DESTINATIONS - TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
The normal approach to Cape York is via the east coast tracks and the Peninsula Developmental Road, but this route starts on the western side of the Peninsula, for those coming from the Gulf.
There we were at Karumba, with our plans of visiting the Mitchell-Alice Rivers National Park dashed by the news that the entire Kowanyama area was now a no-grog zone.
It’s not like we’re alcoholics, but we do like a tipple at the end of a long day’s drive.
What to do? We held a lengthy meeting at (where else) the Sunset Tavern and stayed overnight at the adjacent End of the Road Motel.
The change of plan we decided on would take us well clear of ‘dry’ communities, but introduced a hazard of a different kind: the Mitchell River crossing.
Should we be unable to cross this wide river safely our fallback plan was to stay on the Burke Developmental Road beyond Dunbar Station that would take us to Mareeba. The consolation prize for that soft option would be Chillagoe Caves.
So, northeast we headed, on the broad, mostly well-graded Burke Developmental Road. Early on there was the occasional bitumen stretch, but we left the blacktop sections well behind by the Smithburne River.
The road was in pretty good condition, considering we were running it at the end of the dry season, but there were quite a few bulldust patches and rocky sections to keep us focussed. We hummed along at 70-80km/h and had no drama.
The countryside is flattish through this Gulf area and the vegetation varies from tall forest to more typical tropical savannah country, dotted sometimes with termite mounds.
The mounds are of two types: ‘fat’ ones that look like melting ice cream cone scoops and thinner, sharper ones.
The latter ones are aligned roughly north-south and earned the name ‘magnetic’ mounds, but the reason they’re aligned has more to do with minimising the sun’s heat in the middle of the day than it does with the earth’s magnetic field. We stopped for a roadside lunch on Vanrook Station and had a quick afternoon tea cuppa at the Staaten River.
Late afternoon saw us passing the lovely ‘Queenslander’ homestead at Dunbar Station, en route to the Mitchell River crossing.
The people at Dunbar Station are fed up with tourists getting stuck in the soft sands and fast-flowing waters of the Mitchell River, so they’ve posted a warning sign on the southern approach: “Cross river at own risk – $1000 towing fee”.
The sign had certainly had the desired effect on a bloke and his better half in their crew-cab HiLux: they’d been waiting there for some river-crossing company, rather than chance it on their own.
When we turned up they were on the verge of chucking it in and taking the long way to Weipa, via Mareeba.
Late in The Dry the Mitchell was still flowing in several channels; one of which was deep enough to make us walk it carefully and mark out the shallower sections with sticks we could drive between. The bottom was very soft, but we judged we’d have no trouble if we dropped pressures and called on our traction aids.
With the convoy aired down to 20psi and everyone in low range and with axle diffs locked we ventured across.
Our HiLux mate, who’d waited for river-crossing company, was buoyed by our smooth progress and managed the crossing as well, but he gave the HiLux a fair bootful, just to be sure.
(Since our crossing the Mitchell has been given a ‘leggo’ causeway that makes the crossing much safer.)
We camped on the river bank, on a sandy section that gave us a waterfront view and supped to the sound of the rippling Mitchell River.
Next morning we headed off on the next section of our Mitchell River odyssey. The topo map showed the now-narrow track as Drumduff Road, but the thoroughfare is mixed up with the property tracks on Koolatah Station.
However, some thoughtful soul had placed corrugated iron signs at critical intersections, with ‘thumbnail dipped in tar’ indications towards Dixie Road and Musgrave Station, up on the Peninsula Developmental Road.
Dixie Road proved to be a much slower track than the previous day’s run from Karumba, so it was almost dark by the time we arrived at the Peninsula Developmental Road. The track was narrow and dotted with numerous rocky sections, bulldust holes and washaways that demanded care.
The country in between is mainly open woodland and savannah, with surprises such as large lily ponds in unexpected locations.
Today the countryside is peaceful, but it wasn’t like that during the early years of white settlement…
Mitchell River battle
In October 1864 Frank and Alexander Jardine, sons of the Rockhampton magistrate, John Jardine, set off from Ingham with a mob of cattle, heading for Cape York. The aim was to set up a cattle station on The Cape, to supply fresh meat for the proposed settlement at Somerset.
The drovers reached Somerset five months later, after being harassed by Aboriginal tribes along the way. The most dramatic incident passed into folklore as the Battle of The Mitchell.
On December 16 the two brothers were riding ahead of the main party and the cattle, when they came across a scrub-fringed creek and had to cut a path through to the water. The spot was very close to the present location of Koolatah Station.
While the drovers were marking a crossing place for the cattle they saw some Aborigines and tried to avoid them. However the tribesmen ran in the direction of the cattle and brandishing their spears laughingly, defied the horsemen, beckoning them to come on.
The two Jardine boys sat down, awaiting the arrival of the cattle, but the natives swam over the creek and tried to surround them. Shots were fired and after eight or nine of their companions dropped the Aborigines fled.
On Sunday, December 18, the party had another encounter with the natives. At another creek crossing three of the drovers were again clearing scrub, when a large party of natives, armed with large bundles of spears and nullahs nullahs, caught up with them. The horsemen rode towards their camp and the natives followed, hurling spears. When the three rejoined the party the drovers fired into the spear-throwing Aborigines and the result was predictably one-sided, with about 30 natives being killed.
The drovers ceased fire and the remaining natives fled, or so it seemed.
As the drovers returned to the cattle, one of the routed natives emerged from the river bank and hurled a spear. His courage cost him his life.
So ended the ‘Battle of the Mitchell’.
Although this route via the Mitchell River crossing is a shortcut from the Gulf to Cape York the river crossing can be dangerous, even with the new causeway. Even late in The Dry the river can flow strongly and low ground clearance 4WDs and trailers can be swept off.
Fortunately, if you do plan to go this way to The Cape and find the river crossing threatening you can continue south east on the Burke Developmental Road, pop in for a farm stay at Wrotham Park (www.wrothampark.com.au) and visit Chillagoe, en route to Mareeba and the Peninsula Developmental Road.