At least the rain in the tropics is warm
WORDS & PHOTOS Peter Hopper
In 1770 Captain Cook struck a reef off the Queensland coast. Cook sailed the damaged Endeavour to the shore and ran her up on the beach so the carpenters could repair the damaged hull. It is hard to imagine what this expedition must have been like. Cook had to make all kinds of decisions in a completely unknown world. The nagging question for all of them was would they ever get home?
On the other hand, what an adventure!
What was this greyhound looking animal that hopped on its hind legs? Who are these people? What are their customs? It was the Endeavour’s misadventure that led to the beginnings of Cooktown, the European discovery of the kangaroo and the first communication between the native Australians and the British.
At Easter, 10 of us had a few days off and decided to invest the time in exploration. We headed off to discover Cook’s paradise. Unlike Captain Cook, we knew where we were going and how to get there – we had an Australian Motorcycle Atlas. Like Captain Cook we did not know what awaited us.
Motorcycling is big in my family. There’s me, Robyn, Anna, Ben, Naomi and Kate – I call us the Suzuki Family: two Bandits and a V Strom. We were joined by Brian and Steph – the Honda Family: a Blackbird and a Firestorm. The Dysfunctional Family comprised Warren on an H-D Deuce and Kerry riding her Yamaha YZ600 called Tinkerbelle (the ’06 pink and white one with the purple rims) – seven bikes and three pillions.
You can plan trips like this meticulously but you can’t predict the weather. As we gathered at the starting place, a servo in Mackay, it was clear that it was not clear. Wearing wets, we headed out into the rain. The wet season ran on a little this year. It was not generally heavy rain but it was persistent – sometimes raining, sometimes sunny and sometimes both. Basically, all our wet weather gear was untested except for short trips and it was found to have pretty severe shortcomings.
In Brian and Kerry’s case, their wets did not work at all. But as we were reminded by a Victorian couple we met along the way, the rain in the tropics is warm. So while we might have been forced to disband in the southern states, up in North Queensland – while it is uncomfortable – there was no way we were going to turn around.
Other than the rain, the trip to Innisfail was uneventful except when the battery on Tinkerbelle packed it in. But thanks to Scott at Battery World in Townsville, who willingly came out on a public holiday, Tink was all charged up and ready to sprinkle more fairy dust.
After a cuppa at the driver reviver at the bottom of the Palmerston Highway we headed out. This is what we came for; the sweeping corners of the Palmerston led us up to the Atherton Tablelands. The same thing was on everyone’s mind – how good this would be in the dry! Once up on the tablelands, the roads are good as they wind through the undulating country’s mix of small crops, dairy farms and rainforest. Between Malanda and Atherton, the Gallo cheese and chocolate factory is a great stop, particularly if you land there about 3pm when you can see some of the 500 cows go through the rotary dairy for milking. You can view the cheese and chocolate making, too, and some sampling can be done.
We spent our first night on the tablelands in Mareeba as we prepared for our assault on the peninsula and Cooktown development roads. If you have more time than us and like an early rise, Mareeba is the place to go hot air ballooning. As we packed our bikes, the tranquil dawn skies filled with balloons. The day looked promising with only a few clouds so maybe we would get a dry run. Wrong.
The first part of this trip runs through open cattle country but then about 10km in, the first of three ranges appears. The signs and local legends suggest too many motorcyclists have come up off the flats and into the ranges a bit too hot. We had already heard some of the stories of death and near miss experiences before we left home.
We pulled up at the lookout just before the warning sign. It was a good time to stretch (extra good because it was not raining) and refocus before heading into the ranges. The James Earl lookout is another good stop with a great view, clean toilets and well-maintained information boards with the history and facts about the area.
Although the rain set in again after Lakelands, we thought we were through the worst of it – until about 25km out from Cooktown when we rounded a corner and found the Little Annan River running about half-a-metre over the bridge. Even though the sign at Lakeland said the road was open, it was not. A stranded local told us that if we had got up and hour earlier we would have made it.
This is where we met a couple from Warrnambool who opened up their camper, put the kettle on and made us a cuppa. Lifesavers! After waiting in the rain an hour or so, we decided to return to Lakelands where we could have lunch and wait for news of the bridge reopening. By 4pm it was clear that the road would not reopen. Lunch was great and it was not raining in Lakeland – and in fact did not rain again on the trip.
With accommodation booked out in Lakeland, we headed back to Palmer River, a roadhouse with huge meals and a great camp ground run by salt of the earth people. If you come to Palmer River – camp but don’t stay in the donga-type cabins. The generator and the power go off at 10pm. Sleeping in a room with your wet gear and no air-conditioning is a bit like sleeping with your head in your boots.
The river went down about 4am and we made it into Cooktown for its first dry day in six weeks. If you make this journey, make sure you go to the James Cook Museum. This is a restored convent building that has great displays and a balanced history of the development of Cape York. A ride up Grassy Hill to the old lighthouse is worth it, too. You can see what the captain saw 230 years ago.
The Hayabusa Family we had come to visit took us for a quick run (that is the only way they know) out to the Lion’s Den – a 125-year-old pub that has walls covered in names. You, too, are welcome to add your name to the story of those who have been before.
The trip home took us down the Rex Range into Mossman, then along Queensland’s version of the Great Ocean Road from Port Douglas into Cairns. The next morning there was excitement, although our trip was coming to a close we had one more road to ride. The Gillies Highway is now sealed all the way with hot mix tar. In 19km, this road rises 800 metres back to the tablelands through 263 corners. What a magic ride with scenic rainforest and spectacular mountains views, all of which you miss as you focus on the road, choosing a line for the next corner. This is a road you can really enjoy without speeding.
Leaving the coastal plain about 7.30am, we arrived at the Lake Barinne teahouse for breakfast. This delightful volcanic lake exudes peace and tranquillity. I love the atmosphere of the teahouse and have always made it a must stop every time I have visited this part of the world.
Back down the Palmerston in the dry and we were on our way home. What a way to spend a week!
‘The same thing was on everyone’s mind – how good this would be in the dry!’
“Sleeping in a room with your wet gear and no air-conditioning is a bit like sleeping with your head in your boots.’