Have you ever ‘Done the Cape’ and got home and found yourself telling your friends what a great trip it was, except deep down wished you could have it all to yourself without the thousands of other people? Imagine Fruit Bat falls with no one else there. The Wenlock, and Archer Rivers, and every one of those ‘Dips’ full of life, and flowing water, no dust anywhere and the trees on the West side of the PDR being green instead of reddish-brown from the dust. Well, that was how I was feeling after my last few trips, so in December 2015, one of my daughters and I headed North for some camping and bush therapy, just as the rains were breaking.
Must be nuts, right? Off my chops? Had a couple too many before deciding to go? Well, no, but this isn’t the time of year to plan a trip if you are not well prepared, or have a faint heart, or a Prado…(sorry, had to slip that little ribbing in there).
For those who have lived on ‘the Cape’, the wet season is a special time of year that is hard to describe unless you’ve been there. It’s the time when the barra are on the chew, when the storms roll in from the West and when the winged termites fly out of the ground in spiralling columns as those first big heavy drops start to pound on the tin roof like marbles. A trickle at first, that quickly turns into a deafening cascade of water accompanied by explosions of light and sound as ‘the Cape’ comes alive with an afternoon thunderstorm. Often it’s the time when supplies and family come home by plane and locals lean on the fence waiting for the sound of the engines circling through the clouds, and then sigh with relief when the landing lights are spotted skimming under the blanket of grey in the distance.
It’s a time of renewal really, when the green shoots poke through the black soot of the pre-wet season fires, caused either by the odd lightning bolt, or more likely local cattlemen or rangers, tossing matches out the window to ensure lush green pick is soon to be seen everywhere, and wildfires are contained.
Many a cold gold can have been quickly drained in the thick afternoon swelter, before being crushed under the heel of a boot and thrown in the back of the ute as eyes turn skyward to assess an approaching dark bank of cloud.
And yet, we are forcing the Cape to open its normally closed wet-season gates, with more bridges and more concrete causeways, and bitumen, slowly providing those who are a little gamer and hardier, with opportunities to see the real heart, and the contrasts, hues, and colours, that exist beneath that usual coating of dust that camouflages everything for most of the year. No doubt in the not so distant future, regular two-wheel drive vehicles will be able to drive in and out of the Cape in the wet season, but for now, it’s still out of bounds, and a good thing too in my book.
To take a trip during the wet means having a good understanding of the weather patterns and forecasts, and knowing where to get phone reception to call in for an update. Weather can change rapidly during the wet, and even the locals get caught out occasionally when unseen rain upstream will suddenly flood a causeway or river, preventing a return home. Worst case scenario is being seriously stranded for weeks or even months if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, if you play it smart and stick to the hard ground and more regularly travelled areas, you can quite safely enjoy some of the best the Cape has to offer, with the benefit of doing it in beautiful near isolation.
Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not suggesting for a minute that a trip at this time of the year be taken lightly, but it can be done if you are cautious, plan well, and are prepared to leave your vehicle at Weipa or other small town, and fly home until river levels drop and you can come back to retrieve things. Well, that at least was my Plan B, as I made those last-minute phone calls, packed the Patrol (in the rain) and planned for the early start in the morning. The main risks of being stranded at the time were, of course, the Archer River, and to a lesser degree, the Laura River (Northside of Laura) and a few other spots to the North that rise and fall fairly rapidly unless there is sustained rain in the catchment areas.
Our plans were to poke along over a period of roughly a week, up to Coen, then up to Twin Falls and Fruitbat Falls then some of the tele-track before heading home again. As it was school holidays, we had plenty of time up our sleeves if we needed to revert to Plan B, but I was still anxiously watching the weather.
Well, as we arrived into Laura just after lunch, the heavens opened, quickly adding to the already semi-flooded level of the Laura River. With the rain bucketing down, and levels already at 600mm above the bridge, we took the safe option, and headed for the safety of the Quinkan Hotel, where we were able to share a cold ale with quite a few locals also making that dash back to Weipa from Cairns and hoping to get through before the rain!
It took until 3pm the following day before we could cross it safely and continue the journey, this time in 4wd high range, all the way to Coen, where we called in and decided to camp at the Exchange Hotel for the night. Just our luck too, it was New Year’s eve and every bugger was pretty much plastered already. All the locals from Lockhart had come down for a celebratory drink, and whilst chatting to the publican I could already see there was potential for a fight to break out shortly. About an hour later everyone was told it was last drinks and not long after, the crowd was slowly dispersing up the main street.
After calling ahead again in the morning, it appeared that the weather was clearing to the North and we were going to be in for a good run. Now, we’ll just top up with diesel and be heading towards Fruit Bat for a swim… except there was no diesel and nothing was open in Coen. I should have filled up when I got in!. Archer River it would be then…however, the same story. Bugger, no one around, which wasn’t surprising really as I hadn’t counted on it being open in the first place. This meant a detour to Weipa to fuel up, which wasn’t really part of the plan and would add about 4 hours of driving to the trip. Lucky the Patrol had long-range tanks. Anyway, nothing to be done about it so the best bet was to crack on.
Well, the drive to Weipa up the PDR was fantastic. No one on the roads and all of the creeks and dips were running full pelt, but still at levels low enough to easily cross. There were washouts everywhere, but the air was fresh and had that magic feel I mentioned earlier.
We made it to Weipa with a few litres still in the tank and after a quick refuel, we were back out and taking the shortcut across through Batavia Downs to the PDR before again heading North.
We visited both Fruit Bat falls and Elliot (Twin) Falls, spending a couple of days just enjoying these beautiful spots by ourselves. Only once did another vehicle pull up and a couple of blokes dive in for a swim before returning to Weipa from a pigging trip.
From here, we poked up the Tele-track for a while, enjoying the creeks along the way before cutting back out to the PDR and then it was off to Captain Billy’s Landing.
After spending a beautiful day on the beach, doing a bit of beachcombing, we packed it up and headed out, returning again to Weipa to get fuel, then pointing the Patrol South with the aim of camping somewhere near Coen, or whenever we felt we’d had enough.
Coming out of Weipa the grass was so green it looked like someone had gone over it with a highlighter. It contrasted majestically with the heavy grey skies and deep browns of the roadway, and everywhere you looked there were signs of new life. When we made it back to the Archer River and saw it was still below the causeway we relaxed a bit more, cruising into Coen to camp on the river bank just North of town.
The following few days we used to make our way back to Cairns, spending a beaut afternoon upon the Mt Windsor Tablelands at the headwaters of the McLeod River, quietly trying to find some platypus I had seen up there during the previous year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, but we still had a great week on the Cape, and already I’m planning the next one. Maybe after the Kimberley trip…