The idea of a bushwalk into Hell’s Gate had been kicking around for a couple of years before three of us finally found some time. As we were still testing prototypes of our newly developed Expedition Box, we packed a few in the truck and headed bush.
The Laura Region
The Laura region is famous for the Split Rock and Giant Horse rock art galleries depicting the unique Quinkan art. The galleries were both protected in 1977 and are now managed by the Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation. They are some of the largest in Australia and definitely worth a visit. The history of the Hell’s Gate track itself is perhaps not as widely known as it should be. It is located on Crocodile Station, not far from Laura and permission to access the track can be sought via their website or ph 07 40602239.
The Palmer River Goldfields
As a bit of background, the track in was blazed from Cooktown after gold was discovered on the Palmer River back in 1873. Until then, the only other track was over a hundred and fifty miles long and took four weeks to travel. When the first wet season arrived, about a thousand miners were trapped by rising rivers and with no supplies, the threat of starvation drove the need for another way in and out.
In January 1874, Sub Inspector Alex Douglas and five Aboriginal troopers blazed a new track that cut seventy miles off the previous route. The new track was only suited for horses and men on foot as it passed through a narrow gorge at the top of an escarpment. where the miners were frequently attacked by local Aboriginal tribes. The gorge soon became notorious among the miners and became known as “Hells Gate”. The Hell’s Gate Track remained the main route from Cooktown to the Palmer River goldfields until the end of 1876 when a new track suitable for carts was finally opened.
We made the drive from Cairns to the turn-off in just under three and a half hours, and then it is roughly another hour of slow driving to get to the end of the track and the start point. The plan was to take a look around, and then camp for the night before an early start. Arriving at about 3:30 pm we confirmed our location and then settled in for an early night. There are no facilities anywhere close by so self-reliance is a must.
The long walk into Hell’s Gate
Although it is 12 km, it is a medium difficulty walk for the most of it, with the exception of a steep climb up the escarpment. Plenty of water is required however due to the remoteness, it is a walk that should not be underestimated. The track itself can be difficult to locate in places and passes through some fairly rugged terrain. Previous visitors, most notably John Hay, a respected historian and author, have placed stone piles to guide the way. The halfway point is a saddle on a ridgeline and is called Post Office Gap. This drops down to the only water at a place called Soda Springs. Hitting the track at about 6:15 am, we arrived at the base of the escarpment at about 10:30 am. Here we dropped most of our pack weight and then commenced the arduous climb to the Gate itself. This climb takes about 40 minutes and is just shy of 2 kilometres with the last part being the steepest.
At the top, you will find a breathtaking view back to the North. There are also several historical markers, some reference material, including old photos, and a visitors book. There is also rock art to be found in the escarpments, including one fantastic painting of a crocodile. We weren’t sure, but this painting may also relate to the naming of the station. Allow for several hours exploring or recuperating at ‘The Gate’ before the return back. Some walkers also camp the night to allow more time for exploration. The return trip to camp was just as challenging due to the heat, slippery shale, sand, river rocks, and fatigue. Good quality boots are a must, as was sufficient water, food, and a decent snake bite first aid kit.