Getting to the Tip of the Cape York Peninsula is a simple exercise during the dry season, as the Peninsula Developmental Road (PDR) is well maintained these days, so much so that many hardcore 4WD travellers reckon the trip is no longer worth it. That, of course, is wrong, as there are enough side tracks from the PDR and the Bamaga Road to keep anyone busy for weeks. One of these tracks is the 170km-long Starcke Track, which ends at abandoned Wakooka Station, where it junctions with the Lakefi eld and Cape Melville National Park tracks.
The journey begins at Cooktown, where you head north-west on the Hope Vale Road and turn off onto Battle Camp Track, 7km before the community. You pass the beautiful Isabella Falls en route before turning north onto the Starcke Track, 8km pass the Hope Vale turnoff. We were on the track in late September 2009 and major road works were in progress. My companions were Peter Fuller and my good neighbours, Neale and Margaret Ellis who were driving their Toyota trayback, while I was in my 1998 Toyota LandCruiser wagon.
The roadworks ended about 12km south of the Starcke River, and if funds are available this year, the improvements will meet up with the Lakefi eld/Cape Melville Track, where a major upgrade ended some 40km east from Kalpower Station.
The Starcke Track is a pretty drive that takes you over the Audaer Range, where high spots provide sweeping panoramic views of the countryside. Patches of monsoon rainforest separated by farms can be seen along the route and peter out past Starcke Station. After crossing the McIvor River, an 18km route tracks east and ends at Morgan’s Landing on the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.
There is good fishing in the estuary and the fringing reefs. By following the beach, you end up at the Cape Flattery silica mine.
Even before you reach the McIvor River, you can see its extensive dune fields, where snow-white sand is piled up into a hill-like range complete with perched lakes. It’s a pretty spot worth exploring if you are fit. The small 220ha Mount Webb National Park is at the crossing.
As you pass Starcke Station, the rainforest patches vanish and make way for the open woodlands that characterise the peninsula.
The scenic Great Divide Range has high hills, escarpments and plateaus. It is part of the upland Starcke National Park, which is totally inaccessible by vehicles. Farther up the track, the Starcke Goldfield and Munburra Resources Reserves are a point of interest, especially the latter.
Little remains of Munburra – a few galvanised iron shacks, some rusty mining equipment, shaft poppets and mining scars about the low hills of this upland plateau are all that’s left of its former life. Only four people live there nowadays, including an old mate of ours, Ray Hancock, who we kept company for a couple of days before pressing on.
But Munburra was not always like that. A prospector named Webb discovered gold in the lower valley in 1896, which started a rush, but little gold was found by the seekers. Angrily they turned on Webb, who was lucky to escape a lynching. But reef gold was found in 1899 – how they got it up the goat track that turns up the 400m range Starcke Range is beyond me! When more gold was found, another battery was erected later.
There is a track from here leading to the Starcke River estuary that ends about 600m from the mouth. Here, you’ll fi nd plenty of bush camping sites and fresh water is available from a stock dam at the turnoff. Do not bathe in it as stock and wildlife drink there.
Gold was discovered on the Starcke River in 1890 by Cairns and Bowden on the head of Diggers Creek. The first rush saw 200 hopefuls on the field and a small township was erected. A post office, police outpost, store and a hotel serviced the small township, but little remains of it today. Nuggets ranging from 27 to 37 ounces were found on the field during the first rush that saw the Chinese outnumber the Europeans.
CAPE MELVILLE NATIONAL PARK
Days earlier, we’d seen a distinct haze in the sky and put it down to bushfires. It was, in fact, the huge dust storm that had originated in South Australia a few days before and blown all the way north into New Guinea, as we were informed on our arrival by a mate camping on the beach at Cape Melville.
It was a nuisance as we had hoped to photograph the remarkable boulder-strewn Melville Range, which was barely visible in the haze.
The range largely consists of huge house-size granite boulders, similar in makeup as the lichen-covered Black Mountains south of Cooktown.The difference being the Melville Range rocks are natural grey and aren’t covered by lichen.
Saint’s Paul Hill, above Cape Melville, is 418m high, and Bay Hill is 432m. The range is divided by two distinct piles of complex rocks. There is some vegetation in hidden valleys where rare fl ora and fauna survive against all odds. The track passes the lower Muck River wetland, where saltwater intrusion has killed off large sections of melaleuca forests. It looked eerie under the dust haze!
The track ends on the beach overlooking Bathurst Bay. There are plenty of campsites under the shady figs and wongai trees in two of the designated sites, but do not camp under the trees if they are bearing fruit because Torres Strait pigeons and fruit bats will defecate on tents and vehicles. This is a great beach for fishing, but swimming is out due to crocodiles, plus – in our case being late in the year – marine stingers. It’s an attractive destination for anglers and a number of campers were present with tinnies anchored in the bay, which is a yellow zone – recreational fishing only.
By driving on the beach, you can get to within 300m of Cape Melville. A running creek is crossed, and there is good fresh water available from where it pours out of the rocky range. Well, it would have been if some visitors weren’t bathing in the spring using plenty of soap and shampoo, even though people are advised not to by nearby signs.
THE BATHURST CYCLONE
On the night of March 4th, 1899, the cream of the Torres Strait pearling fleet sought shelter from a persistent bad sea in Bathurst and Princess Charlotte Bays. Others were at Barrow Point off Ninian Bay and the Howick Island Group, totalling over 80 ships – schooners, cutters and luggers while a lightship was moored off Pipon Island.
During the night, a cyclone of monstrous brutal force struck. It was accompanied by a 15m-plus tidal wave, the highest ever recorded in modern times.
When daylight arrived, the nightmare that the ships and crews had to endure came alight. Only one ship, a schooner and the aptly named Crest of the Wave, remained afloat. Help arrived three days later from Cooktown in time to help bury over 300 people, ships crews and many Aboriginal people who had been camped under the same trees where modern 4WD travellers now camp.
A monument of Australia’s worst maritime disaster in terms of human fatalities is located about 600m off the beach on the western side of the eastern range complex, where the boulders end and a gap between the two complexes is evident. There are no directional signs.
Most of the beach is hard, though the eastern section is soft and sandy, needing tyres to be defl ated properly. There is good fishing off the rocks at Cape Melville and also at Bathurst Head, which is reached from Kalpower Station as the Muck River prevents driving there directly from Cape Melville.
Be wary of crocodiles, as the beach was the scene of an almost fatal attack in 2005 when a large croc grabbed a sleeping man by the leg in a tent he shared with his wife and baby. His cries awoke others, including his mother-in-law who bravely jumped on the reptile’s back. It turned on her and broke her arm. Had it not being for her son, who came to her aid with a 9mm pistol and shot the reptile, she would have been killed.
While a place of beauty, it’s tales like this that remind you that you’ve still got to keep your wits about you in Cape York.
WHERE: The 204km Starcke Track turns off is on the Cooktown to Lakefield National Park Battle Camp Road, 8km north past the Hope Vale turnoff. The Munburra Resources Reserve turn-off is unmarked but is about 12km south of the Starcke River. The track terminates at abandoned Wakooka Station.
CAMPING: There are no recognised camping grounds along the route, but unofficial bush camping grounds are at the Morgan’s Landing on the Olive River and the Starcke River, or in the bush, though there is little surface water later in the dry season.
SUPPLIES AND FACILITIES: Cooktown – fuel, LPG gas, mechanical repairs, tyres, accommodation and more is available in the town. There is no fuel or supplies from Cooktown north, excepting Laura, Hann River Roadhouse and Musgrave Roadhouse to the west. Contact Cooktown’s Booking Centre (07) 4069 5446 for accommodation and tours in town.
TRIP STANDARD: The conditions of the Starcke Track change dramatically with stream crossing and bogs early in the dry season, followed by large stretches of bulldust from September on. Early summer storms and sometimes south-east trade wind rains during the dry make it difficult for smaller and under equipped 4WDs. Carry recovery equipment and have good A/T tyres or Mud Grippers fitted.
MAPS AND GUIDES: Hema Maps – Cape York Peninsula. Hema – Cape York Atlas and Guide.
CONTACTS AND INFORMATION: Cooktown EPA Ranger Officer, Wharf Complex (07) 4069 5777.
Lakefield National Park (07) 4060 3271. Web: www.epa.qld.gov.au.
RACQ Cooktown (07) 4069 5233 or 13 1111.
Cooktown Auto Repairs and Tyres (07) 4069 5933.
BUDGET ATTRACTIONS: The Starcke Track runs through the Mount Webb NP, while a well-equipped 4WD can also take the beach track to Cape Flattery. Side tracks end at old mine sites, abandoned cattle station ruins and waterholes. The track traverses Aboriginal lands at Ngulun before entering the Cape Melville National Park.