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Cycling the dusty red road of the Cape York Peninsula

Simon Parker's picture
Bicycle touring the dusty red road of Cape York, Queensland. Cycle Traveller

To say I was nervous before starting on our journey south from the Tip is a bit of an understatement. No matter how many people told us it was possible, it was still a nerve-wracking experience. My main concerns centred on the tyres we were forced to buy in Cairns, and the 1,000 or so kilometres of unsealed road we faced. Turns out none of Cairn's nine bike shops had tyres suitable for sandy off-road touring. We were at least happy to have had rear tyres that had excellent puncture protection and wall strength, despite being a little narrower than we would ideally have liked at only 700 x 35c. The front tyres were nice and wide at 700 x 42c with a good tread pattern for sandy soil, but a tad thin in the rubber for our liking as they were designed to be lightweight for cyclocross racing and not loaded touring. So to counter this we removed our front panniers to reduce pressure on the bead and added some Mr Tuffy tyre liners to prevent punctures.

As for the roads, no one could really give us an accurate idea of what the surface would be like, as it was almost pointless asking 4WD drivers for their opinion as their experience is entirely different to ours. A good road to them can be terrible for us, and vice versa. I still asked though – it's the main topic of conversation in Cape York; a bit like Sydneysiders and property prices – and, at the very least, their views gave me some hope that the road wouldn't be quite as bad as I had imagined.

Sandy roads of Cape York. Cycle Traveller

So, it began. I certainly enjoyed the first 14 kilometres of road from Seisia. But that was sealed. While the next few kilometres were a little rough in parts we were actually very surprised with how good the road was up until the Jardine River Crossing – in one section we easily averaged 20 km/hr. 

It was the 25km or so after the Jardine River that raised fears of potential agony ahead. There was so much sand spread deep across the road that I half expected to see David Hasslehoff and Pamela Anderson jogging past (in slow motion). Ride. Push. Ride. Push. And push. Ride. Stop suddenly. Push. And push some more. And so it went, and it was surprising that we still managed to do 8km/hr during a three hour period.

As it turned out though, this was probably one of only three or four really tough sections on the entire route. Most of these sections were between 10 and 20 kilometres long, and none of them stopped us from riding for very long, if at all. For the most part it was about patience (yes, I did lose it once or twice) and just riding carefully through heavily rutted and corrugated sections of road.

It would be wrong though to sum our experience by the state of the road. Yes, it can influence your day in a big way, and factor in that the road's quality can vary dramatically from year to year and even week to week, but for the vast majority of our trip it didn't undermine our enjoyment.

What did we enjoy? Being alone on roads for hours on end. The pristine rainforest. Expansive vistas that gave you a clear idea of your place in the big scheme of things; where nature dominates the scenery, and where the elements dictate what we can and can't do. At times the perceived isolation was almost intimidating. But rest assured you're on a road that sees enough traffic during daylight hours should something go wrong.

Swimming at Fruit Bat Falls, Cape York. Cycle Traveller

We loved the silence and the first inkling of sun, which gave the rich and diverse bird life its cue to burst into song. And we loved our swim at Fruit Bat Falls; fresh, clear water with a sandy floor, surrounded by forest.

Gary from Heritage Tours was another highlight; on his way back to Cairns he stopped to give us water, fruit and muesli bars. What a legend, particularly as it was on a day we were running a tight line in terms of food and water.

Services, usually in the form of basic roadhouses (don't expect to find any grocery items out here), occurred often enough although some days you didn't pass anything. We did some plus-100km days along the way which were tough but, having already ridden 4000km on this trip we always felt comfortable with the distances we set ourselves (just the once did we finish after the sun had set). And dust, while choking at times when a truck surged past, wasn't the issue most predicted it would be. It does get into everything you have though; and it'll take days to get rid of.

Reaching Cooktown felt like a milestone in itself, and marked a transition from the generally drier western side of the Great Dividing Range to the rain drenched eastern (coastal) side. Cooler breezes, more rainforest canopy, more streams, bigger mountains. That you're riding through World Heritage Listed scenery just added to the experience.

The view from Grassy Hill in Cooktown. Cycle TravellerWith it came more people but traffic remained relatively sedate for the most part. And the one benefit of more people was more services, which meant carrying less food and water. Which was a good thing considering some of the gradients we were faced with, some of which were tough enough to get us pushing our bikes. But it didn't bother us; we were cycling through a landscape seemingly beyond the human scale, so dramatic and surreal it almost felt you were outside looking in.

The sweat cascading down your brow told you otherwise.

We were soon back on sealed road along the coast as we cruised down past the Daintree Rainforest and it was here that we had the pleasure of meeting a very inspirational cycling family: Patrick and Meg, their son Woody and little dog Zero. They had cycled up from their home near Melbourne on their way to Cooktown and were living off the land as much as possible. One look at their blog, Artist as Family, and you can see all the amazing things you can eat from the bush. Patrick is quite the expert, so if you're interested in permaculture and sustainable living, make sure to check them out.

with Artists as Family. Cycle TravellerAnd so we made it to Cairns, 1,180kms from the northern tip of Australia's mainland. A challenge met, with the satisfaction its own reward. A trip I didn't think possible, but one I now know is very doable by bicycle with the right sort of preparation. And with just the one puncture (yes, in the front, and our first for the entire trip) our tyres proved to be more than adequate.

Job done, now for the climb out of Cairns and into Central Queensland – all of which starts later this week. Until then, it's some much needed R&R.

Images from top: 1. Simon on the Peninsula Development Road, Cape York. 2. One of the sandy sections of road. 3. Swimming at Fruit Bat Falls. 4. The view from Grassy Hill lookout over the Endeavor River in Cooktown. 5.Alia with Patrick holding Zero and Meg with Woody on the back of the tandem.



Hi there! We had to pleasure of meeting you at Seisia camp ground, very keen to hear about your proposed "journey" We are now home in Brisbane and so glad to read your blog about your trip to Cairns. Well done - and congratulations!!! We wish you both well in your future "adventures"! Diana

Alia Parker's picture

It was lovely to meet you guys. Yes, we made it :) We're now down in Charters Towers and Simon will be updating the blog very soon. Hope you enjoyed the rest of your time up the Cape. 

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