There are a couple of 4WD and camping destinations in Australia that have ridiculously big reputations, and Cape York is comfortably up there with the most well known.
We’ve wanted to do Cape York for many years, but living about as far away from it (in Perth) as you can get, its never been feasible.
However, on our Big Lap of Australia, we were able to spend a substantial amount of time in Far North Queensland, and covered a heap of Cape York.
I can now comfortably say that it is an epic adventure, and completely and utterly worth the effort that is required to get there, and that’s not insurmountable.
Where is Cape York?
Cape York is located in Far North Queensland, and as far up as you can go. It’s actually the northern most point of Australia, and for that reason alone a lot of people are very keen to tick it off the list of places they’ve been to.
Whilst the exact boundaries of Cape York are fairly loosely thrown around, if you drew a line from Normanton in the West, to Cairns on the East, anything north would be considered Cape York.
That includes the beautiful Cooktown region, which is one of the larger towns.
How do you get to Cape York?
The most common way to get to Cape York is by 4WD. You can get a 2WD vehicle with some clearance most of the way up, but its hugely dependent on the road conditions, and the roads are well known for relentless corrugations.
Alternatively, you can fly up to a couple of locations, or you could get there on a bigger boat too.
Do you need a 4WD?
Technically no, but its highly recommended. Even on a good year, the roads can be quite corrugated, there’s water to drive through and you’ll encounter a heap of dust.
There are people every year who get there in various 2WD’s or AWD’s, and it can be done with care, but a 4WD is recommended.
There’s always a handful of people who have older 2WD’s that they like to push the limits with, and many of them have made it all the way to the top of Cape York.
The choice is yours, but you’ll find the vast majority of people who are going to Cape York for a holiday do it in a 4WD, and for good reason.
When can you visit Cape York?
Like the rest of the Far North Queensland, Cape York experiences two main seasons; the wet, and the dry. We heard a local call them mud and dust, and that’s a pretty accurate description too; its either pouring, or its dry as.
Whilst you can get to Cape York during the wet season, the most common time to visit is between May and October, like the Kimberley and the rest of Northern Australia.
There’s a lot of road closures in place when the rain starts to fall, and its not the area you want to find yourself stranded in once the wet season hits.
When is the peak period?
June and July are the busiest months for people visiting Cape York, and this leads to a rapid decline in road conditions.
If you can get up there in May (or even slightly earlier depending on the season), its quieter and greener, with more water about.
Alternatively, later on is quieter too, and albeit less water and lushness around, sometimes the tracks are dryer and in better conditions (like Frenchman’s, the Old Telegraph Track and so forth).
Can you take a Caravan to Cape York?
Yes, and thousands of people do, every year. You don’t take them to the very tip, but Bamaga, Alau Beach, Punsand Bay and the likes are easily doable.
That said, you want to be comfortable doing extended periods of gravel roads that can be badly corrugated, and there is 100% an element of wear and tear.
You also need to drive accordingly, and slow down for anything that can do damage, and pay attention to clearance where needed. If your van is an on road version with limited clearance, its probably not a good idea to drag it up.
Semi off road vans are more common, and off road vans even more common. That said, the vast majority of people visiting are towing camper trailers, or nothing at all, and there are a lot of places on Cape York that are unsuitable for caravans (like the Old Telegraph Track!).
If you decide not to take the caravan to Cape York, there’s a heap of places you can leave them safely; Cooktown, Lakefield, Hann River Roadhouse, Bramwell Station and plenty more.
What destinations are worth seeing?
You could spend months exploring Cape York, and where you go will vastly depend on your time frame available, and what you want to see. The more common destinations include:
There’s a reason Cairns is one of the tourist hot spots in Queensland.
It’s a great place, with decent beaches, amazing waterfalls, incredible rainforest and more ways you can part with your money doing tours and tourist attractions than you can poke a stick at.
There’s also plenty of free attractions too, so don’t be put off!
The Daintree region
If ever there’s a bucket list destination in Australia, it should be the Daintree region. This place is more beautiful than I can possibly explain, and its world heritage listing is reflective of this.
We had a good look at the Daintree Village, before taking the Daintree ferry across and doing a heap of tourist attractions up to Cape Tribulation.
We then came down from Cooktown and stayed at Bloomfield, doing the Wajul Wajul falls, stunning Bloomfield Track and just soaking the region up. It really is amazing, and a location you shouldn’t miss.
I was really blown away by the Cooktown area. It’s a reasonable size town, but its beautiful, with plenty of things to do.
We spent a good week around the Cooktown area, and had a lot of fun exploring the different waterfalls, swimming holes and various attractions.
At the end of the Peninsula Development Road (PDR) is an interesting town called Weipa.
This is entirely on a mining lease and run by Rio Tinto, but it has colours that are very similar to Dampier, and is a beautiful, but rugged place.
It’s quite large, has cheap fuel and good groceries, and the thing that keeps it all ticking along is Bauxite. We did a Weipa Mine and Town Tour which was fascinating, and quite enjoyed our 3 nights here (at the Weipa Caravan Park), before continuing to the tip of Cape York.
As you continue north to the top of Cape York, you’ll hit Bramwell Roadhouse Station, which is where the road splits.
One way takes you on the Old Telegraph Track, and the other continues up to Bamaga via the Jardine River Ferry. This is a magic place to stop for a few nights, or you can store your camper or van here and continue up the OTT.
Fruit Bat Falls
There aren’t too many places in this part of the world where you can get to water that is beautiful, and safe enough for swimming in.
Fruit Bat Falls are really easy to get to, and just off the main road. The water can flow fairly hard, but its a great place to soak up the truly epic views, and you can comfortably spend a few hours here.
Further along is Elliot Falls, the Saucepan and Twin Falls. These are all within a few hundred metres of each other, but require you to do some of the Old Telegraph Track to get there.
It’s nothing extreme, but not for the novice 4WD owner unless you are with someone experienced.
These three falls are nothing short of sensational, and you are missing out so badly if you skip them. We spent a good half day enjoying them, and cannot recommend them any higher.
Bamaga, Umagico and Seisia
After crossing the Jardine River Ferry, you’ll arrive at Bamaga, Seisia and Umagico, depending on which way you go. The coastline up here is truly phenomenal, and truly worth a good look.
Of course, you can’t swim due to the risk of big saltwater crocodiles, but admire it from a distance; its unreal.
There’s a number of different places you can stay in these three towns, and a couple of different stores to get what you need.
One of the most reputed places in Cape York is Punsand Bay. This is located beyond Bamaga, and whilst you’ll get a caravan here, the last part of the road to Punsand Bay is not always in great condition.
We didn’t actually visit Punsand Bay as the camping prices were astronomical, but its raved about by many (and not so much by others, but who do you believe?!).
For many, getting to the northern most point of Australian Mainland is enough of a reason to make the journey to Cape York, and it was substantially better than I was expecting.
You’ll go past the Croc tent, which is well and truly worth a stop, and then make your way on a 4WD track through some stunning rainforest, and amazing scenery before passing an abandoned resort, and arriving at the tip of Cape York.
You should know though, that this is just the car park, and you’ll have to walk over a hill with some rocks to get to the northern most point, where the sign is that everyone takes their photos.
If you visit on a busy day, I’m told that you can have a line of cars more than a kilometre long, and that you have to queue for a long time to get your photo taken at the sign, but its all part of the fun.
Thursday Island (and other islands)
If you want to go beyond Cape York, you can hop on a boat at Seisia, and head across to Thursday island, or some of the many other islands in the area.
This is supposed to be stunning, and worth doing, but we decided against going with the young kids.
Before you tackle Cape York, you should check the road conditions, and road closures. When we went in June, there were still a few roads not open to the public (like Battlecamp Road), and the conditions will tell you a lot about what to expect.
Of course, nothing beats local knowledge and you are virtually guaranteed to run into someone who’s just come back from the tip on your way up, and their information is always very valuable too.
Cape York Camping
As usual, the best place to find camp sites and up to date information is Wikicamps, but we’ll list the places we stayed at and have written about, and you can go from there.
We didn’t really stay at any average camp sites (gravel sites etc), and found some fantastic free ones on the way up and down. We’ll have a comprehensive post out on Cape York Camping soon.
4WD tracks in Cape York
There are more 4WD tracks in the Cape York region than you could explore in a month, and we didn’t get a chance to do nearly as many as there are.
That said, we will soon have a post covering the 4WD tracks in Cape York to give you more information.
What did we learn about Cape York?
You should know that whilst we’ve done a heap of travel in Australia, this was our first time to Cape York, and I was really excited to see what we’d learn, think of different places and spend.
So, here’s a few things that we’d like to pass on:
It’s not that remote
Despite a substantial amount of driving, Cape York is not what you’d call traditionally remote.
There are hundreds of people visiting every day during the dry season, and unless you go somewhere way off the beaten track, you are never going to break down and die because there’s no one around.
There are a lot of towns nearby, or that you go through, and you will be able to find help if you need it, at a cost.
Weipa is a pretty substantial town with virtually everything you need, and if you have a wallet thick enough you can get what you need.
Bamaga is also a good place to get what you need, and if you have mechanical dramas these are the two places you’ll want to get to, or get help from.
If you break down and need a tow, its around 4 grand to Cairns, which makes it expensive, but its well travelled.
There’s a lot of driving
From Brisbane, to get to the top of Cape York is nearly 3000km. That is absolutely insane, and it means you’ll be doing a heap of driving to get to the top.
You should know that the driving isn’t always at 100km/h, and especially on the PDR and above, you should be slowing down to the conditions.
There’s a huge amount of bitumen that has been put down, but still a lot of gravel driving, and you need to be aware, careful and sensible with your drive up and down.
Do not rely on Google Maps
For what it is, Google Maps are amazing, but they’re not designed to be used in places like Cape York. Sure, they work fine for distances, and often for the way to get from A to B, but you need a decent mapping app, and preferably some paper maps as backup, so you can plan accordingly.
It will not take you 1 hour to do 100km in many circumstances, so factor it in, and get a good alternative mapping setup.
The free camps are often nothing to write home about
Some regions in Australia have some of the most amazing free camps ever.
There are a couple of good ones around Coen, Fruit Bat Falls, on the Telegraph track and at Mutee Head, but many of the other free camps are gravel pits, or dust bowls off the side of the road, and you certainly wouldn’t make the effort to the top of Cape York just to camp in their gravel pits to and from.
You can really hurt or destroy your 4WD
Cape York is well known for 3 things. Fishing, Hunting and 4WDing, and the latter brings thousands of people up every year. The 4WDing in Cape York is up there with the best in the country, and there’s a variety of tracks to suit all sorts of difficulty levels.
You have a lot of different choices to make, and if you pick an obstacle that is beyond your vehicle or drivers capability, you can do some mega, mega damage.
The number of people who drown their vehicles in Nolan’s Brook every year is staggering, and there’s a heap of other nasty places where you can do extensive damage to your 4WD.
Do what you want to, but have a think about what a 10 – 20k bill for fixing your 4WD might do to your life, and choose wisely! Alternatively, just send it, and deal with the consequences later?!
Long range tanks are hugely appreciated
We’re so grateful to have fitted a long range tank to our Isuzu Dmax. If we get good economy, we can do nearly a thousand kilometres from the tank, and that’s so appreciated in places like Cape York which have limited, cheap fuel.
We filled up at Cooktown (or Lakelands is cheap too), then Laura, and then Weipa, Bamaga and then Mount Molloy.
Of course, a lot of vehicles don’t have long range tanks and that doesn’t make it impossible, but you just have to stop and pay the extra money, where its more expensive.
It costs a fair chunk of money
You don’t do a trip like this and expect it to be cheap. Its going to cost a fair chunk in fuel, and then you have the ferry crossing, food, camping fees, any tours that you do, and any fixes or repairs that need to happen.
For us, it wasn’t that much more than our normal travels around this beautiful country, but we did do a fair bit of driving over a shorter period, and I got a stone chip in the windscreen, which will need replacing in due course.
Slow down for EVERY flood way
Before we headed off to the Cape, we met a couple who’d come back the other way, and they said slow down for every single floodway, as some are nasty.
By the time we got there, most had been repaired, but there were a handful that were pretty nasty, and if you hit them faster than you should there’s a really good chance you’ll break something.
We came across a younger couple who bent the chassis on their 2018 Mazda BT50 moments before us arriving, and it was done on a nasty floodway with a decent hole in the middle.
An insurance assessor went through the same floodway a few days later, and broke the air conditioner on his vehicle, and the local truck driver said he’d seen at least 6 other vehicles damaged in the same location, so go figure.
We made a point of sitting on a maximum of 80km/h on the PDR, and slowing right down for every flood way, until we were positive it was good, and it was time well spent.
If you rush it, and hit just one bad floodway too quickly it can be the end of your trip, and a hugely expensive repair bill (or replacement vehicle time!).
We’ve got a lot more information that you can read about the incident here at Bent dual cab chassis in Cape York, but please make sure your vehicle is well balanced, underweight and you slow down for EVERY single floodway.
How does it compare to the Kimberley?
A number of people who we’ve spoken to over the years have commented that the Kimberley is more picturesque with less 4WDing, and Cape York is better 4WDing, with less scenery.
I’m going to say that I agree with that statement to a certain extent. The 4WDing in the Cape York region is certainly a lot more varied, complicated and fun than in the Kimberley, but there’s great tracks in both regions.
On the flip side, I was quite shocked at how stunning the Cape York region is, and whilst the Kimberley is probably more picturesque, Cape York is unreal too, and is not beaten by ridiculous amounts.
Tyre pressures and speeds
We’ve done a huge amount of gravel driving over the years, and on a track as busy as the PDR, towing our 2.3 tonne Hybrid Camper, we tend to take it fairly easily.
We let our tyres down about 20 – 30% from their highway pressures, and ran the Dmax fronts at 27 PSI, the rears at 32 and the camper tyres at 36 PSI.
With these tyre pressures (that go up marginally when warm), we don’t exceed 80km/h unless its for short periods, and that includes the bitumen. This is purely to avoid the tyres getting too hot, which makes them delaminate, and fall apart.
The PDR was in reasonable condition when we did it, with a few sections that were corrugated, and some parts of the gravel road that were pristine.
We could have done it with higher pressures, but I was glad that they were down so much for the bad sections, or when we hit a nasty hole or bump.
Stay well out of other peoples dust, and let anyone who wants to go faster overtake. Your vehicle will inhale a heap of dust from vehicles going the other way, and you should keep an eye on your air filter.
Lock it in
If you haven’t been to Cape York, I can honestly say its an amazing part of the world, and deserves its bucket list placement that so many people have.
I feel like the OTT probably makes it even better, if you don’t damage anything, but you’ll have a ball even if you don’t do it.
Have you been to Cape York? What did you think of it?