THERE ARE three types of people who own four wheel drives – those who buy them for their ‘prestige’ value and hardly ever venture off the bitumen, those who head bush whenever they can find the time, and those who live where bitumen driving is the exception rather than the rule. Up here on Cape York Peninsula, an off-road capable vehicle is a necessity, not a luxury.
When Weipa Thrifty Car Rental managers Gayle and Rob went looking for fleet vehicles capable of handling the rigours of the Cape’s gravel highways, they had certain requirements in mind – ruggedness, reliability, handling and comfort. Ease of cleaning was another requirement, as each car has to be detailed on its return.
When you head out along the unsealed roads of the Cape or outback, and a few user UNfriendly items raise their ugly heads! Removing dust and sand from expensive carpet and interior fittings after a couple of weeks off the tar can be time consuming and frustrating. Electronics, like those found in electric windows and CD players, can also suffer from long-term dust inhalation.
It is therefore standard for Thrifty 4WD vehicles headed Weipa way to have vinyl upholstery and floor mats plus manual door winders and locks. If you want to spend lots of time ‘getting dirty’, it makes sense to choose a vehicle with practical options like these.
Toyota’s LandCruiser has always topped the sales of 4WD vehicles in Australia. To hold top position for so long requires consistent quality, reliability and after-sales service. It’s little wonder that Thrifty Weipa have chosen LandCruiser 100 series wagons as their top end 4WD workhorse.
When the opportunity arose to review one of their recent fleet additions, I decided to approach the vehicle test from a family touring angle. Having owned a continual string of 4WD vehicles since 1971, and spending a decade of that time driving unsealed roads and bush tracks almost daily, my focus was the vehicle’s handling of the day-to-day conditions encountered on a typical Cape or outback trip, rather than trying to find limitations by mud, sand or steep inclines.
The LandCruiser 100 series has been around since the late 90s and hasn’t changed much – a sure sign that Toyota got it right first up! The test vehicle was diesel powered with a five-speed manual gearbox, high and low range, manually operated free-wheeling hubs, four-wheel disc brakes, limited slip rear differential and an extra long range fuel tank as standard features.
Optional extras included an internal roll bar and mesh luggage retainer behind the rear passenger seat, plus a roof-mounted yellow flashing light. As the Thrifty vehicles are often used by companies contracted to bauxite miner Comalco, these extras are mandatory requirements to comply with their strict safety guidelines.
While diesel motors might not be strictly ‘fashionable’, in the outback you’d be hard pressed to find a local vehicle that doesn’t have a diesel engine. When you’re a long way from the nearest specialist mechanical workshop, it’s a priority to have a motor that’s simple to maintain. Give a diesel clean air, clean oil and clean fuel and it should run for a very long time.
Off the mark, the 4.2-litre, six-cylinder 1HZ engine proved responsive and smooth, getting the vehicle to cruising speed quickly and easily. These large capacity diesels really shine when plenty of low down torque is needed, particularly when negotiating deep sand or towing a trailer, but they also cruise effortlessly all day when required.
To fully investigate the ‘family’ aspect of the 100 series wagon test, there were four adults in our party accompanied by the usual personal and off-road necessities, including esky and basic recovery gear. We decided not to do any camping during on the six-day trip to the tip of Cape York and back but, if we had wanted to, we could easily have included a compact tent and accessories in the roomy area behind the rear seat.
One of the first features of the 100 series I noticed was the excellent forward vision over the slightly sloped bonnet – a marked improvement on some of the other larger 4WDs I’ve driven of late. This feature made it much less intimidating to negotiate tight corners, washouts and tree-lined bush tracks.
After a first night stop at Bramwell Station, north of the Wenlock River, the off-road adventure really began. Road conditions on the Weipa and Peninsula Development Road, apart from the 40km Batavia Downs shortcut, varied from medium corrugations to freshly graded – an absolute breeze in the 100 Series.
The overland telegraph track north of Bramwell would have to be one of the highlights of the Cape York experience. It reeks of history and hardship and has a beauty that barely conceals a harshness well known to those who built and maintained the wires that kept Australia in touch with the rest of the world for half a century.
I had no intentions of putting the vehicle or my passengers through the trauma of the Gunshot Creek crossing but we traversed the Palm, Bertie, Alice, and Cockatoo creeks and the Dulhunty River with ease. Washouts, deep sand, rocky outcrops, steep slopes, water crossings and various combinations of those conditions kept progress fairly slow, but had the advantage of allowing us to take in the fascinating countryside.
There were some interesting times at the Canal and Cannibal creek crossings after a pleasant lunch experiencing the lushness and tranquillity of Fruit Bat Falls. Again, the 100 Series handled the rough terrain effortlessly and comfortably, a fact readily verified by my ‘back seat’ drivers.
By late afternoon we were ensconced in a couple of Punsand Bay Lodges ‘cabents’ (half cabin, half tent) enjoying a marvellous Torres Strait sunset. It had been eight years since Denise and I had left Punsand and we were thrilled to be back, particularly now that our friends Gary and Sue were resident managers.
Over the next four days the Toyota traversed deep sand, heavy corrugations, rock outcrops and exposed tree roots as we revisited some of the special places discovered during my seven years living at the pointy end of Oz. The LandCruiser went wherever I asked it to go, usually on the first attempt. There were only a couple of times heavy sand required a second try.
The limited slip differential proved its worth many times in the sandy soil, in one instance helping us to negotiate a difficult sand hole around the outside of badly bogged older Toyota, sporting much wider tyres. At no time did we strike sand that proved soft enough to warrant lowering air pressure in the tyres, even though they were standard (narrow) 750/16 ‘lug’ type off-road models.
The trip back to Weipa along the main drag, otherwise known as the ‘bypass track,’ was much quicker but far less enjoyable than the Telegraph Line. In spite of the Jardine River ferry being broken down and having to be pulled across the river by Toyota power (one on each bank with tow ropes), our eight-hour journey home was comfortable and incident-free.
Back in Weipa after some 1300km of gravel or worse, the final comments on vehicle performance were left to the other members of the party. All admitted that they had been expecting a much rougher ride and were unanimous in voting the Toyota LandCruiser 100 Series an absolute pleasure to travel the Cape’s varied road conditions.
Thanks go to Weipa Thrifty Car Rental and Pacific Toyota in Cairns for supplying the test vehicle.
Rollover is the most common vehicle accident on the Cape’s roads and is usually the result of vehicles travelling too fast for the road conditions. Modern suspension systems filter out the corrugations and bumps much more effectively than those of a decade ago, so the usual response – particularly with more powerful vehicles – is to put the pedal to the metal and travel faster.
Hit a patch of heavy corrugations or a washout in excess of 100km/h and you may find the rear end of the vehicle trying to pass the front, with devastating consequences. There are plenty of drivers each season, both tourists and locals, who acquaint themselves with this life-threatening situation!
So be very careful to study the conditions of the dirt road and adjust your speed accordingly. Always be ready for the unexpected – and unmarked washout, rocks protruding from the road surface, bulldust holes, cattle or wildlife crossings or vehicles coming around a blind corner. Even a small lapse in concentration could be disastrous.
1) Fording a water crossing in Cape York’s magnificent Lockerbie scrub rainforest.
2) Looking south towards the main shipping channel from the moth of Kennedy Inlet. Typical Cape York termite mounds and pandanus palms line the foreshores.
3) One of the favourite ‘morning tea’ stops on the overland Telegraph track – the Dulhunty River.
CAPE YORK TOURING
By flying to Weipa and then hiring a LandCruiser, it’s possible to maximize holiday time by cutting out the long, rough and relatively boring drive from Cairns – a good option for people who have always wanted to visit the Cape but who can never find the time.
Most of the Cape’s major features are situated north of the Weipa turnoff, so this option is both practical and economical. While it’s possible to travel from Cairns to Weipa by road in one 12-hour stint, most visitors take a couple of days to come up the track. Therefore, by starting from Weipa rather than Cairns, you can free up a few days from your itinerary. These ‘extra’ days may be used to mount a comprehensive 4WD exploration of the top half of the Cape.
A six-day trip is probably the optimum timeframe to take in the many features of northern Cape York Peninsula. Places not to miss are the Telegraph Track (minus Gunshot), at least one of the Falls (Fruit Bat, Elliot, Twin), a walk to the ‘Tip’, Somerset, Thursday Island and the war museum on Horn Island.
Camping and accommodation are available at Punsand Bay, Seisia, Loyalty Beach and the Bamaga Resort on the mainland. Allow at least one day to travel to TI and Horn (two days is better), staying overnight on one of the islands.
The absolute minimum time would be four days – one up, one back, one day to the Tip and Somerset, the other to TI/Horn – but the extra days would allow you to travel the Telegraph Track at leisure and possibly visit some of the other spots like Captain Billy’s Landing, the mouth of the Jardine River and Bramwell Station.
Such a trip is certainly an exciting addition to the Cape’s repertoire of travelling scenarios. Getting to the northernmost point of our wonderful country is something all Australians must do in their lifetime.
4) Gayle from Weipa Thrifty Car Rental. If you want to cut down on travelling time you’re better off catching a flight to Weipa and hiring a vehicle from there, instead of driving all the way from Cairns.
PUNSAND BAY LODGE
The Punsand Bay of today looks very different from the place I lived at from 1992 to 1997. Managers Gary and Sue have done wonders, establishing extensive gardens and lawns, installing a swimming pool and their unique ‘cabents’, while offering excellent dining.
Gary’s boast that Punsand Bay’s Saturday night seafood buffet was the best you’d find anywhere certainly received the thumbs up from the group at our table. When the first item on your plate is half a freshly cooked Torres Strait crayfish, you know what’s to follow will be special.
The only problem with the buffet night occurs when Gary starts to recite his bush poetry, much of which is directed at those who reside at the ‘poorer’ end of Australia. We Northerners were laughing so much we almost choked on our oysters, prawns and baby octopus, a definite hazard to our health.
After so much good work, Gary and Sue have decided to move on and downsize their heavy workload of the past eight years. Punsand Bay will be in the hands of a new management team next season, and I’m sure they will work hard to maintain the Lodge’s great reputation.
If you’d like more info or want to make a booking, you can contact the Lodge on (07) 4069 1722. The view from the beach alone, looking towards the islands of Torres Strait, makes this place worth the visit.
5) Punsand Bay Lodge is a beautiful place to stay while touring this area.