Is Bitumen Killing the Cape?

Ron and Viv Moon — 20 May 2021
As the blacktop extends, many adventurous travellers are lamenting the advancement of the bitumen through Cape York. Our view is quite the contrary.

Ever since the late ‘80s and early 1990s when the Bypass Roads were pushed through the top half of Cape York, I can remember there has been a simmering resentment among die-hard 4WD fans that the improvements were about to kill the Cape! While the bypass roads are now just a standard feature of the Cape, other improvements followed, and the area remains even more popular than ever before. But what does the future hold? 

Back when we first started going to the Cape in the mid to late 1970s we were wandering the southern section of the peninsula and paddling the mighty Mitchell River. It wasn’t until 1980, when we spent three months up on the Cape, that we actually made it to the Tip. Since then we’ve been up on the peninsula over 40 times, but only to the Tip itself about 15 times. And yes plenty has changed in that time, but does that mean the end to the adventure and the challenges that the Cape offers?

I don’t think so!

When we first went to the Cape the bitumen stopped at Mount Carbine. Even the main street of Coen, the 'Capital of the Cape,' was a dirt road. The town today has a few bitumen streets and while it hasn’t got much bigger, it does have a few more facilities and support services. During the peak travel time the place certainly is much busier. 

Once the main Peninsula Developmental Road swung west towards Weipa — as it still does today north of Archer River — there was only one way north: the Old Telegraph Track. In the early 1980s it was still patrolled, with the telegraph line operating, and the route was just a relatively well-worn set of wheel marks through the scrub. At the infamous creek crossings such as Gunshot there was little choice in what line or entry to take. Sadly, today the banks of many of the creeks have been cut by numerous entries, destroying the pristine nature of the stream for a hundred metres on each side of the original line. Such is the cost of progress! 

Back in the early days, the paramount final challenge with no choice to turn back entailed crossing the Jardine. There was no ferry then, though a privately owned single vehicle ferry ran on and off for a few years in the early ‘80s before it was closed down. Nearly everybody who wanted to get to the Tip had to drive across the mighty river, and this was fraught with obvious challenges and dangers.

Occasionally while travellers camped on the southern bank of the Jardine as they waited for the river to become passable, some enterprising local from Bamaga would come down in whatever 4WD vehicle they had available and offer to take people on a day trip to the Tip and Somerset. The caveat lay in having to wade the river to get to the vehicle on the northern bank. There were crocs in the river, but any that did appear at the crossing point didn't last too long before they were moved on.

The biggest difference from 30 to 40 years ago, though, is that you can now visit many different places on a trip to the Cape. And we reckon the Cape is all the better for it. 

In the early days you could visit the mining town of Weipa, but you weren’t really welcome. The place you were allowed to camp was about 12km inland out of town in a nondescript patch of scrub that was called a campground. Things definitely improved when the Weipa campground was set up and fishing trips and mine tours became accessible. These days you can also opt for some excellent bush camping experiences in and around Mapoon or at the mouth of the Pennefather River.

On the other side of the Cape you could take a trip out to Portland Roads. There was no Chilli Beach as there is today with eco-conscious groups residing in and around being in residence in and around the nearby beaches. The trip from the recently opened Archer River roadhouse to Portland Roads was, according to my diary, a tough, rough, 8 to 10 hour drive. We enjoyed it nevertheless, parking at the end of the road near the Edmund Kennedy monument and joining with the few other like-minded travellers who had also made the arduous journey from Archer River.

The locals around Portland Roads were an eccentric lot, and we got to know a few of them. There was the 'cat lady,' who lived in a shack at the entryway of the small community. She was most welcoming and had moulds of gigantic cat prints she assured us were from some of the Tassie tigers that wandered the nearby scrub. 

One guy we got to know well was an ex-marine biologist from the USA. He had visited Portland Roads during WWII and reckoned it was going to be the last place of earth that would suffer a nuclear catastrophe, so had taken up residence at the spot with his wife. Each morning he would wander down the track out to the headland, binocular case in hand. I met him on one of the first days there and commented that he must be going birdwatching. 

“Ha,” he replied, flicking open the case to reveal two cans of beer, “Just going down to enjoy my breakfast on the headland.” 

Later in the morning he would settle down for a six pack or so, and then in the afternoon he would start on a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label whisky that would see him into the night — and into some form of oblivion, I'd guess. 

Today there’s a lot more choice when you head to the east coast, and you can visit Portland Roads whilst staying at delightful Chilli Beach, take a wander down to the Aboriginal community at Lockhart River, or stay in the secluded camps in the Iron Range National Park. 

Even Cooktown was an adventure to get to back in the early 80s, with a rough corrugated dirt road providing the only real access. There was no Cape Tribulation Road, and the Creb Track was a privately run road for and by the Cairns Regional Electricity Board — hence its name. Cooktown was however still worth visiting, being the ‘Queen of the North’, and access is now easier and quicker. It's a fine spot for adventures further afield such as Cape Bedford, Elim Beach, and Cape Flattery along with some excellent fishing and Indigenous cultural tours. 

Talking of Indigenous cultural tours and ancient Indigenous rock art sites, the escarpment country around Laura holds one of the great bodies of prehistoric art in all of Australia. The modern cultural and heritage centre in the town is a must-visit, while a tour with a local guide to one of the spectacular art sites should not be missed. Most of those experiences just weren't available before the turn of the century. 

North of the Jardine, there were certainly a lot less travellers around in the 1980s, but there were also many less places to camp. The campgrounds at Seisia, Loyalty Beach, and Punsand Bay take most of the beating. Some free bush camp fanatics may scoff, but most people by the time they get north of the Jardine are looking for a great beach-side camp, a few facilities, and somewhere they can get a feed without resorting, yet again, to the stove or camp oven.

 While you could always catch the local ferry across to Thursday Island, the closest thing to a tourist-type tour of the Island was to grab a local taxi. Today you can still hop into a taxi for a run around the island or grab a bit more of an organised tour with a guide who knows their stuff — but don’t forget to include Horn Island and/or Friday Island on your exploration of the Torres Strait — both offer a different aspect of the Strait to admire and enjoy. 

For fishing adventures today people are spoiled for choice, with a number operating from Cooktown, Weipa, and of course Bamaga at the very top of Cape York. The chances of latching onto a prized fish can't be beaten anywhere else in Aus — so take the opportunity to catch a good one. 

On our most recent trip to the Cape in 2019 we had adventures aplenty — driving not only the full length of the Old Telegraph Track but also Frenchman’s track, the Creb track, and the Laura-Maytown Coach Road, which is a beauty. We explored the islands of Torres Strait, the beaches south of Somerset and north of the mouth of the Jardine, and much more. If we'd had time we would have spent some days enjoying the area around Kowanyama and Pormpuraaw on the west coast whilst taking in the delights of the Mitchell River, the Thornborough Goldfields, and magical Chillagoe. 

There is no doubt there is a lot more bitumen on Cape York than there used to be. But the tar will get to Weipa in the next year or so — if it doesn’t keep getting washed away like it did during the wet season of 2020–21 — but it’ll take a long, long time before it gets any further north. And in the meantime there are so many places to explore and enjoy on the Cape. There are so many places we've visited and so many we've missed that I've not yet been fortunate enough to visit yet — but we’re going back again this year. You could spend a lifetime, as we have, and not see it all. We may see you there! 


Feature Cape York Bitumen Peninsula Developmental Road Offroad adventure