Cape York Solo: Part I of V
With the tour season over I had just one more goal to accomplish before I left Australia for the season: Cape York, solo.
And not just the development road.
Nah, I had done that in the support truck eight times already.
I needed to hit the Old Telegraph Line, Frenchman’s Track, and the little-known but exceptionally hazardous Starcke Track… runs I had been hearing about all year but never had the chance to attack. Finally, Magnus gave me the green-light to commandeer a motorcycle and the cogs were set in motion for a solo, unsupported assault on Cape York.
With the rain season looming ominously ahead, I would have to hustle. Because once the rain starts up there, it doesn’t stop until April. And it’s not just an inconvenient English drizzle; it’s relentlessly torrential and shuts down the road in mere hours.
So the morning after our end-of-season celebration dinner there I was, fitting a brand new billet cargo rack and Giant Loop tool bag to a DR-Z with the worst hangover I’d had since March 18th.
I was dragging my feet around the workshop all morning, but my spirits really sank when I saw the rack installation required drilling.
I looked at the yellow DeWalt on its charger with dread, knowing full well the vociferous screech it would inevitably generate as it tore a hole in the bike’s frame.
But, I manned up and we got it done.
Now it was time to get some K’s on the clock. First objective was to head inland so as to avoid making the entire six hundred kilometer cruise to Cairns on-road, and hopefully recover the swag that had fallen off the roof of the Isuzu two days prior. I rocked up to the Bowen River Hotel and was greeted by the usual crowd of mid-morning drunks I had become all-too-familiar with since making a habit of stopping at pubs for water. Luckily this lot was friendly, and they gave me advice on good places to camp along my northbound route.
As the sun went down the ‘roos came out in force and I cut my speed in half. I’m through messing around with those damn things.
Just around six o’clock I arrived at the Burkedin Dam- a magnificently imposing structure that looks straight out of GoldenEye. This is where I was hoping to camp as per the advice of the happy drinkers at Bowen River. But when I shined my light around, I couldn’t help but glint a large ‘NO CAMPING’ sign next to the shelter I was scouting for my tent.
But I looked at it again. And with a second interpretation it seemed like it actually said ‘nocam… ping’. Like, you know, somebody’s name. Yeah… a Canadian-Chinaman I’d say. This spot must be named after him.
Set up at old Mr. Ping’s place I got a fire going and boiled some pasta while I scribbled pictures of Mercedes W128s in my notebook. The view over the Stalingrad-esque dam wasn’t exactly romantic, but I was happy to be sleeping in the bush once again.
The next day’s ride brought me to the town of Ravenswood. Tucked deep in Queensland mining country, rolling through Ravenswood is like traveling fifty years back in time.
Granted, just using the internet in Australia is like traveling five years back in time so I guess it’s more like… forty-five…
are you following this logic?
Anyway I needed fuel, but with one look at the antique bowser I was sure I would break it if I touched it.
So I just starred at it until the woman working the till came out to render assistance.
Ravenswood was an experience, but the next “town” was even wackier- a place just a hundred or so clicks to the north called Mingela.
There were a few trailers scattered around, but the commercial buildings indicated the place had been abandoned quite some time ago. The fuel station had been partially dismantled, the store was boarded up and the pub was… run by a peacock?
He was a bit camera shy but look closely on the deck. See him?
He was the only resident I could find, and his customer service was shit. The beer I got was full of bird poop and smelled like a barnyard. Needless to say the Mingela Hotel will not be getting a favorable UrbanSpoon review.
I got back on the Bruce Highway briefly to make up some time. Then after a quick sausage roll break and lost key incident in Townsville I was ready to go off piste again.
I saw a sign for the Paluma National Forest and reckoned it was worth a look. I was rewarded with an amazing road up into the hills, wrought with hairpin corners and steep climbs for almost fifteen kilometers. Awesome.
Once the road straightened out it turned to gravel and lead me through some absolutely beautiful country. But when I reached a junction, I became a little confused. There was no such split on my map, and both roads seemed equally well used.
I went to the GPS… which said “right.”
Ok, here we go.
Two hours later I would remember I had left “off-road” mode activated, where it simply gives you a b-line to your destination, but the track I was on was crazy fun. A lot more technical than the previous road (because it wasn’t a road) and smack in the middle of nowhere.
I kept on for over an hour following cow paths before I started to get suspicious. I should have intersected with Mount Fox Road by now… and I was still in the middle of the woods.
I’m not talking a kilometer or two from the highway. I took a look around through the trees from a high point- trees stretched endlessly in all directions. Meanwhile the track I was on had pretty well deteriorated into just one set of bovine hoofprints. But I had been going north pretty much the whole time, I had to be pretty close to the road.
So I pressed on. Right over a giant log, right past a giant “Danger” sign, and right up the kiester of a big-ass bull.
I killed the engine and we stared at each other in silence. The track was only just wide enough for one of us; a vertical drop to the left and impenetrable jungle to the right. If I wanted to pass him I’d have to brush shoulders with the big bastard.
Hoping off the bike I approached the creature slowly. He had a mean expression on his face and a set of hangers the size of my long-range fuel tank.
A bull was the only thing I had ever seen my boss Magnus run from… if the jungle heat wasn’t enough to make me sweat, this beast starring me down was making me drown in my jacket.
I took one step closer and he jumped, with a big snort and a quick stamp.
Hhhoookay I’m outta here!
Backpedaling quickly I hustled to the bike, powered up and left him in a loud of grass clippings and exhaust. Well, looks like I’ll give the other way a go.
The other route, which I got back to rather quickly, had its own set of dangers. The woods all around the track were ablaze with bush fires, and my cam chain was starting to shake like a belly dancer.
Cruising down the other side of the range I had come up earlier that day, I could really listen to the engine, and it was not happy.
The rattle was reminiscent of the last bike we had to re-assemble deep in the Northern Territory two months earlier… a task I had neither the skills nor tools to accomplish alone.
By the time I made it back to the main road it sounded something fierce. I made camp and made a decision- I’d stop at the Suzuki dealer in the nearby town of Ingham and ask their opinion, then proceed or abort as advised.
The next day the boys at the shop confirmed my suspicions.
“Sounds like a cam chain mate. Or maybe big-end bearing.”
With a sigh, I turned around and limped south. Over three hundred kilometers of backtracking at 70 KPH. It was miserable in every sense of the word.
Pulling into the OAT base camp, I met a most surprised Magnus indeed.
“What are you doing here?”
I explained the situation… and he had a listen to the motor.
“Ah. Noisy, but it woulda made it.”
“Well what are you waiting for? Grab another bike and fuck off! You’re loosing daylight man.”
I could hardly believe my luck… just minutes ago I had rolled in with my tail between my legs, thinking I had forgone the adventure of the season… now I was back in business.
I swapped the cargo racks over to another DR-Z with some fuel in it, had a quick dinner, quick sleep, and kicked off again before the sparrow’s first fart the following day.
This time I made quick work of the journey to Cairns. No more mucking about on the side roads, I wanted two nights in my favorite sleaze bucket city and then a full-scale assault on Cape York.
After warming up on Black Mountain Road (see earlier post) I was officially in Far North Queensland and ready for the real challenges to start.
Spotted outside The Pier bar in Carins, QLD this late-eighties masterpiece might well be one of the cleanest E30 M3’s I’ve ever seen anywhere.
Completely original (save the RHD conversion) and straight as an arrow, this thing has been very well cared for. And rightfully so. Rare BMW’s like this one are among the few collector cars that actually appreciate in value as they get older.
The E30 M3 has been hailed as one of the greatest cars of all time by pretty well every driving legend, automotive publication and TV show since it was born in 1986. With only about 17,000 built worldwide (and a decent amount of those wrecked by now) seeing a real one is a treat in any country.
But the car was never officially shipped to Australia… automotive collection experts estimate not more than twenty two E30 M3s live here in the Land Down Under. Needless to say, I didn’t care how dorky I looked taking pictures of it in the parking lot.
Throw out the Kelly Blue Book on this one, price on a car this clean would be well over market value because it’s just that iconic- any real automotive collector has to have one, period. And in a country they were never “meant” to live, forget about it.
Best of luck to the owner of this exceptional example of BMW Motorsport history. Enjoy it mate, ya lucky bastard!
Black Mountain Road (BMR) is a great track about twenty clicks north of Cairns, QLD that I had the chance to explore on my last trip to Cape York. Running about forty kilometers between Kuranda and Julatten, it’s a chance to get off the pavement early if you’re heading up north… worth checking out especially when the Bloomfield and C.R.E.B. tracks are closed to the east.
It’s a windy single-laner with a hundred blind turns and kicker jumps the whole way. Yeah, that good.
By “jumps” I mean lips formed by rain runoff… uh, don’t mention that to the Ranger.
Despite being chock-full of whoops and hairpin turns just loose enough to step out the rear wheel, BMR is on National Park land and square in the middle of cassowary* country. So try and behave yourself.
*Cassowaries, for you non-Australian readers, are large (human-sized) land birds with blue feathers, a sharp blade on their head and a nasty attitude. They’re quite rare but extremely dangerous, having been known to slice people up and eat them for dinner. Forget drop-bears, these things are the meanest thing going most people have never seen. I was told they’re especially fond of Americans… better keep that engine running.
My first run up BMR was northbound around mid-morning. It was easy enough to find, with a big yellow sign delineating its location off the Kennedy Highway.
The southern half of the track is somewhat open, but after about ten kilometers the jungle puts the squeeze on and before you know it you’re blasting through a tunnel of trees, leaves and vines.
Some of those vines are as light as they look- others will clothesline you right off your saddle. Naturally, I learned this the hard way when I caught a big spiny fern with my right arm, adding a few more scars to my well-loved ballistic jacket. Other than that I managed to clear the track without incident. BMR is highly recommended if you’re in the Cairns area and need a quick blat down the dirt. I reckon it’s some of the best fun you can have in the jungle without a long-range fuel tank.
Ten days after my first ride up this road I was back at its northern juncture, this time southbound from the Cape. With about six hundred kilometers already on the clock that day and the sun getting low, I figured it would be pretty dangerous and irresponsible to have go in the dark.
Then again, it would also be badass.
By the time I got to the trailhead dusk was coming to an end, and the dirt lane disappeared quickly into blackness. It was so ominous and foreboding I was scared shitless already… and I hadn’t even heard the bats yet. But I knew I had to do it, otherwise I’d be gibing myself for being a pussy all the way back to Cairns.
So down the rabbit hole I went- high beam on, engine wailing and eyes unblinking. I had forgotten to check my odometer when I started… a mistake I sincerely regretted about ten minutes into the trip, when I really wanted to be on the other end of the road and had no clue how far I had left.
With no visibility whatsoever beyond what my headlight could hit, the day’s third Red Bull wearing off and a paralyzing fear of cassowaries in the back of my mind, the danger factor of this ride was increasing quickly.
I really didn’t want to stop, lest the cassowaries would come claw my eyes out, but I had to get some photos otherwise nobody would believe I did this run at night. So I grabbed the brakes and shut down the engine, fumbling for my camera with my clumsy gloves on.
I thought my exhaust was rude… but it didn’t hold a candle to the cacophony brough on by the bats, birds, bugs and whateverthehell else lives out there were making once my engine went quiet.
I snapped a couple pictures and powered back up… quickly. No chance for a shot off the bike, I was way too scared to leave the saddle.
Here’s a clip of the sounds and sights, or lack thereof the latter.
Back in the big smoke after two weeks on Cape York- and despite retaining my reputation as “ice boy” (maker of many mistakes) I slugged the Isuzu all the to Loyalty Beach in two-wheel-drive thankyouverymuch.
Our BMW was recovered from the Heathlands and appears undamaged, but she’s cross with us for abandoning her in the scrub and is refusing to start. “Buy her a new battery and she’ll be right as rain” we reckon… they get fickle with beauty, don’t they?
Right now I’m checking out a very sexy early-80’s military spec Land Cruiser at the Mossman Caravan Park (just north of Cairns)… and getting off Magnus’s iPhone before I cost him a bloody fortune.
Stacks of yarns and photos sitting in a Word document… to be posted when I get some WiFi.
In the last 48 hours I’ve covered over 5,000 kilometers by motorcycle, Land Rover, bus, another bus, jet, another jet, and finally our faithful Isuzu NPS 250. Now, I’m lying in my swag trying to ration my MacBook’s battery life between emailing my grandma and checking the weather on Cape York- where I’m heading tomorrow morning.
And yet here I am, dicking around on my website…
After a nice four weeks “off duty” riding solo in Western Australia, I’m excited to be back on tour. Returning to Cairns felt so familiar- after rolling through here for the fourth time this massive country is starting to feel like my neighborhood. Just with, you know, thousands of miles of sand, dirt, jungle and wild animals between neighbors.
Timing worked out well enough that we’ve got a South-to-North expedition leaving the same day the North-to-South ends, so we won’t have to write off the drive back down as a “transport stage” and I’ll get to spend more quality alone time with my beloved Isuzu.
As an added bonus, each trip is just a three man team- including the boss and myself. That should leave plenty of time for shenanigans and a big-ass margin for error. Which, I’ll be the first to admit, I usually spill into pretty quickly.
In addition to off-road antics, this next trip has another component as well. You guessed it, it’s also a rescue mission.
Remember the BMW X-Challenge we had to hide in the bushes and leave behind somewhere around Heathlands Nature Reserve?
In case you don’t; I was riding it on our first tour this season when the rear bearing decided it didn’t want to play anymore… suddenly wobbling like a rickshaw and threatening to seize.
Naturally I was blamed for the incident, but I had only ridden the thing 50 k’s after another guy had it for 500 so I reckon the jury’s still out.
Alright, that’s my whining allocation for the week.
If we can find it, recover it, and fix it, I’m sure all will be forgiven. Its last known whereabouts are logged in the truck’s primary GPS, s0 if nobody’s touched it since we parked it… two months ago… we should be all good.
Of course, then I’ve got to load it onto the carrier. Which is about half a meter off the ground.
Better have a big breakfast that morning.
With some time to kill I shopped around for a rental car. I thought it might be a good way to see the area on my own time before going on-duty for the desert crossings. But of course, all the rental cars are shitty and there are a hundred stipulations to keep you from having fun; no dirt roads, no more than 100 kilometers per day, no running over hookers and absolutely no parking in front of Chuck E. Cheese.
Besides I think I’d rather drown myself in the kiddie pool than put up a $1,000 bond to be seen in a Ford Ka.
But before I completely wrote off the idea, one of the agents suggested I check out “standbycars.com” and “standbyrelocs.com“… which apparently set people up with ridiculously cheap rates on rental cars that need to be moved from one city to another.
There are a few other outfits that do the same thing (transfercar.com.au, drivenow.com.au), and the sites pretty much all have a big Excel sheet with a start point, end point, vehicle types, and then some dumb cost like “$5/Day”.
Since things that sound too good to be true always are, I’m pretty skeptical about this arrangement.
My internet connection crapped out (because, you know, it started raining) before I could get too deep into it and I’m too lazy to follow up now, but a friend of mine called one of these companies and told me there’s some insurance fee stipulation that increases the price dramatically.
But since that’s about as vague as it gets in terms of research on my part, so I’d say these operations are still worth a look (and a call) if you’re open-minded about where to go and are in need of some cheap wheels.
Just make sure you read the shit out of the fine print and try and ask somebody who’s done it what the deal is.
Here are a few resources if you’re interested:
Carins, Queensland is another Australian city with a teaser oceanfront location- the asshole jellyfish won’t let anybody in the ocean without a goofy skin-tight Star Trek outfit on.
Despite being in the middle of absolutely nowhere, Cairns has a pretty impressive nightlife and tourist infrastructure.
That might be because it’s just a 90 minute boat ride to the Great Barrier Reef, where some of the world’s best SCUBA diving is to be had in shower-warm water.
Luckily for me, an unusually long “natural disaster” season has kept many tourists away for the moment, making tour operators desperate and trips/hotels real cheap. I’m spending $20 a night to sleep in one of the nicest places I’ve bunked yet, and I’m getting my PADI Open Water diving certification for a week’s salary. That credential will give me the power to rent gear and harass aquatic creatures all over the world, and according to my instructor, get me laid.
After I saw him fondling that sea cucumber I wasn’t too sure I should be taking his advice in that department, but I had so much fun on the 20-minute intro dive I decided it was a worthwhile pursuit.
Between dives and Chinese buffets I met some Brits with uncharacteristically straight teeth. They had the unique privilege of being the first people I spent more than two consecutive days with since January, so I temporarily had some semblance of a normal social life for the weekend.
But they crusaded back to Brittania on Monday so I guess I’ll head back to the bar. Beer prices, unfortunately, have not been affected by two cyclones and an earthquake. I think I know what business I’m going into when I get home.