The Old Coach Road is one of those tracks that receives little attention despite its reputation as being one of the toughest tracks in Cape York. Those who venture off the Development Road to the Palmer River Goldfields region are rewarded with an area rich in history and a challenging and exciting 4WD track along the Old Coach road between Maytown and Laura. Originally used as an access route to the newly established Gold Rush area in the late 19th century, the track remains largely unchanged and undeveloped, which will give even the toughest trucks a run for their money.
[blockquote cite=”” type=”center”]”If you’re looking to do one of the toughest tracks in the Cape, the Old Coach Road is the one to do”[/blockquote]
After pulling off the Development Road around 17km short of the Palmer River Roadhouse, a small sign marks the turn off to Maytown along the White Creeks Road, a 70km stretch of slow and winding corrugated gravel road to the original gold rush settlement. The road in weaves up and down through the hillside of the Great Dividing Range and can vary in condition. Airing down to 18PSI ensured a much more comfortable ride into Maytown and proved flexible enough to tackle the gnarly rock steps, sand and crossings that lay ahead.
Once arriving in Maytown itself after crossing the Palmer River, you owe it to yourself to get out and have a walk around. A small tin shed remains full of relics, newspaper articles and other information collected from the area as well as a visitor’s book to be signed by passers-by. Around Maytown itself there are a number of relics from old mining operations.
After exploring the area, follow the main track north to the start of the Old Coach Road. A number of signs designate your path throughout the track, most of the time made out of nothing more than bits of old rusted steel and a quick bit of hand paint, but they do the job. Before long you will reach the tough rock steps on the track. A spotter would go a long way here to get everyone through. A couple of workers on quads stopped to say g’day and let us know to allow around seven hours to get through the 40km stretch to the Jowalbinna access road – If that isn’t warning enough we don’t know what is!
[blockquote cite=”” type=”center”]”Ultra tough low-range and stunning views of the great dividing range”[/blockquote]
Expect to lift wheels along the track and watch the edges as in most cases it is a heck of a steep drop into the bottom of valleys. The flip side of the challenging and rugged terrain is the views. They are simply spectacular. It really does play on your mind just how on earth the Cobb & Co used to operate horse and carts and vehicles along here all those years ago. It’s also a smart idea to be considerate of your under body components such as diff pumpkins and gearboxes as track damage out here will leave you in a bad situation if you’re not careful. Ultra tough low-range and stunning views of the Great Dividing Range – what more could you want!
In the wet, huge amounts of water can flow through the Palmer River. There are countless creeks that move along the bottom of each hill, and some sections of the track would be impassable in the wet. Our trip at the end of the dry saw us rewarded with no crowds and majority of the creeks were dry making travel a little quicker. In the wet it really would be a whole other level of insane, as rocks become slippery, dirt turns to mud and 4WD swallowing creeks swell.
There are a couple of clearings a couple of hours into the track, however, the only noted camp on our maps was the Jowalibinna bush camp further along the track. As well as a bush camp site near the historic Folders Hotel site. There are no facilities so ensure you are bush camp ready.
Shortly after lunch we came across some pretty gnarly and sandy hill climbs. These sandy hills were rutted, steep and soft and will provide a fantastic photo opportunity as you pick your line up and over the top. Deep erosion gullies are also common here and you should keep an eye out not to lose a poorly placed wheel into them. While the Old Coach Road can be slow going it’s pretty intensive in terms of your concentration so the time does go by pretty quickly once on the track. Evidence of the track being carved by hand in some cases is a testament to those who originally cleared it. Not only that, then the next step was to bring the machinery along these very roads beggars belief!
[blockquote cite=”” type=”center”]”Some erosion gullies will swollow a vehicle whole!”[/blockquote]
Pushing on further toward Laura, smoke filled the horizon as we entered an area ablaze during a seasonal burn off lit by the local Wulburjubar people – who do this as part of ‘Looking after country’. While it’s disconcerting driving into a fire, the way in which they burn up here is low and slow which allows easy passage. Having said that if you do drive past one, beware of burnt scrub as sidewalls can be steaked by a rouge sharp burnt stick. Cattle and other animals move freely along this track too, so be wary of them on some of the more open sections.
In this area, it is urged to contact the locals for permission to camp and to find out any up to date access restrictions. With an hour or so of sun left in the sky we headed toward Laura to find a campsite. In the later stages of the track, you move out of the hilly country onto a plateau that winds through the bush. This section is much easier going than the start of the track but rocks and washouts crop up occasionally, so don’t grow complacent.
While you can push fairly hard along Old Coach Road to get it done in the one day, it is certainly an excellent two day or more track if you wish to go slower and spend more time in the bush. Everyone commented how much of a different animal this place would be after the wet, and while already challenging it would present a hellish adventure with its share of rain.
Even more compounding is the track we just completed was in fact a major access route in times before coil suspension, remote reservoir shocks and creature comforts like air con and locker buttons. You will be struck by a feeling of admiration for those early settlers and their families for what they endured back in times past in just getting here, let alone living along the toughest track in the Cape!
Our trip began 17km short of the Palmer River Roadhouse, on the access White River Access road to the Gold rush settlement of Maytown. From Maytown, head north along the Old Coach Road to the town of Laura, on the Peninsula Development Road.
James Mulligan found gold in 1873 near the Palmer River and the newly established Maytown flourished to provide a hub for the Gold rush. With limited access to the area, the Old Coach Road provided a link between the town of Laura and Maytown.
Camping is by permit from Queensland Parks and must be pre-booked. There is only one campsite in the Palmer River National Park marked on the majority of maps near the historical Folders hotel site however, a number of bush camps in clearings close by the tracks are evident to cater for your needs. Jowalbinna bush camp, closer to the Laura end of the track has some very basic facilities but you’ll need permission to stay. Basic accommodation with facilities can be found in Laura, with camping out the back of the pub our pick.
FACILITIES & AMENITIES:
Once off the Development Road you are isolated and there are no services until you arrive in Laura, of which are also relatively basic. There is no facilities along the length of this track and you must be self-sufficient for bush camping.
WHAT TO TAKE:
While the track can be done in one lengthy day, it is still advisable to bring basic spares such as fluids, belts, hoses and ensure a comprehensive check of your vehicle before setting off. A map, and some sort of communication device other than a mobile phone is also a very smart idea, in case you get in trouble. Your recovery kit should be comprehensive and you should expect that there may be points at which you will need to break out the winch for more than just a simple recovery, so you should have the knowledge to do so safely. Don’t forget a can of tropical bug repellent to keep the sand flies at bay as well!
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL:
The dry is the best time to tackle the Cape, and Old Coach Road is no exception. The start of the dry will see the numerous creeks still holding water however by the end of the dry, things can get a little dusty, but this is easily offset by the Lack of people!
FUEL & SUPPLIES:
Last fuel is available in Mount Carbine, where you can expect to pay around $1.50/L for each fuel type. Fuel at Laura is around $1.60L. Supplies should be sought prior to accessing the development road as only basic supplies are available at the small towns along the road, including Laura until you reach Bamaga up at the tip. Most roadhouses offer meals and basic essentials only.
In dry conditions the track is rated a B and requires a good degree of trip preparation and self-sufficiency. Vehicles should be high clearance, and bar work such as sliders and scrub bars are highly recommended to avoid panel damage. After rain areas may become an A rating with slippery rock steps and deep creek crossings proving hazardous. Be very cautious.
TRIP TIME OF YEAR:
We travelled the track in mid-October. Conditions were perfect with around 30°c, and the track was dry. We didn’t see anyone else except a couple of miners on quad bikes that stopped for a chat.
RESTRICTIONS AND PERMITS:
Camping fees and booking can be sought from QPWS and the Jowalbinna bush camp. It is also an idea to plan ahead as some areas of Cape York are dry zones and no alcohol is permitted.
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