In all of Australia, I don’t think there’s a more adventurous destination than the Cape York Peninsula. Stretching from Cooktown in the south, across to (approximately) Karumba in the west and all the way to the northern-most point of the Australian mainland, it’s got just about everything. Epic fishing. Unreal four-wheel-driving. Exceptional camping. Remote, tropical sailing. Rainforests, savannah, wetlands and outback all meld into one incredible canvas for a tropical holiday in Queensland.
I’ve been up to the Cape a handful of times over the years and asked myself most of these questions. These are my honest answers, without the bravado that normally accompanies commentary on Cape York adventures.
If you are planning on visiting Cape York and TNQ, I highly recommend you get the guide, 100 Things To See In Tropical North Queensland. It has been written by locals Catherine Lawson and David Bristow. They’ve lived in the far north for over 20 years and travelled it extensively. The Cape York Atlas and Guide, by Hema, is also a great product for those who want to get off-road.
Cape York Atlas and Guide – Hema
Venturing as far north as you can go without floating your 4WD over some water? The updated, 5th edition Cape York Atlas and Guide is the ultimate book for anyone who really wants to get to know the remote tropical north.
Are you keen on the Cape? Get the guides to TNQ, written by locals and experts.
When is the best time to visit Cape York?
The northern half of Australia essentially has two seasons – the Wet and the Dry. During the Wet, which is usually between November and April, Cape York pretty much shuts down, roads flood and access is severely restricted. The Dry Season usually begins around May and its starting to get unbearably hot by October. Most visitors come up to Cape York between Easter and Grand Final Weekend (the weekend when the AFL and NRL hold their Grand Finals) in September.
For my money, I really love visiting Cape York in late-September to early October, because by then, most people have left, the campsites have emptied and you can go days without seeing a soul. Even at popular places like Fruit Bat Falls which can be as busy as Bondi, you’ll get the place to yourself.
If you wan’t Cape York at it freshest, people do start making their way up as early as late-April or May, but expect the tracks still to be wet and the creek crossings to be as high as the drama. It’s worth noting that some really great areas, like Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park, don’t open until July 1.
How long should I spend on Cape York?
Realistically, spend as long as you can, plus a few extra days. Cape York is a pretty big commitment. Even from Cairns, it’s further to the tip of the Peninsula than it is between Sydney and Brisbane. Then add to that, the road conditions limit your travel to a few hundred kilometres per day, rather than 1000. The first time I did Cape York, we spent about eight days travelling north, and another seven days travelling back south again. Then, three weeks later, we turned around and spent two weeks exploring parts of the south-eastern and south-western cape we’d missed the first time. The whole place is nearly the size of Victoria.
If you’re coming from the southern states, you might need two or three weeks for the round trip, and that might include three solid days of driving from home to Cairns before settling into are more relaxed travel schedule of Cape York. If you can spend a month up there, you won’t run out of things to do.
Do I need a modified 4WD for the trip?
No, not really. I’ve read so many articles and seen so many videos that say ‘These hectic suspension modifications and aftermarket accessories are essential for the Cape. Get them from our sponsors now, or else!”, but I’ve done it once in a bog-standard VW Amarok with a factory-fitted snorkel, another time in an almost bog-standard VW Amarok (snorkel and storage drawers fitted), and twice in a Nissan Patrol with nothing more than 2in of lift, a dual-battery system, roof-rack, snorkel and storage system. You probably won’t need a winch and you don’t need mud-terrain tyres, a massive suspension lift or diff-locks, even if you want to travel the Old Telegraph Track.
You probably don’t even need a 4WD, if you’re happy to avoid some of the tougher off-road tracks. Once when I was up there, the Vintage Peugeot Club trundled through with 15 or so very old Peugeots, all having a grand time and barely shaking to bits at all.
Some modifications will make it easier, though. There are very few facilities along the way, so you’ll need to be reasonably self-sufficient. I would invest in the following things:
- A storage drawer system to help organise the load-space of your 4WD.
- A dual-battery system to reliably run a camp fridge, camp lights and other 12V accessories.
- A camp fridge. I reckon about 15 to 20-litres capacity per family member is a pretty good guide, less as you add more family members.
- A snorkel, but only if you want to do the Old Telegraph Track. If not, it’s not needed.
- Decent shock absorbers with a warranty. You might need to claim it when you get back. A 2in lift if you’ll be doing some tougher off-road tracks
- A bull-bar. This is less important, but you’re very likely to damage your bumper if you’re not careful on some creek crossings on the Tele Track.
- A tyre gauge, a shovel, snatch strap, shackles and a few beers for the person who helps if you need it. Recovery tracks are handy, but deflating your tyres appropriately in the first place is better.
- A means of carrying enough fuel to last 1000km or more of normal driving. There’s fuel every 100km or so along the way, but having a 1000km worth means you can skip the most expensive places. I’d try and avoid filling up north of the Jardine Ferry, if possible.
- A means of carrying at least 10-litres of drinking water per person, but more if you can. There’s plenty of good-quality fresh water along the way for everything else from washing to swimming or even cooking.
- A paper map and the ability to read it. I love this one below, and mine is scribbled all over with notes and learnings.
Cape York – Hema Maps
Planning on checking out the best bits of Cape York? This Hema Map is the best there is, and it’s the perfect companion to any adventure you take with our guide 100 Things To See In Tropical North Queensland.
How hard is the Old Telegraph Track?
The Old Telegraph Track is a real test of four-wheel-drives and their drivers, but it’s not the toughest 4WD track in Australia, or even the toughest on Cape York. What makes it such a challenge, though, is how remote it is and the variability of terrain you’ll encounter.
If you drive the Old Telegraph track from end-to-end, you’ll cross something like 15 creeks and rivers, two of which (at least) will be deep enough to get water over the bonnet. Many have steep, rutted entry and exit points which get churned up by a steady steam off traffic over the Dry season.
The good news is, most of the toughest crossings have had B-lines (and often C-lines) cut into them, so there’s almost always an easier option. Only two crossings, Gunshot and Nolans Brook, are truely challenging. However, both can be easily bypassed without sacrificing any of the pride that comes with tackling the track.
If nothing else, the Tele Track is a nice reprieve from the harsh corrugations that cause a lot of havoc on the main road.
Can I free camp on Cape York? What accomodation options are there?
You could probably do a Cape York trip without camping, but you’d be missing the best bits. Camping is the ultimate way to experience the highlights of this part of Tropical North Queensland, and the cheapest. Most camping varies in price from free to about $6/adult per night (in National Parks). North of the Jardine River, camping isn’t technically free, but if you’ve bought a ferry ticket, camping in most places is included as part of the fare. Most spots allow fires if campfire cooking is your thing.
There are several privately run campgrounds and caravan parks on Cape York, all of which offer reasonable rates. For example Punsand Bay Camping, the best spot to camp near the tip, offers unpowered sites from $20 a night. Seisia Holiday Park is $30 a night unpowered, while further south, Weipa Caravan Park charges $37 a night for an unpowered site.
If you don’t want to camp, simple motel, pub-style or safari tent accomodation can be found in Weipa, around the northern towns of Bamaga and Siesa, at Punsand Bay and at most of the roadhouses along the Peninsula Development Road.
Should I tow my caravan, camper trailer or boat to Cape York?
Both off-road caravans and off-road camper trailers are popular on Cape York, but use some discretion on where you choose to tow them. You’ll see all sorts of trailers on your way up to Cape York, but only those that are looked after and towed carefully make it to the top without any damage or breakdown. Before you go, check your bearings, suspension components and any fitments are in top order, or they’re likely to fall off due to the corrugations. If towing a boat, make sure your boat trailer is off-road ready and that you know how to strap your boat and its motor on securely for a rough ride.
If you are towing a caravan or boat trailer, consider how much you really need to take it on the Old Telegraph Track. There’s no where to launch your boat on the OTR, and although the Gall Boys have famously shown it’s possible, it’s not really responsible to bring your caravan. Fortunately, the OTR is only about 100km long and most people spend three nights on it. Bring a small tent and leave your caravan or boat in storage at Bramwell Junction Roadhouse. Then, it’s literally only 144km south along the Bamaga Road (the main road) to loop back and get it.
If you are towing a camper trailer and you’ve got experience towing off-road, a camper trailer will be okay along the OTR, but it’ll also make the trip much harder, and more-likely that you’ll need to be recovered or damage something. Typically, the smaller and lighter the trailer, the better you’ll be.
How much does fuel cost on Cape York?
The price of fuel varies in different parts of the Cape and can be 40-60c more expensive than in Cairns. At the time of writing, ULP91 is $1.75/litre in Bamaga, but between $1.09 and $1.20 in Cairns. In Weipa, ULP91 is $1.50/litre and diesel is $1.34. You can get diesel and Unleaded 91 petrol very reliably throughout Cape York, but higher grade fuels might be harder to come by, so consider bringing an octane additive just in case. Unless you’re travelling well off the normal tourist trail (like to Rinyirru National Park or Kowanyama, for instance), you’ll rarely travel more than a few hundred kilometres without being able to refill.
Typically, you’ll fill up in Cairns, top up in Cooktown, then again in Coen. If you go through Weipa, get fuel there, then again at the Jardine Ferry Crossing. North of the ferry, fuel prices jump about 20-30c a litre, so you can save heaps by being able to carry enough fuel to visit all the attractions up near the tip without having to fill up. If you do need fuel, get just enough in Siesia or Bamaga to get you to the ferry – just ring ahead to make sure they have fuel.
What Maps and Guides Are Best For Cape York
A lot has been written about Cape York over the years and so the area’s attractions are well documented. If you’re tech-savvy and patient, Geosciences Australia has its full library of highly detailed topographic maps online, available for free download. This is probably the most detailed set of maps available, and we’ve written about that in this article called Free High Res Map Downloads of TNQ. One downside is that many are years old, so not as up-to-date as other options.
The best paper map of Cape York is the one produced by Hema. It’s just $14.95 (you can buy it above), and covers every accessible track on the Peninsula, details the great camping options and points of interest.
Our own guide to TNQ, 100 Things To See In Tropical North Queensland, has a whole chapter dedicated to Cape York. The authors, Catherine Lawson and David Bristow, live in TNQ and, as travel journos, spend most of their year travelling in their 100 Series LandCruiser or 35-foot catamaran called Storyteller. They’ve been up and down the Cape more times than most, and often by boat rather than car (as I write, they’re anchored off Siesia!). If you are planning on doing more than just the Cape while in TNQ, their book is a great resource so you make the most of your opportunity.
Are there crocodiles on Cape York? Can I swim anywhere?
There are plenty of crocodiles on Cape York and you don’t have to try very hard to spot them. Crocodiles inhabit most coastal and some inland waterways all the way from Gladstone in the south to the Kimberley in Western Australia. As a general rule, if you are not sure whether crocodiles are present, assume they are and seek local, up-to-date advice on where’s safe to swim.
Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park is a great place to spot crocodiles in the wild, and therefore a terrible place to swim. A lot of the campsites are along rivers and waterholes and there are estuarine and freshwater crocs in most of them. Be careful when approaching the water’s edge while fishing, collecting water or admiring the view, as estuarine crocodiles can stay underwater for an hour and ambush unwary prey in seconds if they (you) get too close to the edge. Camp well back from the bank, don’t create predictable patters and don’t leave food or scraps out that might attract them into your camp. And don’t enter the water under any circumstances. Almost every crocodile attack in Australia happens when someone has physically entered the water.
There are some great places to swim on your way up to the tip of Cape York, though. Many people stop overnight at the excellent free camp near Coen, called the Bend (just north of town). The creek here is fresh and clear and although freshwater crocodiles might be present, they’re considered safe to swim with (just ask Kununurra locals, who swim with 25,000 of them every day!).
Along the Old Telegraph Track, most of the crossings are considered safe to swim in, and the waterholes at Eliot Falls and Fruitbat Falls are two of the most iconic natural swimming holes in Australia. Both can be accessed from the Bamaga Road without needing to tackle the harshness of the Old Telegraph Track.
Do I need any permits to do Cape York or the Old Telegraph Track?
One of the great things about Cape York is the freedoms we have to travel in the traditional lands of its indigenous inhabitants. If your ultimate goal is to get to the Tip, the only permit you need is from the Injinoo people of the northern peninsula area. Good news is, this permit is included as part of the cost of the vehicle ferry across the Jardine River, and included permission to use the free camps north of the Jardine. Tickets for a return trip cost $103 per vehicle or $133 if you have a trailer. You can buy a ticket online or pay by EFTPOS at the ferry. Find out more about the Jardine River Ferry here.
You will need to pre-book any national park campsites online before you travel, or at least before you leave areas of mobile service. This includes for camping in Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park, Cape Melville National Park, Jardine River National Park (which encompasses the campsite at Eliot Falls), Flinders Group National Park, Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL) (which includes Chilli Beach) and Oyala Thumotang National Park. You can book Cape York National Park campsites here. Camping costs $6.75 per person per night, or $27.00 per family per night. Book Cape York National Park campsites here.
If you are planning on entering some Indigenous run areas, like Pormpuraaw, you may need to contact the local council and book at least two weeks in advance. For more information on visiting Pormpuraaw, click here. Camping at the region’s three designated camping areas costs $55/night per vehicle. Permits are also needed for camping around Kowanyama.
If you love repairing 4WDs and feel tackling the CREB Track sounds fun (which it does), you’re asked to contact the Eastern Kuku Yalanji (Buru) people if you plan on stopping at the Roaring Meg Falls day use area. Find out more here.
However and whenever you visit Cape York, it is an incredible adventure. Whether you’re coming for the camping, the 4WDing, fishing or to experience an epic part of Australia, you’re in for a treat.
Want to read more about travelling Cape York? Check out these great articles
Travelling The Old Telegraph Track In Cape York
Camping in Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park, Cape York
Four Wheel Drive Cape York by Wild Travel Story
Top Five Croc-Free FNQ Waterholes by Wild Travel Story
Island Camping in Far North Queensland
Have we missed anything? What would you like to know about travelling to Cape York? Ask in the comments.