The Old Telegraph Track – Cape York

This post may be a little different to my usual I think.

First up trying to write a post which covers two & a half months , from Weipa to the tip & back to our current location is overwhelming. So I intend to break it down into three posts, this The Old Telegraph Track (OTT) will take us north as far as the Jardine River, where the ferry crossing delineates the southern boundary of the Northern Peninsula Area (NPA). A subsequent post will cover our time in the NPA , including reaching the ’Tip’, & after that I will begin to tell you all about our experience as Wet season Caretakers at our current location.

A major part of this post is the video we have strung together from multiple clips we filmed as we explored the Old Telegraph Track . We hope it will give you a good idea of what it is like to drive it, but we are not film makers, & approached filming in a very ad hoc way. No film plan, just occasionally remembering that video was an option. However whilst not a ’slick’ & comprehensive video guide to the OTT (there are plenty of those on Youtube) it is a record of ‘our’ trip which we hope will prove interesting to you. Whilst stringing together 40 or 50 short ‘clips’ plus a number of ’stills’ (covering periods when we had not thought to film) taken over the time we spent on the OTT, I took the opportunity to experiment with a few additions which the software allowed to inject a little extra humour etc. It is 35 minutes long, so have a read of whatever I am about to type, then get yourself a drink & sit back & enjoy. I am hoping that what finds it’s way out of my head, through my finger tips & onto your screen will give you some context for the video ahead of watching it.

OK, into it. 🙂

Whist still in Weipa we discovered that our as yet unconfirmed house sit in Seisia we were hoping for would not be going ahead. There had been a degree of uncertainty about it since it first became a possibility earlier in the year whilst we were still down at Mutchilba. The house owners were genuinely apologetic, but health issues had put paid to their plans. We still had an invite to visit, & they did what they could to put word around the NPA communities about our availability. We cast our net on the ’Net too, reasonably confident that being ‘on the ground’ & available would find us a roof over our heads on the Cape for the wet season.

Our confidence was not misplaced. Over the course of our two days in Weipa with internet, we had applied for a 12 month very interesting sounding opportunity, including giving 3 references as requested. A unique & exciting ‘gig’ we would love to have the chance to take up. We had also been made aware that Moreton Telegraph Station were seeking Wet season caretakers, & as we would be passing (& staying overnight there) on our way to the OTT, we arranged to meet the owners within the follwing few days. Knowing that it would likely be a couple of weeks or more before hearing back about the ’12 month gig’, due to being out of range for phone/emails, we left Weipa thinking that we would tell the Moreton folk that we would need to wait until we heard back from the others, before we could agree/confirm with either one of them. That was the plan.

‘Best laid plans’ & all that. Once at Moreton we liked the place for a number of reasons & took the view that a ‘bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ & accepted the Moreton offer lest the other fell through. Agreement that we would return to Moreton in early October was reached & hands shaken.

A bit over two weeks later, in Seisia, with all our referees having been contacted, we were offered the 12 month position, but explained we had committed to Moreton, & would not let them down, adding that we could still be available for 12 months from when we finish at Moreton. This was received very positively with the comment “We think that could work very well” . As yet we are still to confirm (hence why I am not yet saying where it is) and will soon be back in contact with the person concerned. Our optimism is high about what really is a very unique & desirable (for us) opportunity.

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Just 40 odd kilometres up the road from Moreton the Old Telegraph Track begins with a narrow track leading along the side of the Bramwell Roadhouse Property. 110kms of fun,challenge & 4wd adventure. We hoped it would not be overly crowded, knowing it to be the major drawcard of the Cape for many. As it turned out though, whilst we might see a handful of other vehicles on the track each day the southern Covid restrictions had been kind to us, & the numbers of others around was far lower than it may otherwise have been. Mostly contact with others was at river crossings & camp spots (often one & the same), with folk hanging back keen to see others make a crossing before attempting it themselves.

Water levels in most of the crossings were quite low, with the challenges more often being in the negotiation of the steep and/or rocky & rutted entrances & exits. Some of the rocky creeks needed walking first to determine the route across. Shallow water with holes a metre deep & large enough to get stuck in were common on the rocky crossings, but these generally had crystal clear water so picking a route was easy. Sometimes sticking to the chosen route was a little harder as deep holes disappeared from view, vision blocked by the car itself, leaving us to ‘proceed on memory’ alone, or with MrsTea out of the car giving directions. There were a few tense moments here & there, but we got through all we attempted. One of the best strategies was to avoid what many seemed to do, which was blindly follow the tyre tracks of unknown vehicles which had gone before. Good to have the guide, but more than once we saw folk get into trouble simply following the tracks of others. Often there were multiple options & stopping to evaluate which was best for our setup always worthwhile. Towing a trailer adds a dimension that solo vehicles don’t have to contend with. Different lines are needed, as is the behaviour of the towed camper, especially on steeper sideways sloping ground. In soft sand the ‘anchor effect’ of a towed van needs a different approach, & we often found our slow & steady approach with the front differential locker engaged to work far better than those in solo vehicles who’s drivers appeared to have just one strategy anytime things got a bit tricky – more right foot! This was obvious from the outset.

The first crossing at the southern end of the track was Palm creek. A steep, brakes on hard & creaking entry into water of unknown depth (which turned out to just be up to bonnet depth at it’s deepest), due to it’s red muddy consistency, followed by a narrow mirror wrecking climb out , on wet tyres , with several short steep pinches, which brought others we observed to grief. It was the climb out which was difficult, often only discovered once there by the ‘she’ll be right’ drivers who just ploughed in without looking first. We watched tyres spinning, smoke coming off them, whilst drivers did what they thought was best – put their foot down. We saw a brand new Dodge Ram rip off it’s ‘running boards’ when it’s 7.0+ litre motor with bags of torque responded to a heavy right foot, the spinning smoking tyres suddenly getting traction & bouncing the car forward uncontrollably. This first crossing was in fact one of the most difficult, & saw quite a few folk out of their comfort zone, who sensibly decided to turn back & take the Bamaga ‘bypass road’ up to the NPA. MrsTea thought I should do the same, but nervously accepted my assessment that “I can do that”. Video footage shows me coming up in a fairly controlled manner, & onlookers commented “You made that look easy” as I got out of the car. Of course they didn’t know my heart was pounding, but my faith in lowered tyre pressures & the diff lock had not been misplaced. It was a good start which it’s fair to say did heaps for my self confidence. Interestingly I had been so ‘in the zone’ that I had no idea about the reckless motorcyclist right behind me.

MrsTea walked the next crossing at Ducie Creek under sufferance as it was another one with murky water with a steep rutted entry & the crossing out of sight until into the water. (Actually we think we may have crossed a few other creeks before Ducie which were either dry, or almost dry & who’s names we forget). It was an easy shallow & smooth crossing & easy exit. The only drama being MrsTea slipping over part way through, & getting soaked, but managing to keep her Ipad out of the water. So, she still dripping, filmed me driving through … with surprisingly good humour.

We spent our first night on the track at the Dulhunty River Crossing. Rated by our guide book as a great camp spot, we discovered that ‘greatness is in the eye of the beholder’ & subsequently lowered our expectations of what was to come in regard to future OTT camping. It wasn’t awful, not by a long shot, but I guess in our travels we may have been a bit spoiled by many of the wonderful spots we have found to camp in & when a camp is described as great our expectations were high. In reality with the OTT being one of the highest drawcards in 4wd Australia, it is obvious that once beautiful little bush spots suffer from a high volume of campers & traffic. Once lovely white sandy camping areas beneath the tropical cycad dotted forest now a dirty black from the myriad of camp fire lit & extinguished there over decades. Little rubbish to be seen though, unless you were silly enough to walk from cleared area into the bush a few feet away. Suffice it to say we believe that carrying a portable toilet & using it should be a requirement of anyone using the track. What was once ok in no longer due to numbers. And don’t forget that for most of the season the numbers of folk ‘doing’ the track were greatly reduced this year. Alongside the camp the river ran over some small falls, with a very pleasant small swimming hole. Clear warm water was a nice way to finish the day, mostly sitting on the falls themselves as thoughts of crocs reduced our time immersed. The crossing, just above the falls, next morning was a simple, shallow affair over relatively smooth solid rock.

Next came Bertie Creek. We managed to take a wrong turning shortly before Bertie Creek, following a track around to the left instead of the hairpin turn to the right. On tracks like these finding somewhere to turn around for an almost 10 metre long ‘rig’ can be a challenge. Throw in some soft sand under foot & the challenge increases. Nothing overly dramatic, but quite time consuming. When we had just crossed the river, the couple we had shared the Dulhunty camp with came across in their Iveco Daily camper. They laughed when we told them about going the wrong way. “We just did the same” they said “ Not only that , but when we were here a few years ago, we did the same then”. We joked about the need for signposts, but really none of us would want that sort of civility brought to the OTT. The ground here is all sand. Damp white sand which oozes water, which 4wd after 4wd over the years cuts tracks into. The sand itself is quite solid & firm, learning this was a relief. I had thought the mix of sand & water would result in patches of quicksand, but not here. Lack of familiarity of any type of country adds to the psychological challenge until you discover it. We first walked to the creek. MrsTea waited at the water’s edge to film me driving in. Once there she crossed the river barefoot, clutching her ipad, leaving her sandals which she wanted to keep dry with me to then throw across to her. Thankfully I succeeded in this task….. just. She was dubious about my throwing ability & relieved when she picked each one up just inches from the water. Crossing involved working out a route between large holes in the rock bed requiring me to drive along the side of the creek before turning into the water. In the video it looks like I just rock up & drive in, but I had placed sticks as markers to tell me when to make the turn.

Not too long after Bertie we had to make a decision. Straight on to Gunshot Creek, the infamous sheer drop which dominate youtube videos & the minds of many young (& not so young) conquerors or turn eastward on the ‘chicken track’ which both bypasses Gunshot & also continues on back to the ’Southern Bypass Rd’ (aka Bamaga Road).
With the Tvan behind us I had a good excuse to take the chicken track, & if truth be told I would have done the same without it. Damaging our car for the sake of proving my manhood is not me. Besides we wanted to go out to the Bamaga Road to access the track to Captain Billy’s Landing a little further north. Our plan was to got Captain Billys for a few nights & then return to the northern side of Gunshot on the OTT.

What a horribly corrugated road the ‘chicken track was ! More than once we commented to each other that deep ruts, washouts & gnarly creek crossings were far preferable any day! The weather was becoming dark & windy as we passed through tall heathland constantly waving at us, with lots of birds around. In more pleasant weather we might have stopped to check them out, but instead we gritted our teeth & pushed on to the Bamaga road, which whilst wider was only slightly less corrugated. Turning off toward Captain Billys Landing on a narrow lane-like track in tall rainforest almost had us believing we were on bitumen. The comparative smoothness was welcome. Intsead frequent water diversion ’speed bumps’ alongside drainage cuts into the rainforest kept us on our toes. The rainforest sheltered us & for a while we were oblivious to the brewing weather above us. A lookout part way to the coast miraculously brought us into fine weather as we looked at views across the coastal rainforest to white dunes in the distance. The weather magnaminously remained fine until we had set up camp. Then the wind began to blow, frm the south east, off the Coral Sea straight at us. It didn’t let up for the next 3 days of our stay. Had Captain Billy’s Landing been any less special we would have left sooner. Rain accompanied the wind & was the beginning of unseasonable cloudy & overcast weather which was to last for the next couple of weeks. Just enough sun to keep our batteries charged, but always ‘on the edge’. It really was a special place. Long white dune lined beaches as far as we could see (& walk) northwards, eroded picturesque cliffs to our south , & looking inland a steep foliage & the odd palm tree covered hill, with short exposed red cliffs at the top. Oh & the blue sea of course. The colours and textures, all familiar, but in a mix which was superb. At low tides the sea receded to a good distance to allow exploration along the cliff, cave & rockpool lined beach, with many shells, crabs & even bats. Sandy beaches are nice to look at but I find beaches like this so much more interesting. I hope we can get back there at a less windy time of the year. Over the three days & nights the Tvan tent & our side awning remained up & solid, whilst a few other campers came & went, initially intending to stay longer, but waking on their first morning beaten by the weather & leaving prematurely. The wind drops away late in the tourist season & before the wet season. That’d be the time to visit. Since arriving back at Moreton we have had reports that the winds have now dropped away. Plans to return to Captain Billys were thwarted by the need for some car repairs – but that’s a story for another post.

On our teeth clenching bumpy ride back to the OTT, we turned southward on the OTT with the intention of going down to Gunshot to observe & photograph the young & the silly wrecking there cars. Driving north to south on a tight track where the majority drive south to north saw a few butt clenching moments, but generally we found most solo drivers to be very polite & accommodating of our greater difficulty in pulling off into small spaces or reversing on uneven terrain. I certainly wouldn’t want to drive the entire track from north to south though. At Gunshot the weather had again become drizzly & wet – not conducive to setting up camp, so we didn’t stay long. We did however meet a young fella with an almost new 79 series Toyota, far from a cheap car, who had ‘got it wrong’ coming down Gunshot. He had hit the bottom with force & driven his 3 core radiator back onto the engine block. At the time I spoke with him he was trying to repair numerous holes in is radiator with metal putty in the hope of getting a few hundred kilometres to Weipa for a new radiator. Looked like had many hours of work ahead of him with no guarantee it would work. I felt sorry for him, but very glad it wasn’t me in his situation.

Northward to Cockatoo Creek. It looked quite daunting with an uneven rock descent to the water & a fairly wide rocky crossing with faster flowing water than we had encountered up to that point. Parking up to have a bit of lunch & hoping we could observe someone else crossing whilst we were eating was our strategy here. An hour or so later we had given up on anyone ’showing us the way’ & decided to ‘give it a go’. With an entry like this, once you start pulling the Tvan down to the water, you are committed. Reversing back up the entry was not a possibility, no more than turning around in the water would be. I drove onto the entry, stopping just short of what I considered to be the ‘point of no return’ & watched as MrsTea bravely carried her ipad across the water again, gesticulating to me. Interestingly when watching the video footage she had no idea if her arm movements were intended to convey ‘go there’ or ‘don’t go there’. At the time I to was confused, instead concentrating on the water depth around her legs. In addition previous folk had placed a small ‘cairn’ in the water at one spot & I placed trust in this as ‘don’t go beyond this point’. It was another which had my heart being fast, but it looked worse that it was. Like many of these crossings they are easy if you get it right. I don’t want to experience getting one wrong though. Things could change very quickly, but I think my cautious stead as she goes approach works in my favour.

Somewhere after Cockatoo Creek, we approached a corner …. let’s call it ‘Green Ant Corner’. A moderately tight corner, but nothing which should have been untoward. it was a two level corner with the high side being on the outside. As I had done many times over the course of the track as I approached it I made a decision about the line I was going to take. High or low on this occasion, having already determined that I could drive the width of the car around either. I went high. However whilst looking at the width of the dirt road sections I had completely omitted to notice a very solid tree leaning out across the track at quite an angle. I didn’t even really latch on to the risk it posed as we drove past it in the car, not that is until I heard the noise & accompanying sudden deceleration as the Tvan hit it it. My heart sank & I wasn’t thinking straight. I should have got out immediately to survey the damage, but assuming it was the front of the Tvan’s stone deflector which run into the tree which I could see in my side mirror I instead chose to reverse, thinking that doing so would remove contact between tree & Tvan. Unfortunately that assessment was flawed. The tree must have been behind the stone deflector just off to the side & reversing, instead of removing contact made things worse. Outcome was a bent distorted stone deflector partly torn off it’s riveted mounting & some metal trim along the bottom of the Tvan pulled off. As I surveyed this damage, feeling stupid & swearing they attacked. Within moments I had what seemed like hundreds of dissaffected green ants angry that I had dared to knock into their tree swarming all over me. Inside & outside of my clothing & in my hair. I was frantically trying to rid myself of them, swearing even more, but they seemed to come in timed waves. Biting me in one part until swatted & brushed away, but the moment that was done more would start elsewhere, this continuing for what seemed like forever. Eventually it seemed I had prevailed & after collecting the broken pieces & stored them I returned to the driving cab in a grumpy foul mood. More at having made a silly mistake than at the ants. But the ants continued to have the ‘last word’ for several kilometres. Laying in wait to start nipping at me as I drove, necessitating several hurried stops & me jumping from the car arms flailing & mouth cursing the nippy little buggers. Moral of this little tale is if you are going to run into a tree, pick one without a large green ant population!

Sailor Creek had a little wooden bridge, which I watched a motorcycle cross ahead of us. As we approached the bridge the motorcyclist returned. Not sure if he wanted to watch the spectacle of me attempting to cross it , or to urge caution. Probably a bit of both. The relatively new track through the water was hidden until almost on the bridge. We suspect he had not seen it, his focus upon getting across the bridge.

Prior to that was another creek we don’t know the name of. The one in the video with the sound effects as MrsTea wades back & forth in it. She had been pretty game checking out previous crossings, but wasn’t overjoyed about risking being eaten by a croc hidden below the surface of this murky water. I hadn’t realised at the time that it was anything other than a large puddle. The footage shows it to have been more than that! Thank goodness she survived!

Not long after this we were back on the Bamaga road briefly. It cuts across the OTT, & a few kilometres further on we turned right into the northern section of the OTT. The Northern section has the deepest water crossings, the most notorious being Nolan’s Brook. This innocent sounding name is the most common crossing where folk drown there cars. Again a risk we were not prepared to take. We live in our car, many drive up the OTT just to conquer the likes of Nolan’s & if they drown the car the cost is jus part of their trip, albeit a very expensive part. Logans Creek is the other deep one, reputed to be murky & quite a scary crossing. There is however another ‘chicken track’ which would allow us to drive about half the northern section, go around the deeper creeks & come back to them on their northern side & continue to the end of the OTT on the banks of the Jardine River.

Almost immediately after turning into the northern section another track takes you to what is probably one of the nicest safe swimming spots on the Cape. The very photogenic Fruitbat Falls. It was very dull & overcast when we got there, I was still a bit grumpy, no good photos could be had in the poor light & I didn’t want to swim. Imagine a 64 year old pouting like a 4 year old & you wouldn’t be far off the mark. I just wanted to set up camp & relax somewhere. We had been told that the camping at Canal Creek was good & not too far away so we made for there & found ourselves a nice spot. making it home for several nights. This is an interesting area of porous rock which soaks up the annual monsoon rains like a sponge & then slowly releases it year round. There springs popping out of the ground everywhere, small streams running into larger streams which run into the creek. The water in the creek is perfect temperature for swimming, warm but not overly so, & absolutely crystal clear. Narrow channels of chest deep water running between rocks which afford shade.

Not far away two more major Cape York attractions, both wonderful swimming spots close together on the Elliot Creek, which is fed in part by Canal Creek, so the same perfect swimming water in beautiful locations, but a bit bigger & thus slightly less intimate than Canal Creek. (in our view). Another section of river known as ‘The Saucepan is a deeper section of water between some low falls & Twin Falls. We floated between the two for what was probably a kilometre. No crocs here in case you were wondering. You may notice a photo in the video of me sitting close to the top of Twin Falls. I wasn’t sitting, I had just fallen, having put my foot into an unseen hole below the water. It could have been worse. My Sony A6500 mirrorless camera took a swim. The next half hour saw me paying it a great deal of attention to it & thankfully I got away with it with no damage incurred.

North of Canal Creek is another similar creek named Sam Creek. The crossing itself is shallow, but the descent into it was what 4wd’ers like to refer to as ‘technical’ . Basically it needs a bit of thought & care. This was definitely one where a car & trailer needed to take a different route to solo vehicles. Steep downhill over rocks which fall away to one side with the risk of tipping sideways, more for the Tvan than the car. Again not following others, & caution made it a painless crossing, & without a raise pulse!

Arriving at Nolan’s Brook from the north we found ourselves far from alone among folk who had chosen the same option. This is observer heaven. Quite a few folk camped there. A lovely spot to be, the creek with it’s own little beach at the crossing with the bonus of all the spectator sport. Anywhere in the camp the cry ‘Car coming’ would go up at regular intervals & be repeated loudly around the camp as folk scurried down to the beach with their armchairs to watch the action. The action started on the far side of the creek – people watching – folk looking at the water, knowing the reputation of the crossing, anxiety building, made worse by an audience which was at times supportive & at times heckling. Which of the several entries to take, where was the deepest water, how soft is the sandy bottom etc etc. Some took forever , some just a few minutes, but no-one just ploughed in without any consideration. Most folk got through ok, some got wet interiors & only one drowned his motor. Mostly those who got wet interiors had to be pulled out with a snatch strap. (There was always someone on hand with a vehicle to pull those who got stuck out). After watching all those who made a good job of it I believe I could too, but possibly not with the Tvan in tow. The technique required was tyres let down to 10 or 12 psi, selection of the right gear to allow engine torque to pull you through without raising the revs too much. Those who gave it too many revs, or panicked & hit the accelerator were the ones who had to be pulled out. The sandy river bottom dropped down into a bit of a hole, with sand to then climb out up to the exit. Revs just as you were coming out of the deepest part jut dug wheels into the sand. Low revs & torque floated them up the sand & out. I was tempted to give it a go, but , probably sensibly’, I chose not to. Our car has vinyl flooring. Underneath the vinyl flooring is thick sound deadening felt. When I bought the car it was saturated (from a leak behind the dash) & stank. Rectification involved stripping out the entire driving cab back to bare metal. A big job. the wet felt was hung out on lines to dry under the cover of an open shed. It took 10 days to dry. It was this memory which saw me decide not to give the crossing a go.

Someone in the camp who had driven from Nolans up to the banks of the Jardine River told us , it’s just all swampy & nothing worth driving up there for. We went anyway, & enjoyed it. Sandy & wet in places, deep soft dry sand in places & then lovely woodland on the banks of the river. Too tight to comfortably tow the Tvan though, so we just made it a day visit.

And that was the end of the Old Telegraph Track. From Nolans, back to the Bamaga Road via the track we had come in on & then around 30 kilometres to the Jardine Ferry & the NPA.

For old & new readers whose primary interests don’t include 4wd’ing I apologise. For the new ones among you, please have a look back through some of my previous posts & you’ll see that my focus is rarely on 4wd’ing to the extent this post has been. Once upon a time I believe the OTT offered a wonderful bush & nature experience, but this has been colonised by the 4wd community today. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I didn’t enjoy the experience, because I did. However it is also true to say that I was saddened by the obvious impacts on country by lots of people in lots of 4wd’s. In comparison to many other remote areas we have visited, using a 4wd to get there, the OTT felt more like a tourist playground used by folk for whom the driving is more important than the country they drive in. I accept that, & it is what it is, but I wouldn’t like to see other places being used so single mindedly.

Regards

Cuppa & MrsTea