Captivating Cape Melville
  |  First Published: September 2004

CAPE MELVILLE, home of the rare foxtail palm, is on Cape York Peninsula, about 160km northwest of Cooktown. The rough 240km 4WD track terminates on the sandy shores of Bathurst Bay. Here, the dramatic Melville Range – a 500m-high jumbled mass of gigantic, black granite boulders – sweeps away to the north, eventually tumbling into the sea at Cape Melville before emerging just offshore as a couple of rocky, oyster-encrusted islets.

The sparkling blue waters of Bathurst Bay stretch westward to the rugged continental islands of the Flinders Group and north to the labyrinth of reefs, shoals and cays of the remarkable Great Barrier Reef. Close to the beach, a pristine stream trickles from the base of the range, providing travellers to this remote spot with a vital source of pure freshwater.

The waters of the bay are literally teeming with fish, and the occasional saltwater crocodile may also be seen. The Melville Range’s endemic flora and fauna is considered significant; as well as the beautiful foxtail palm, two rare reptiles – the Cape Melville boulder skink and the tropical ring-tailed gecko – are found nowhere else. The abundant bird life in the region includes brolgas, jabiru, magpie geese, black cockatoos and blue-winged kookaburras, to name just a few.

Sitting atop a huge boulder under the dazzling blue skies of a perfect winter’s day, gazing across the gently rippling seas, it’s hard to imagine this place as the scene of the worst maritime disaster in Australia’s peacetime history. On the night of March 4, 1899, tropical cyclones Mahina and Nachon collided over Bathurst Bay,annihilating the local pearling fleet. The howling winds reached over 200kmh, whipping up a storm surge 16m high, destroying or sinking over 70 vessels including five large schooners and 66 pearling luggers and claiming more than 300 lives. There were 45 vessels anchored in the lee of Cape Melville when the storm hit, and only one survived – the aptly-named Crest of the Wave. At the base of the range a couple of kilometres from the tip, a lonely, weathered marble monument honours ‘The Pearlers - Lost in the Dreadful Hurricane’.

If you’re seeking a genuine escape from civilization I reckon Cape Melville is perfect. It takes a bit of preparation and effort to get there but once you’ve experienced the wilderness atmosphere and the invigorating sense of isolation, not to mention the great fishing, you’ll be back again. I know I will!

Getting There

The only time to travel overland to Cape Melville is during the dry season from about June to October. The challenging 240km journey north from Cooktown takes around 13 hours and is suitable only for experienced, well-equipped 4WDers. Ideally, you should travel in convoy with at least one other vehicle and take a comprehensive recovery kit (including at least one winch), a well-stocked remote area first-aid kit, a GPS and an HF radio or satphone.

Staying There

Ample bush campsites (no facilities) are available on the beach overlooking Bathurst Bay and at Cape Melville. National Park camping fees of $4 per person or $16 per family per night apply, and permits must be obtained in advance from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) office in Cooktown (ph. 07 4069 5777) or from Lakefield Ranger Station (ph. 07 4060 3271).


Hema Maps Cape York shows most of the route from Cooktown, but for greater detail try the Auslig 1:250 000 topographic series maps SD55-13 Cooktown and SD55-09 Cape Melville.


1) The challenging 240km drive from Cooktown to Cape Melville takes around 13 hours. It’s suitable only for experienced, well-equipped 4WDers, but arriving to a view like this makes every bump worth it.

2) A couple of rocky, oyster-encrusted islets emerge from the sparkling blue waters just off Cape Melville.

3) This rocky valley at Cape Melville is the origin of the rare foxtail palm.

4) WWII aircraft wreckage is visible on the beach at Cape Melville at low tide.

5) A lonely, weathered marble monument at the base of the range honours ‘The Pearlers - Lost in the Dreadful Hurricane’ that struck Bathurst Bay in March 1899.

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