CAPE MELVILLE NATIONAL PARK
Wild and historic country en route to Cape York
Cape Melville is a little visited destination on the way to Cape York and the main reasons are the remoteness of the place and the difficult access tracks. However, if you don’t mind slogging through rutted bulldust and deep sand, then living with crocs, rays, sharks, stingers, dingoes, feral bulls, giant pigs and hordes of voracious sandflies you’ll just love it. Oh, the fishing’s not bad either
“Can’t he catch anything but salmon?” It wasn’t so much a complaint as curiosity, because the fresh salmon fillets were going down a treat. But someone had to ask.
Our mate Neil was reeling them in and we’d already devoted the backup fridge to keeping his catches nice and cold. Looked like salmon for lunch and dinner again today.
Neil was being very careful, though: moving up and down the shore, rather than standing in the same spot. He’d also have a break every couple of hours, so there wasn’t a constant shore-based human in easy croc-strike range. It was a wise move, because we’d already seen three substantial ‘salties’ close to the shore and we’d only arrived the afternoon before. It doesn’t take crocs long to start eyeing people off.
The place already had ‘form’. The river mouth not far from where we were camped was the site of a well reported croc attack that was foiled by a woman throwing herself on the beast and belting it until it let go its prey.
We didn’t want to tempt the crocs to investigate us too closely, because behind our shaded campsite was a black-silt estuarine mudflat that flooded when the tide came in. There was ample evidence the crocs slid in there: the scattered bones of a wild cow that may have become bogged in the clinging ooze. What the crocs didn’t want the pigs, dingoes and kites finished off.
A big, brindled pig visited us the first night, on the lookout for anything edible, but we hunted him off with spotlights. The local dingo was a regular during daylight hours.
We were sitting out front of our tent on the second morning, when a blur of white-capped sea eagle shot into view, snatched a small creature from behind a grass tuft not five metres away and was gone in a flash.
Yep, nature is sure on display at Cape Melville
The adventure had begun two days before, in Cooktown, where we enjoyed a pool swim and stocked up for a week in the bush. We were warned the track conditions would be tough, but we weren’t in a hurry and decided to split the estimated 12-hour slog into a two-day drive.
The first section of the trek was an easy run on bitumen and good dirt beside the Endeavour River – named after you know whose barque. Initially the road ran through pastoral land, but soon plunged into thick rainforest and jungle, criss-crossed by dry creek crossings, with tall hills in the background. Very spectacular.
Pastoral land resumed 75km along the road, including an unexpected patch of plantation palms. To the east of the track we caught glimpses of a tall sandstone escarpment that parallelled our progress.
At this stage we were wondering about the horror stories of the Cape Melville track, but we needn’t have doubted the reports. Not far from the old Starcke property boundary the track deteriorated into a pair of tyre tracks that alternated between deep sand, bull dust, washaways and rocky outcrops. We dropped tyre pressures to mid-20psi levels and eased the ride.
We soon came across the wreck of an inverted ute that had obviously flipped after hitting a washaway. This track was fine at low speed, so we took our time and needed three hours to travel only 40km, to a grassy bush camp.
Because we’d seen so many wild, spooky cattle we decided to ‘circle the wagons’ in a defensive ring around our little campsite and, after the mandatory fireside talkfest tucked in for the night.
At precisely 4:15am all hell broke loose. We could hear crashing noises, the sound of an engine working hard and see the flash of bright spotlights cutting through the dark. “Strewth,” I thought. “Pig shooters – I hope they can see us.”
I jumped out of the tent and grabbed a torch to show our position, but I didn’t need to. The vehicle in question was obviously on the track and when its reversing lights came on they illuminated the bow of a boat, on a trailer.
It seemed that the vehicle held a few lads who had been on a fishing trip and needed to be in Cooktown by daylight. They were having trouble navigating the difficult terrain in the dark, hence the sweeping lights and the need to reverse. We watched their departing lights, listened to the gradually fading sounds of the trailer groaning in protest and wished them well.
Our daytime progress north was more ordered, but it took us all day to cover the 100km from our overnight camp to Bathurst Bay.
We stopped briefly to examine the ruins of the old Nevin’s Outstation and were amazed to find a Telstra satellite communications installation on site. It looked like it had never been used and although the dish and the solar batteries were still in place the solar panels had been removed. The paperwork in the fuse box recorded the local indigenous community as the owners of the equipment.
The track cut through alternating patches of tropical savannah and forest, with the ground becoming progressively sandier. The flat progress was a relieved at one point by a rocky ridge that gave us views of the Altanmoui Range in the distance.
We made the final turnoff to Cape Melville National Park at the site of the old Wakooka station buildings. Not far from the turnoff was a property dam that had become a temporary home to hundreds of ducks and geese, taking refuge in one of the last water holes left at the end of the dry season.
The track was smoother for the last 40km to Bathurst Bay, but became more sandy and soft the nearer we came to the coast. The track crossed several rocky ridges and each one gave us closer views of the brooding Melville Range in the distance.
After pushing through mallee scrub, savannah and open woodland sections we knew we were coming to the coast when we encountered paperbark swampland.
The coastline hit us, literally, with a breath of fresh air, after the steamy swampland; a crescent of white, shell-dotted sand with flat, rocky outcrops sloping gently into the blue-green ocean. Offshore islands looked like they were floating on the calm water. How inviting, but how forbidden!
We had no trouble finding a campsite, because the land spit between the ocean and the mudflats was blessed with stands of shady Red Coondoo trees that spread leafy branches out over the grass. The black granite boulders of the Melville Range formed a magnificent backdrop.
Suddenly the long drive was forgotten.
The tents went up in record time and very soon after we were seated in the shade, sipping cold beverages and surveying our temporary home. We agreed there were worse places, especially when Neil dragged the first of several fish dinners out of the water.
Bathurst Bay is some 13km from the tip of Cape Melville and with favourable tides it’s possible to drive up the coast all the way to the tip. However, our progress was barred by several very soft, deep estuary outfalls and the tide didn’t fall enough to let them drain out to the sea, so we were forced to return to our camp. The thought of being stuck on a rising tide in a croc-infested estuary wasn’t very appealing…
For the return trip from Cape Melville we retraced our tracks as far as the Wakooka ruins and turned west towards Lakefield National Park. This track was easier than the rutted, eroded one into Cape Melville, but was very sandy in places, sending us into low range and making us thankful we are still running only medium tyre pressures. The vegetation varied between savannah and tall forest, and we came across several grass fires, but they caused no trouble, being slow moving and with much lower flame temperature than the wildfires Down South.
The country was dry and dusty late in the dry season, and most of the creeks and waterholes had evaporated or shrunk. However, we passed a lonely gravesite that served as a reminder that with The Wet come sudden, powerful waterflows; one of which took the life of a local teenager during the wet season in 1961.
The last 30km to the Normanby River ford at Kalpowar Station was rough, potholed clay, criss-crossed in places by tree roots and, even where the surface was level, sharp corrugations had formed.
Just inside the Lakefield National Park gate the former rickety log bridge had been replaced by a new one, made from large-diameter logs, so the crossing was much easier than it used to be.
When we crossed the ford at Kalpowar and drove up to the Lakefield Road it looked like a super highway! From there it was an easy run to the self registration campsite at the Twelve Mile, followed by the highway drive to Cairns – and hot showers.
Cape Melville now and then
This large ‘bump’ of land on the way to Cape York was named by Lieutenant Charles Jeffreys of the HMS Kangaroo in 1815, but the local aboriginal ‘saltwater’ people weren’t disturbed until the huge Palmer River goldrush in the 1870s. There are still mine relics visible in the Cape Melville area.
By the 1880s the area was being exploited for its pearl, beche de mer and trochus resources. In 1899 cyclone Mahina crossed Cape Melville and destroyed the pearling fleet that was anchored in Bathurst Bay. More than 300 people died in the incident and there’s a marble monument making the shipwreck site at Cape Melville.
At low tide it’s also possible to see the remains of a US Army Air Force C-47 aircraft that crashed into the bay in 1945. Most of the passengers parachuted out of the plane and the remaining crew crash landed into the shallows. Remarkably, all but one person survived and they were rescued by a Cairns-based flying boat two days later.
The distinctive feature of Cape Melville National Park is the black granite boulder pile called the Melville Range. The granite was formed 250 million years ago and has weathered in a similar way to the boulder piles at Black Mountain, just south of Cooktown.
The Altanmoui Range sits on the same type of granite, but has a capping of sandstone that formed 120 million years ago, when the range was buried under the sea.
Cape Melville has several plant species that occur nowhere else in the world and the best known is the Foxtail Palm (Wodyetia bifurcata). This brush-topped palm grows on rocky slopes inside the Park and features a grey, bottle-shaped trunk.
This spectacular palm was only discovered in the late 1970s and because of demand for seeds and it being endemic to only a very small area there was a flourishing black market in its seed for several years. The Queensland Government still has the palm on its endangered species list.
To protect the local environment the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service restricts the number of visitors to Cape Melville. It’s essential to pre-book, by contacting NPWS Cairns (07) 4046 6600.
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