AUSTRALASIAN DIRT BIKE: CAPE YORK ADVENTURE
by Warren Jack
Long time ADB contributor, Warren Jack went AWOL in the depths of the Cape and brought us a story of red horses stampeding through a red earth, speckled with forest and ribboned with twisting rivers.
Among the ranks of backpackers who tour Australia you will find plenty of "sweet young things" and it was one of these SYTs who caught our attention at PK's Jungle Village at Cape Tribulation in Far North Queensland. The place attracts backpackers like flies to honey, and we were all intently watching this one gorgeous girl with a figure like a Barbie doll, as she inspected the pool in the afternoon heat. From our vantage point in the bar we could see she had a bikini under her skimpy shorts and tight top, so we bombarded her with telepathic messages:
"It's very hot and the water is lovely... the pool is so cool, you'll love it ... peel off the gear and get in .. go on, just do it!" Our levels of concentration were of a Uri Geller-like intensity to ensure she would get the message, but as she tried to decide on a swim or not she lit up a smoke! "Aaaargh she's a smoker, that's the fantasy ruined for me," I thought out loud. Another in our group, with drool slowly oozing down his chin, a fixed stare and his beer frozen halfway to his mouth, just mumbled, "I don't care if she eats raw cane toads."
We came to be at PK's on day seven of an eight day Cape York trip with Cape York Motorcycle Adventures, a company run by Roy and Renae Kunda out of Cairns.
The others in the group included Allan, a sheep cockie from just north of Geraldton in WA on his first ever holiday. He rides an XR630 around his million acre backyard - he must have some fast sheep, Patrick was a Dutchman who works in IT and John was an Irish garage proprietor; both were experienced road riders but had never ridden on the dirt before. Dirt Action's Barry Ashenhurst was also a starter along with Mark, who we met at the Top upon our arrival. He was an ex-Digger now working for Telstra who was doing the round trip, and had already ridden up.
Bamaga airport is a far cry from any other I've been to - the passenger facilities are just a tin shed decorated with a few posters warning of quarantine regulations regarding the movement of fruit and livestock.
We were soon at Seisia camp and Roy was running us through a thorough briefing and introduction process. The bikes were all 2000 model XR400s except for Roy's personal XR650 and a 250 for Mark. Gerard (Jed), the sweep rider and mechanic, was in the final processes of servicing the fleet prior to our departure the next morning. It was obvious that the fleet was well used but equally obvious that it was also well maintained. Each bike started easily the next morning, and gave no trouble at all for the entire 1500km to Cairns. Rob the support driver and cook, was equally busy with last minute preparations to the Toyota and the food supplies, as well as catering for the evening meal.
Roy led us out the next morning keeping at first to the very easy dirt roads to gauge the abilities of the group and progressively getting into the tighter, more technical riding of the lesser travelled tracks. A souvenir shop set up in a tent just short of the tip was a handy regroup and drink stop before we ventured to the tip proper, which involves walking for the last 500 metres. You expect the land to end and then sea to the horizon, but the land ends and there is another island about 200 metres offshore, and then another and another all the way to New Guinea. We watched the Coral and Arafura seas merge, saw a shark swim past and then we were off again. The rest of the day had a mixture of beach riding and dry bush, taking in the remains of Somerset Homestead (pioneered by Frank Jardin), and some WWII plane wrecks, including a Beaufort bomber that had been hit on the ground during a Japanese attack and a DC3 that had crashed about 5km short of the runway.
Camp that night was a secret spot tucked away at the end of a sandy track with a safe croc-free swimming hole to wash the dust off. This proved to be an important part of the tour as the red dust mixed with sweat need to be cleaned daily from our riding gear. It would be pointless trying to wash your gear only at the end of the trip. It would be easier to encase it all in concrete and have dumped at sea.
The scenery on Cape York is constantly changing and not quite what I had expected. It was a lot drier than I thought it would be and a lot hotter than I had expected, but every bit as breathtaking as I had hoped. Local wildlife was abundant - a 60km beach run had us swerving to avoid large mobs of crabs, disturbing a family of pigs having a beachside picnic, upsetting the afternoon nap of a caveful of tiny bats, and we managed to catch two huge barramundi for dinner.
While picking our way through jagged rocks at the base of the headlands Roy woke up a saltwater croc that was dozing under a rock. Roy pulled up in a panic as it dashed across his path and into the water. For this particular beach run we had to wait a little for the tide to drop and lower a creek crossing, so the fishing gear saw some more use. Inspecting the oyster encrusted remains of a tour operator's Landcruiser brought home just how treacherous the area could be.
Other examples of the local fauna were snakes, emus, dingoes, wallabies, cane toads, wedge tailed eagles, brolgas, bustards, jabirus, kites and pheasants. The cane toads are fair game if you can hit them, but seeing an echidna transplant is a pretty straightforward procedure these days.
Water crossings area constant occurrence on the Cape and posed no real dramas. They are mostly firm rocky bottoms with easy access up and down the banks. The one exception to this rule is Gunshot Creek on the Old Telegraph Track. The south bank is high and steep and famous among the 4WD crowd as a challenge to be met. No real problem on a bike, but quite a time consuming obstacle to the tin tops. If you have ever seen a picture in a 4WD magazine with the vehicle in a near vertical climb up a bank as long as its wheelbase, the odds are it was taken at Gunshot, Patrick ran into Mark's parked bike and nearly caused a domino effect. Rob had to use the winch to get the support truck over the last bit of the lip, and this was on the easiest of the three available ascents.
The Old Telegraph Track still has plenty of the poles that once carried the wires, but unfortunately some idiots with no appreciation of history and the hardships overcome by those who built it in the late 1800s have done a lot of damage. If these dipsticks really want to see how powerful their Toorak Taxi is, why don't they pull down their house?
Other travellers were encountered every day from those overloaded to the max with gear for every possible situation - like the couple with a Patrol full to the roof - to those with the bare minimum equipment and knowledge - like the Israeli girl on a KLX650 with a standard tank that she'd ridden solo from Melbourne.
Somewhere between Elliot Falls and the Archer River, Rob's swag jumped ship from the top of the Hilux, but was picked up by Allan who lashed it across his rear guard and carried it into camp, earning more than one drink from Rob in the process.
Nifold Plains in Lakefield National Park is an eerie sigh - a large, flat grassy expanse dotted with countless termite mounds of different heights and shape. One side of the road had been burnt off and birds were picking through the remains. Breeza Stockyards tell a silent tale of tough men in a tough country, working cattle. The stockyards still remain, along with an old shed surrounded by huge mango trees heavy with fruit. Walking the thick carpet of leaves causes more rustling noises than you can make on your own and raises the question, are Alpinestars snakeproof? I didn't linger to find out. The inviting waterlily fringed billabong was out of bounds too, as the log we were watching silently submerged and swam off. Roy was able to surprise another family of wild pigs and ankletapped a small one from his Honda and grabbed it to pose for photos.
Laura Homestead illustrates just how well the pioneers of the area managed. The Queensland National Parks are part way through a restoration project to show the various buildings as they once were. The property was started supply beef to the Palmer River goldfields.
Closer to Cooktown, the road starts to develop tighter bends and climbs up and down as mountains come into view. The worst dust of the trip was on this stretch, with patches of rainforest scattered throughout, offering relief from the heat and direct sun. It's an eerie feeling to ride into this green tinged gloom from the dazzling sunlight. If you stop and kill the motor it's a very peaceful feeling.
The Bloomfield and CREB tracks are two famous routes and we travelled both south of Cooktown. More rainforest, steep hills to climb and run down, and erosion humps which were a new experience for John, Patrick and surprisingly Allan. Some of the hills had dry forest on top with rainforest in the gullies at the bottom - absolutely beautiful. The cross of the famous Daintree River is accomplished by ferry, and the last night out is spent at the aforementioned PK's, before the ride in to Cairns over the tablelands through Mt Molloy and Kuranda.
The riding was extremely varied on the trip achievable by anyone with a basic knowledge of riding, but never boring for the more experienced riders. Tight singletrack, open loose surfaced roads, beaches, creek crossings, hills, bush, sand, overgrown twin tracks and truly amazing scenery. It was like that every day - from the top all the way down to Cairns.
You owe it to yourself to do this trip.
Tour leader Roy Kunda and his wife Renae have been running Cape York Motorcycle Adventures since 1990 and have been through several fleets in that time. They started with Yamaha TTs, followed by Suzuki DRs, then Yamaha TTRs and now Honda XR250s and 400s. Roy is from Melbourne where he was a technician for Ericsson and discovered the Cape when he was doing a "round Australia trip in the early '80s, following stock routes and other lesser travelled tracks". He arrived in Cairns in 1984 and has a great enthusiasm for Cape York Peninsula, and showing it off to others. Group size is deliberately limited to manageable numbers and good quality, well maintained equipment is supplied. Roy is an experienced bushman with a wealth of knowledge about the Cape and knows people everywhere we stopped. This good relationship with local landowners allows Cape York Motorcycle Adventures access to areas that Joe Public and ever other tour operators are denied entry to. The benefit of travelling with Roy is that you are then allowed entry and it is well worth it to see these remote places.
Rob Broady was the cook and support truck driver for our tour. He is an extremely experienced operator with more trips to the tip than most other tour drivers in the Cairns area. Originally from WA, he is a qualified field service technician for heavy equipment and has worked on mine sites all over the world. His cooking on an open fire with two camp ovens and a couple of pots must be tasted to be believed. We had a different menu every night including roast lamb with all the trimmings. Breakfast was a selection of cereals and fruit, as well as bacon and eggs. Lunch was either a cut lunch (for the days when we did not meet the truck), or a cold meat and salad buffet on those days that we did.
Gerard "Jed" Smith was our sweep rider. A Kiwi by birth and a motor mechanic by trade, he left NZ six years back and now rides as sweep and carries out the night time checks and maintenance of the bikes. Jed just went quietly and efficiently about his job in a no nonsense manner that left us occasionally wondering if he ever got tired as we flopped onto a chair at camp each night and struggled to raise the energy to open the fridge for a coldie. All three crew members are very accomplished riders.
Cape York Motorcycle Adventures have a fleet of 21 hire bikes (XR250s and 400s) and these are included in the cost of the tour as are all meals, fuel, entry fees, camping gear and hardtop accommodation. The cost of the tour is lowered if you can take your own bike, but you have the hassle of getting it to Cairns and back and sorting out what spares to carry. Use on of Roy's well maintained hire bikes and all these worries are taken care of.
The bikes and associated running gear get a thorough workout on each trip and Roy has quickly learnt what does and does not work up on the Cape. The XRs are all box stock with only their restrictors removed and the gearing lowered. They run Pirelli tyres, DID "X" rung chains and Shell oil. Naturally enough Barkbusters are added, but all else remains even blinkers and mirrors. On my trip all the Hondas ran like Swiss watches and suffered no breakdowns (unless you count a flat tyre) - rock reliable. A complete service is carried out at the end of each trip - Cape York and Cairns, with oil and filters all changed. The bikes are all 2000 models and the fleet is renewed each year. I found my XR400 easy to ride and more than suitable for all that was asked of it, with smooth easily controlled power - perfect for the sort of riding we were doing.
The two former road riders of our group each commented on their enjoyment of the Hondas and are now total converts to dirt bikes. At the start, they were both a bit cautious and wary of the way the bikes would move around under them, especially on the bauxite pebbles. By the end of the trip they showed a marked improvement and commented on how confidence inspiring the XRs were.
The support vehicle was a Toyota Hilux crew cab with a custom built tray on the back. A lot of thought had gone into fitting it out, such as the swing-out arms on the bullbar to carry firewood. A 200 litre tank hangs between the chassis rails, where the weight is nice and low and fuel can be pumped out to refill the bikes or the truck's own tank by air pressure from a small compressor, which also do the tyres. A Royal Flying Doctor Service first aid kit is on board and a satellite phone is carried by both the truck and sweep rider. All food, camping gear and spares are carried for you - all we had to carry was our Camelbaks, cameras and some munchies.
I am a long time contributor to ADB, but not a full time employee. I have spent many years working in tourism, conducting long distance camping tours, daytrips etc, and still work in the industry. Many commercial motorcycle tours that I have been on are run by people who are experienced dirt riders, but are still learning the finer points of being a good tour operator. Cape York Motorcycle Adventures is easily the best organised, and most efficiently run motorcycling tour that I have seen. As we say in the tourism industry, "they're a damn good operator" and I would strongly recommend Cape York Motorcycle Adventures to anyone who wants to see this truly magnificent part of Australia.