Whether you’re on your first journey to the northern tropics or you’re a seasoned sun seeker, any nugget of advice is well worth listening to before you hit the road. Learning from the lessons of others can often save you time and frustration when it comes to your own travels.
Here at CW we have plenty of experienced northern travellers, and they were all too happy to part with their wisdom so your trip is guaranteed to run smoothly.
TAKE CROCS SERIOUSLY
There is no escaping the fact that estuarine crocodiles dominate the food chain in Australia’s far north, but spotting one in the wild - albeit from a safe distance - is a thrilling experience, making it vital to understand how crocs operate.
These superior hunters can detect and hunt prey in the murkiest of waters and patiently remain underwater for up to an hour, so keep your distance, stay out of their habitat and always observe warning signs, even when you can’t see them.
When boating, never dangle your arms or legs over the side and be extremely careful when reeling in fish. Camp well back from the water’s edge and at least two metres vertically above the waterline, and avoid repetitive behaviour like preparing food or washing dishes at the water’s edge.
PREPARE FOR THE WEATHER
From Cairns to Darwin and across the Kimberley, cyclones and wet season rains can strike any time over summer and severe floods can strand travellers on uninhabited stretches of highway, washing away roads and stalling the delivery of supplies.
When travelling during the wet season and occasionally long into the supposedly dry winter months, it pays to carry plenty of food, water, fuel and essential medical supplies, and plan a flexible itinerary as it may take days or weeks for floodwaters to subside. Be patient, never try to cross flooded bridges or causeways without knowing the water depth, flow rate and whether the road is damaged.
Catherine Lawson - CW contributor & fnq local
THE RIGHT TYRES
A successful northern trip is all about tyres. The distances, the heat, the corrugations and the sharp stakes from dry season burn-offs take their toll. There’s a bit of luck involved but good tyres, a second spare, a tyre repair kit and a compressor make for great insurance.
Most of the roadhouses make a decent quid out of stocking a few second-hand tyres, which pretty much says it all. Having said that, I’ve had about 10 flats in 40 years and most of those were on motorbikes.
Coopers have usually been my choice for their stiff sidewall construction, which means you can run lower pressures (25psi) safely on the tracks for more comfort, better traction and less chance of punctures.
Check your vehicle every day. Have a look at the fluids, give the fan belt, battery brackets and radiator a wiggle, take a look underneath to make sure there’s nothing dripping or missing, and carry basic spares, tools, some wire and tape.
Remember, even if you can’t fix it, the next bloke along the track might be able to. Modern vehicle reliability and a better road up the middle don’t change the basic fact that the north (especially the Cape) is hard on machinery, and repairs and recoveries aren’t cheap.
John ‘Roothy’ Rooth - iconic bush mechanic
On gravel roads, travel with your lights on, take care when driving through dust and don’t stop suddenly unless you’re well off the road. Roads in the north require concentration and sometimes constant speed and gear changes as you search out the least bumpy sections. Gravel roads with constantly varying surfaces can be dangerous at even moderate speeds and you’ll need to take particular care on bends with loose surfaces. You’ll need to constantly read the road ahead and avoid any doubtful-looking spots. It’s important to heed roadside warnings as dips are numerous and many have potholes or dust holes at the bottom. Slow down and stay well clear of passing trucks. Roads in the Cape are mainly unfenced, so watch for wandering stock there. Only travel in daylight hours and don’t try to cover large distances each day. Reduced speeds, regular breaks and time spent pitching and breaking camp will limit distances covered.
Roadhouses make a trip north relatively easy. They supply fuel and in some cases basic mechanical repairs, along with camping facilities with toilets, showers, washing machines and public phones. They also sell snacks, cold drinks and meals and some have licensed bars. Most roadhouses have EFTPOS facilities, but it’s wise to carry cash.
Many caravanners will have much of the camping gear needed. A lightweight and compact dome tent makes a poor substitute for a luxury van, but at least it won’t shake to bits on the corrugations.
Steve Farmer - CW contributor
The best time of year to see birdlife around wetlands is at the end of the dry season once the birds have retreated back to the perennial waterholes. Fishing is also better the hotter it gets, so you’ll have more luck just before and after the wet season.
CHECK THE SEALS ON YOUR VAN
Once you’re off the bitumen be ready for lots of dust. You’ll need to check that all your seals are working well, especially anything at the rear of the van or trailer. It’s also important to pull over from time to time to check everything is secure, as well as let other people pass safely who can’t see because of your vehicle’s dust.
Rob Boegheim - Chief Explorer, Hema Maps
AVOIDING THE CROWDS
Tropical Australia gets crowded with travellers during the months of June through to September. We always try to travel up that way either early or late in the season, so we are not crowded out of every bush camp or free camp that’s been listed in books or on the web. If you are up there with the rest of the crowds, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to get away from the hordes simply by getting off the bitumen and driving down a dirt road or track.
DON'T RELY ON YOUR MOBILE PHONE
Outback Australia is getting better coverage by the mobile phone networks, but there are still vast areas of tropical Australia and long stretches of highway that have no coverage at all. If you have anything but a Telstra phone, the coverage will be even worse, to the point of non-existence for long periods of time.
You either wear the inconvenience (yes, life does exist without a mobile phone), or go to the expense of a satellite phone, a HF radio or an emergency GPS communicator such as a ‘Spot’ or an ‘inReach’. The more remote you go, the more you really some kind of communication device.
Ron Moon - lifetime explorer, Moon Adventure Publications
ALWAYS HAVE A CAMERA READY
This should go without saying for any adventure, but when you’re north of Cairns you should have a camera glued to your hand at all times, even if it’s just a phone. The place is teeming with life of all variety, but if you blink you’ll miss it.
On a recent trip to the Tip, I had just finished the hike to the top and was on my way back to my 4WD. I walked down to the beach first and found a bunch of locals had set up an impromptu barbecue at the water’s edge and were casting nets in the shallows for lunch. I ended up spending an hour or so with them, all because I had my camera and stopped to grab a few shots.
KNOWING THE ROADS
This should be a no-brainer but it’s unbelievably easy to get lost when the bitumen fades away. There’s cattle stations here the size of European countries and major roads marked with nothing more than a fallen tree. It’s incredibly easy to get yourself turned around, bogged, and a three hour drive from the nearest major thoroughfare. And even those can sometimes see cars hours apart.
There’s a lot to be said for paper maps being reliable, but they’re not much help if you don’t know where you are. Invest in a good quality offroad GPS unit and don’t point your headlights down a track if you don’t know where it goes.
Dan Everett - Cape York Fanatic
The full feature appeared in Caravan World #566. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!