Cape York Solo: Part V of VwCaptain Billy’s Landing is a well-known camp spot on the eastern side of Cape York. Many bypass it because it requires a sixty-kilometer detour (thirty in, thirty out) but like much of Far North Queensland it’s something spectacular to behold.
A seemingly infinite beach with soft surf, heaps of tidal caves, and exotic marine life running all over the place. Just don’t stay on the beach too long or you’ll get skin cancer. And don’t go in the caves either, because the fumes emitted by the fungus in there are extremely toxic. And for the love of god don’t go in the water- a crocodile will eat you for sure. Other than that it’s a brilliant spot. Did I mention I’m pretty sure it’s haunted?
So I was holding the place down by myself… not that big of a surprise, since the high season is pretty well over. I turn on my phone to check the time and it rings straight away. Now I know there’s no cell service up there, so I get a bit weirded out. Naturally the Caller ID isn’t helpful, reporting just “Unknown Caller.” I pick up and nobody’s on the line.
A’ight, kinda freaky but at least I know what time it is.
I pick a spot to camp facing the ocean (but not too close) so I’ll wake up to sunrise over the waves. Which was a great plan… until I woke up around midnight to strobe lights blinking every minute or so. Emerging from the tent I solved this mystery pretty quick- the clouds had formed up and were mounting a fierce lighting strike on my location.
The thunder hit hard. I don’t know if Captain Billy was a pirate or just the leader of a baseball team, but it sure did sound like eighteenth-century nautical warfare was taking place on top of my tent.
I scrambled my gear into the shelter of the welcome kiosk, which had just enough roof to cover myself and an informative poster on the area’s birds.
I thought about the road I had taken in here. It was twisty and chock full of loose dirt… dirt that would turn into mud. Mud, which would be impassible. Worse than that I was still north of the mighty Wenlock River- the “Point of No Return” when the wet season beings.
I started to panic a little (just a little) and seriously considered packing up and sprinting south. Was this just a passing storm, or the beginning of the imposing wet season? And if the latter, could I make it south of the Wenlock before it rose too far over the road?
I decided to wait it out. Trying to ride in this dump in the middle of the night would be suicide. Plus, packing up is a real pain in the ass.
So I hunkered down under the tiny roof and finally feel asleep. When I woke up about six hours later, I crept out of my tent into the halcyon slice of paradise I had known before the sun went down complete with gentle breeze, dry ground and not a cloud in the sky. It was as if I had dreamed the evening’s calamity. Hell, I’d been living off beef jerky and instant coffee for the last week… maybe I did.
In any case I was happy to have my fears of becoming stranded allayed, and even happier to crack into a fresh mango for breakfast on the beach.
The fruits were growing in excess at the Archer River fuel depot where I had camped a couple nights prior, and the cute Scottish chick working the till there had been kind enough to pick a few for me. Way better than the pot of plain rice I would have eaten otherwise.
After breakfast I was staring into the sea pondering space and time when I gathered more evidence for the haunting of Captain Billy’s Landing.
Out of the blue and clear as day, I heard the sound of a boatswain’s whistle cut through the wind.
You know, one of those two-tone pipes they blew on old ships to get the attention of the crew?
Yes I’m sure it wasn’t the wind.
It was definitely the ghost of Captain Billy calling his crew of the damned to rise out of Davy Jones’ locker and download a copy of my Jimmy Buffet playlist… or whatever it is tropical ghosts might do.
In any case I wasn’t trying to stick around and find out so I loaded up the bike and burned rubber back to the development road. Southbound on the last couple days of a big solo ride at this point and eager for some greasy urban food… let’s motor!
Cape York Solo: Part IV of V
The Old Telegraph Line (OTL) is the best-known and arguably most exciting run on Cape York. Stretching about a hundred and thirty kilometers from Bramwell Junction to the Jardine River, it’s a rough-and-tumble ride full of unbelievable drops, tight fastblast sections, and enough water crossings to bog an MRAP.
The truly hardcore attempt it in April or May… at the tail-end of the wet season, when most crossings would sink a Land Cruiser to the windscreen and motorcycles have to be carried half the way.
To those who have done this; respect.
Timing was such that my crack at the OTL was in mid-November, at the tail-end of the dry season when the mud is all but gone and many of the river crossings don’t even get the front brake wet.
I’ll be the first to admit that, yes, this is when it’s easiest.
But it’s still a proper challenge and good fun.
I pulled up to the southern start point of Bramwell Junction late at night, having been distracted by the cutie pumping petrol at Archer River all day.
Next day my tent was set up pretty well next to the fuel bowser and I was ready for action at the first crack of sunlight. No coffee needed, I was amped with anticipation for the track to come.
Tank full of petrol and a gut full of mango I powered up and hit it hard. I came to the first obstacle, Palm Creek, in short order. A near-vertical drop followed by a similarly steep exit, I rode around in circles for a few minutes looking for a bypass… surely this wasn’t the way.
And yet, it was. Less than three kilometers into the ride would be the first of many points I would consider turning around.
With a downshift and a shrug I crept into the creek, then powered on hard for a noisy exit.
Ah, that wasn’t so bad.
After Palm Creek I ran through a fastblast that snaked into a few sandy corners. With my loadout more stable than ever thanks to a new cargo setup, I could step out the back wheel like a champ and not loose my sleeping bag. Bloody brilliant.
Next obstacle was Delhunty River, about six meters wide but hardly ten centimeters deep. Before crossing I caught sight of a few Land Cruisers camped up on the south side, so I strode over to have a chat.
I was bloody glad I did, because after a few minutes of talking they insisted on sharing their breakfast- cooked eggs, bacon, potatoes and coffee.
This was going to be a good day.
The track continues somewhat similarly to Frenchman’s… varied terrain, a few fastblasts, the only difference is river crossings. There are a lot of them.
I tried to get out and take video of each, but after dropping my camera on rocks for the fifth time I started thinking the risk outweighed the reward.
I did film two of the more famous crossings, Gunshot Creek:
And a bit further down the track, Cockatoo Creek:
The difference in these obstacles between May and November is absolutely unbelievable. Here I was walking through Cockatoo Creek without getting my shins wet, when six months ago we were belt-deep in fast flowing water at the same exact crossing.
I was told that crocodile metabolism increases in the summer heat, making them hungriest at this time of year. Being too lazy to look it up, I had to defer to my instincts on whether or not I was being marked for a meal. Fortunately/unfortunately I don’t have any drama to report on this; spent a total of almost three months on Cape York now and I still haven’t seen a bloody croc’. Apparently this is a good thing… but as far as I’m concerned I’ve still got a box to tick.
Anyway, after Cockatoo there’s a brief transport section of Development Road you’ve got to take to get to the next intersection of the OTL. Take the right toward Elliot Falls (which is a great place to camp) and then keep left when you get to the camping area.
This is where the track gets seriously hairy.
Deep, deep sand and craggy water crossings wrought with holes, rocks, sand pits and all kinds of nonsense to get hung up on.
I walked every crossing to suss out the danger factor, and as a result was soaked to the bone for the majority of the day. A minor inconvenience, but largely alleviated by the fact that it was around forty degrees Celsius pretty much the whole time I was north of Archer River.
When I was nearly at the end I ran into a couple dudes on DR-Z’s who were southbound. They warned of an exceptionally deep and complicated crossing a few kilometers north, and apprised me of a “bailout track” just before it. Advice that would soon become invaluable.
At first I dismissed the idea of a bypass, and charged ahead toward the Jardine River and northern end of the OTL as planned. The very next crossing was insane; steep, windy and very sandy descent into a deep and extremely boggy creek. I crept down and examined the water hole. The water was right around the front fender’s level… just about as deep as you can go in a DR-Z with anything resembling safety.
With the bike shut down and my gear left on the north side of the water, I made ready to push my rig through the water rather than ride it. This would be safer in terms of keeping water out of the engine (a de-activated engine doesn’t suck anything in) but a lot harder in terms of relying on my physical strength for propulsion.
I got as much of a “running” start as I could wrangle and shoved the bike into the creek. The bottom was like quicksand, forcing me to pull up on the handlebars as I pushed forward.
But with a hearty grunt a desperate push I got the machine through the water and safely on the north side- which was mercifully rock hard.
From this point every meter of the track was extremely difficult. All the obstacles I had been dealing with the whole way up, plus massive ruts that directed my front tire at their will.
Finally I reached the massive crossing my southbound buddies had been on about… and it was nothing short of epic.
Crystal clear water striking a ten meter fissure in the sandy-soft trail that was so deep even the biggest croc-o-dillions could raise a family in there. Gentle wind gave the palm trees a soft but steady bob like they were listening to Why Am I A Rastaman. Water burbled over a few big rocks and the sound reminded me of a faucet in the bathroom of a really nice restaurant. Which made me wish, just for a second, that I was at a really nice restaurant. The rice and water I had been living off the last ten days was making mealtimes… not exactly something I looked forward to.
But I snapped back into adventure mode quickly. There would be plenty of time for fine dining when I got to Los Angeles, this scene was too perfect not to enjoy.
Well, it would have been perfect, if it wasn’t making my route impassible.
I walked in and around it for half an hour trying to see a way through. It was unbelievably deep everywhere, but unlike the last crossing the bottom was just too soft to push through. In an attempt to overcome this, I started laying a path with huge rocks. But as soon as I dropped them in the water, they sunk so deep into the sand that I couldn’t remember where I had dropped ‘em.
If the bottom wouldn’t hold a five pound rock, what would happen to my two hundred pound motorcycle?
With no other option making itself apparent, I had no choice but to turn around and use the exit track the other guys had ridden in on. So I retraced my last couple K’s, including the deep crossing I had negotiated earlier, found the fork in the track and headed for the Development Road. Once there I cut south with most of the OTL completed successfully. Not a perfect run, but one hell of a good time. Anyway… I’ve got to have a reason to come back, don’t I?
Cape York Solo: Part III of V
Not to be confused with the French Line of the Simpson Desert (those frogs must have been all over this island) Frenchman’s Track runs through the Mangkuma Land Trust, from just north of Archer River Roadhouse to just south of Bramwell Junction.
It’s an awesome run; easy to access from the development road, long enough to engage you for a whole day and short enough to do with a small fuel tank.
But the real pig’s ear of this track is the variability of the terrain. Over just about 120 kilometers you get deep water, deep sand, fast-blast sections, crazy steep climbs and loose rocks. No combing your mustache on this one; surrender attention and you’ll be in the trees in short order.
I made a map but since my handwriting’s atrocious and cartography skills even worse, I figured you’d be better off with a not-to-scale “textual interpretation.” These are my notes of terrain as I found it, so if you’re giving Frenchman’s a crack you can use this as a guide for what to expect.
FRENCHMAN'S TRACK, CAPE YORK
Northern Intersection: S/P "BATAVIA DOWNS"
Easy, Fast Track
Pascoe River/Very Deep*
I Southern Intersection: S/P "QUARANTINE"
*I should articulate just what I mean by “Very Deep” in reference to the Pascoe River. When I did this run, it was the very end of the dry season… when every river in Cape York is at its lowest. Even the mighty Wenlock is but a trickle you could cross in a PowerWheels car.
The Pascoe, however, rescinds its fury for no man. With a fearsomely steep approach and departure angle, a surface littered with massive rocks, and fast-flowing water up to my waistline, I can’t recommend attempting this crossing solo.
I approached from the south. Feathering the brakes in first gear, I crept down the slippery track to the rivers edge. My execution was masterful, right up to the point when I locked up the rear wheel, stalled and landed smack-down in a pile of mud and kangaroo shit.
No worries, because I could already tell I was going to get wet walking this river.
After picking the bike up I ditched my gear and strode into the water. By the time I had slipped and fallen in twice I had no choice but to admit- there was no F’ing way I was going to make it through this. So I sat on a big rock and dried off, which took about five seconds in the blistering FNQ sun.
Looking up at the steep drop-in I had barely made it down to get here I could tell the coming-about process would be almost as hard as continuing north. But with a little Austin Powers/100-point-turn and a whole lot of throttle I was on track long enough to loose traction at the steepest point, spin out, and come off with the bike pointed sideways.
I decided to head back to Archer River- where I had fueled up at the beginning of the day. There I was able to stock up on mangoes and more fully appreciate the hospitality of the backpackers working there. By the next day I was northbound again and tearing up the dirt with a re-activated vigor.
I cut to the Old Telegraph Line (OTL) after Archer, but I did end up completing the rest of Frenchman’s Track a few days later on my southbound trip. And I’m glad I did, because the section north of the Pascoe is not to be missed. I’ve never seen greater variability on a track in my life. The challenge is significant to keep a six-foot smile on your face, but you’re never more than a hundred kilometers from a cattle station and you don’t have to panic every time you slosh your fuel tank.
Even managed to get some video of the Portland Roads region… some high-drama as the bush burns…
…and my pathetic attempt at climbing out of the Pascoe River bed on my DR-Z for your entertainment.
Cape York Solo: Part II of V
The Starcke Track is one of the least-known routes on Cape York, and easily one of the hardest. OAT only takes groups this way when everyone on tour is an expert rider and we’re ahead of schedule.
With over three-hundred kilometers between fuel stops, endless ruts and bulldust that will toss you into the ground like a lineman it’s hard bloody work.
Naturally I had to give it a go, so I left early in the morning from Isabella Falls with a full fuel tank plus a ten-liter jerrycan I had hanging off my rear fender with a belt. I’d be trying it northbound, with hopes to arrive at Lakefield National Park by day’s end.
The first fifty kilometers of the track are easy money- pretty well just gravel roads. The first signs of deterioration come after the first “Y” fork, faintly marked by a discarded PFD with the word “STARCKE” inscribed on it with Sharpie. If you pass a long-dead Nissan Patrol sitting on its roof, you’re going the right way.
Big, rolling rocks start, and shortly after- the sand. Deep grain with pockets of really deep that require a full-commitment fistfull of throttle to make it thorough.
The sand lets up briefly, and the track passes through an abandoned outpost of some kind. A few Land Cruiser components still lying around and remnants of a sat-com setup suggest the place was vacated in a hurry… with a weakly-spinning windmill completing the eeriness.
There’s a short fast blast section out of the ruins, but the high speed action ends there. Pockets of bulldust like I’ve never seen are laying in wait between rough sand patches and tiny trees.
For those that haven’t experienced it- “bulldust” is an extremely soft and fine sand that can grab a tire with a sudden ferocity that’s almost impossible to prepare for… knocking you on your ass like, well, a bull.
It occurs in pockets on sandy trails and gravel roads alike. These pockets are very hard to see, and impossible to know the depth of.
If you don’t see bulldust in time, you’ll be wearing it.
After almost an hour of riding and at ten spills, I was starting to get fatigued and was seriously considering turning around. Finally I got railroaded into a half-meter deep rut and brought to an abrupt stop. The crash was minor… but the extraction process took no less than twenty minutes and I was relieved to calculate I hadn’t yet hit the Point of No Return.
Between all the gear I was carrying and lack of any communicative equipment, I talked myself into turning around and having a go at some of the other tracks further north. So I ripped a half-donut and fought back to the gravel road, turning northbound on Battle Camp Road- a much harder-packed (easier) route.
Like the Nissan and other wrecks I had passed, I had been defeated by the Starcke Track.
But my Cape York ride wasn’t over… and there were still plenty of opportunities to get myself stranded, lost or killed over the next week.
Next night’s camp even had entertainment- bulls, pigs, wallabies, there were creatures all over the place. I finally saw a pair of kangaroos boxing, but they weren’t keen on hosting spectators.
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.
The Jardine River Ferry is one of the most expensive in Australia, and shortest anywhere. But it’s still one of my favorite parts of Cape York.
Got to see a couple Park Rangers coax Land Cruisers over the very-sketchy log bridge at Crystal Creek. Cool to watch, but I was secretly glad I didn’t have to go that way…
But there were a few custom jobs, one-off’s, and standouts straight out of a Mad Max movie that are worth sharing.
Rumor has it that some brave stoners nursed a Mitsubishi Delicia over the OTL last month, but photographic evidence is unavailable.
This Defender had the text “Australia Conqueror” emblazoned on the side of its trailer… good to see the Imperial spirit hasn’t died yet.
However the creative re-badging on this Rangie might not have made the Queen quite as proud.
While Magnus dropped our South-To-North client off at the airport and picked up the next rider for North-To-South, I cleaned the motorcycles and worked on my suntan. Even had the time to indulge in a ten-minute adventure down the track beside the campground.
With my AMA-rated safety sandals on I took a blast down the sandy path until I came to the first water crossing, then brought it back and gave it a detail.
Somebody had to keep the seat warm for the boss.
Afterwards I was charged with the grocery store run. Since I know how much Magnus loves grocery shopping this felt like a pretty big honor, and I was determined not to fuck it up. I checked my list four times before leaving the store.
When I got back to camp, Mags quizzed me on the results.
“How’d you go with Aeroguard?”
“If it was on the list, I got it.”
I’m ashamed to admit I was so concerned with getting the shopping done properly that I pondered that last question in full sincerity for a moment.
“They were not on the list.”
With the re-provision complete and bikes fueled, we were ready to head back through the bush to Cairns.
Better step on it- I think I see one of those wild women in the rearview.
While I’m sure Magnus would have wanted a few more riders on our third and fourth Cape York expeditions, I was pretty pleased with the idea of a two-man team. All my duties would be so much easier- from the inglorious making of sandwiches to the really inglorious washing of dishes. While the glorious part, the driving, would be the same.
On top of that I was starting to get a good handle the Isuzu.
Hell, I might hardly cause any calamity at all in the next two weeks.
Of course I was put into check within ten minutes of my first drive as I eased into an intersection against a red arrow with Magnus in the passenger seat.
“Mate it’s- red,”
“Ah, right. Thought that was- different in Australia.”
The boss was not amused with that asinine excuse, but once we were stocked up on fuel and liquor we were on our way without incident.
Aside from the minor mistakes of briefly getting lost and nearly running someone over at a fuel station, I was doing as well as I could have hoped by the end of Day 1.
Next day I decided to forgo my morning coffee in lieu of a cappuccino at the Lakeland fuel station- man’s last hope for a proper coffee before the jungle begins. But much to my dismay, a forty-foot Mercedes had just unloaded as many old people- there was a line curly white hair and fedoras out the door.
So I dropped the clutch and laid a power-over drift across the parking lot, staining forty polo shirts with red dirt and diesel soot.
Juuust kidding, I could never be that much of a dick. But I did scoot outta there before anyone could ask me what size my tires were.
Why do old people always ask about the tires?
Later on I was pleased to learn we were taking a different route than we had a few months ago, and I’d get to see some new scenery.
We crossed Nifold Plains on Day 3, and if I ignored the kangaroos bouncing off the bumper every few minutes I could have sworn I was in Africa. It’s amazing how just a few hundred kilometers of driving brings you from jungle to savanna and back again.
After the plains I was hailed by a Land Cruiser on the UHF.
“Ehiateowzetrek?” crackled the radio.
While I was trying to work out what language I had just heard, Magnus’ familiar voice chimed in- “You’ll have to speak slower, he’s American.”
Ah, so somebody was talking to me.
The voice came back, this time dialed a few notches back from True Australian; “Ehi mate, eis is the Land Crusza. Ow’s e tryck goin?”
I wasn’t sure if that last word had been ‘truck’ or ‘track,’ so I went for a vauge response and hoped he would drop out of comm range before I made myself look like a complete idiot.
“Uh, it’s going good man!”
Another batch of incomprehensible words flew from the radio like socks in a dryer opened mid-cycle. Unfortunately this conversation would remain lost in translation.
By the end of the week I was setting up camp at Loyalty Beach and cracking a victory beer. While I was still famous in the neighborhood for my blunders of previous expeditions (I was addressed with; “last time I saw you here, those wheels were about ‘alf a meter in the mud” more than a few times) I had in fact driven all the way up the Cape without breaking anything, and without engaging 4WD.
Of course, that would be more impressive if all the water crossings hadn’t dried up, but I was still pleased with the result.
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.
The Isuzu’s easy negotiation of daunting ruts and water crossings has started to lose some awe-factor, but I still feel like I’m living a dream.
On our way back from the second Cape York expedition, we rolled up to a fuel depot called Bramwell Junction for a re-up on diesel and ice.
The woman at the till asked if we were on our way home. Mags replied in the affirmative. Then she turned to me;
“How many bogs this time, love?”
Magnus choked down a laugh.
“Mate, two trips on the job and you’ve got a reputation on the peninsula!”
I shook my head and smiled, there was nothing to do but embrace it. “Zero this time, thankyouverymuch!”
Back in the truck Mags was still laughing over the stop’s conversation.
“I mean, you’ve got to be the only American, with a reputation on Cape York. Hell, they don’t even know who I am but she recognized you!”
Indeed. Seems word spreads fast when you’re the first team up the track all season- and you put a six-figure support truck in the slop for three hours. The People love a good rookie mistake, don’t they?
We had a fishing break at the Wentlock river by the Moreton Telegraph Station, no longer in service as a communications relay but a well preserved historic site.
After a few minutes of unsuccessful fishing I came back to the truck to try my luck fishing in the esky (beer cooler).
Mags had the same idea and I met him back at the truck.
“There’s a big croc living in here so make sure you don’t go too close to the water,”
I looked down at my shorts, bottom half soaked from being submerged as I had been standing in the middle of the creek. Should I say something or just play it off like I peed my pants?
“Oh uh, I went it in it,” I decided to admit.
Mags just shook his head.
“Big croc man,”
Not keen on pressing my luck I climbed back to the safety of the cab, and we crawled out of the sand back on to the Development Road.
I tried writing a bit as we motored toward Laura, recording the trip’s events and even jotting a few poems while we kicked up a Sahara-sized dust storm. But despite running off-road suspension I could feel all 123,456,780 lumps, bumps and corrugations we were blasting over at 90 KPH. My notebook ended up looking more like a Picaso painting than anything resembling text, and I imagined powering up my computer would be equally futile.
When we stopped, I couldn’t read a thing I had written but I did notice that the pages I had written on were covered in a brown tinge, the outback’s branding mark on all things that one dares use in its realm.
But by this point I had completely surrendered to the state of perpetual griminess that is part of being out here. Dust in my coffee cup won’t stop me from pouring and I guzzle the earth floating around in my water bottles. Hell, I don’t even wait for bugs to leave my fork when I’m wolfing my dinner anymore. Need the extra protein out here anyway.
The riders on the second Cape York tour were quite a stark contrast to those from the first. While the previous week’s team consisted of hard-riding dudes from the country, this trip would be ridden by some of Australia’s more “civilized” folks from Sydney. Nothing wrong with being urban, but it became apparent pretty quickly that this going to be a different kind of trip; I watched one of our rider’s right directional light blink for the first 80 kilometers of the expedition from my luxury box in the Isuzu.
I completed the entire drive to Cockatoo Creek without so much as the beginning of a bogging.
Halfway through the tour I had messed up so much less than I had the last time that I finally allowed myself to relax. Not one-hand-on-the-wheel relax, just not sweat-a-liter-per-kilometer stressed.
Do I dare recline the seat one notch back?
After a week and a half of off-roading the truck’s air filter was under more dust than that Blu-Ray player you got your grandma for Christmas, so I went down to the creek and panned the massive filter-cylinder in the water. I was starting to get used to washing engine components like laundry in the 1800’s.
After a fireside dry-out we re-installed the filter and I was chasing the bikes north once again.
Before I could get a kilometer the party pooper light (Check Engine) invited itself to my dashboard.
I shut the truck down and pulled the filter out, suspecting that air filter hadn’t sufficiently dried. It hadn’t.
Should I wait until it’s dry, or run with it and pray the combustion chamber is hot enough to evaporate the water before it seizes the engine and costs us $50,000?
No sooner was I scratching my balls in perplexity than Magnus appeared on a different DR-Z than I had left on that morning.
“Grant’s bike seized. Follow me up the track we’ll hide it in the scrub,”
Another one bites the dust. I was bummed to hear one of our bikes, with less than 3,000 kilometers on it’s clock, had given up the ghost but even more bummed when I realized Mags would be driving the rest of the route once again.
When the BMW shortchanged us last week Mags took the wheel of the truck and I was demoted to the left seat. Since we still weren’t carrying a spare bike it was the same story this time, and at nearly the same longitude to boot.
But he was kind enough to let me take the helm out of our last campsite at Nolan’s Brook; a great chunk of off-roading with wet sand, deep ruts, rocks coming out of nowhere and trees had a kung-fu grip on the trail. Vines made Hollywood head-punch sound effects as they smacked the windshield, but I was turning on time and keeping forward motion smooth and steady.
Toward the end of the trail we came through a rock garden. Which I noticed about three seconds before it was under the front bumper.
BANG BANG BANG
The suspension barked in protest as I forced it over the bedrock washboard at a healthy gallop.
“You can use the brake” Mags interjected from the passenger seat.
Luckily we made it through the trail and on to the tip of Cape York once again with all riders alive and most of the bikes intact.
Chock it up to a success and turn the page; we’ve got a week to modify the truck, repair 6 motorcycles and resupply before heading across the center of Australia.
After enduring karaoke performances at the Seisia Fishing Club from our riders, we dropped them off at the Bamaga airstrip and dropped the hammer back to Cairns.
Between expeditions Magnus and I had a few days off to kick back and drink beers. Unfortunately, we also had to resupply our food and tools, buy a new motorcycle, repair about five other motorcycles, wash our underwear, change about 50 liters of fluids and replace the radiator on the Isuzu.
Better make those beers “to go.”
We drained the rear differential and about five liters of a fetid gear oil/water amalgamation poured out of the drain plug.
Guess the river rescue wasn’t done haunting me just yet.
“You were parked in that water for a long time, man,” said Mags.
I got to feel like a dick all over again as I watched dollar signs flow from the diff as I prayed the component wasn’t permanently damaged.
Mercifully the seals held when we poured in fresh oil, and the rotting carrion smell of gear oil dissipated.
We ran all over Cairns picking up equipment, making adjustments to our loadout and spending a small fortune at the Suzuki dealer.
It was a flat-out few days, but I found a Suzuki-branded keychain and jacket patch that matched the colors on my GSXR perfectly… which I convinced the dealer to throw in with our new bike and hoard of parts. Who cares if I might not see that bike for years, what could be better than color-matching motorcycle paraphernalia?
The Isuzu dealer was quite a bit less helpful, offering not so much as an apology for the failure of their equipment we had to replace to the tune of over $3,000. But the new radiator slipped into the engine bay easily and after the rest of our business was done it was time to pick up the next set of riders.
My first tour with OAT kicked off beautifully. Not only was I driving a massive vehicle I could never afford, but I got to dress like Steve Irwin and say cool things into a CB radio like “proceeding to rendezvous point.”
I still couldn’t believe my good fortune for getting this opportunity.
For the first few hundred kilometers I drove like a grandma. Slow, cautious, peering over the moon-sized steering wheel with trepidation.
But as I became comfortable with the truck, as one does, I started getting careless. Slow and controlled was NOT how these trucks looked on those YouTube clips I watched instead of doing my homework in college.
Wasn’t I supposed to be powersliding through sand and throwing up tsunamis of mud by now?
At the end of the third day there was one last creek crossing I had to negotiate before setting up camp for the night.
I was just four kilometers from the rally point, and I had passed through this creek twice already scouting the road for the bikes.
The previous times I had crossed in first gear, tiptoeing through like Magnus had taught me. But it was getting toward the end of the day and the guys would be wanting their beer. Surely going through in second with just a little more revs would be fine, right?
I came down the gully and dropped from third to second.
“This’ll be slow enough.”
The path I had taken the last two times was looking knackered and the creek was too stirred up to see the bottom. But I saw some rocks off to the side, and decided to use them to gain traction.
I scooted down the gully, into the creek, and started sliding away from the road up the river.
The gully was pretty steep on the other side- I thought I would need some power to climb out. So I squeezed the throttle even harder.
The truck’s momentum carried it a few meters up the hill, but with the tires humming and traction rapidly dwindling the vehicles own weight sucked it back into the creek.
“No no no no no!”
But it was too late, I was bogged and each revolution of the tires sucked them a few millimeters further into the mud. The engine revving/mud squishing sound could have come from a Saw IV soundboard.
In a full-on panic I grabbed the comm. and yelled/stuttered like Andy Kaufmann into the mic;
“Ah, M- Mags I’m, I’m, I’m stuck”
crrrk “Worse than last time?” crrk
Yeah, the day before I had buried the truck up to its axels in mud. Trying to park.
“Um, a lot worse”
The squadron of motorcycles came roaring back, each rider shaking his head with the same expression behind their goggles.
These guys had been searching for a way to give the American a hard time since we left the city, and this little incident opened the floodgates of abrasive Australian humor on me.
Magnus was more understanding than I would have expected anyone to be, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like a proper asshole.
I had overridden my instructions with my own methods and now I was costing everyone time because of it. Thank god the water didn’t make it up to the cargo bay where everyone’s bags, cameras, and iPods were staying dry.
Once we assessed the situation Magnus and I dug the wheels out as best we could and set up the recovery straps. Now we just needed someone to pull us out.
Hours went by and not a single car, truck or horse-&-buggy passed us.
Finally a chick in a Land Cruiser pickup rolled up, crossed the river easily and rolled down her window
“G’day fellas. Why’d ya park there?”
We lashed the straps from her truck to ours but alas, when she hit the accelerator all the Cruiser could do was spin its wheels while both vehicles remained stationary.
She disconnected the cables and started to head off, but not before telling us she worked at the station we had planned on camping at that night.
She promised to return with a machine that could pull us out.
Minutes felt like hours as we waited, and for me those minutes were practically eternities of feeling like the biggest dumbass on the road.
Finally the shelia from the station came back. With a machine.
We heard the rumble of a massive diesel engine and a twinkling orange light was rising over the crest of the gully.
The vehicle slowly revealed itself from the other side of the hill, as she crawled over the rise in a Case 950.
The “machine” she had referred to was a full sized construction loader with tires tall as me and more horsepower than our entire fleet of vehicle combined.
It was like watching the sunrise after ten years in a jail cell. That thing would pull us out.
She hitched a cable to our recovery point, pulled a lever and with a blip of the machine’s throttle we were out in seconds.
Uh, marry me?
The show was over and the boys rode off. I climbed back in the driver seat and headed forward dead slow. There was a puddle up the road Magnus’ voice crackled in over the radio
crkk “You alright on this one mate?”
Christ. This blunder would not be lived down anytime soon.
We finally got to the camp and I parked far away from the bikes. Shut the comm off, took a deep breath, and sauntering over to the team already bellied up at the bar.
In one fell swoop I had completed a trifecta of getting hopelessly stuck, held up the entire expedition and been rescued by a woman.
The Aussies had a good laugh or ten at my idiocy, which I completely deserved, but had the good heart to put a beer in my hand while I was razzed.
An Australian won’t soon let you live down a gaffe, but they insult endearingly and don’t hold a grudge.
The next day was easy driving to each rally point. I was firmly locked back in caution mode and determined to remain that way for the rest of my time behind this wheel.
At the last rendezvous with the bikes, I was to follow Magnus just four kilometers north to the camp site.
But the sandy, deserty track I had been driving on all day became increasingly difficult to negotiate as ruts sprang up and trees closed in.
This day’s drive would end up consisting of 300 trouble-free kilometers sand followed by four kilometers of the swampiest, tightest, most technical off-roading I had done in years. And I was in a godam 5-ton cargo truck.
Off-roading from the luxury box perspective is awkward and cumbersome. Where a Land Rover or Jeep keeps you near the center of the truck with a little slit of a windshield, the Isuzu placed you square on top of the front bumper with a movie-theatre sized windshield 20 centimeters from your nose.
At the point where the ruts on the track became craters I caught up to Magnus, perched on the BMW X-Challenge with his hand on his comm.
I had already learned that this was rarely a good sign.
crrk “Just keep it slow and take this bypass”crrk
He gestured to a pathetic turkey path not fit for a PowerWheels car.
I squeezed the mic on my comm; “Through there?”
I put the truck in first, leaned over the steering wheel and dropped a feather on the throttle, creeping around trees and onto the bypass.
Right turn, ok, straight, left tu-
ck “STOP!” ck
Mags was waving furiously.
“You’ve got to wait until the rear wheels are completely passed an obstacle before you turn”
What the hell was he talking about?
A quick glance in the mirror revealed that I had planted a sapling squarely into the side of the cargo bay.
I shook my head, backed up and tried it again.
This time I made it through, suspension creaking and tires making cacophonous love to the wheel wells- an annoying side effect of hard cornering with oversized tires under factory ride-height shocks.
I negotiated the next few turns trouble free and thought I was getting the hang of it. Then, Scrrrunnnch
Mag’s voice reverberated the comm; “You’ve GOT to stop doing that, man. WATCH those back wheels!”
Sorry, sorry! Jeezus this is a steep learning curve.
I executed about a 30-point turn and had myself on track again- pointed at a long, deep, soggy, bumpy, all-kinds-of-shitty stretch of swamp.
“All right mate, this is pretty soft stuff. You’ve got to power on, keep momentum and push through this”
I could not. Would not. Get stuck again. I had already whiffed two strikes and another pathetic display of dumbness would get me fired for sure.
Clutch in. Engage low range, engage 4WD, lock differential.
I pulled into first gear and hammered it.
The comm crackled “Go Go Go!” and Magnus jumped clear of the trucks path.
I was a wild rhino of half-controlled fury. Ruts tossing tires in the air, axels plowing through mud and my ass getting a brutal birthday spanking from the truck’s seat.
One more splash- and-
I was through. Praise the mud gods, I was hitting the long track to redemption. Couldn’t help but crack a smile; that was some Land Rover promotional DVD-style stuntin’.
ck “Nice. Don’t hit so many trees next time. Haha just kidding, nice work. But seriously watch my paint. See you at camp.” ck
I came up on the Suzukis next to Cockatoo Creek and parked to make camp. The riders even took a short pause from reminding me of yesterday’s rescue to congratulate me on bringing their beer in a timely fashion for once.
But before I had time to feel any shred of self-satisfaction I was overcome with by the repugnant smell of wet dog ass.
Now if you’re off-roading and you didn’t bring Fido, that can only mean one terrible thing.
I dared a glance under the truck’s engine and my fears were confirmed: a steady piss of coolant was erupting from a badly scarred radiator.
The drip eclipsed Magnus’ shaking head, already on the other side of the engine bay… the outback veteran had recognized the smell as well. In seconds one of our riders, a mechanic by trade, appeared also.
We looked at the drip, each other, back at the drip… and collectively uttered a four-letter assertion.
“It’s gonna be a long night,” Mags added despondently.
The fan was fractured, shroud was in tatters, and the radiator had received American History X treatment. We were 50 kilometers from anything resembling a road and there ain’t no OnStar service on Cape York.
So we set to removing the crippled components. We took the radiator to the creek and washed it like a couple Laura Ingals Wilder characters, ignoring the “No Swimming: Crocodiles” sign for the sake of the Isuzu.
We marked off the leaks (where it bubbled when held under water) and Mags patched it with QuickSteel after setting it by the fire to dry.
Drying precision engine components with a campfire- now we were on an adventure.
We crawled all over pulling, patching, and twisting to set things right by headlamp light. By the time we got to bed we had about three hours of sleep to enjoy until the next morning when we re-installed our bush-patched radiator, the trashed fan and what was left of the housing.
Poured in some water, said a few prayers, aaand fired it up.
But it was still leaking like Polish submarine.
That is, until we got some insight from another rider on the trip.
“Crack a few eggs in there,”
At this point we had nothing to lose, and plenty of eggs in the food storage cases.
Mags got a couple and cracked them into the radiator, hoping to give it some Sylvester Stallone strength.
We waited, the truck ran, and the drip… actually slowed down.
There was no time to argue with this coup of logic. We had to get the truck on the main road before it burned off the Rocky sprit now frying in its cooling system.
Mags took the helm of the truck and I followed on the BMW.
Truck roared out of the campsite… and got bogged.
Despite the situation being decidedly shitty, I couldn’t help but feel just a touch better about my own crashes after seeing the Master of All Things Off-Road stuck 50 meters into his drive.
We threw rocks under the wheels and shoveled dirt away as I lost about 10 pounds from doing all this in full motocross gear.
The truck got free, powered through the swamp and got bogged again. This time I stripped down but still managed to work up a solid tropical sweat fighting the death-grip of mud on the Isuzu’s massive tires.
Once the wheels stop moving forward, the start moving down. Quickly. It’s scary stuff when you’ve got a quarter-million dollar truck sitting on them.
After the second recovery it was smooth sailing, apart from having to stop the truck every ten minutes to add water to the radiator.
The egg trick had reduced the bleeding, but we were off-roading in the jungle for christsake- the only way to make the engine hotter would be to drive back to Boston through the center of the Earth.
The jungle track gave way to sand again, and Mags and I could pick up some more speed.
I was getting comfortable with the Bimmer and sprinted ahead of the truck. As we got further from the tree the sand got deeper. I had negotiated it easily in the then-undamaged Isuzu the previous day, but on a two-wheeler it was a whole different ballgame.
I was sliding all over the place, anxiously resisting the urge to tense up. A X-Challenge 650 is not a light motorcycle, and with the boss man right behind me I was NOT keen on making an ass of myself by putting the handlebars in the sand.
The lack of a rear-view mirror meant I had to turn my head around every minute or so to make sure I hadn’t left the truck in the dust.
After a nice long turn I slowed down and glanced back, expecting to see the truck a kilometer or so behind me. But instead of a sandy vista I saw the Isuzu’s chrome bullbar about a meter off my taillight, ripped fan roaring and driver laughing manically (I think).
I panicked and wrenched the throttle. The torquey Bimmer rewarded me with a satisfied grunt and surge of power, pulling my wheels straight and frame upright as if to say “Why didn’t you do this five kilometers ago?”
Indeed. The note from the Remus exhaust was so intoxicating I found myself forgetting that Magnus had mentioned the bike’s rear wheel bearing was near the end of it’s life. High speed is the secret to stability in the sand, and I allowed myself to indulge in this concept for a few hundred meters.
Still hoping to stay in visual range of the truck, I backed off the throttle to enjoy the sounds of the wind, birds …and my rear wheel bearing about to frag itself.
Like, any second.
I reeled the bike in and pulled over. A few minutes later Mags stopped and hopped out, concerned look on his face and WD-40 in hand. He already knew what was up.
I held up the rear wheel and gave it a boot- it was about as stable as one of those wagon-wheel chandeliers in a wild-west saloon fight.
“You had maybe… another kilometer before this wheel seized and threw you into the scrub.”
Great. I had incapacitated our first and second most expensive vehicles on my first tour.
We weren’t carrying any BMW wheel bearings and the truck wasn’t set up to carry another bike at the time.
The only option was to hide the bike in the bushes, mark down the GPS coordinates and recover it on another trip up here. Next month.
I started to protest… were we seriously going to leave this sweet BMW in the weeds? What if it got cold? Or lonely?
But Mags knew what he was doing and said reassuringly, “Happened to me a couple years ago, had to leave a Honda XR in the bush”
“Came back to get it a week later, fire had gone through and melted everything by the frame. Let’s hope for better luck this time, eh?”