The tip of Cape York is the farthest point north on the Australian continent. It is also about 985 km (612 mi) of dirt road north of Cairns. There are two roads that you can take to drive there. Both are passable only during the dry season (winter – May to September). One is drivable by smaller two-wheel drive vehicles (no trucks or large motorhomes), but the other is passable only with a four-wheel drive vehicle. Allow a minimum of one week to drive each way plus whatever time you wish to spend there. Does that remind anyone of driving the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road? But, like in Alaska, there is an alternative, which is what we chose. We flew!
At 7:00 this morning, we boarded a twin-engine plane with six other people and flew north along the eastern coast of the York Peninsula. It was a beautiful, clear day and we stayed between 1,000 and 3,000 feet altitude so we always had a good view of what was below. Over land we saw mountains, rivers, and towns; over the ocean we saw islands and the Great Barrier Reef. The pilot was very knowledgeable naming the features we were seeing and frequently circling so everyone could get a good look.
We landed at the small town of Bamaga, which is still several miles from the actual tip. We were met at the airport by a four-wheel drive van and were joined by several folks from another flight for the next phase of our journey. We traveled on a corrugated (washboard in the US) road through the rainforest to Frangipani Beach where we transferred to “shanks mare” for the 700 meter (½ mile) walk across the beach and over the headland to The Tip. When we returned to the beach, we had a very nice lunch in the shade at the edge between the beach and the forest.
You simply cannot take a tour anyplace without a stop where you can buy souvenirs. That place this time was The Croc Tent on our way back to the airport. It was an interesting place, but we didn’t find anything that we simply couldn’t live without.
During World War II, there were many thousands of US troops stationed in Australia. The airport at Bamaga was a jumping off point for flights throughout the South Pacific Theater. On the way back, we stopped at a crash site where six people died on May 5, 1945, when a DC-3 crashed in nearly zero visibility weather just a mile or so short of the runway. In spite of the poor weather conditions, the pilot had done everything exactly right – the wheels were down and they were perfectly aligned with the runway – except for that one tree.
For our return flight back to Cairns, we flew along the west coast of the peninsula and stopped for fuel at the mining town of Weipa. This is the world’s largest bauxite mine. They remove the trees from large areas and scrape bauxite from the surface. Huge quantities of the stuff is loaded on ships and sent overseas. When we left there, we climbed up to 10,000 feet for an uneventful cruise back to Cairns.
One of the first things everyone noticed about our pilot was that he was YOUNG. Some of the folks apparently had been asking about his age and estimating that he is anywhere from teens to early thirties. He refused to tell us until after we returned and were saying our thank yous and good byes – 23. He was a good pilot and personable tour guide.