“Yeah, we were going to do the CREB on the way up the Cape, but the bloody thing was shut.” Sound familiar? Thousands of 4WDers every year make their way up to Cape York for the annual tourist season, which runs roughly between Easter and November. In a region where the seasons come one of two ways – hot and Dry, or hot and Wet – there’s only one real choice for exploring, and that’s the Dry. In the wet, tropical monsoon weather hammers the Cape York Peninsula, flooding rivers and making roads impassable. In the Dry, the coastal area north of Cairns is one of the most stunning places in Australia – if it’s open and accessible.
See, the CREB track has this infamous reputation about it, and it’s up for debate as to whether it’s for a good reason or not. Mention the CREB around a campfire and images of Malaysian Rainforest Challenge-type winch recoveries and endless bogholes come to mind, but it is a deserved stigma or not?
Everyone’s heard the stories about 4WDers being stranded on the CREB for days – massive rescue missions that involved the SES, the police and helicopters. These aren’t just stories, either – type ‘CREB’ and ‘rescue’ into your phone and you’ll come up with bucketloads of old news articles. But the truth is, there are exactly two types of people who get themselves in serious trouble on the CREB, and it’s surprisingly easy to avoid being either.
WHAT MAKES THE CREB SO SPECIAL?
This one track winds its way through some of the most pristine, stunning countryside you’ll see anywhere in FNQ. While the vast majority of the Cape York Peninsula is flat, the CREB runs through some of the northern-most sections of the Great Dividing Range and that means it’s deadset spectacular country. The track climbs various ranges that offer out of the world views from the top, and down in the valleys are absolutely pristine creeks that are so clear and fresh that you’d pay good money to have that water come out of your taps at home.
What really ticks the boxes as 4WDers, though, is that the CREB is a genuine low-range adventure shortcut that allows you to run from Cairns up to Cooktown. It’s considerably shorter and more scenic than the other option, which is over the range, up through Lakeland and into Cooktown via the Mulligan Highway. Plus, the fact you genuinely need a 4WD – even in the dry, thanks to a couple of steep climbs with plenty of erosion mounds – keeps the backpackers in their vans well away. Perfect.
WHAT MAKES IT SO TOUGH?
The steepness combined with the fact that the majority of the track is red clay. Even in the dry you’ll need low-range to get up some of the hills, including the big one that climbs all the way to the phone tower. Add in even the smallest sprinkle of rain and you’ll take away any traction that the track has, and you’ll just sit there spinning your tyres, going no-where. It’s a one-lane track almost the entire way (with places to pull over and let on-coming 4WDs pass), which means there’s not always going to be the opportunity to turn around, either. Steep, slippery, tight – not for beginners.
AVOIDING BEING BOOFHEAD #1: GOING PREPARED
Righto, let’s talk about why the CREB is so infamous, and how you can avoid being the red-faced bloke being rescued at considerable cost to yourself. If you’re heading up to the Cape and you’re planning on doing the fun tracks like the Tele and the Frenchman’s, then you’ll already be prepared enough for the CREB. We’re talking good off-road tyres – All Terrains at a minimum, aired down to around 24psi – and recovery gear, ideally with a winch bolted to the front. Then of course there’s the big one, which is actually knowing how to use your gear properly. If you tick those boxes, then you’re well on your way to success. Way too many of the people who come to grief on the CREB are those who think that a bog-stock 4WD will take them anywhere, only to find that their highway-terrain tyres won’t scrabble a fully-loaded 4WD to the top of the hill.
A word of note here: trailers aren’t specifically banned from the CREB, but they aren’t encouraged, either. Preparedness can also bite you – too much weight will work against you on the CREB. The lighter your load, the better off you’ll be.
AVOIDING BEING BOOFHEAD #2: WATCHING THE WEATHER
All the preparation in the world is useless if you don’t keep an eye on the weather forecasts. Two mills of rain is enough to make the track greasy enough to be un-driveable, even with a set of mud-terrain tyres. This is red clay at its absolute finest – it’s like someone’s stood at the top of the hill and poured a couple of jerrys of diesel down. The first hint of moisture is enough to make it undriveable. Because the steep terrain sits hot and dry for long periods of time, the ground doesn’t do a great job of absorbing the water, either. You won’t find yourself digging down into the mud to find traction – you’ll just sit up on top of it, spinning wheels uselessly.
Or, you might be able to scrabble your way to the top of a hill, but all you’ve done is chew up the track in the process. See, it’s all about respect here. This ain’t the place to prove your truck’s worth by dialling up 6,000rpm and letting your tyres dig their way up the hill. Save that stuff for the low-range tracks back home – enjoy this area, understand it is a track that thousands of 4WDers want to drive every year and don’t chew it up pointlessly.
SO THE CREB’S CLOSED, WHAT NOW?
It’s not the end of the world. Even if you don’t want to take the inland route (which, by the way, is pretty slick as it passes up through the massive Mt Carbine Range), you can stick to the Bloomfield Track. It’s just as pretty a drive – you cross over the Daintree River on the ferry about 10km south of Daintree Village, and then wind your way up and through the mountains. You get to see some pretty spectacular beaches, and it puts you out on the exact same road at Wujal Wujal, on the way up to the Lion’s Den. This is a wide, graded that track that gets steep in a few places – still not suitable for big caravans, but camper trailers are fine.
THE CREB’S FUTURE
At the end of every tourist season, there’s always a rumbling about the CREB being closed permanently. The local coppers and SES get sick of spending serious resources on rescue missions, and big bucks are spent on keeping the track in serviceable condition so the power lines can be maintained. The future of the track is uncertain, but there is one thing that IS certain. The more 4WDers who come to grief on the track, and the more it gets abused, then the quicker the curtain will fall on it permanently. Respect the area if you’re lucky enough to enjoy it, and we’ll have as good a chance as possible of keeping it open for years to come.
The CREB Track runs from the tiny Daintree Village township, north through to Wujal Wujal where it joins back onto the Cape Trib road. It’s a great route north on the run from Cairns up to the Cape via Cooktown, which allows you to stay close to the coast instead of running inland up through Lakeland.
There’s no completely remote free bush camping on the CREB, but unless you get a sudden, unexpected downpour you’ll do the drive at a leisurely pace in a morning or an arvo anyway. There’s top camping to be had at Archer Point, or at the iconic Lion’s Den Hotel, both just north of the finish point. If you leave Cairns in the morning, you’ll comfortably have time to pull into either campsite mid-arvo. If you find you want to break the drive up, Yindilli Campground is a top little spot run by CJ and Helen Fischer. CJ’s also the bloke to talk to about permission to visit Roaring Meg Falls.
FACILITIES & AMENITIES:
Nothing. This is a run through a remote bit of bushland, and it’s almost entirely out of phone range too. You’ll get a bit of Telstra reception at the top of a couple of the climbs, but that’s about it. Paradise, in other words.
WHAT TO TAKE:
The worst thing you can do is take on the CREB unprepared. In the dry, it’s a relaxed, easy run that barely requires airing down, but five minutes of drizzle can make the hills absolutely impassable. It’s not recommended that you take camper trailers on the track, either – some of the climbs are long, steep and there aren’t any places to turn around. Carry recovery gear and know how to use it. Proper off-road All Terrain tyres are an absolute minimum.
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL:
The Wet season usually closes the track between December and March-April each year, but the council are very active in opening and closing the track whenever it rains. It took us four years to match up our Cape trip times with when the CREB was open – it’s a roll of the dice, but general your best bet is between June and October somewhere.
FUEL & SUPPLIES:
Stock up on everything you need in Cairns before you leave. Daintree Village has a reasonable range of supplies but no fuel. The last fuel is at Wonga Beach as you head north, and on the other side the Lion’s Den has both unleaded and diesel. Cooktown has all major supplies as well including bucketloads of spare parts and 4WD and camping gear.
Fuel at the Lion’s Den is about 20c/L dearer than in Cairns.
In dry conditions this trip is rated C – steep, and requiring low-range, but definitely doable. Add even the slightest bit of rain, however, and it turns into the kind of greasy nightmare that a comp truck couldn’t drive.
TRIP TIME OF YEAR:
RESTRICTIONS AND PERMITS:
No permits required for the CREB, but one of the area’s biggest attractions is Roaring Meg Falls. This is a sacred site to the Kuku Yalanji people who are the traditional custodians of the area. Much of the area is a traditional women-only site so please respect all signs and directions. Please speak to CJ Fischer at Yindilli Campground to arrange permission. Archer Point Campground requires permits that can be arranged through Cooks Shire Council in Cooktown. Camping fees at the Lion’s Den fees are $30 a night for two adults for a powered site, $9 a kid, under 6 free.