Cape York in the Wet

To: birding aus <>
Subject: Cape York in the Wet
From: Russell Woodford <>
Date: Wed, 29 Jan 2003 13:09:10 +1100
Lloyd Neilsen has been trying to send this message for a few days - I can't
figure out why it won't go through so I'll give it a go.  It's important
reading for anyone heading way up north.
Without wanting to deflate Bill's excitement about Cape York (Iron Range) in
the Wet, (it truly is great and one of my favourite places). I think a very
strong word of caution is necessary however, about driving into Cape York at
this time of year. It is a worry to some of us up here in N. Qld that
birders are taking a huge risk in attempting to drive into Cape York just
prior to the start of the Wet. The road into Cape York is normally closed
for 4-5 months (usually from some time in December to about May). Only if
the Wet is late is the road trafficable into January as has happened this
year and last year. There is a high chance through December of being caught
between creeks and rivers (there are no bridges on most roads and tracks) -
if so, it could be 4 months or more before you can retrieve your vehicle.
Imagine the cost if it were a hire vehicle! Even retrieving your own vehicle
later would be costly - about a metre and a half of rain falls in three
months which would be very detrimental to a stranded vehicle in the hot,
humid climate.

The trap is that one can drive in prior to the Wet but the road can be cut
(for months) in a matter of a few hours from tropical storms - the build up
to the Wet. These storms form through the heat of the day, dumping enough
water to send torrents down the previously dry streams during the afternoon
and into the night.

Cape York closes down at this time of year - the pastoral community accepts
the fact that they will be isolated for months. One could easily be stranded
a hundred kilometres from help - no vehicles passing - you would have to
walk for help or wait for rescue. Mobile phones only work in a few spots
along the road within a few kilometres of the far flung communities.

I had an experience not long after I arrived in north Queensland, just north
of Cooktown at the southern extremity of Cape York in mid December which
drove the message home to me. I intended crossing the Little Laura River on
the Battle Camp road to get into Lakefield NP but when I got there, the
river had a metre of water in it. I decided to camp on the Normanby River 30
km back and come back next day and cross when the water had gone down.
There are no bridges across these streams - the road goes right down onto
the bed of the river which is common with most stream crossings throughout
Cape York. There were storms that night way up in the ranges but they seemed
so far away that they were of no concern (so I thought). When I got to the
Little Laura at 11.00 AM the next day (after spending an hour with a Red
Goshawk on the way - the best sighting I have ever had!), there was 4 metres
of water rushing down it. I suddenly realised that a similar body of water
would be coming down the Normanby. I drove like flat out back to the
Normanby expecting to see 4 metres of water there too and sure I would be
stranded (it was such a horrible feeling). Luckily the water had not arrived
at the crossing and I was able to get out. Later in the day, I crossed the
Normanby further upstream near Cooktown on the sealed highway and there was
metres of water flooding down. I had beaten the floodwaters only by a
whisker. Had I been stuck, it would have been at least 4 months before I
could retrieve my vehicle. And I would have had to get across flooded rivers
somehow to get myself out, (which were in flood for the next three months) -
or wait for rescue!

See Cape York in the Wet - sure! It is a fantastic place. But the safest way
to see it in the Wet is on one of Klaus Uhlenhut's Bird Weeks at the Tip
(Bamaga) - fly in, fly out. If doing the trip independantly, fly in to
Bamaga, stay at Resort Bamaga (highly recommended) and hire a vehicle from
the resort (they have 4WDs for hire). (This is not an advertisement - just
cold hard facts!). Even in the Wet, the 30 km from Bamaga through the
Lockerbie Scrub to the Tip is usually trafficable - and the birds are great.
If wanting to go to Iron Range through the Wet, barge your vehicle in from
Cairns and barge out - or fly in and stay at Portland House. However,
vehicle hire is usually a problem and it is a long way to walk to the
rainforest from Portland Roads. If you really want to take the chance to
drive in to Iron Range before the Wet starts and stay there for a while,
check the road conditions before you go and the weather forecast, drive
non-stop to get in there (it will take you a l-o-n-g day from Cairns) and be
prepared to barge your vehicle out. Remember that you have a few river (bed)
crossings once leaving the

Peninsula Development Road north of Coen - the Wenlock and Pascoe rivers. If
there has been rain in the headwaters, there could be a metre of water -or
much more - in these streams at this time of year. And while at Iron Range
don't get your vehicle on the other side of streams - you might not be able
to get back.

As one who has lived at the base of Cape York for 12 years and travelled
much of it and having met many people who have lived up in the Cape, there
is NO WAY I would attempt to drive in after end of November - or early
December at the latest - and expect to drive out later. It would be akin to
surfing in heavy seas after the beach is closed!

Finally, a word from a long time Cape York resident  - "I would not advise
anybody to try the drive-in/drive-out to Iron Range after the second or
third week of November [at the latest] if we are to revert back to normal
Wet Season times - it is the people who always try these trips and do not
heed local knowledge and advice that cause Cape York authorities and
families grief."

The above is given in the interest of safety to birders. Cape York is
treacherous through the Wet and can be quite dangerous. For your own safety
and well-being, please don't take it lightly! There is no problem in the Dry
(from about late May to November).

Lloyd Nielsen, Mt Molloy  Qld  4871

I might add that Cape York has not had a Wet so far this year. The monsoonal
trough (from which the area gets its Wet) has come no further south than
Torres Strait (Bureau of Met. info). Only some local rains have occurred eg
around Lockerbie at the Tip and about Iron Range. Last year the Wet failed
altogether and so far this year, it has not eventuated.  However, it may not
be too far off when normal (?) heavy Wet seasons return to Cape York.

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