free camp for the night. While wallowing in clear, sandy pools, we’re surrounded by all kinds of wild things at play: blue wing kookaburras and azure kingfishers hunting on the wing, colourful flocks of galahs screeching from the treetops, and later, great mobs of noisy flying foxes that descend to roost on the riverbank. In the still of night, agile wallabies creep into the open, grazing right up to the caravan door.
An Historical Spot
Whether for the company, cold beers or the chance to clean up and enjoy a home-cooked meal that you don’t have to cook yourself, plenty of travellers favour the lush, grassy campground at Musgrave Roadhouse, 36km to the north. It’s good value too: an unpowered overnight stay at Musgrave costs $10 per person ($5 for kids), plus whatever you hand over the bar.
Built in 1887 as an overland telegraph repeater station, Musgrave takes the name of Sir Anthony Musgrave, Queensland’s Governor from 1883-1888. The Shepard family bought the land in the 1930s and have run it ever since, first as a cattle station before it became a roadhouse and rest stop for travellers too.
One of the north’s few remaining timber telegraph poles stands out the front, and in nearby a grave under an old mangrove tree lies John Augustus Mayers, a major shareholder of Coen’s Great Northern Goldmine who died at the Musgrave Telegraph Station in 1924.
Nestled at the foot of the Great Dividing Range, Musgrave Roadhouse sits between two different landscapes: to the south the road dips to milky streams and lily-covered lagoons all fringed with paperbarks, while on higher, drier ground, spindly gums, grass trees and termite mounds stud the landscape. But beyond Musgrave, the road climbs the Bamboo Range to an elevation of 270m, creamy clay replacing red dust and fern-leafed grevilleas fringing a verdant landscape rejuvenated on our trip by late wet season rains.
Halfway between Coen and Musgrave Roadhouse, a rustic little rest area tucked away on the northeastern bank of the Lukin River is perfect for a picnic or a basic overnight stay. Lukin River runs clear early in the dry season, with just enough water for a paddle in the shallow pools and there’s a picnic table, fireplace and enough room for a handful of rigs to spend the night. If it’s already late in the afternoon when you pass by, you’ll find Lukin at its best as birds are drawn to the vegetation fringing the waterway and you can take a stroll, wet-walking along the river. The river wasn’t signposted earlier this year, so watch your kilometres from Musgrave (53km) or Coen (55km).
Around The Bend
If you can hold out and push north to Coen, you won’t be disappointed by The Bend where you can camp alongside clear, sandy swimming pools, set a pot to snare cherabin and enjoy a deeply relaxing stay without time limits. At this spacious, shady camp, gangs of sulphur-crested cockatoos screech from the treetops, and you can safely swim and explore upstream to discover more and more glorious waterholes. There’s a toilet, bins and a couple of established fireplaces, and you can pick up basic supplies, fuel and enjoy a cold beer at Coen’s Exchange Hotel where unpowered, riverside camps cost $5 per person, plus $5 per site for power.
North of Coen, it’s smooth cruising past the turnoff to Oyala Thumotang National Park (CYPAL), which if you’re lucky, might just be open for adventure. Pushing north, the main track dips across a multitude of creeks all the way to the banks of the mighty Archer River. If a quick swim here doesn’t take your breath away, the jumped-up price of diesel might (be warned: fill up in Coen!). From Archer River, the road forks 146km west to Weipa on an immaculately groomed road that shaved hours off our expected arrival time.
Time to Fish
Few travellers arrive in Weipa without a tinny in tow, and there’s a constant conversation around Weipa’s only caravan park about where to catch what, when and how. This angler’s paradise on the eastern shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria is renowned for its big rivers and varied catches and there’s barramundi just about everywhere. Fish off the points to hook up trout, mackerel or cobia, or launch a boat at Rocky Point or Evans Landing to head up the Mission, Embley or Hey Rivers chasing catches of salmon, trevally, grunter, fingermark and jewfish.
At Mapoon’s Port Musgrave, 86km north, you can launch your boat at Cullen Point or Cloughs Landing, but if you haven’t hauled a boat to Weipa, you can hire one or simply drop a line off the wharf at Evans Landing where catches of queenfish, trevally and grunter are common.
If fishing isn’t your game, the town’s exceptional natural and Indigenous heritage might be the highlight of your trip. Just north of town on the Pennefather River, the first recorded contact between Aborigines and Europeans took place in 1606 when Dutchman William Jantz sailed the Duyfken within sight of the Yupangati people.
Evidence of Aboriginal occupation of the region is everywhere around Weipa, and the enormous 400-year-old cockle shell middens we spotted on the northern bank of the Mission River at Red Beach (Prunung) are some of the largest in the world. Here too stands a host of scarred trees – sugarbag trees holed by Aboriginal people to collect native bee honey – that were relocated in 2007 off Rio Tinto’s mining lease.
Birdwatchers will relish a beachfront stroll here to spot, as we did, jabirus, spoonbills, pelicans, egrets, whistling and braminy kites and more. Just north of Red Beach, a signposted turnoff leads to another scenic stretch of coastline at Bouchat, an area significant to Thanakwithi Traditional owners. You can learn more at the Western Cape Cultural Centre at Evans Landing, free to visit and open 9.30am-2.30pm, Monday to Friday.
It’s difficult to ignore the fact that mining, and Rio Tinto, runs Weipa, digging away at the world’s biggest bauxite deposit. Some find the operation fascinating, and if that’s you, Weipa Caravan Park and Camping Ground runs daily guided tours. They also provide the only campsites in town which means you’ll need to book well in advance to secure one of their 160-odd sites in the peak winter months (June to August).
A string of shady, unpowered beachfront sites offer the best views of Albatross Bay, which is lovely for a dusk or dawn stroll but you’ll want to do your swimming in the park’s saltwater swimming pool. From this pet-friendly park it’s an easy stroll to the local shopping centre where there’s a surprising variety of shops and services, including well-priced Woolworths’ groceries, a bakery, chemist, bottle shop, mechanic, camping store and tackle shop.
A few cafes and clubs in town offer a break from camp cooking, and if you are keen to camp farther afield, head north of Weipa to the southern bank of the Pennefather River or turn northeast for bush camps at Stones Crossing and Gibson Waterhole on the Wenlock River. You’ll need to pre-arrange camping permits before leaving town by phoning Napranum Shire Council on (07) 4090 5600.
Weipa is an awesome destination, but inevitably that all-too-famous Tip will tempt you 430km up the track to stand on the very edge of Australia.
Read all about it in Part 2 of this Cape York Adventure Series……..Coming Soon!!
Cape York Essentials
The unsealed Peninsula Development Road between Laura and Weipa (510km) is at its best early in the north’s dry season, once the graders have pushed through. Roads deteriorate as the May to October dry season progresses, and side roads off the main track may be rough, sandy and less suitable for 4WD vehicles towing camper trailers, caravans or boats. The depth of river crossings depends on how big and late the previous wet season was, and the timing of your trip. Get up-to-date information before setting out at the Cook Shire’s website (www.cook.qld.gov.au).
Camping: Free camp on the banks of the Kennedy, Lukin and Morehead Rivers (33km, 101km and 192km respectively north of Laura) where facilities are limited to picnic tables and fireplaces, and at The Bend, a top spot on the Coen River (toilets and bins). Three roadhouses offer unpowered campsites from around $10 a head: Hann River, Musgrave (www.musgraveroadhouse.com.au) and Archer River. Book early for stays at Weipa Caravan Park and Camping Ground (www.campweipa.com.au).
Fuel: Fill your tanks in Lakeland, top up in Coen, then push on to take advantage of cheaper prices in Weipa.
Best time to visit: Mild, dry season temperatures of between 16-30 continue from May through October.
Don’t Miss: In June – Weipa Fishing Classic, Cooktown Discovery Festival, Laura Dance Festival, Laura Rodeo and Races. In August – Weipa Bull Ride.
Be Croc-aware on Cape York: They’re the north’s largest predator, superior hunters that can see underwater, reach speeds of 10kph in short bursts and have the capacity to observe human behaviour and adapt. Salties or estuarine crocodiles (crocodylus porosus) can reach billabongs and waterholes hundreds of kilometres inland, at times surviving in freshwater just a few feet deep. They scare the pants off most Cape York visitors, which is the best survival tool around, but you can enjoy their amazing habitats by staying out of their way.
- Observe posted warning signs and never swim in saltwater crocodile habitat (if in doubt, stay out of the water).
- When boating in estuaries, tidal areas and deep, murky pools, keep your limbs inside your boat.
- Camp well back from the water’s edge and at least 2m vertically above the waterline. Avoid repetitive behaviour and don’t lure salties by cleaning fish, preparing food or washing dishes at the water’s edge.
- Be especially aware of crocs at night when they are more active (crocs have great night vision), and during their September to April breeding season when salties can become more aggressive.