Whilst at Coen, camped just a few feet from a crystal clear pool in the running creek, we had the luxuries of both a good radio & phone/internet signal. We learned that that day Cairns had been placed into an unexpected ‘snap lockdown’ for 3 days following the discovery of a taxi driver who had been infectious in the community with the Delta Covid variant for 10 days. We fully expected the Cape communities to follow suit with closures at short notice. Later we learned that as expected shock waves had gone around the Cape, this was the closest the Covid threat had come on the Australian mainland, but despite the concerns there had been no further knee jerk closures. Rather a considered ‘wait the 3 days & see what happens in Cairns’. Cairns got lucky, medical commentators on the radio expressed surprise sometime later when the extensive contact tracing & testing had revealed not a single case of community infection from the taxi driver. The considered opinion was that it is possible that just as some people can be ‘super-spreaders’, others can be the opposite! A bullet dodged in FNQ!
When we first heard about the Cairns lockdown, & what was a very fluid situation, our concern was that we may not be able to get into Lockhart River for our vaccinations as planned, but once again we got lucky. This was Sunday 8th, but on Monday 9th the Anupunima vaccination team was due in Coen with their Pfizer supplies. And so we stayed a bit longer & rocked up to the quaint old weatherboard building being used as the vaccination clinic there. All very welcoming & friendly as we sat in the shade of the old timbered veranda awaiting our turn to be jabbed, sitting among a mix of townsfolk, ‘blow-in’ tradies, station workers & a couple of travellers like ourselves. No cups of tea & ‘sangers’, but had they have been offered they wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place.
All done, jabbed & recorded by mid morning, we left town cogniscent of the advice to ‘take it easy & drink lots, & to take Panadol if we got any side effects. The day’s drive was less than 3 hours, & side effects confined to mild headaches & a sore arm for both of us. No Panadol required. After a short distance on the Peninsular Development Road (PDR), a fair amount of which was sealed, (far more than we had expected & which our maps suggested were still dirt), we turned off eastward onto the dirt road to Portland Roads & Lockhart River. Prior to turning off we passed by the main access track, on the west side of the PDR, for the Oyala Thumotang national park. We had decided to explore this park whenever we return southward (along with a number of other areas we have bypassed). This because we had been in contact with Paul, a chap from Lockhart River who had generously offered us the possibility of camping on his privately owned beachfront block on Chili Beach. An offer like this, on the only privately owned piece of prime Chili Beach real estate is not one to be sneezed at, & we had arranged dates.
Less than an hour on the Portland Roads road, having discovered it’s rollercoaster nature as it crossed hills & creeks (now mainly dry), with a quickly developed respect for the many signs saying ‘DIP’, we had crossed the Wenlock River & turned off to stay at the Chuulangun Aboriginal camp on the banks of the Wenlock. The ‘DIP’ signs, unlike many seen around the country were an understatement! Steep entries & exits, often with narrow bottoms were mostly first gear events, a few with rougher bottoms even seeing ‘low ratio’ being selected – more out of caution than absolute necessity. There were a *lot* of DIPs!
Initially we felt somewhat disappointed by the camp. A clearing in the forest, with a water tank, single flush loo, & an old donkey boiler driven shower which looked like it had seen better days. A hot shower was however very enticing so we gathered firewood got a fire going under the half filled (with murky water) 44 gallon drum through which the shower water in coils of copper pipe ran. Gravity pressure from the water tank up on a stand (& filled with a pump from the river some distance away we later discovered) was not great, but with a little ‘finessing’ of the hot & cold taps very acceptable hot showers were enjoyed. A short time later a tour group arrived, several Toyota Troop Carriers disgorging their mainly elderly occupants who then set about erecting a small village of centre pole touring tents & aluminium stretcher beds supplied by the company & towed behind one of the Troopies in a large trailer. The exercise accompanied by jokes about who would have the neatest & best swept tents & mock threats about the wooden spoon for the most untidy camp.
Following our shower & a little exploring we had discovered another section of the campground which was indeed on the banks of the Wenlock & more attractive to us. We did a quick re-pack & left the tour group to their fun & games & set up close to a pretty swimming hole, & alone. It was a good move, waking to the sort of dawn chorus we have become accustomed to being a far more pleasant prospect than that of the sounds the tour group breakfasting & packing to leave & our thoughts about the campground changed from ‘utilitarian’ to ‘very pleasant’. On dusk a young fella from the family who’s land it is came around in his ranger-like uniform & collected camp fees, assuring us that the swimming was safe. “Only the odd ‘freshie’ in there” he said. Although obvious that huge amounts of water are carried by the Wenlock here during the Wet season, this is fairly close to the upper end of the river. It winds hundreds of kilometres around the Cape, eventually emptying into the Gulf of Carpentaria on the west coast of the Cape, north of Weipa. With many smaller creeks feeding into it along the way it is a far bigger river by the time it reaches the sea.
Next day was another short travel day, less than 100 kilometres through more ‘up & down’ country & across few wet creeks, the deepest being no more than the height of our tyres. It was pretty hill & mountain country taking us back to the area we have only previously flown into. It was good to drive in, giving us a different & an enjoyable perspective. That night we had a somewhat wind blown ’stealth camp’ in a spot we had discovered earlier in the year. A gravel pit behind a road supply area, basically a couple of forest clearings where concrete culvert pipes etc are stored & gravel once removed. The site had been a pretty shallow lake surrounded by mountain views when we first discovered it in the Wet, but was now dry, with evidence suggesting we were not the first people to camp there this year – the remains of a fire & a large pile of unused cut & split fire logs. The weather was, as it turned out, an indication of what was to come. Very windy, thick heavy cloud & frequent rain showers. Not the best for a solar dependent travel setup with outdoor cooking! But them’s the breaks, the rough with the smooth as they they say. Nevertheless by late morning the following day, having eaten a ‘cold’ menu, & tired of the inability to even heat water for a cuppa in the incessant howling gale we decided that our planned second night there was not a ‘goer’.
A good decision as it turned out, instead spending the night in the far more sheltered Cooks Hut camping area in the Iron Range national park. An even shorter drive – less than 40kms I’d estimate, maybe 50 by the time we had been in to the Lockhart shop, & caught up with the rangers at the Ranger station. Fortuitous too, as we finally got to see a Cuscus, early the following morning. All of our previous visits to this area had been day (& night) visits. Being there ‘on the spot’ early enough in the morning paid off. No searching required – a young family we had met there the previous evening were up before us, & pointed out their discovery to us when we emerged from the Tvan.
And so back to Chili Beach. You may recall that our experiences of ‘Chili’ during the past two Wet seasons have been idyllic. Perfectly still weather, blue skies, a crystal clear glass like ocean & the entire extensive palm tree & rainforest ringed ultra white beach to ourselves. We had heard that tourist season was very different. Lots of people, often only there overnight, sometimes only a much briefer visit, an ‘inclusion’ on their rush up & down to the Tip itinerary. We had heard tales of the beach being a playground for quad bikes, 4wd buggies, 4wd cars, motorcycles & even sail driven land yachts racing up & down. The south easterly winds were also said to be an inescapable factor. The latter was true, the wind being something to either accept or be miserable. There were however relatively few people & their motorised ’toys’ due, we think’ to the worsened Covid situations in the south of the country & the subsequent lockdowns & border restrictions between the states. For those folk affected by these things a sad state of affairs, but in terms of peak season Chili beach it was a quiet ‘post July school holidays’ period. Very little in the way of blue skies & sun though. This made for comfortable temperatures but frequently poor solar input. We ‘scraped by’ for close to a couple of weeks without the freezer defrosting, it was very much a day to day situation though. If things had been worse we knew we could visit Neale & Mim just up the road to plug into their power system if we needed to, but as it was we managed OK, going to their place for the arranged house/dog sit just one day earlier than planned.
Some readers may recall that when we set up our travelling rig, that initially we had not intended to tow our bed. Rather it was a rooftop tent on our car. As part of the design we have not only all our power/hot water etc in the car, but also a ‘kitchen’. We have subsequently travelled with two kitchens, keeping the car a self contained means of travel (with an Oztent – a well known quick erecting tent in Australia – which fits nicely in a compartment underneath the canopy). Part of my design thinking back then was to make the two burner & grill stove useable either on pull out runners in the canopy OR to be quickly removable to use in a more sheltered environment should this ever be required. After 4 years of travel, we finally got to test this idea out in the flesh as it were & it worked beautifully! So much so it was probably the one single thing which enabled us to remain on Chili beach. On Paul’s block he has thoughtfully & strategically cut into the thick rainforest cover in one corner of the block creating a very effective small area completely sheltered from the predominant south easterlies. It was almost magic. Standing in wind almost strong enough to blow a man over – two or three steps sideways and …… complete camlness – totally wind free – a little pocket of greenery surrounded peace! It was here our removable stove was set up. When it worked as well as it did I have to admit to the odd self congratulatory smile. MrsTea was suitably impressed too.
Almost 2 weeks passed quickly, lots of walks & lots of ‘sea watching’. A little bird watching -nothing serious & nothing new. Going out needed to take tides into consideration. Initially the neap tides were not an issue, but then came the bigger tides. Access was via the beach & the high tides cut us off. With water lapping at our ‘front lawn’ it felt rather like being on an island. A publicly accessible solar powered water bore & tank a short drive away meant we had no need to be frugal with water. Going out to refill was easy & the water of excellent drinking quality. We visited Neale & Mim, & John – another friend from Cape Weymouth made during previous visits to the area. We also make a brief drive into & out of Portland Roads to see how would feel about the place after our last time there. It held nothing special in our hearts in spite of some of the lovely memories from there. We drove in, turned around & drove out, putting the previous unpleasantness to bed without need to address the resident cause.
Our ’spot’ – around the corner from where all the national park campgrounds are, meant that even with other folk around & not far away, it still felt like we had the place to ourselves most of the time. Thanks Paul, it was very much appreciated.
Packing to leave was a bit of an eye opener. Often when looking along the kilometres of beach, the distant wind battered palm trees the beach would be in a haze. A mix of blown sand & salt spray. But it never felt like that where we were. No doubt though if we had walked a few kilometres southward down toward the Chili Creek, & looked back we would have seen the same at our ‘residence’. Plated tent pegs when pulled out of the ground were now completely rusty. Some above ground galvanised fittings were obviously not galvanised to marine grade. This was a very beautiful but corrosive environment. Washing the whole rig down with fresh water upon arrival at the far more sheltered environment of Neale & Mim’s(on the protected north western side of the hill that is Cape Weymouth) was a priority, with a good spray of WD40 afterwards where necessary. We also too the opportunity whilst there to go around the car with our grease gun, & to adjust wheel bearings on the Tvan. (Car front wheels will have to wait until my back recovers from what I did do). As before we were made very welcome, & very much enjoyed catching up with both Neale & Mim, and Rastus & Biscuit of course. Rastus is, without doubt my favourite dog second only Bridie, the Rhodesian Ridgeback who was part of our family for over 13 years. Rastus has no negative features, has the most ’strokeable’ coat of any dog we’ve met, a wonderful & boisterous temperament, a gait which would look good on a catwalk, in short he is everything I would want in a dog. Biscuit we both loved too, me not quite as much as Rastus, but we appreciated her initial caution being quickly replaced by increasing trust & affection. With Rastus what you saw is what you got, With Biscuit you had to earn it. Being back in a house with the luxury of hot showers & broadband satellite internet for a short time no doubt quickly made us smell better, & allowed for me to undertake what had increasingly become a chore needing doing in relation to this blog.
The eagle eyed among you may already have noticed that when you visit the blog the address bar at the top no longer has the wording ‘not secure’ at the beginning. This has at last been replaced with a little padlock symbol & the address commencing with https:// rather than http://. Doesn’t sound much, but to make it happen has involved moving the entire website from the big US based corporate web hosting service (Godaddy) to a smaller independent UK based Web hosting company (Stablepoint). I had been with Godaddy for years, but when they messed up the ’back end’ of my service whilst ‘migrating’ me from what they now refer to as a ‘legacy’ service (ie. old & defunct) and their customer support proved useless & impotent over a period of months, changing to a new host seemed like a good idea. Now before you think “what a clever chappie Cuppa is to do all that stuff” think again. Not only is much of what was required way over my head, I only had an effective 3 day window in which to do it, before we were once again out of phone & internet range. Googling found me a company based in Chelsea, London, with the enticing name of ‘Fixed’. Yep really! (actually Fixed.net). Reading their spiel, they said what I wanted to hear. Reading what reviews I could find online seemed positive & so I took the risk of giving folk completely unknown to me, on the other side of of the planet, access to my web hosting at Godaddy – passwords etc. They had a fixed fee of $Aus99, & it was a leap of faith. They did everything for me, remaining in contact, asking what they needed to ask & providing reassuring feedback throughout the process. And they did what they said they would do. I still have a couple of minor tweaks to make here & there, but I put my trust in them & they did not let me down. If it had gone pear shaped, I could have lost all I have posted since first beginning to blog back in the early 2000’s. Phew! On the basis of my experience I am very happy to recommend https://fixed.net/aud/ if you need what they offer. (Note – just a link ‘cos I’m happy with them – no paid advertising or backhanders here!). The new web host so far seems to be what I want with email support plus phone & chatlines, (unlike Godaddy who have no email support!), & include services at a far lower cost, inclusive of ‘standard’ services which Godaddy charge extra for. Stablepoint are a sister company to Fixed.net & were recommended by them, but I was under no obligation to use them. Cost at Fixed.net would have been the same whichever web host I chose.
All too soon our love affairs with Rastus & Biscuit came to an end when our ‘sit’ finished & it was time to move on. Our next destination being the mining town of Weipa on the west coast of the Cape, primarily to avail ourselves once again of the vaccination services to get our second Pfizer dose. It is around a 300km drive, but we stopped short at around 250kms on the Friday afternoon, staying at a $2 camp provided by York Downs station rather than lobbing into Weipa & paying their expensive caravan park fees ($37 per night unpowered, $47 per night powered). We needed to shop for supplies the following morning & would then head north out of town to some more bush camping areas. York Downs was OK, a camp alongside a water filled dam, a long drop loo & a bush setting off the road. No grumbling about the cost, & MrsTea declared the long drop “nice & clean & no smell”. Sometimes I think to myself, & sometimes others point it out to me …… what a wonderful wife I have. No demands for sterile mansion sized caravans with all the bells & whistles – hair dryer, porcelain loos & all the many ‘accoutrements’ requiring a mobile power station to keep them going. Nope MrsTea, whilst having her moments now & then, is made for travel. Quite a change from the “I’d rather just stay at home” woman she was a couple of decades ago, prior to our first ‘around Australia’ adventure giving her a taste of what we both now love. I have to add though, that without her I doubt I could do it. Back near the beginning of this blog I wrote something like “We are a team in all we do” & that has not changed. We enable each other.
Driving in to Weipa reminded us of Newman in WA. Another mining town. A town which I believe is not gazetted. A town which is owned by the mining company. Rio Tinto. Such towns are an anomaly. On the outskirts of town we stopped at traffic lights, probably the only place on the entire Cape York where traffic lights exist. Boom gates too, to ensure priority to the giant ore trucks along the ‘Haul Road’. These monsters carry the ore mined here in unimaginable quantities. The ore is Bauxite, from which aluminium is derived. Areas of forest, the size of multiple English counties is all under the control of Rio Tinto, & bit by bit is cleared, the top metre or so of red dirt scraped off, & the two metre thick layer of bauxite then scraped up, trucked to a rail head, & then taken to the Port in Weipa where it is loaded onto huge bulk carrier ore ships & transported up around the top of the Cape & down the coast south of Cairns to (I think) Rockhampton & the smelters. From our time at Cape Weymouth & Chili Beach, we observed a constant flow up & down of these giant ships. Huge costs involved. Obviously there is plenty of money in bauxite! The town is primarily populated by Rio Tinto employees, well paid miners with all the toys. Side by side 4wd buggies costing $25k to $50k provide many with leisure activities in the extensive bush & coastlines where boating, camping, fishing & 4wd’ing are the primary entertainment in what is, mining aside, a huge wilderness playground. So no underground mining, & no huge ‘open cut’ holes in the ground. Just scrape off the top, scrape out the bauxite, replace the top metre of soil & re-vegetate. Mining on this sort of scale is never going to be environmentally friendly, but the mining here stands a better chance of leaving a reduced negative legacy given time. We believe full time re-vegetation experts & programmes are an integral part of the mining. Huge cleared areas still look ugly though and there are lots of them.
Heading north out of town took us across the wide Mission River via a single lane bridge. A first for us. It’s a long bridge wide enough only for a single vehicle, but with a view to the far end & a sign saying give way to traffic already on the bridge. Pays to be cautious before getting onto the bridge! A long way to have to reverse especially when towing! A rail line (ore train) runs right alongside the vehicle bridge. We imagine it could be very interesting having one of these behemoths coming past just a couple of arms lengths away!
We followed the Mapoon road. Mapoon being the displaced aboriginal settlement around 80 kilometres north at the tip of a peninsula. Displaced by the mining lease when it was put in place several decades ago. The population were moved to ’New Mapoon’ further north in the NPA (Northern Protected Area). It seems however that many families have been returning to ‘Old Mapoon’ in recent years. After waiting at more lights guarding another Haul Road, & passing numerous roads where signs prohibited non mine employees from entering we turned eastward thirty something kilometres north of Weipa & continued on a mix of sealed & unsealed road for a further similar distance. Interesting sealed road! Firstly it began deep in the forest after 10 or 15kms of dirt road, single lane, but more interesting as it is the only sealed road we have ever driven on where low range & 4wd needed to be engaged from time to time. It didn’t pay to relax as is the norm on sealed roads compared to dirt roads! Here there were breakouts, washouts whatever you want to call them, where sections of sealed road had been washed away, often with now hard dried ruts from folk getting across when the ground was wet. Not long sections, but rough & unpredictable. We were headed to a largely disused crossing on the Wenlock River, called Stones Crossing, which we believed had some good bush camping spots, good fishing & a chance to do a bit of croc spotting. ‘Largely’ disused, as we found out on arrival after a further few kilometres through a narrow high clearance enclosed 4wd track. A sign prohibiting entry across the river informed us that this was the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve. We had known it was somewhere on the Cape, now we knew where. This is the ‘quick’ route for those who live & work there to get to Weipa. Not a crossing for the unwary though. It crosses rapids, which conceal deep holes. Although not salt water, the river heights are affected by the tides some 90 river kilometres further north. The crossing is only suitable when the river level is down & with a good knowledge of the route across. We learned all this from a couple who live & work on the reserve who came across. Watching the route they took, it was clear that towing a camper like ours across, if we had been inclined to try would be almost impossible, requiring a different route directly through several metre+ deep holes underneath the fast running water. We stayed a couple of nights happy on our side of the river. Well, actually, ‘happy’ might be overstating things a bit! It was of itself a lovely spot, one that we’d likely feel ok about returning to. A combination of small irritations spoiled things a little. I wrote earlier Nope MrsTea, whilst having her moments now & then, is made for travel. Well Stones Crossing was a location for one of her rare ‘moments’. Nothing extreme you understand, no raised voices, no argy bargy, but there were a few tears……understandably so. A combination of factors. First up was that we were set up on rock, uneven rock which made deploying the tent impossible, and likewise the awning. So no shade in the camp, & little protection from the not infrequent showers which were heavy enough to make the pull out kitchen wet & required it to be packed away after every use. Cooking in the full sun or out in the rain is no fun, especially when the ‘floor’ of the kitchen goes from waist level workbench height to shoulder level workbench height within the distance it takes to walk around the workbench! Then there was the having to endure the husband anxiety about the stormy cloudy weather & lack of solar input. Compounding this were the ant & mozzie problems we were enduring. Not the worst we have experienced by a long shot, but nevertheless a definite contributing factor. When to my surprise I landed a shark out of fresh water & snapped my fishing rod in the process, instead of the tears & frustration being mine, MrsTea did the honours. A walk & a sit in a safe protected section of water in addition to a husband who realised that for once his needs had to come second helped & it’s fair to say that we got on with things & made the best of our time there.
Instead of continuing up to Mapoon we returned to Weipa & got our second Pfizer shots a few days earlier than we had expected to, put in a cryovac order at the butcher, got a replacement fishing rod & booked a couple of nights on a powered site at the Caravan Park for later in the week before leaving town again for beach camping at Pennefather River, our first camping experience on the Cape’s west coast. We have been here for three days, and it is the sort of place we could stay for weeks rather than days. The weather has improved, the outlook is great. we have the awning & the tent up (Mozzie free sleeping). No ants, minimal mozzies. The new rod remains unused. Walks along the beach are pretty with lots of shells & birds. The lagoon we overlook from our camp has at least two large salties in it to entertain us & things are back on an even keel. Even ‘living the dream’ has it’s lows & highs! It’s hard to stay ‘down’ when all you have to do is take a walk at sunrise to watch the fish jumping.
The side effects of the 2nd Pfizer shot were a bit different to the almost non-existent ones with the first. This time the arm ache was far milder, but MrsTea had a 24 hour headache requiring Panadol. I on the other hand suffered a little more. No headache, but everyone of my ‘usual’ aches & pains seemed to be ‘amplified’ & for 24 hours I was fairly disabled by this. However the oddest part of it all occurred in the early hours of the day following the injection. A small cluster of 24 hour old Mozzie bites became active again. At first I thought I’d been ‘bitten’ again, but it was on a wrist I had heavily bandaged to manage the pain I was suffering – 100% mozzie proof! Even more odd was that the persistent itching & irritation normally experienced from mozzie bites was 10 or 20 times worse. After an interminable couple of hours I was somehow able to return to sleep & on waking all aches, pains & itches had miraculously disappeared! Seems that , for me at least the 2nd Pfizer temporarily exacerbated & increased existing ‘conditions’.
Getting to the Pennefather had been a bit of a mission’! We took the track that locals refer to as the ‘back track’ or the ‘old swamp track’ A very narrow & soft sandy 9kms track once off the road. Tyre pressures reduced to 15 psi (from 33psi) on the front & the tvan. Rears down to 25psi (from 52psi) after bogging on the first dune. We did well to arrive with our mirrors intact & the awning still on the side of the Tvan! We’ll remove the awning & carry it inside the Tvan on the way out. The easier route along the beach is not possible as turtles are nesting, and the alternative route across the dunes is reported to be horrible, with serious scalloping of the track & some solo vehicles having to reduce tyre pressures as low as 8 psi to avoid bogging in the windblown sand. New folk in today reported a seriously bogged vehicle & caravan. Just yesterday I was talking to a day visitor who said he had read a report of three caravans getting in on facebook a few days ago. I seriously doubted that claim & suggested he not try it. Hopefully he is not the person bogged.
We are now back in Weipa at the Caravan Park. Shopped, showered & fed. We did remove the awning for our exit this morning, this proved a relatively easy & quick task & I was pleased I had chosen one which fits inside the Tvan (diagonally). Consequently the drive out was far easier & less stressful. In fact it was a nice drive. Travelling at around 8am the sand was far less ‘fluffy’ & ‘boggy’ than when we had driven in in the late afternoon. A factor to remember for future sandy driving escapades.