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Far North Queensland: a ride to leave you spokeless

Jon Stanley's picture
Bikes along the Cape York Peninsula east coast. Cycle Traveller

It's becoming an annual event; myself and a couple of old work-mates from London – Gareth and Rangi – get together for some kind of bike-based adventure. Previous years have seen us take on Scotland, the European Alps, and last year, Iceland. I moved to Australia a couple of years ago and soon discovered the potential for cycling adventures in Far North Queensland. With the promise of tropical rainforest, crocodiles and cassowaries, it didn't take much convincing to get Gareth and Rangi on a plane over here.

The rough idea was to fly into Cairns and cycle north taking in as much off-road as possible. To my surprise, Gareth and Rangi were raring to go the minute they arrived, so within 24 hours of their plane landing, we had collected their hire bikes, stocked up on food and maps, and had started riding north out of Cairns.

We made our way cautiously onto the Captain Cook Highway, which at 3pm was starting to get busy with rush hour traffic. I was relieved when a local cyclist told us that we'd have a good shoulder to ride on until Palm Cove. She warned us to take care at the roundabouts though, where a cyclist had been killed recently. Indeed, the roundabouts were pretty scary, but we made it safely to our campsite at Palm Cove.

Dazzling danger

North of Palm Cove is really where the visual feast begins. The Captain Cook Highway hugs the coast and delivers spectacular views of deserted tropical beaches. We rejoined the highway for the second day and found the traffic to be much lighter, although the shoulder was far less reliable. It was a beautiful sunny day and the temptation to pull off the road and run into the ocean for a cooling swim was hard to resist. The unfortunate reality was that to enter the water here would have been suicide. If we somehow survived the gauntlet of lethal box jellyfish, we'd almost certainly have found ourselves inside the welcoming jaws of a salt-water crocodile.

Assisted by an incredible tailwind, this spectacular coastal ride was over too soon. Riding north from Wonga Beach, the road was enveloped by tall sugar cane plantations. There was a little rain, but we didn't find ourselves rushing for a jacket; it's too warm to ride in anything more than short-sleeves, so we just enjoyed the refreshing shower.

A ride through the rainforest

The Daintree River requires a brief ferry crossing and once off the ferry, you are suddenly in the ancient, tropical Daintree Rainforest. The road from the ferry is steep, humid and seriously exhausting, but the view at the top makes it all worthwhile. The vista stretches for miles over the rainforest canopy giving us an almost complete view of the coastline we had been riding for the last three days.

The road through the Daintree is perfect for cycling and the traffic in early June is practically non-existent. We end the day at Cape Tribulation camp site.

Opposite the site is Mason's store, which is a great source of food, beer and information about the road beyond. It even offers access to a pristine swimming hole where we took the chance to cool off in the crystal clear water alongside the turtles and fish. North of Cape Tribulation, the sealed road ends and the 4WD-only Bloomfield Track begins. My research had told me to expect multiple river crossings and some seriously steep climbs. In order to keep on schedule, we needed to cover around 80kms of rough terrain that day, so we were up before sun rise. This wasn't a problem for Rangi who, thanks to his jet-lag, had been waking up at 4am every day.

Before setting off, I noticed a broken spoke on the rear wheel of Gareth's hire bike. This didn't bode well. We were already two days ride from the nearest bike shop and it would be four more days before we returned to civilisation. We had no spare spokes, but luckily I had packed a spoke key and even better, Gareth knew how to use it! He trued the wheel, but I think we all knew that given the weight of the panniers on the back wheel combined with the bumpy 4WD tracks to come, this was unlikely to be the last broken spoke of the trip.

Cycle Touring in the Daintree Rainforest. Photo: Jon Stanley. Cycle TravellerThe Bloomfield Track

The Bloomfield track began unthreateningly enough with a smooth gravel surface. However, it wasn't long before we came to the first climb and I remembered how hard cycling with a fully loaded bike could be, especially when there is no smooth, level tarmac and a tailwind to back you up. Sure enough, the first creek crossing appeared with a somewhat disconcerting crocodile warning sign visible about 50 metres downstream. However, the water at the crossing was about knee deep and perfectly clear, so we weren't too worried about the crocs.

From here on in the river crossings came every 30 minutes or so and were an enjoyable and refreshing diversion from the hills – the constant, unrelenting hills. The worst was a long 33% torturous climb, so steep it's the only part of the track that is sealed. Given I had to push my bike, I would rather have had some dirt to give my cycling shoes something to grip onto. Gareth somehow bounced on his pedals to get to the top. I looked on in awe, constantly slipping on my cleats as I tried to push my loaded bike up this near-vertical climb. Once over the summit, the descent was just as steep and I don't think I could have stopped if I'd needed to.

Due to the combination of heat and non-stop roller-coaster climbs, we stopped often to take on water. At the side of the road I noticed many of the distinctive heart-shaped leaves of the Giant Stinging Tree. This plant apparently gives a nasty sting that lasts for months – a reminder to choose toilet stops with care.

After 25kms of some of the toughest riding I've done, we came to the Woobada River. Despite looking very much like the sort of place a crocodile would like to live, I was assured by my map that this was a good place to swim. Gareth and I were hesitant; the water was a little murky and seemed to provide excellent cover for a hungry croc. As we weighed up our desire to cool off with the chance of man-eating crocs being present, we heard a splash. It was Rangi diving headfirst into the water. We watched him swim for a few minutes without being taken under for a death roll and that was good enough for us, so we joined him. The cool water was so good and restored the life that had been sapped from us during the morning's ride.

Creek crossing while cycling on the Bloomfield Track, Queensland. Cycle TravellerLycra on tap

It was another 10kms to Wujal Wujal, a remote Aboriginal community where we stopped at the cafe for a fantastic lunch – a chance to stock up on some energy for the remaining 40kms. It was getting on to 2pm by the time we had eaten and I was concerned about making it to our campsite before dark. However, we needed to restock our water and food supplies, so we headed into the village to the Wujal Wujal store.

Luckily the road ahead turned out to be a much smoother ride than the Bloomfield track. It was still largely unsealed, but not as undulating and, being the dry season, it had no river crossings. Not far out of Wujal Wujal as we cruised alongside the spectacular Bloomfield River, Rangi spotted a croc sunning itself on the bank.

The road north of Wujal Wujal is far more open than the thickly forested Bloomfield Track. Because of this we were treated to impressive views of the surrounding mountains. Just before the sun disappeared we made it to our camp at the Lion's Den Hotel. The hotel is 120 years old and is everything you could want from a remote Far North Queensland Pub – filled with rugged hillbillies sporting glorious, mulletted manes. As we parked our bikes and walked to the bar for a well-earned beer, I felt the eyes of a hundred men on me. I'm guessing not too many of the patrons here dress in lycra cycling shorts.

The next morning the first serious rain of the trip pelted down. We were now at the most northerly part of the trip from where we would turn inland and loop back around towards Cairns. The climate inland tends to be much drier and the rainforest is replaced by open, arid country. As we left the pub, there seemed to be a major roadbuilding exercise happening, meaning the road was full of deep holes. I suspect these were responsible for our next broken spoke – this time it was on Rangi's rear wheel.

Bicycle touring in inland Cape York. Cycle TravellerBiking, MacGyver style

The road became sealed once again and the sun broke through. Only a few kilometres on tarmac and I heard a bang, apparently followed by a puff of smoke from my rear tyre. We rushed to a halt and I was dismayed to see the entire sidewall of my tyre split open. I had no spare tyre! My immediate thought was that the trip was over. Even if I'd repaired the inner-tube, once inflated it would bulge out of the gaping side-wall.

Between us, we came up with a solution. I cut a piece from a plastic water bottle a couple of inches long and about the same width as the tyre's side-wall, then wrapped it in a section cut from the blown inner-tube. The split in the tyre was patched using the puncture repair kit from my self-inflating mattress. I placed the plastic bottle wrapped in the inner-tube inside the repaired tyre to form a barrier over the weak spot, then I popped in a new inner-tube and inflated it. Somehow, it all held together – but for how long? We nervously set off, now a couple of spokes down and a seriously compromised rear tyre between us.

On top of it all, we were now experiencing the other end of that wonderful tail-wind we'd enjoyed a few days prior. It was heavy going so we rode as a tight group, taking turns at the front. It wasn't long before Rangi lost another spoke, and then another. Each time a spoke broke we would stop so that Gareth could do his best to true the wheel and loosen the brakes to stop his increasingly wobbly wheel from rubbing. By the end of the day Rangi was down around five spokes and had very limited use of his brakes.

Gareth moving the remaining spokes. Cycle touring north Queensland. Cycle TravellerThe next best thing

As the sun began to set and Rangi's rear wheel threatened to collapse completely, the blessed sight of the Palmer River Roadhouse appeared. It was a huge relief since there are very limited options for bush camping on the remote and very dry Mulligan Highway. As we pitched our tents, I couldn't see how we were going to continue. We had 200km between us and Cairns and for the next 80kms there was absolutely nothing. I was ready to start making friends with truckers or anyone with enough room for three guys and their bikes.

Rangi's rear wheel was a mess; there was no way it would carry him and his heavy backpack 200kms in that state. All the spokes had failed on the drive-side of the wheel, so we needed to more evenly distribute the spokes to improve its condition. But in order to move the spokes, we would need to remove the cassette. A job like this would normally require a couple of heavy tools that no sane person would bring on a trip like this. It is extremely lucky that I was in possession of a tiny, rare tool called The Next Best Thing MkII. This tool removes the locking and cassette from the rear wheel using the bike's frame for leverage. It was our only shot at riding on.

The tool worked and – working in the dark – Gareth incredibly managed to get the wheel back to a reasonable state within a few hours. I was amazed, I really had thought the trip was over. We celebrated with some beers and enormous burgers.

Cairns bound

Jon, Gareth and Rangi cycling in Cape Tribulation. Cycle Traveller

The next day was another early start. We filled up with plenty of water and food, knowing that the next stop was 80kms away. It was a beautiful morning, the light of the rising sun painted the barren land ahead of us a warm orange. Hope was creeping back; if we could make the next 80kms without losing anymore spokes, perhaps we might even make it back to Cairns. It was an hour, maybe two, before that all too familiar ping came from Rangi's rear wheel. We stopped, the spoke key came out and the wheel was trued again. Another hour or two and the procedure was repeated. This continued throughout the day. Traffic was very light and I started doubting how easy it would be to hitch a lift with all three of us plus bikes on this remote stretch of road.

After 65kms we stopped at McCleod River for a swim. We were delighted to have made it this far because If push came to shove, we could walk from here to our campsite at Mount Carbine. Fortunately, we rolled into Mount Carbine, had a celebratory beer before Gareth once again dismantled Rangi's bike and redistributed spokes.

We were now only one day from returning to civilisation in Port Douglas. As we took on this final stretch of deserted highway, we were passed a few times by wild pig hunters.  In the back of their utes, half a dozen or so dead pigs were strung up for all to see.

Taking it one spoke at a time

Throughout the day, Rangi continued to loose a spoke every couple of hours. Around 15kms from Port Douglas we enjoyed a descent that seemed to go on forever. We were now back at sea-level and returned to the Captain Cook Highway. The traffic was a bit of a shock after the last few days, but with our bikes teetering on the brink of collapse, it was a huge relief for us all to be back in a populated area.

Riding along the Captain Cook Highway. Cycle TravellerThe final day riding back to Cairns from Port Douglas felt so easy compared with what we had faced the previous seven days. The spokes continued to break, but I knew that if the bikes failed we would just walk – there was no way we would quit now.

We rolled back into Cairns with 13 fewer spokes and my rear tyre just about holding itself together.  The relief washed over us. After spending the last few days wanting desperately to make it back to Cairns, now that we were here we just wanted to return to the wild, deserted north. We wanted to be back swimming in the those rainforest creeks or riding those deserted, never ending roads. Perhaps we would have to take the bikes to a mechanic first.


Images from top: 1. Bikes on a beach along the Cape York coast. 2. Rangi cycling through the Daintree Rainforest. 3. Rangi and Gareth crossing a creek on the Bloomfield Track. 4. Rangi and Gareth stopped on the inland road back to Cairns. 5. Gareth fixing the wheel. 6. Jon, Gareth and Rangi in Cape Tribulation. 7. Cycle touring on the Captain Cook Highway north of Cairns, QLD. (Images are Copyright Jon Stanley and Cycle Traveller.)


Alia Parker's picture

To anyone out there considering this ride, don't let Gareth and Rangi's spoke troubles turn you off. Unfortunately, the hire bikes they received in Cairns weren't up to the task, even though they were told they would be. Gareth did an awesome job getting those wheels back to Cairns.

This ride is suited to touring or expedition bikes with tyres of about 26x1.75 or 700x32. This will provide good support on the dirt and allow you to reduce the air pressure in the tyres slightly for a little bit of suspension and comfort. 

Mountain bikes are also well suited to dirt roads. You can generally fit a rear rack to most hard tails; just check you have enough clearance between the back of your heel and the panniers while pedalling (chain stays are usually shorter on mountain bikes).

Absolutely, and I would recommend a rear wheel with 36 stainless steel spokes.

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