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.
With Safari done and dusted, bossman Magnus and spanner-swinger extraordinaire Rodger hooked the bike trailer up to the Isuzu and prepared to make the commute back to Perth. The following day Rodger would catch a flight home and Magnus would spend some time with his mum.
I opted to stay in Kalgoorlie with one of the Suzukis. Magnus, ever being an enabler of adventure, had suggested I take the week off to hit the John Holland Track (JHT)- a fairly serious run between nearby Coolgardie and a town called Jerramungup. After a week of being around racing I was dead keen to get behind the handlebars, so I was all over it. Plus our friend and repeat-customer Carl lived near the southern end of the run and was willing to show me around, so I’d have a guide in the famous Fitzgerald River region of southern W.A.
Problems started later than usual on this one. About thirty seconds after the Isuzu disappeared down the highway I turned the key and hit the button on the DR-Z… but try as it might to turn over, the fucking thing would not start.
I looked around and tried to work it out. The bike had run like a dream half an hour ago. Hell, the thing had just completed a six-thousand kilometer endurance event. I thought about calling Magnus, but I knew as soon as I did I’d see the problem and look like an idiot. But if I waited too long, and it was something serious, it’d be a huge inconvenience for him to drive all the way back.
Bugger it. I’ll call him, and then I’ll see the problem. Look like an idiot but at least the bike will start.
He didn’t pick up. And thank god, because by the fourth ring I could see I had left the fuel cutoff in the “OFF” position.
The “problem” was rectified and I was on my way. After stocking up on food I headed down the highway for Coolgardie. It was less than two hundred clicks away, but it would be the most miserable stretch of the entire trip.
The rain started as soon as I left town and didn’t stop until I pulled into a fuel station a couple hours later.
Desperate for warmth and shelter I ducked in to the servo as soon as I saw it. I ordered a pizza and put my clothes on the pie warmer to dry them out. The old guy working the till said something like “nice day for a ride,” …typical.
The pizza was actually not bad, for gas station food. Better yet, by the time I was done with it the rain had stopped and I was ready to hit the track.
The north end of the JHT is well marked with Land Cruiser Club stickers and warnings; “Don’t set the forest on fire, don’t poop in the middle of the track,” all the standard stuff. Not planning to do either I closed my eyes and pulled the trigger. This track isn’t exceptionally difficult, but it is long and there’s no fuel, water or medical service available at any point along the way.
No worries, I had a satellite phone I didn’t know how to use and a SPOT tracker… I didn’t have batteries for. Huh.
The track took me two days with a few crashes (one blackout) and minor damage to luggage… my sleeping bag became detached over a big bump and rammed itself between my rear wheel and chain. It was left a bit grimy but, miraculously, intact.
The track itself is quite flat. Mostly loose sand with lots of blind corners, a few rocky sections, and even fewer ruts. The sand’s not deep but requires a lot of standing and steering with your feet. It’s hard to get lost- there’s only one road. In the places there are forks, there’s a little “HT” sign with an arrow to guide you. But I do mean little… I came off a few times trying to find it at speed. Make the wise choice and bring your machine to a stop before you try and figure out the way.
‘Roos, weird birds and bobtail rock lizards are over the place… I think I made this one mad when I tried to powerslide around his favorite rock pile.
The JHT dumps you out (at the south end) near a town called Hyden where you can refuel and get kickass pastries.
My course had me heading further south to meet up with Carl later that night… or so I thought. I checked the oil on the DR-Z as the rain had brought a couple substantial water crossings to the track. Did I mention the torrential rain and lightning I slept through the previous night? Ah, you probably know how my luck goes by now.
Anyway the oil looked like a snotty milkshake- telltale sign of water contamination. I was not happy.
I couldn’t ride the machine any further without risking serious internal damage… and I had enough oil for one change. So I flushed the engine and tested it again… but there were still enough bubbles to cause me concern.
Now I could ride back to Hyden to buy more oil, but the shops would be closed by the time I got there. Meanwhile I was too far from phone signal to apprise Carl I’d be a day late… and him knowing my reputation, he’d probably send out a search party by the next morning.
I decided to camp out the night and do another oil change as early as possible the next day.
When I woke up I skipped breakfast and headed straight to the nearest place I thought might sell 4T engine oil… an agricultural supply depot in a place called Newdgate. A South African named Ashton was running the place, who most generously lent me the use of his workshop to perform a proper oil change. He looked for a new filter I might use, but he didn’t have anything for engines under eight liters.
The DR-Z looked pretty diminutive in the workspace usually occupied by Cat D90’s and twelve-wheeled John Deere’s, but I was grateful for the roof.
I tried getting in touch with Carl, his girlfriend Mel, or Magnus as soon as I got to a payphone… only Mags picked up, who had been pretty concerned I had met an ugly fate with a kangaroo the previous night.
Carl, who had indeed been out searching for me, rendezvoused with me in Newdgate and I followed him to his place. He gave me some great food and a place to stay the night, plus tips on where to ride further south the following day.
“There’s a lotta great tracks in the Fitzgerald River park, but if you don’t know you’re way it’s easy to get lost.”
Fitzgerald is an amazing place. Wide dirt roads, tight sand tracks, amazing beaches and salt flats make it a great place to enjoy the southern coast of Western Australia.
But those last five words of Carl’s were ringing true at about five o’clock the next day, by which time I had killed another kangaroo with my front tire, climbed the highest peak in the park (all three hundred meters) and gotten myself completely, utterly, and hopelessly lost.
The tracks in and around the southern end of the park are sandy, windy, and great bloody fun, but they sneak into the forest every-which-way and after tearing through ten intersections at eighty kilometers per hour you start to get… disoriented.
I had a huge crash on a deep-sand fast blast section and stopped to re-evaluate my situation.
I was coming out of another blackout low on fuel, low on water, tired, and very much alone. Summoning otherworldly strength to get the bike back on its wheels without puking I calculated my rough position based on the map, the sun’s position, and the wind turbine I could see a few kilometers away at the town of Bremer Bay.
Unfortunately, the “straight” route to the turbine and town was impassible, so I had to get creative and skirt the bike-swallowing sand through the trees.
I finally made it to town twenty minutes before the servo was closing. Refueled, and headed back to the main road. The next day I would make Bridgetown, where Magnus and the truck were waiting to reprovision for our next trip across Australia.
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.
Had the DR-Z down at Medina again and took some video this time. Was too lazy to put together a proper video but I figured nobody would want to sit through more than 70 seconds anyway… plus I really wanted an excuse to use the Skillrex remix of that La Roux song I just discovered.
Spent a very satisfying 1,000+ Km burning petrol all over the Whitsundays region of Queensland doing my part to prepare our DR-Z’s for the outback.
Since engines, clutches, and brakes need to be “broken in” for a few hundred kilometers before hard use, I’ve been puttering around keeping RPM’s low and shifts gentle. A perfect excuse to get familiar with the Suzuki and take in the scenery.
While exploring the Shute Harbor region, I found a single-lane road that wound around the airport. After half a kilometer it turned to gravel. Then rocks. Then dirt. Then… ocean.
Usually a dead end is bit of a let-down on an exploration ride, but when the road stopped here I was anything but disappointed:
Didn’t see anybody around but I felt like a dick breaking the serenity with my exhaust, so I keyed off real quick. For a bike with a stock muffler the DR-Z farts like an elephant after Taco Bell.
Besides having a postcard-tacular beach to myself, this had all the makings of an epic moment- I didn’t know where I was, it was only accessible by off-road vehicle, and Jimmy Buffett would have loved it.
And just in case you bastards think I Google-imaged that parking space:
And this is just in our backyard- we haven’t even left for our first tour yet.
Speaking of which, I’m heading out tomorrow for a month in the Cape York jungle. Better charge my camera…