We saw the truck coming and put up all the windows. As it drove past we came to a stop, blinded by the dust swirling over the road. The wind slowly pushed the haze to the east, revealing the dirt track again. We drove on and put the windows back down, relishing the air.
Welcome to life on the Red Highway.
Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula has a reputation as the domain of 4WD enthusiasts, grey nomads and bus tours. Reaching the top is an 800-kilometre drive from Cooktown and almost 1000 kilometres from Cairns. The sealed roads end early in the trip and it could be days before you drive on anything but dirt, mud or sand. Fresh food, good coffee and mobile reception are rare. But what this adventure lacks in convenience it makes up for with incredible experiences.
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The mornings begin early. Birdsong is a poetic way of describing the squawking that comes from the trees some days. If that doesn’t get us up then it’s usually the light. Once the sun rises the tent and caravan heat up quickly. Even in the dry season – considered a more pleasant time to visit – temperatures are high. We pack up our camp spot, fill our water bottles, put the cameras within reach, and hit the road.
After a few hundred kilometres on dirt roads I fall into a rhythm while bouncing around in the passenger seat. The landscape changes all the time, but we always find ourselves back on this red road.
I take photos from the open window, and keep watch for reasons to pull over: a waterfall, brumbies or brahman cattle grazing on the side of the road, a lily-filled lagoon. We enjoy the odd bit of sealed road before it returns; the Red Highway stretching into the horizon.
Our route is punctuated by names on the map – Laura, Coen, Hann River, Archer River, Musgrave. In my head, these settlements will break up the stretches of dusty roads and scrub. But often there is nothing more than a roadhouse and a telephone box. We usually refuel, treat ourselves to an overpriced chocolate, and drive on.
There’s a lot of ground to cover.
At Laura I pop into the general, and only, store to buy stamps. The shelves carry a random assortment of groceries; the prices are scribbled on the products in black marker. With about six people inside, the small, dark shop feels crowded. When two women ahead of me take their purchases to the counter, the shopkeeper pulls out a notebook full of names and amounts and makes another entry.
At Hann River, a long way from anywhere, a girl from Manchester fills up our tank. She’s here to complete her 88 days of rural work to be eligible for another year on her working holiday visa. We meet many backpackers doing the same as we journey through these remote areas.
Coen is the biggest town until we reach the north of the Peninsula, but there’s not much to it beyond a cafe, two fuel pumps – one of which is out of diesel for another two days – and the Exchange Hotel, which someone has renamed by placing an ‘S’ in front of the sign on the top of the building. Mum has a cappuccino from an instant coffee machine at the cafe and I buy a juice, which according to the bottle expired 9 months ago.
We pay $10 to join the cars parked at the rugby field where the colts are warming up. Some are running over the course grass in bare feet. The players get changed at their cars – there aren’t any change room – and the spectators sit on plastic chairs and milk crates along the boundary. The opposition is from Hopevale, 300km away.
We don’t see a lot of traffic. School holidays are over so it isn’t as busy as it was a few weeks ago. The 10 4WDs parked at Bramwell Junction almost make the place feel crowded. This is the start of the Old Telegraph Track, which is an extreme 4WD-only road. Dad spots one car go up the track only to return five minutes later.
The guy manning the fuel pump says a lot just drive to the first creek, take a photo, and come back.
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A few hundred kilometres pass easily in these landscapes. The ant hills get bigger, then turn white as the red dirt road becomes sandy. The vegetation changes to dense scrub and gets lower to the ground. Sometimes we have a view for just a few seconds, then the tall trees return. The trees to the west are always brown from the dust. There’s some strong winds through here.
That dust gets everywhere. We’ve sealed up every gap we can think of – the windows of the caravan are shut tightly, a plastic bag is duct taped over the air vent at the bottom of the door. Yet every afternoon when we set up camp, a thin layer of red dust coats nearly every surface. Scrubbing my stained feet becomes a nightly ritual.
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The evenings are special. On our way north we avoid the official campgrounds and instead pull into disused gravel pits or an overgrown truck stop with just enough trees and scrub around to hide us from the traffic. We string some rope between trees and hang up the clothes that have been sloshing around in a bucket in the shower. The Red Highway’s bumpy roads are nearly as effective as a washing machine.
The camp table and chairs are set up outside. Dad cooks some meat on a small gas barbecue, while mum and I prepare a salad. Country music plays over the small speakers. It’s often the only sound. By the end of the trip I’ll know nearly all the words to Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. Leroy Van Dyke’s The Auctioneer proves more challenging.
Not long after a sunset that either burnt the sky or tickled it with pink, we move inside to escape the flies and mozzies.
• Interested in exploring the Red Highway? Check out this Guide to driving the Cape York Peninsula