4WD off-road adventure: A trip up to Cape York via the Old Telegraph Track

If you travel Australia you already might have heard from Cape York, the upper tip of of the Cape York peninsula – and, more interestingly, the northernmost point of the Australian continent. The Cape York peninsula is found all the way up North Queensland and constitutes a beautifully remote tropical area known as one of the last remaining wilderness regions of the world. Striking is definitely its unspoiled state and little civilization which makes the trip to the tip an even more of an unforgettable adventure.

No doubt, the Cape York tip is beautiful – especially when you hike over the last hills and find yourself standing at the northern edge of Australia. However, the actual highlight definitely will be the adventurous trip to get there via the legendary Old Telegraph Track. This iconic drive through a stunning landscape features several creek and river crossings that make your heart stop for a beat or two. So, if you love off-roading, are in possession of a decent 4WD car (you’ll definitely need it) and don’t shit your pants facing challenging croc-inhabited river-crossings, steep descents and bumpy downhill slopes – the legendary Old Telegraph Track is your must-do in Australia! Sit down, keep on reading, watch the video, enjoy the show – and, most importantly, get inspired. If you happen to be the girlfriend or wife of an adventurous loon who gets dragged along to this craziness – welcome to my world!

The Old-Telegraph-Track is a locals’ hot spot – an adventure for experienced, off-road-proven Australian dudes. I don’t know who it was that told my husband about it – it is none of the typical tourist tracks, most of the people we met along our way on the east coast didn’t even hear of it. So from the moment we entered the Australian continent my husband Marvin was fascinated by it. I actually was too lazy to read up on it, so I agreed on doing it – I could swear he didn’t tell me about crazy crossings and crocodiles, but well…

To cut a long story short – I had my freak-out moments (especially the deep river-crossings scared the shit out of me), called my husband several times a fucking maniac for bringing me here – but, if I am honest – I enjoyed the trip probably as much as he did and recommend it to every off-road, 4WD lover out there. The adrenaline rushing through my blood when conquering one hairy crossing after the other was just crazy, the beautiful camping spots, swimming holes and waterfalls we found on the way were priceless and the experience will just remain unforgettable for the both of us. Plus, we’re a bit proud we made it and it is fun to brag with it.

So – here it goes.

Our plan was simple: Make our way up to Cooktown – the gateway to the legendary Old Telegraph Track and for most adventure-seekers the starting point to their way op to Cape York – find someone with the same plan, group up and build a convoy. This way you will always have someone that pulls you out if you get bogged.

So we lurked for potential like-minded people at the Lion’s Den Hotel of Cooktown, a great outback pub that offers simple rooms but also camping in their backyard. Definitely worth a visit. We were a bit surprised that there were almost no people – after a couple of beers at the bar we learned from some local road workers that there was heavy rain 2 weeks ago, the flooded dirt roads seemed to have scared away all the adventurers. We actually were aware that it was shoulder season that bore the danger of heavy rain, but it’s been beautiful weather and clear blue sky for the last week and we were convinced that the water on the roads already dried up – apparently no one else thought so. As the evening continued some young, shoe-less dude named Trey entered the bar and we started chatting – he was a proper Australian redneck, just quit his job to go pig hunting with his two dogs. If you don’t know what pig hunting means – don’t worry, I didn’t either. But it is as simple as it sounds – he drives along the way until his dogs give mouth, lets them run to catch pigs and kills them to serve as their dinner. Marvin found this dude kind of funny, I wasn’t so amused about the pig-thing and wondered if he was a serial killer. Long story short – he was nice but crazy, ready to do all kind of weird shit (for sure wasn’t worried about the Old-Telegraph Track) and agreed to join us for our adventure.

The next morning – Marvin and I still alive, so probably no serial killer after all – we went the last time to stock up and started the drive up in our two-car-convoy. The entry to the Old Telegraph Track was roughly 600 kms away, so we planned to have one stop on the way and a last one at the Bramwell Junction right before the Old-Telegraph Track has its starting point.

There is not much to say about the trip up to Bramwell Junction before entering the Old Telegraph Track – except that it’s simply calm, rural and remote. No tourist whatsoever, actually you meet rarely anyone anyways, lots of cattle and the most impressive termite kingdoms you might have ever seen. Oh yeah – and there was Trey, our Australian friend and Cape-York-travel-partner-in-crime from the Lion’s Den Hotel. By now, we actually really got to like him – but some things about him still remained weird. First and foremost his pig hunting hobby. We kept on driving the gravel road when he screamed something about “peeeeeegs” into the radio, we weren’t really sure what he wants so continued our way until we figured he’s not following us anymore. Turning around we found his still running (!) but empty car with the keys in the ignition, no dogs nor Trey but some maniac chasing around the jungle for pigs. As a side note – still no shoes on. So that’s what pig hunting must look like. After around 15 minutes he returned, bleeding feed but proud with a baby pig in his hands. And I gave him shit! I told him if he even gets close to kill this baby pig he won’t make his freaking trip up to Cape York. So it seems like crazy Australian pig hunting Trey was scared of me after all… pretending he just brought baby pig around to show us he let go of it. Oh, and the next road house he bought Flip Flops.

 

Like I mentioned, we had one stop on the way in an unspectacular roadhouse right next to a tiny lake full of crocodiles. They just told us to stay away from the shore – you can be sure I stayed a kilometer off the freaking pond. Of curse not Trey, he carefully unfolded his swag (for those who don’t know, a sleeping bag for the outback ground) right at the shore of the croc home to “enjoy the view”. After one last night on a lovely cattle farm at Bramwell Trourist Park we finally reached the entrance of the legendary Old Telegraph Track. As a nice sendoff, the last roadhouse before the entry maintains a tree that carries at least hundred of license plates of cars that didn’t make it. Very assuring. But we were ready to go.

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The Old Telgraph Track consists of 15 crossings and obstacles – some more, some less challenging – some simply make you wonder if it really was a good idea to come here. The most famous and myth-enshrouded is the so called Gun Shot crossing – if I had to give it a professional description, I’d say it is a straight vertical descent ending in a muddy hollow. In my own words I’d call it a freaking freefall into a dirt hole. Anyhow, most crossings offer an “easier” way around, in case you change your mind – those are tenderly called “Chicken Tracks” by the locals.

I might also mention that my adventure-seeking husband Marvin was born and raised in a big German city – so, far away from any off-road experience. Not that there is any off-roading in Germany anyways. Back home his mechanical abilities were – let’s say – limited, probably exhausted by putting a nail in the wall. But Marvin has always been competitive and hated to not be able to master any skill – so he really schooled up on some car mechanics and 4WD driving. Let’s see how that goes on one of the craziest off-road tracks of Australia.

The first crossing you’ll face after entering the Old Telegraph Track is the Palm Creek – a steep, bumpy descent with the same steep, bumpy surge on the other end. The strategically placed towing ads along the trees don’t necessarily make you feel more comfortable. The way down was bumpy but doable, the way back up not so much. While our land cruiser (we call it “the Beast”) climbed up like a monkey, our Australian pig hunting fried Trey got stuck in the first crossing. Very annoying, I thought (and a bit embarrassing considering it was our first crossing) – not for Marvin. He was crazy excited to finally use our Max Tracks and recovery equipment we’ve been carrying around for the last 4 weeks.

After we pulled Trey out of his misery we continued our way facing some river crossings. They were all doable – but it feels pretty awkward seeing the water coming up to the bonnet, splashing the windshield, and if you happened to have an old Land Cruiser as we do you soon will see your legroom fill up with water. Marvin’s trick to make it through them is – go fast and steady so you create a bow wave, don’t ever stop. If you get bogged in the middle of the river it might just carry you away.

For lunch we stopped on a beautiful river crossing that had a large, flat stone in the middle – so we simply were able to drive up on it and enjoy the fresh water while preparing some food. I wasn’t sure if there were any crocs in it so kept standing right in the middle of our tiny stone island to minimize risk of dying – when Trey jumped right into the water with his dogs. I waited for some croc attacks – as nothing happened I was pretty sure the water is clear and at least put my toes in it. To clarify the croc issue – if Australians are aware of crocs the ususally put a warning sign on the shore. Of course, always be croc-wise and look around before throwing yourself in (or like me, wait for someone else to do it first). In general I learned that crocs don’t like clear nor running water – they prefer dirty, smelly water that’s been standing there for a while. And they don’t wander around looking for a new home as they can’t stand the heat when being too far away from the water. So if there hasn’t been a croc the last months, most likely there won’t be one when you get there. The nice thing about the Cape York peninsula is that – although you are on the croc-inhabited North of Australia – they have a lot of places with clear water and beautiful waterfalls that keep it moving. Good for us, bad for crocs.

After we had some lunch in our belly we felt ready to continue and face the iconic Gun Shot crossing. Trey seemed to have a too much energy and kept on speeding in front of us so we lost sight of him. When we reached a junction and he wasn’t there we were sure he took the way straight to the Gun Shot crossing and kept on going. After a while when we didn’t outran him we figured we must have lost him. Awesome – right in front of the most critical crossing.

When we got to the Gun Shot the first thing we did was laughing – THAT was ridiculous! I thought it’s a myth – but it IS a complete vertical fall into a dirt hole. Marvin hesitated – but without a partner car that, in the worst case can pull you out, this is just crazy. So we went to look for the “Chicken Track”… with all the respect, that wasn’t an easy version of the Gun Shot. I wasn’t even sure which of the two crossings was the real Gun Shot anyways. So we walked around for a bit until we found an acceptable way to do the crossing. The fall wasn’t as steep, therefore the dirt hole was full of dirt water – anyhow, it just felt more doable as the freefall of the different Gun Shot versions.

We did it – but to be honest – now, we (well, mostly Marvin) regret that we didn’t do it. After we had phone reception again we looked for videos of people that actually overcame the Gun Shot. First of all, it’s funny to watch. The cars fall vertically with the front of their car on the ground – like a nose dive – and then keep on going. Secondly, Marvin has gotten so well in knowing how our car reacts and what to do to keep balance, I think we actually would have done it.

After we digested the shame of using a “Chicken Track” we kept on going until we reached Cackatoo Creek – a river crossing that contains some water holes. You don’t want you car to fall in one of those, so before our trip the locals advised that we definitely have to walk it to figure out the best way to cross. No problem, right? When we got there we saw one of the familiar warning signs “crocs inhabit this river – don’t walk near the shore”. Well, thanks for the advise – I really love walking rivers with crocs in it. So we were standing a bit insecure at the river, watching the water, put here and there a foot in it to see how deep it is – until we suddenly heard a car approaching. Trey! He figured he took the wrong way, turned around and was speeding after us. Before we could even say anything he was knee-deep in the water checking out the dept of the croc-river. So we also conquered that one – and it was nice to have Trey back.

Continuing your way along the Old Telegraph Track you will reach one of the aforementioned swimming holes that are croc-free – the Fruit Bat Falls. I cannot say anything else except: simply beautiful. Try do get there in the late afternoon as it reveals even more of its beauty when the sun turns orange and hangs there low. We had a nice swim in crystal clear, refreshing water, dived through the waterfalls – you can even climb up and walk on top of them where they have little pools to sit in. It’s really a magic place and you can spend hours there. The only bummer is that there is no camping allowed – so you will eventually have to move on to Elliot Falls, a nice camp spot with a pretty swimming hole. It’s only a 10-15 minutes drive from the Fruit Bat Falls but it also bears one more river crossing – actually the deepest we’ve had on the Old Telegraph Track so far. To be honest – we probably had looked for some “Chicken Track” around, even Trey told us afterwards that he would have bailed, and this is pretty unusual for him. But luckily there was a couple in front of us in a Troopy – a nice off-road car, but with a lot less clearance as our Land Cruiser has – and they just took off when we got there driving through the river. So we thought – if they can do it, we also can. It was scary thought – the water got over the bonnet, up to the windshield, of course we got wet feet – but other than that it was fun.

We spent an awesome evening at the Elliot Falls campground with Trey and the Troopy mates, an Australian couple who also was on a world trip, had some beers and shared our travel stories at the campfire.

We somehow really got to love this place, so Marvin and I wanted to stay a second night. As Trey was always restless he decided to tag along with the couple we met and make his way up to Cape York. So we were left all by ourselves enjoying a beautiful lazy day at the swimming hole.

 

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The next morning we continued on the Old Telegraph Track with the aim to reach Cape York this evening – there were some more river crossings in front if us. The first one was fine, a shallow river we were by now pretty experienced with. The next one though was unexpectedly hard – the river wasn’t the issue but the way down was steep and bumpy with holes in it. As the entire track went so well so far we maybe were a bit over-confident and didn’t hesitate much – we straight went ahead to face the crossing, took a deep hole with our left heel and almost stumbled over. I already saw ourselves rolling down the hill – by then we already caught the attention of an Australian group of friends that camped on the other side of the river screaming advices at us. We eventually made it without landing on our roof – but were pretty much done with our nerves. This probably was the first real critical situation throughout the track and we actually could have avoided it by walking the crossing before taking it. Anyhow, we had a nice chat with the Australians who told us that the remaining two crossings were in real bad shape – so we decided to skip those and take a bypass. We reached Cape York that afternoon, did the must-do hike to the northernmost point and spent the night at a nice beach side campground eating the most deserved wood oven pizza of our trip.

By the way, we accidentally ran into the Troopy couple again – they told us that the last two crossings were so extreme, they turned around to take the bypass road up to Cape York. However, Trey couldn’t be bothered to turn around – he kept on going by himself.

All in all – an adventurous but amazing trip up to the northernmost point of Down Under. As much as I bitched about it at the beginning, I learned that it is always worth to take on an adventure and get out of its comfort zone – because in the end it’s the crazy shit you’ll remember. The big payoff of 4WD driving is that you reach places the masses can’t go to, you are able to discover off the beaten track and enjoy the beauty of the nature in all its pureness. Any of the waterholes or -falls we found along the way wouldn’t be the same with a million tourist sitting there. And this is just priceless. So if you got the chance to do the Old telegraph Track – go for it!

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