I can’t remember a track that had so many conflicting opinions surrounding it. I’d never driven the Old Coach Road so could only go off the say of others which was where the problems started. One group suggested it was nothing more than a slow and boring slog along a bumpy road with little to nothing to offer. Other opinions suggested it was perhaps the best track in the Cape and yet another whisper on the 4WD grape vine told of a truck that had rolled just a few days earlier. I was at a loss as to what to believe but I sure was interested.
Then, just a couple of weeks prior to leaving for the Cape, we received a call from none other than Brenno. On a hot lap of the island, sucking the guts out of life and doing his bit to keep the Australian beer industry afloat, he’d just finished the Old Coach Road and for the first time I had an opinion I could count on.
Gnarly sections of track, epic views, relics of mining history, spectacular camping – Brenno rated the drive from Maytown to Laura as one of the best he had ever done; anywhere. Mate I gotta tell ya, I finished that call and couldn’t get the D-MAX fueled up quick enough; you had me frothing like a dog that’s just drunk dishwashing liquid. Bring on the Old Coach Road!
Then I caught the man-flu and nearly died.
I kid you not; a bloke can’t get sicker and still walk. Of course if you’re female and reading this you simply won’t understand; the man-flu is about as sick as a human can get – you ladies are damn lucky you can’t catch it. I don’t want your sympathy but I felt like I was burning up whilst freezing to death and coughing up creatures that are as yet unknown to science – it wasn’t a pretty sight.
However the show must go on and even though nobody would go near me and I was under strict instructions to sit on the downwind side of the fire at night, we saddled up and turned off the highway onto the dusty stretch of road that leads towards the Palmer River. Now the sandy banks of the Palmer is no secret location, it plays home to countless caravans and campers throughout the dry season and with good reason as it’s truly a magic bit of real estate, so I was surprised to see only one camper in the whole area. We stopped to grab a bite of lunch (and for me to cough and sneeze myself dizzy) before heading on. Sometimes it kills me to just get a taste for a location but not have the time to stop and stay a while and really get to enjoy it and the Palmer River was one such time and place. I’ll add it to my very long list of places I must one day return minus a film crew!
I’ve visited many an old mining town, mostly just a few ruins, bricks, broken bottles and rusted lumps of metal are all that remain, so it’s so very hard to picture the thriving communities that once stood. Maytown is no different; very little remains today, yet it was once a thriving hub of activity. It blows my mind to think that it can all just vanish and exist only in books. Looking through at what does remain and remembering that everything was hand built and carted in via the most primitive of means really suggests a different time. Now we use our phone to call a cab which takes us to the pub; when Maytown was going nuts you packed your belongings in a wheel barrow (if you were lucky) and walked. Like I said, a different time.
Despite being little more than ruins and dust, I recon old mate Shauno wishes he had of stayed there and thrown out his swag on the main street. The poor bloke didn’t exactly have the best of luck on this particular trip. Seeing the Dirty 30 retreat on the back of Justin’s tilt-tray truck was a kick in the guts, especially when we hadn’t even really started the journey yet. However, he and I are on the road most of the year and push our gear to the limits on all occasions. It can’t always go well and breakages are expected. Oh and he drives a Toyota!
All jokes aside, seeing that trusty old truck get carted off really got me to thinking about a few things surrounding the Old Coach Road. See it’s not what you’d call one of the more popular tracks up the Cape and I know why; it doesn’t get the publicity other tracks get. There must be a million articles, web clips, blogs and images of the OTL but rarely to never do you hear about the Old Coach Road. As such, people being creatures of habit, simply head for locations they’ve been told about rather than exploring for themselves. Those that do poke their noses across the Palmer however, are richly rewarded. It’s a tough track demanding skill and preparation. For sure, it’s one of the better tracks up the Cape; top five in my books (and the OTL isn’t on that list!).
Shauno broke not one, but two 4WDs on this track
The next thought to occupy my mind as I watched the back of the Dirty 30 evaporate into dust, was just how the hell did “the old coach” make this journey? I came to two conclusions; the first of which was one of maintenance. Of course the track hasn’t been looked after for a long time, coupled with a number of Cape seasons and it’s bound to end up in the condition it’s in today. In short, it wasn’t always the rutted mess it is today. That said though, given the carts and coaches that crawled its length, it wouldn’t have been a picnic. Which led me to conclusion two; it was a different time inhabited by different people. Distance and travel were measured in ways we have long forgotten (it’s nothing for us to smash out a thousand clicks on corrugated roads today and think nothing of it) and bush living is a concept even those of us who spend a lot of time out there can’t fathom. Add all this together and it began to make sense; the Old Coach Road has always been a tough place filled with tough characters. It’s still handing out lessons and I had to tip my hat in respect.
Then the camera 80 threw a shoe and I swore at the bloody track and all who had built the darn thing!
Over the years of filming we’ve had our share of things go wrong and for the most part it happens exactly where it hurts most. I mean not once, not bloody once have we busted a kingpin bearing in the car park of Maccas or smashed a CV driving into the local pub; nope it always happens on the side of a rutted hill in the middle of nowhere. So when I saw the 80 lurch sideways and that passenger wheel wobble like a loose tooth, I just nodded my head and thought to myself; well played Old Coach Road, well played.
Now my immediate thought was that limb is out of action and we need to make a wooden leg. I’ve never done it but I’ve seen it done; cut a sturdy tree and create a “sled” using ratchet straps and gumption. The lads acknowledged my concept and put it on the plan B pile as they figured they could get the one remaining bolt in place and with the same ratchet straps and gumption might just get the wheel back in the game. Several hours of swearing and bush mechanics later, the 80 rolled into camp like a new one (actually it was nothing like a new one but it was moving forward and for that we were all grateful).
By midmorning the next day we‘d covered about the same distance as the original coach would have but with one saving grace; all four wheels on the 80 were pointing in the same direction. Shaun was under strict instructions to go slow and not to break anything else. The rest of us were not going to miss out on the best bit of the Old Coach Road.
It’s one of my top five tracks in the Cape
The detour up towards the site of the old Folders Hotel is without doubt the toughest part of the track and also the most worthwhile. Just to experience driving those cut out rock gulleys is worth the whole trip alone. I once again was boggled as to what would have been a thriving community out there. I mean Maytown and the Palmer region alone was home to over 20,000 people including over 10 hotels, bakers and butchers, surgeons and chemists; it was a proper thriving community. And it all came in via horse and cart, Cobb and co-coaches and for many, just a wheel barrow or a simple backpack. Just out of this world, literally.
I cannot recommend that detour enough should you decide the Old Coach Road is for you; missing it is to miss the essence of the whole track (just don’t tell Shauno that). Speaking of old mate, he’d been within ear shot of our UHF banter for all of the detour as he sat in first gear low range and crawled painfully slowly towards Laura. Too say he didn’t look impressed when we all met back up down the track were an understatement.
I began the Old Coach Road full of expectation and excitement and wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. We saw one other group the whole way, camped in some amazing locations, saw views you rarely get up the Cape and busted a few 4WDs along the way. I now rate the Old Coach Road as an absolute must see on any Cape journey but heck, don’t take my word for it, go judge for yourself. Don’t take it lightly though, it’s been breaking old coaches and Toyotas for years now…
WORDS BY GRAHAM CAHILL, PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVE WOLTSCHENKO