ABR Christian Anderson’s riding his XT to the northernmost point in Australia, Cape York, via the infamous Telegraph Track
Sandwiched like a demilitarized zone between the warring factions of the Coral Sea to the east and the Gulf of Carpentaria in the west, the Cape York Peninsula extends Australia’s mainland far, far, far north, stopping just 80 miles short of Papua New Guinea. The terminus of this untamed region of Australia, the actual ‘Cape York’ bit itself, was my destination of choice.
Why did I want to go there? I was beginning to ask myself the same question. Ostensibly Cape York or ‘The Tip’ is the Australian mainland’s most northerly point, and that particular accolade was reason enough for me to attempt rattling and clanking my way up the Peninsula Development Road, leaving a trail of mechanical breadcrumbs in my wake.
A fork in the road
The Bramwell Junction Roadhouse is like a small oasis on the route north, only instead of palm trees and limpid pools of crisp, sweet drinking water there are unleaded fuel bowsers, a corrugated iron-and-wood shack and some pies of questionable nutritional value.
Stopping at this tropical outpost was essential for two reasons: Gosling One, my mile-weary Yamaha XT 600 E needed filling up with the increasingly scarce fuel, and I needed to make a decision about which route I was going to take north, and therefore, how suicidal I was feeling.
Not suicidal enough to try one of those pies, that’s for certain. Bramwell Junction is situated at the meeting point of the only two navigable routes on the Cape York Peninsula, although the term ‘navigable’ is applied very loosely to one of them.
Turn right out of the roadhouse and the route continues along the Peninsula Development Road, the same road I’d been generating a cloud of red dust on for the last 500 miles since leaving Cairns.
Squeeze on past the roadhouse to the left, however, and you’ll find yourself carefully inching along an innocent-looking dirt-and-sand trail that leads to the Telegraph Track. The track runs along most of what used to be the overland telegraph line, which operated up until 1962 when Australia decided it preferred to be cut off from the rest of the world after all.
Fibre optic cables eventually took up the slack of course, but the original telegraph poles and the ‘track’ created to service them remained. This wilderness route was left neglected and forgotten until being rediscovered by that slightly unhinged group of people known as ‘4×4 enthusiasts’.
The route is now considered to be one of, if not the most, challenging 4×4 routes in Australia. When you’re faced with a reputation like that, weighed against a 2000 model Yamaha XT with leaky rear suspension, a cracked frame and a rider who’s seriously lacking in the off-road experience department, then a little trepidation is understandable.
Luckily, for the purposes of this tale, I’m also lacking in the common sense department as well. I turned off the Peninsula Development Road and opted for the infamous Telegraph Track heading north instead.
The first assault
The overland telegraph line runs as straight as possible north because when you’re pioneering such a route in tropical northern Queensland in the 1800s, you don’t muck about; you get the job done and get the hell out of there with as many of your limbs intact as possible.
Every rainy season, Mother Nature takes all kinds of liberties with the layout of the Telegraph Track, reforming it to her own specific plan with a ‘screw you’ attitude.
The navigable track I found myself bouncing around on therefore rambled chaotically in every direction. Now was supposedly part of the ‘dry’ season, when the innumerable river crossings are deemed more reasonable.
The fact that I’d barely made it across Palm Creek and was seriously considering going back to Bramwell Junction for water wings and a snorkel should give some indication as to how dry this ‘dry’ season wasn’t. Palm Creek was to be the first of many encounters with water, so reported the soggy map I’d taped to Gosling One’s fuel tank.
It looked as though I was going to have to get used to being wet. We crashed onwards up the Telegraph Track, sometimes quite literally. The conditions began to deteriorate going from pretty bad, to ‘up yours, sunshine!’ in the blink of an eye.
Thick sand grabbed at Gosling One’s tyres, rocks and boulders littered the ground and the track itself was often ripped asunder by huge, motorcycle-swallowing ruptures in the earth’s surface. Dense, tropical vegetation is attempting to claim back the Telegraph Track, furring up the only ridable artery of open space with an abundance of grabbing, tearing and snatching chlorophyll.
Solid and immovable eucalypt trees would periodically appear, prostrate across the track, forcing me to detour into the spiderwebbed fringes of the forest. I’d then have to stop for a panicked pat-down, checking for unwelcome eight-legged hitch-hikers. In just a few hours, I’d lost count of the number of creeks I’d crossed.
The map did a good job of naming and locating the major ones, even going so far as to offer advice for the crossings, but the multitude of smaller crossings were far too changeable in nature to bother wasting the blue ink on.
A crack at Gunshot
‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough Creek’, more officially referred to as ‘Gunshot Creek’, is a place name uttered with hushed reverence and poorly disguised terror around many a smoke-shrouded Aussie pub table, usually by the owners of previously fully working vehicles, found sobbing into their beers.
Gunshot is a place renowned for eating bits of even ludicrously well-prepared 4x4s, and I could certainly see the reasons why from my vantage point high, high, oh so high up on the banks. The creek itself didn’t look to pose much of a problem, being only mid-calf deep; it was the entrance route that looked like it could be a bit of a thorn in my armour-clad side.
Constituting a near-vertical cliff face coated with slippery mud, it was the undoing of many an impetuous 4×4 driver and the justification for my grimly gritted teeth, a white knuckle grip on the handlebars and both boots acting as stabilisers.
Letting gravity take charge and leaning as far back as possible in the saddle, I was soon splashing through the waters below and safely out the other side however. I allowed myself a cautious pat on the back.
Perhaps the Telegraph Track wasn’t going to prove as damaging to both bike and ego as I’d first feared? Checking my watch, I cross-referenced it with the quantity of sweat pouring off my body and ascertained that it was now pretty much midday in the tropics.
Flipping the map over and re-taping it to Gosling One’s heat-baked fuel tank was a landmark event in itself, just a couple more folds in the paper north and I’d have reached Cape York! There was a worrying amount of blue ink on the map between me and there though, but most of that was probably just for decoration, I reasoned. It took the rest of the day to travel what amounted to about 2cm on the map.
Sweating through innumerable water hazards, detouring around washouts in the track, dodging swamps and their inhabitants, battling through deep sand, retrieving motorcycle boots from slurping mud and smashing through vegetation only to have the vegetation smash right back; but me and the bike finally made it to where I had decided to call an end to the day’s punishment – I mean, excitement.
Ride and creek
Eliot Falls, along with Fruit Bat and Twin Falls, is one of the only spots where the Peninsula Development Road and the Telegraph Track cross paths, and therefore one of the most popular spots to arrest travel north for the night.
It was busy, by Cape York standards at least, but despite being surrounded by typically amiable Australian travellers, I couldn’t bring myself to face much socialising. So after giving Gosling One her customary evening health check, I collapsed onto the sweat-sodden sleeping mat inside my tent and let sleep hug me into oblivion. I dreamed that night.
Fevered dreams of a motorcycle-submarine hybrid that would earn me a fortune; the following day’s travel would make me wish those dreams had come true. I didn’t have much further to go, at least that’s what the map was suggesting; perhaps 20, 25 miles at the most?
Knowing that the time and effort it would take to travel that short distance would be totally disproportionate, I set off from Eliot Falls as soon as the sun had clawed its way lazily into the sky, even choosing to forgo my usual highly nutritious breakfast of cardboard-flavoured detritus. Five water hazards in the space of a mile set the tone for the morning’s ride.
Canal Creek was simple enough, although the exit route from the water looked like it had been formed using cluster bombs. Most of the track surface had apparently been transferred to parts unknown, leaving an uphill exit composed entirely of sickly white clay and a scene reminiscent of the Somme circa 1914.
A few minutes spent in futile pursuit of traction on the slippery slope saw me detouring along some vehicle tracks leading into the bush, which thankfully brought me out roughly where I needed to be, albeit covered in mud.
Despite the foreboding names of Mistake Creek and Cannibal Creek, both were achieved with relative ease and only minor swearing. Luckily, having set out so early from camp there was nobody around to offend with my occasional creative use of the English language.
Cypress Creek appeared to be little more than a jagged tear in the surface of the Telegraph Track. There might have been liquid at the bottom of it, but I couldn’t tell from just peering at it. The crevasse was rammed tight with all sorts of vegetation, though. Bits of metal, wood and probably, I imagined a fair few trolls, too. There was even a bridge under which they might be hiding, although I use the term ‘bridge’ in the loosest possible sense of the word.
Thrown together using whatever had easily come to hand at the time and anything that hadn’t been able to move fast enough, this bridge was a post-hurricanelike construct of a few planks of wood, the occasional log, and some metal strips that had probably once been an integral part of a prized vehicular possession.
It served its purpose though, and after a bit of experimental bouncing, Gosling One and myself were safely, if shakily, across.
Water, water everywhere
A quick check of the map to make sure I wasn’t riding off down a fold in the paper revealed there were two more named water crossings between me and a turn off for the Jardine River ferry. Draped liberally between those two crossings were a great number of spidery blue lines I’d noted before, intersecting the route at all angles and simply labelled as ‘fords’.
I knew enough to not expect a car park, but even so, the sheer volume of water covering the track from there on out was a sweat-inducing sight. Around every corner lay an abundance of H20, a fast-flowing stream or a reed-fringed lake blocking the way.
The 15-metre wide stretch of crystal-clear water I was now sitting beside was just the first of many. It looked quite pretty, though, so I decided to go for a swim while ascertaining the best route across for the bike.
After a cursory check in the immediate area for many-toothed floating death, I waded across to check the depth; it was well above my waist in the middle. The bottom was sandy and the edges fringed with reeds, but the water was clear, flowing only slightly and cool, oh so very cool and refreshing.
Splashing back across the creek, leaking water from every pocket in my riding gear, I stepped unthinkingly over a few submerged logs and skirted the fringes of the deepest sections, following what I’d decided would be the best route across on the bike. Gosling One was still just about vertical on the soggy bank and I clambered aboard.
The engine coughed into life and we rolled into the welcoming waters of the creek. Moving slowly we ploughed onwards, the waters obediently parting under the relentless forward motion of Gosling One’s front wheel, while I used my feet as aquatic stabilisers.
We cleared the first of the logs I’d stepped over while wading across, but the second of the two logs was, to all intents and purposes, pure evil. It practically leapt up from its resting place on the sandy creek bed and wrapped itself around my leg.
Booted foot now hooked underneath it, this log assumed the role of superbly effective anchor. Before I could take stock of what was going on or even muster a deliciously relevant expletive, Gosling One slewed off to the left and I just slewed off.
Frantically stabbing for the kill switch as my right hand was wrenched from the grip, I was unceremoniously dumped from the bike and into the waters of the unnamed creek. Spinning around as quickly as I could beat my own momentum into submission, I sloshed back to the now-submerged Gosling One, dread seeping into my soul as I saw the cloud of steam gently rising from her.
Crouching down and apparently using a previously untapped reserve of strength born from the depths of panic, I tore Gosling One from the depths of her watery embrace and hefted her upright again. This is possibly the fastest I’d ever picked up something attributed with the female gender in my life.
In too deep
‘Phew!’ I thought. ‘That was close!’ But just as I dared to hope all was well again, I heard a dreadful ‘splash!’ Something heavy and sickeningly important-sounding had landed in the water at my feet. My frantic fishing with the hand that wasn’t supporting Gosling One yielded her battery, cables poking like entrails from beneath her fairings. The ‘thunk’ as my helmeted head hit the bike’s tail end, reverberated around the clearing. The only other sound was the steady trickle of water pouring from every nook and important cranny on the XT.
An experimental press of the starter button resulted in nothing more than an asthmatic wheeze and a resolute display of the middle finger from Gosling One. Her battery was dead, its current stolen away by the waters of the creek. Making sure I’d clicked her into neutral, I hefted forwards in an attempt to push her to the opposite shore, a tantalising 10 meters away.
The bike rocked as I struggled against her 160kg frame, but as my footing gave way and I ended up with another helmet full of water, I conceded that we might actually be stuck; ‘buggered’ I think is the term that sprung to mind. Try as I might, and I used all my might trying, I simply couldn’t wrestle Gosling One free from the grasp of the creek’s sandy bottom.
She even remained stubbornly upright as I relayed my way to the safety of the opposite shore, ferrying the luggage, panniers and anything else I’d decided would lighten the load. It didn’t work.
My one-man struggle up the Telegraph Track had seen me writing cheques that my body just couldn’t cash and now it was calling in its debts. I leant against Gosling One, totally knackered, and took stock of my predicament.
We’d crashed, Gosling One was sulking, I was starving, thoroughly exhausted and there was probably nobody for miles around, but there were definitely less picturesque places to be stuck. Dragonflies, and whatever the hell one of those things was, droned past in the humid air, going about their business as if I didn’t exist.
Parrots chuckled at me from the safety of their trees, crocodiles were around – luckily elsewhere for the time being – and somewhere in the reeds an unseen something or other went ‘plop!’ A distant grumbling, initially dismissed as my stomach, heralded the escalation of my predicament.
Rivers and creeks on the cape are notoriously quick to rise with rainfall, and if there was one thing Gosling One couldn’t do, it was rise along with the water levels. Inky black clouds laden with moisture were broiling across the horizon, rolling inexorably towards the cape.
We had to get out of the creek, fast! A few last-ditch efforts to heave the bike free left me adding to the rising water levels with an outpouring of sweat and gasping for breath, but no closer to the safety of the far shore. Breathing had become a serious business now, something akin to trying to suck air through a damp sponge, chewing and labouring over every lungful.
I was beginning to wish I’d had the funds for a support crew, or even friends mad enough to join me on my insane venture. If nothing else, it would at least have given me someone to shout at.
It’s a funny thing, the universe. Some say it works in mysterious ways, others think it’s a mystery that it works at all; I was currently of the opinion that the universe was a bitch. It turns out, though, that sometimes it works to your advantage. At that precise moment, the support crew I didn’t have – the one I’d been wishing I’d brought along – suddenly arrived.
It was all I could do not to swim over and hug the occupants of the two white 4x4s that had just rolled to a halt on the edge of the creek, and quicker than you can say, “silly English bloke drowned his bike,” they’d helped me push Gosling One to the far shore where we set about tallying up the damage.
She was a mess, make no mistake. Every mechanical nook and cranny was clogged with sand and filled with water; I’d even managed to pick up a couple of irate fish. The engine oil had been replaced with a double-foam cappuccino, a sure sign water had leaked into places that it really had no business being.
The battery was flatter than my ego and my sense of humour was languishing somewhere in the depths of the creek behind us. Over the course of the next four or five hours, my newly adopted support crew helped me find and dry out my sense of humour, reacquaint my stomach with the concept of food, dismantle, dry out and re-assemble Gosling One, but more importantly, get her going again with a relentless series of push-starts until she was able to run, or rather limp, on her own.
We were ably assisted in this task by Manny and Veronica, who bolstered the original support crew by showing up in a shiny black Toyota 4×4. Typical really: you wait around ages for one support vehicle and then three show up at once. As I sputtered off, leaving the support crew to re-pack their gear and follow along behind, the skies darkened further.
Vexed at having failed to drown me and Gosling One the first time round, Mother Nature sent sodden, screaming vengeance from the heavens in an attempt to finish us off. The sound of Gosling One’s hacking cough was smothered from my guilty conscience by the staccato beat of the massive globs of rain pelting down onto my helmeted head.
The monsoon like rains meant everything and everyone at the camp that night, only a short distance further up the track at Nolan’s Brook, was so wet that we’d soon be approaching dry again from the opposite end of the scale. The morning brought with it a break in the otherwise incessant downpour and I broke camp, safe in the knowledge that, despite Gosling One’s near-terminal state of health, the support crew would be following on behind until we reached the relative safety of Bamaga.
The remainder of the Telegraph Track, or rather what was left of it after the Biblical downpour from the previous night, held no more unpleasant surprises. I’d experienced the worst, survived just about intact, and even made some new friends into the bargain.
After flushing all the coffee-coloured oil from Gosling One twice through with freshly bought lubricant from a service station in Bamaga, I refilled the system, shooed the last of the frogs from under the fairings and proceeded up to the very tip of the Top End. It was worth it. The very northern point of Australia was a thoroughly fitting reward for the countless mechanical and physical hardships endured over the last few days.
I stared wistfully off into the distance for an age, musing on the fact that, by the looks of the energetic surf pounding incessantly at the rocky shore, if I’d only waited a few million years or so I wouldn’t have had to ride so far to reach the tip.
Relief at riding as far north as is possible in Australia was tempered only by a heady dose of exhaustion, a lurking suspicion that Gosling One might need a medical team quite shortly, and the fact that now I was there, I had to get back down again…
Thank you to my unexpected and unsuspecting support crew: Manny and Veronica, Robyn and Barry, and the Smith family, without whom I’d still be languishing in the tropical wilderness, fending off the unwelcome attentions of toothy reptiles.
Top tips for riding the Telegraph Track
Timing is everything
Attempt the Telegraph Track only when it’s navigable by something other than a submarine. May-November should be the best bet but expect lots of water.
Be a good boy scout
Go prepared. It goes without saying, but Cape York is an untamed wilderness at its very best. Take supplies, more of them than you think you’ll need, and it wouldn’t hurt to take along some buoyancy aids or scuba gear. Help can have a long way to travel if it’s needed in a hurry.
Adapt to survive
Don’t stick doggedly to your planned route. You’ll be riding with the permission of Mother Nature, a harsh mistress at the best of times. Ignore her suggestions at your peril and be prepared to adapt to the conditions you encounter along the way.
Walk it first, but check for things that bite
If in doubt, walk the water crossings before you ride them, but make sure you check for beasts of a reptilian nature first before you wade in as helmeted lunch. The Cape is home to quite a few toothy nasties.
Like your mum always said…
Let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Don’t rely on mobile phones or other communication devices; they’re useful to have but can let you down when you need them the most and that’s not a lot of fun.
The Telegraph Track
Cape York Peninsula is located in far north tropical Queensland, the most remote region of Australia and one of the largest areas of unspoilt wilderness in the country. The very tip of the peninsula, the eponymous ‘Cape York’, was named by Lieutenant James Cook in August 1770 in honour of Prince Edward, Duke of York and brother of King George III. He was reportedly thrilled. The Overland Telegraph Line and its companion service track saw operation in its original guise from 1885 until 1962, finally being dismantled in 1987.
Little of the telegraph line remains today, although the eagle-eyed history buff will still be able to spot a few of the poles standing proud among the trees of the tropical rainforest. The Telegraph Track, as it’s known today, has been adopted by people that like to wreck their perfectly good vehicles while on holiday, and is renowned for being one of the toughest 4×4 routes on the Australian continent.
‘Gosling One’, a Yamaha XT 600 E heralding from the year 2000 is equipped with an aftermarket long-range fuel tank. The only bike within reach of the rider’s meagre funds, she’d previously been a rental machine for a tour company. She likes fast gravel roads, clean oil, a tight chain and the colour orange. Her main weakness is an almost terminal case of hydrophobia, but her strengths include the ability to bounce off the scenery and be fixed with most types of hammer.
Want to do this?
How long does it take?
From the closest city, Cairns, to the tip of Cape York it’s around 680 miles if you stick to the Peninsula Development Road. The Old Telegraph Track, covered in this piece, is around 250 miles long depending on how much detouring through the bush you need to do; it’s roughly three days’ riding from Bramwell Junction where the Telegraph Track begins, to the tip of Cape York.
When to go?
Cape York is a tropical place. May/October is when the myriad water crossings are at their lowest. Attempting to travel the Telegraph Track at any other time of year would necessitate the use of a boat.
Facilities along the Telegraph Track itself are non-existent. There are several basic ‘bush camps’ at the more popular spots or the points where people are generally stuck for more than a few days, but other than that you’re pretty much on your own.
Fly or hire?
BikeRoundOZ (www.bikeroundoz.com) are a knowledgeable bunch when it comes to organising all things motorcycle in Australia. To ride your own motorcycle in this area, the majority of ABRs choose to airfreight into Cairns, Queensland. James Cargo Services Ltd, can transport a BMW R 1200 GS motorcycle to arrive in Cairns for £2,055 by airfreight (www.jamescargo.com). If you’re looking to buy a bike on arrival, second-hand motorcycles in Australia really hold their value regardless of the condition they’re in.
Paperwork for you:
You can ride in Australia on a UK licence, but you’ll need a Visa, and travel insurance that covers you for riding abroad; repatriation cover is also advisable. Aboriginal land permits are also required when riding on Cape York, but these are generally purchased at the Jardine River ferry along with your ferry ticket.
Paperwork for the bike:
You will need to obtain a Carnet de Passage organised through the RAC (www.rac.co.uk) for temporary import into Australia, your V5C, and a copy of your current MOT certificate. You’ll also need to buy Australian bike insurance on arrival.
Is it for you?
It’s possible to ride to the tip of Cape York without leaving the Peninsula Development Road, which is unsealed for the majority of its length, so some off-road experience is a plus.
If you decide to ride the Telegraph Track you’ll either need a decent amount of off-road riding experience, including water crossings or as in my case, a hell of a lot of luck and a motorcycle that’s built like a submarine.
If you’re travelling solo, the ability to keep a level head when things go tits up is a definite must, and a pair of water-wings wouldn’t go amiss.
If you’re travelling with a group, then make sure all involved can swim and don’t mind pushing you out of whatever hole you ride in to. Take your time and approach it all with a sense of humour, then it’s achievable.