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Cape to Cairns

As had been the norm for the previous few days it was raining the morning we packed up to leave Loyalty Beach and head for Merluna Station to stay again for a couple of days. At almost 400kms it was a fairly long drive for one day on Cape York roads – and we saw lots of evidence of vehicles/campers/caravans that didn’t make it – but it was nice to stay somewhere it wasn’t raining as it gave us the chance to dry out the canvas and the carpet in the camper. That said the station owners used the dry spell to undertake a large and necessary burnoff (Merluna Station is 416,000 acres/168,350 hectares) and with smoke as thick as fog at times everything dried out but ended up smelling just a little bit smokey! There were lots of other travellers staying at Merluna Station this time and almost all of them were heading north and mostly to the Tip – some of them had large caravans and thought the unsealed roads they’d already travelled were as rough as they’d get so it came as a bit of a surprise to them when we told them that, compared to what lay ahead, the unsealed roads they’d already travelled were in relatively good condition and not nearly as badly corrugated as the roads between Merluna Station and the Tip. We hadn’t seen many large caravans north of Lakeland (from where travellers can continue to Cooktown on a fully sealed road) – most travellers either had camper trailers, roof top tents or tents – and sadly some owners believe they and their ‘off-road’ caravan will come out unscathed after taking a pounding on the very rough, corrugated roads of Cape York.

After a lovely couple of days at Merluna Station we headed to Chili Beach for two nights. One road sign that caught my attention along the way was the one advising “Road subject to flooding for next 244.9kms” – I wondered why the distance hadn’t simply been rounded up to 245! The road out to Chili Beach was a lovely drive and as we drove along I kept thinking that, if only it was sealed all the way, it would make a *fantastic* motorcycling road. Unfortunately it isn’t sealed all the way and with the rain we encountered along the way the spray from the wet, muddy red clay road into Lockhart River left the camper looking the same colour as our FJ Cruiser! One surprise that awaited us at Lockhart River was the price of ULP – it was only $1.51/l (we had paid $2.00/l at Bramwell Junction Roadhouse earlier in the day) so we filled the tank! The camping area at Chili Beach were really nice – fortunately I had booked a sheltered site so that we wouldn’t get blown away on a windy night (as happened the first night). On the recommendation of Patty, the cook at Merluna Station, we visited the nearby Portland Roads Cafe and had a scrumptious morning tea of Sheree’s special cheesecake, spicy chai tea (for me) and a long black coffee (for Ron).

On our way out of Chili Beach we came across some twitchers (ie, people who travel long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked off a list) and, as we had seen some on our inward trip a few days earlier I stopped to ask them which bird they were looking for. Apparently a pair of somewhat elusive eclectus parrots had been spotted in the area recently and people had flocked to this location in the hope of a glimpse or, better still, a photo. There were three people peering up into the trees and as we slowly drove past I recognised the tall, skinny young man – he was the German tourist we’d met at Broken River when we helped him deal with 30 or so leeches. I stopped and asked him about how his leech bites were healing – he said they were all healed but had been replaced by lots of mozzie bites! Further along we encountered a rather long snake (I think it was a Scrub Python and about 1.5m long) sunbaking on the warm road and, as it clearly had no intention of moving, I had to navigate around it carefully with both the car and the camper!

Our next stop – after a short and relatively easy drive – was Archer River Roadhouse where we met up with Andrew, a former work associate, and his friends Dick & Peta with whom he was doing a Cape York trip. As they still heading to the Cape and we were returning from our trip we were able to exchange some tips and suggestions regarding road conditions and places to see and stay. We also met Kendall, a solo motorcyclist visiting from the USA, who had ridden from Melbourne on a borrowed Suzuki DR650 and was hoping to reach the Tip before returning to Melbourne via the “Off Centre Rally” (a motorcycling event held in a remote location every two years) which will be held in Mungerannie, SA in mid August. Other campers at Archer River were quite intrigued by how little luggage Kendall had with him given the trip he was doing – mind you we had seen a solo bicyclist a couple of times over the previous week who was returning from a ride to the Tip and he was a gentleman who was at least in his late 60s!

From Archer River (where ULP was $2.20/l) we headed to Kalpowar Crossing in Lakefield National Park for a night. On the way we stopped in Coen to top-up the tank (ULP was a more reasonable $1.63/l) and just as we arrived noticed a police 4WD refuelling. A short time later we encountered this vehicle again and this time it was stopped on the road with lights flashing near a road train with three trailers (one of which was carrying a container) that had left the road on a bend and come to rest completely on its side in a culvert on the side of the road – we reckon it would have been a monumental task to recover it! (We heard later that the driver had not been injured and that wheels on the third trailer had gone over the banked edge of the road and pulled the rest of the road train with it).

Notwithstanding the oncoming driver in a 4WD that had a LOT of luggage on the roof rack, who was going way too fast around a left hand bend on a very corrugated road that had a lot of loose surface material and who started simultaneously sliding towards me and tipping over (fortunately I was able to move left and he slowed down enough to regain control of his vehicle) the rest of our drive to Kalpowar Crossing was uneventful. We travelled through the lovely Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park where termite mounds for as far as the eye could see eerily looked like headstones in a cemetery. After setting up camp I visited the Red and White Lily Lagoons where I discovered that the lilies in the Red Lagoon are actually the pink lotus lily.

While at Kalpowar Crossing we were approached by a couple who were very interested in our Ultimate camper – they’d never had a chance to see one being setup let alone look inside one and they were very interested in this style of camper. They were quite disappointed with their current off-road caravan as its ‘off-road’ capability didn’t seem to include any of the materials or construction methods of the actual body of the caravan despite the fact it had an off-road frame and suspension. They spent quite a bit of time asking questions, we gave them a guided tour of the ins and outs of the whole camper and the following morning they setup their chairs in a prime viewing position and watched as we fully packed up the camper – based on their shared enthusiasm I strongly suspect they’ll own an Ultimate camper at some time in the near future …

One disappointing aspect of our stay at Kalpowar Crossing – which is in a National Park – was some of the other campers who completely ignored the rules of not using generators, not collecting firewood and not using chainsaws!

Our next stop – for two nights – was Cooktown we took the route through Laura and Lakeland as we wanted to make use of the free washdown facility at Lakeland (mind you with the amount of heavy rain we had along the way the topside of both the camper and the car got a fairly good wash along the way). On the way to Laura we passed by an Australian Army camp named “Camp Birt” – we had noticed Army personnel working in Laura when we had passed through the town on our way to the Tip but didn’t realise they had such a large presence there.

While we were having coffee at Laura an Army officer arrived for his caffeine fix and I asked him about “Camp Birt” – he explained that “Camp Birt” was the base for the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Programme (AACAP) which works with a remote Indigenous community to deliver infrastructure projects, vocational skills training and complementary healthcare services and that this year they were working in the Aboriginal community of Laura from April to October to deliver infrastructure, health services and training to the community. He explained that in 2016 AACAP was celebrating its 20th anniversary, that Laura is the 42nd Indigenous community to benefit from the initiative and that some of the works included making footpaths, covering the basketball court, building a community hall and upgrading the septic sewerage system.

Unfortunately the washdown facility at Lakeland was closed because of concerns it could inadvertently spread the ‘Panama’ banana disease so we continued on to Cooktown where, after setting up camp in a rather soggy caravan park, I spent a good two and a half hours washing the car at the caravan park (I kept telling amused passers-by that we had just returned from a trip to the Cape and the car had been white when we left home!) after which we had a great “Stone Grill” meal at the River Of Gold motel.

The following day we took the opportunity to visit the Lions Den Hotel, Wujal Wujal, Bloomfield Falls and Annan Gorge without having the camper in tow (and we also saw a rather crocodile on a sandbank in the Bloomfield River – so many lovely rivers up here and almost nowhere where it is safe to swim). We also took the opportunity to speak to the locals about the current condition of the Bloomfield Track as we were undecided as to whether or not we would try and tackle it especially as there had been quite a bit of rain in the region over the previous week – everyone we spoke to assured us that even with a camper in tow we shouldn’t encounter any problems provided we used low range 4WD.

We headed off from Cooktown the next day in the pouring rain and had an interesting start to the day when we very nearly ran up the back of a driver who, without any warning, simply came to a dead stop in front of us (and the vehicles following us) immediately after turning off the highway towards Bloomfield. I guess he wasn’t sure where he was going but he really should have indicated and then pulled off to the large shoulder of the road.

We had been a bit concerned about tackling the Bloomfield Track with a camper trailer but friends and locals had reassured us that we’d be fine and fortunately they were right – we didn’t strike any problems, we found the very informative “THAT WAY” signs at several intersections helpful and we were lucky to only encounter a couple of oncoming solo vehicles along the way (the road is very narrow in places and it certainly would get a bit interesting when two vehicles towing camper trailers met!). We would have liked to stop at Cape Tribulation to have a look around but unfortunately it and most other places of interest in the area do not cater for people towing anything – there was absolutely nowhere we could park with the camper in tow. In the end we gave up trying and headed to Daintree to setup in yet another soggy caravan park.

(The Cape York region had an unusually dry ‘wet season’ this year with some areas only receiving just over 10% of the usual amount of rain and this seems to have been followed by an unusually wet and humid ‘dry season’. In fact it was so humid some days that my glasses fogged up as soon as I stepped out of our air conditioned car!)

The following day we went back and visited Cape Tribulation, Noah Beach, the wonderful Daintree Discovery Centre, Masons Waterhole and sampled the wonderful offerings at the Daintree Ice Cream Company. We almost had an interesting encounter with a foreign tourist driving on the wrong side of the road but fortunately most people are travelling fairly slowly because they’re either hoping to see a cassowary or because they’re driving through one of the many cassowary ‘go slow’ zones.

The final part of our ‘Cape to Cairns’ trip was from Daintree to Cairns and on the way we visited Mossman Gorge. On arriving in Cairns we took the camper through the carwash before continuing on to the caravan park to setup, do lots and lots of washing and visit the local shops for a haircut!! The caravan park we stayed at in Cairns provides a free BBQ dinner on Friday nights and, as luck would have it, on this particular night we also got to be entertained by Nathan ‘Whippy’ Griggs, a young Australian world champion whipcracker – he is very talented and put on a great show.

The following Sunday afternoon we met up with Les, a motorcycling friend who rides a 1983 Honda CX650 he’s owned since new, and together we went to visit Jeff and Ann at the Meringa Sugar Experiment Station (Jeff owns a few Honda CX500s in varying states of restoration and a Kawasaki W800). Jeff has been involved in the sugarcane industry for more than 40 years and he and Ann have lived in a large, classic ‘Queenslander’ house at the Meringa Sugar Experiment Station (SES) for more than 25 years. Jeff gave us a wonderful guided tour of the SES and explained the processes involved in developing new strains of sugarcane to suit the needs of producers who have varying climates and soil types. Meringa is somewhat infamous as it was the location from which the cane toad was released in Australia.

Finally, we’ve now travelled more than 12,000kms since we left home in April and have spent a total of 80 nights in our camper (the last 43 in a row). Also, and because some people have asked about it, I’ve collated some fuel usage data:

Kms Litres LPH KPL Comment
3,286 765.20 23.29 4.29 Cairns – Cape – Cairns (Almost 100% towing camper, ULP91 with Octane Booster, 30PSI for 3,000kms)
12,247 2,321.24 18.95 5.28 Whole Trip @ 23-Jul-16 (Almost 100% towing camper, ULP91 with Octane Booster, ULP95 or ULP98, 30PSI for 3,000kms, 36PSI for rest)
8,961 1,556.04 17.36 5.76 Whole Trip less Cape (About 99.5% towing camper, ULP95 or ULP98, 36PSI)
47,841 7,249.45 15.15 6.60 Prior to Trip (No camper, ULP95 or ULP98)
60,088 9,426.95 15.69 6.37 Overall since records kept at ~2,000kms


The car and the camper …

The car …

Over the course of our three week Cape York trip the car developed a few problems: an intermittent starter motor problem; a leaky windscreen washer bottle; and a temperamental rear door latch. Fortunately these were all fixed by Pacific Toyota on our return to Cairns.

One thing we hadn’t expected was that premium petrol is not available anywhere in the Cape – the only petrol sold in the Cape is low aromatic ULP91. Fortunately we had bought a couple of bottles of octane booster before we left Cairns and were able to buy some more in Weipa but it wasn’t available anywhere else after that. As we’re about to head into other areas that only sell low aromatic ULP91 we’ve stocked up on octane booster again.

Due to the long sections of sealed roads and the highly variable nature of the unsealed roads we opted to only lower the tyre pressure on all car and camper tyres to 30PSI. There were some long stretches of unsealed road on which we could safely travel at 80-90KPH and as we didn’t want to be constantly airing up/down or run the risk of overheating/unseating an under-inflated tyre we settled on 30PSI and travelled more slowly when necessary.

When we took our FJ into TJM Cairns a couple of days ago to get a post install check done on the FyrLyts and the suspension air bags they noticed some unusual wear on the top bushes on the front TJM suspension. They were concerned the bush wear may be as a result of a problem with the front struts and as we were due to leave Cairns this week they re-arranged their workshop schedule (they currently have booking up to three weeks in advance) so that they could check them out before we left. The end result was that, to ensure we don’t end up broken down in the middle of almost nowhere, they replaced both front struts at no cost to us (the suspension was just over two years old and apparently the bushes on these particular struts can’t be replaced separately). Much kudos to TJM in Cairns!!

The camper …

Following lots of rain and a wet packup we ended up with the underside of most of the cushions being wet despite all the precautions we’d taken while packing up. We’ve now decided that we won’t leave the large awning on if it’s wet when we packup as it seem to be the source of most of the water (especially when it is wet on both the top and the underside as we’ve had in wet and humid weather).

While drying out the wet cushions I discovered that a colony of ants I thought I had got rid of some weeks ago had actually moved into a cushion seat base (they got in between the fabric on the bottom and the vinyl and then moved inside via the ventilation holes in the ply base). Given that ants are great at tunnelling and that I really would like the foam in the seat cushion to last as long as possible a liberal dose of insect spray was applied (the seat base fabric was already wet) – so far so good!

I know that Ultimate campers are *supposed* to be completely dust proof but our trip to the Tip and back proved otherwise – that said we only found a small amount dust inside and it was entering up through the sink waste. We tried putting the plug in but the corrugated roads bounced it out so we now fit a screw on cap over the waste (it’s a 1″/25mm cap that we bought in the plumbing or irrigation section of Bunnings).

We had more awning pole connectors break in a gust of wind in Cooktown but fortunately the local hardware store had the correct Neta/PPI fittings in stock (they are the same as the ones Ultimate use and don’t require the poles to be trimmed like the Pope fittings do).

We used up our first 9kg gas bottle a few days ago – it lasted for about 75 days of use and fortunately we also have a 4kg bottle as a backup.

And finally, following the loss of two shaft lock pins on our first day on corrugated roads (which made us seriously worried about losing the camper legs) we had the other shaft lock pins modified while we were in Cairns so that we can use an ‘R’ clip addition to the spring clip (a bit of a belts’n’braces approach!).