The dynamic duo of Meg and John Kennedy set out for an off-road fishing adventure to Cape Melville QLD. However, not before some very special preparations of their vehicle and rig.
Before taking the trailer on this expedition we decided to clean it down properly with high pressure water to see what’s beneath the accumulated red mud. However, what I thought was a thin veneer of dust turned out to be enough to turn our shed floor into a mud pie with gravel gravy.
Removing the wheels and hubs was also an eye opener because the wheel bearings were at the point of collapsing into a blubbering heap! I took one worn set to our local bearing shop to get a replacement. When I mentioned the seemingly short lifespan of these bearings the guy behind the counter just laughed and set me straight on the subtle difference between cheap "trailer kit" bearings and real bearings.
While I hate fitting wheel bearings I was grateful the problem was nipped in the bud and not during a tropical downpour in the middle of nowhere.
The pressure cleaning also unmasked another problem. When I originally built the trailer I went to great lengths to seal the entire frame and put a cup of oil inside each member. The idea was to not just retard rust, but also act as an indicator of cracks in the steel should they occur. Now that the protective dust layer had been blasted off, a very small oil stain showed itself on the inside of one join,(photo1). Closer inspection showed this to be a tiny pore in one of my welds rather than a crack in the steel itself. Still, that little flaw saw us crawling over the trailer to check for more. We have suffered the consequences of a broken spring before. So our solution this time has been to weld two bolts across the top of a cross member and hang the spare spring under the main chassis of the trailer, (photo 2). Admittedly this is more weight to carry but one less problem to worry about on tour.
Other than the wheel bearings, the trailer was still going well and would be considered to be run in.
PLANNING THE TRIP
This particular expedition to Bathurst Bay, in the Cape Melville National Park, presented special challenges to us. For starters it is suitable for 4WD vehicles only and includes traversing the Lakefield National Park on the way.
The Lakefield National Park is a very popular destination for locals in the Cairns region as it offers a range of habitats from coastal estuary to reasonably thick woodlands, plus quite rugged looking rocky outcrops. However, the biggest attraction for most fishos is the chance to catch a Barramundi in some of the many fishing holes. It’s also set up with plenty of campsites in the area.
The Park Rangers’ office is located quite close to the Kalpowar river crossing and this latter campsite has a toilet block and some basic amenities. Other camping areas are bush camping only, with no amenities other than a cleared, levelled area.
Our plan was to call in to the station on the way, book ourselves into the parks and have our first nights’ camp in the convenience of the Kalpowar crossing and below camping area, (photo 3).
Anyone with a reasonable trailer boat rig of about four meters could spend days exploring this park and idle away many hours fishing the various spots along the river, although it does become rather crowded in the peak season and bookings are almost mandatory during school holidays.
The intention of this trip, however, was to push on to the Cape Melville National Park which, being much more isolated only offers beach camping and NO amenities.
This was more challenging as the “road” is often little more than overgrown bush tracks and long stretches of the track are through thick, boggy sand. Few travellers escape getting bogged at least once.
With this in mind, we undertook a review of the sort of extra equipment we might need to help keep out of too much trouble. First of all our vehicle engine needed to be in tip-top condition as the effort of towing a trailer boat through sand is like dragging a CQR anchor through mud!
Extra water and a clean, functioning radiator are essential, and the whole vehicle's cooling system needs to be in excellent working condition. If your vehicle has an intercooler fitted, check its radiator is clear and any connections are leak free.
Changing the engine oil to the best affordable (even in older engines) is a good move. Due to the conditions fuel consumption will definitely increase significantly. Is extra fuel needed? That depends on how far you are going but leave a safety margin of at least 100km range. Road houses tend to be about 200km apart in this area. Whatever you do, don’t fill up your spare tanks at home. You are carrying too much extra weight. Better to fill up all the spare tanks at the last possible moment (in this case Laura) and save wear and tear on the drive train and brakes. Also spread the weight around as much as possible and NEVER put fuel on the roof of the vehicle. The consequences of this in an accident are pretty nasty.
FOUR WHEELS ARE BEST
As soon as the road surface becomes sandy or muddy, pull the 4WD lever into the appropriate range and check that the hubs are locked, (funnily enough, the 4WD function will not work if the hubs are in “free”). Unfortunately, a lot of travellers think that putting the drive train into 4WD is for cissies and they pride themselves in not having needed to. This is all very macho, but what about the environment, to say nothing of your own safety and that of others. Heavy vehicles do damage the bush tracks if the wheels are slipping and sliding. Spreading the load over four wheels is much gentler on both the environment and the drive train.
Do not assume that using 4WD stresses the drive train. As long as you are not driving on bitumen all will be well. Your 4WD vehicle is designed to do this and is often recommended practice.
Tyres are another weak point in that a puncture, or blow out, will stop you dead in your tracks. We can’t afford different set of off road tyres for every situation. But always carry a spare, if not two.
As most tracks are gravel or mud, we have fitted Cooper SSTs which are brilliant for gravel and particularly mud. They are not so good on sand because the aggressive treads tend to dig you into the sand rather than roll over the top.
We did consider carrying a special set of sand tyres but it was not practical, or cost effective.
All the tyres and rims on both our vehicle and boat trailer are the same, all mud specialists. On this trip the only thing we could do was drop the tyre pressures once we were off the bitumen. Doing this allows the vehicle to travel much more smoothly because the softer tyres absorb rather than transmit the bumps and dips. Good tyres can take this sort of punishment as long as the speed is kept down (less than 80 kph) and at lower speeds the tyre temperature will be lower anyway so that should not pose a problem.
How low can you drop the pressure? Every vehicle is different. We drop ours to 28psi (cold) and if the terrain is really slow and rough we drop down to 25psi. Mates of ours go down to 18psi but they have a different tow vehicle with a considerably lighter load. It is always best to get some advice from tyre dealers in the local area before you do this.
Cape Melville has absolutely no amenities so we had to bring everything, including a large enough supply of water, for the six days we would be there. There is a creek that runs into the bay and the advice given by Queensland Parks and Wildlife was that it is an unreliable source so we didn’t count on any water being available. Water also weighs a kilogram per litre so it adds a lot to the load.
CAIRNS TO KALPOWAR
The trip from Cairns to Kalpowar crossing took us around five hours (we stop for photo taking quite often) and the camping area at Kalpowar was almost empty when we arrived. This left us time to explore the area on foot and watch some idiot walking backwards and forwards across the ford in calf deep, swiftly running water flicking a lure along the edge of the submerged crossing. He rather angrily rejected everyone's suggestion to get out of the croc infested water and then got even more upset when people started setting up video cameras from a safe vantage point. Time for the Kennedys to leave.
Once you cross over from Kalpowar, (photo 4), you enter private property and it is only courtesy to call in to the homestead and let them know you are on their land and where you intend to go. The property manager is friendly enough but is starting to develop quite an antagonism towards people who just help themselves to whatever they want. If Australians want to continue enjoying the outdoor life we must, collectively, develop a little more respect for the people who work the land for a living or that privilege will disappear.
The track at the time we were using it was well maintained (cattle properties use this section) and easy going at around 70 kph. There is a wooden "bridge" just before the track splits and one track veers off to the left towards Bathurst Head whilst the right heads off toward Cape Melville itself. This is very well sign posted and leaves you in no doubt as to where to go, (photo 5).
Don't be fooled by the 46km distance on the sign that is the distance to the edge of the national park, NOT actually to Cape Melville itself. Expect the track to gradually deteriorate as you head in towards the Cape Melville National Park. Just before the park itself you come across the abandoned Wakooka station and stopping to explore the old cattle yards and holding pens is fascinating and takes your mind off your now semi cramped legs and back,(photos 7 and 8).
People must have had a tough life here when it was a working property. Whilst we were having a break, other travellers coming from Cooktown via the alternative track practically rolled out of their LandCruiser and kissed the ground before staggering back to their feet again.
Apparently the Cooktown to Wakooka track was a little rougher than they had expected. The 180km track had taken them two long days of bump, rattle and roll to do. Bush pin-striping down the sides, a few small dents in their body panels and a mangled number plate seemed to verify their tale.
INTO THE WILD
Now it was our turn to face a more challenging track and the first sign of what was in store at a creek crossing which looked innocent enough until we looked around the entrance and exit tracks and realised that there were very sloppy, muddy tracks on either side,(photo 9). Just looking at the number of deep "bogged to the axles" wheel ruts gave us cause to plan the crossing carefully as others before us had clearly paid the price of a gung-ho approach. In the end we crossed without drama.
A combination of low tyre pressures, second gear low range and a little momentum saw us through and up the other side, (photo 10). This scenario was to be repeated many times before we were to set eyes on the ocean at Cape Melville. Trouble came our way when we crossed an exceptionally narrow creek which was lined by loose rocks on both sides.
The outboard support (support number two by the way) was ripped out of its socket and bent beyond repair in an instant and the outboard leg was pushed up so that when we came to a stop on the other side the Yamaha was sitting neatly in its highest possible position on the engine support. The rest of the trip would be covered with the engine supported by the factory mount and flopping around a bit. The very thing I had wanted to avoid.
Once the rugged mud and rock section had been covered we began to encounter the thick coarse sand that signifies you are approaching the coastline again. The shake rattle and roll is replaced by a smooth sliding and wriggling effect as the trailer begins to contribute to decisions about where the rig is going. This takes a little getting used to and we received an introductory lesson in sliding down deep holes in the sand when the trailer wheels clipped the edge of a deep washout and dragged the back of the Nissan down into it as well. The extra weight of fuel and water inside the boat proved to be an irresistible gravitational force.
To describe this journey through the bush as an adventure would be the understatement of the century. Every moment you are moving presents fresh challenges and the chance to get bogged or waylaid in some way.
We have travelled to the tip of Cape York on the old bush telegraph track a couple of times and we both reckon this is just as difficult and with far less traffic.
However, the effort is worth it. Emerging from the bush and on to the beach itself is a wonderful feeling of relief and success, (Photo 11a).The day we arrived there were three other campsites but that was about it. Basically all you could see is kilometres of pristine beach with very few to share it with.
The day we arrived there was a strong wind warning current and the beach had that "sandblasters" feel about it. Shade in the camping area is quite restricted because the shrubs that are there are relatively low (probably in response to the ever present south easterly winds), (Photo 12).
Water is at a premium here but there is a waterhole behind the beach and back some distance. It has another abandoned home of sorts next to it and at least you can swim in the waterhole without fear of croc attack. Apparently it dries out during drought conditions.
Having towed our tinny all the way to the Cape, we were disappointed to see the ocean so rough that to go out in those conditions would be very risky indeed so we explored the small estuary which marks the end of easily accessible camping, (photos 13 and 14). A great place to potter around and we even managed to catch a legal sized mud crab while we were doing the sand-fly slap dance.
Make sure you pack some really strong insect repellent if you plan to venture into this creek or at least carry some bags of blood plasma to replace what you lose as the bugs there are very thirsty indeed. The real surprise of the trip came when we were greeted by officers of the Queensland Fisheries who were doing a patrol of the area at the time. The long arm of the law seems to get longer with every passing day!
An unexpected disaster came our way caused by a total miscalculation of the height of the tide on the second night. We awoke at 6.30am to find our boat semi flooded. We had pulled the boat up well past the high tide mark on the beach but that night was the biggest tide of the year and the wind swung around to help push the sea well past its normal height.
So instead of going out fishing that morning we spent the time cleaning up the inside of the boat and flushing fuel lines. About 8.30am it started raining again and the decision was made to head back to Lakefield National Park, and avoid the possibility of being flooded in (although in August that isn't very likely).
Our decision was further hastened by a stream of green ants that had found our campsite. The onset of more rain and the disappointment of not being able to go offshore added to our decision to head back.
Surprise number two for the trip was next. As we headed back to Lakefield we were greeted by officers of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and Water Police, who happened to be doing random compliance checks in the area. They must have been pretty serious because one of their vehicles was towing a massive trailer with two quad bikes on it.
The rain had not made the track any easier to tow a trailer over and now our average speed was reduced to 12kph for long sections so in the end the trip back to the Normanby river, a distance of just over 100km, took us just over six hours, (photo 16a). It was an exhausted Kennedy team that set camp late that afternoon but the spot was beautiful in the evening half light and since the raining had stopped just after lunch everything looked and felt really fresh, (photos 17 and 18).
The next morning we were determined to make use of the boat and get some photographs of the river wildlife so we launched the boat by winching down an embankment and found to our relief that the outboard started on the second pull of the starting cord.
At least the hours of shaking and banging around had not worried the Yamaha. Some regular readers may remember the amount of time we spent on our last outback trip cleaning out the bucketfuls of stones and road gravel whenever we wanted to go fishing and will have noticed the green boat cover fitted before this trip (photo 18a). We can vouch for the effectiveness of this idea. It does not stop the ingress of dust but at least it keeps everything else back.
Every time we start exploring a remote northern river we are amazed at the constant stream of birds, lizards, wallabies and insects that call the place home. Sitting in a boat floating down a river really is the best mental de-stress therapy you can get. Once again, we had an extensive river section to ourselves and we only once came across some backpackers in a rented 4WD camping in the four days we were there.
We took the opportunity to flicking some lures around the snags and boulders in the river. And in short order Harry locked on to her first really good Barra, (photo 19). It jumped around for a while then drifted lifelessly towards the boat never once heading to any snags.
About to release it, Harry stopped and asked what I wanted to eat for dinner tonight, canned spaghetti or fresh Barra? That's a tough question after several days of camp food so you can guess she kept the fish, (photo 20). Great decision. Harry was gracious enough to mention her success and my lack of it only a few times. The fishing proved to be better than we had ever experienced and several Barra were caught and released although our fishing effort was pretty slack really.
Would we recommend a trip up to Cape Melville to anyone else? Yes, if you like the adventure of 4WD in remote areas where the low range transfer case of your gearbox gets a solid workout then this is a great place to visit.
However, if you’re contemplating towing a boat think twice before you go as the potential for damage to your rig is definitely much more than a remote possibility.
Towing a boat, no matter how well set up it is, puts strain on both the people and rig. It’s really only worth it if you’re staying for a couple of weeks.
A small tinnie on the roof is a doubtful enterprise too as the sea around this area can become quite choppy and rough very quickly. The tide runs out a long way too, so that restricts fishing to when you can fish.
So my suggestion is to NOT take a boat. Just experience the scenery and the rugged beauty of a relatively untouched part of Australia.
Also you won’t need all the top of the range off road gear that camping and off road stores will try to sell you. The modern stock standard 4WD vehicles offered by the major brand names are quite capable of travelling through the vast majority of our national parks with ease.Some simple recovery gear is all you need if you travel with others. Beyond that just head off and enjoy it while you still can!