Cairns and Cape York

The Cape York Peninsula is located in the northeastern corner of Australia, starting a bit south of Cairns and extending about 750 km to its tip in the north. It covers about 207,000 square kilometres — a little smaller than the state of Victoria! The Coral Sea is to the east of the Peninsula, the Torres Strait to the north, and the Gulf of Carpentaria to the west.

Cape York is one of Australia’s few remaining large wilderness areas, with few inhabitants or facilities. Access is by dirt road, air, or (along the coast) sea. The eastern edge is rainforest, but west of the Great Dividing Range the land is mainly eucalypt woodland, scrubland and grasslands. The numerous rivers vary from almost dry in the dry season (May-November) to overflowing in the wet season (December-April, when the road to the Cape becomes impassable.

Map of the Cape York Peninsula.

This page includes information and links about:

Transportation

Lots of tour companies do the Cape trip, starting from Cairns or Cooktown. Vehicles range from Toyota Landcruisers to full-size tour buses; most are camping trips, but some stop at the few resorts. Some of the buses (catering for backpackers) will drop you off along the way and collect you a few days later, if you prefer.

You can fly into or out of Horn Island (near Thursday Island) and make the land trip on the Cape one-way, if you’re short of time. Most tours cover much the same ground in both directions (though stopping at different sights or making different side trips).

If you plan to travel on your own in Cape York (instead of taking one of the many tours available), you’ll need to have a suitable vehicle, emergency supplies, and a good book (or several) to give you lots more relevant information than you’ll find on this web site or any other site I’ve seen. Ron and Viv Moon’s website has the most detailed information I’ve seen online. Their book is well worth getting, too.

Many people drive in their own vehicles. If you do this, be aware that although it may be possible to drive all the way up the Cape without 4WD, you’ll need a lot of luck and a sturdy vehicle with good ground clearance, and you’ll need to stay on the main road, thus missing some of the more interesting sights. Travelling without a 4WD is definitely NOT recommended. The river crossings often have water across the road, though the worst river (the Jardine) has a ferry.

If you want to rent a vehicle, you’l have to rent a 4WD, because the rental company contracts specifically forbid taking anything else beyond a certain point. And be sure the company you choose allows you to take a 4WD up Cape York; some don’t.

If you want to travel in your own vehicle, you can join one of the “tag-along” tours. You then have the advantage of a support vehicle and people to help our if you get into trouble. If you’re not experienced with 4WD travel, but don’t want to be cooped up in a bus with a group of strangers, a tag-along trip is an excellent compromise. Here are links to two of the Cape York tag-along tours: Guides to Adventure and Adventure Tours Australia.

For the really adventurous, motorcycle tours are available, or you can even ride a bicycle or walk!

Check our page for campervan rentals. Several of the major companies have 4WD campervans for rent. For details about tour companies and other 4WD vehicle rental companies, check some of the website links below.

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Accommodation

Several places along the way have basic motel-style or cabin accommodation, and there are some resorts, but mostly you’ll need your own tent or (4WD) campervan, if you want to stay in any of the more interesting places. Some town names: Laura, Coen, Weipa, Bamaga, Cooktown.

Check some of the website links below for details about motel, resort, and bed-and-breakfast accommodation. None of the sites I’ve searched have information on the accommodation available at roadhouses and homesteads along the way, but the Moons’ book does cover them.

For an explanation of the different types of accommodation in Australia, read this page.

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Communications

Every road house has a public telephone or two. They vary in what payment methods they accept: phonecards, credit cards or cash.

Telstra’s CDMA and NextG mobile phones work in Cooktown, Bamaga, Coen and several other communities; GSM works in Cooktown. Otherwise, your mobile phone is unlikely to work anywhere on the Cape, as it will be out of range of any tower. Telstra’s coverage maps are here. If you have a satellite phone, you’ll be okay.

If you need to be contactable, be sure you set up a voicemail service before you leave, and check your messages at public telephones.

Internet access may more of be a challenge. Cairns is full of internet cafes, and Cooktown has at least one, but when you get further north, they’ll probably be harder to find. Our experience recently is that most places catering for backpackers seem to have email access, but we haven’t tested this theory on the Cape. If you have a NextG phone with email access or have it set up to act as a modem for your computer, then you can get internet access wherever your phone works.

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Our travels

Jean’s trip to Cape York
In September 1996 Jean took a 15-day 4WD camping tour of the Cape York Peninsula of Australia. This brief account includes some photographs.
Cairns to Cooktown and Atherton Tableslands
An account of a trip taken in July 1999.

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Books and maps

Cape York: An Adventurer’s Guide
by Ron and Viv Moon, 10th edition
Said to be popular with the locals, so it must be good. (The tour operator on a trip I took to Cape York had a well-used copy.) You can buy it directly from the authors (they will ship overseas) or from various outlets in Cairns, Cooktown, and roadhouses throughout Cape York.
Lonely Planet Guide to Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef
By Justine Vaisutis and others, August 2005, ISBN 1740594967. The section on Cape York is a good overview of historical information, things to see and do, permits required, road conditions, and so on. Includes lots of useful phone numbers. Order from Amazon.co.uk or Order from Amazon.com
Hema Maps: Cape York
1:1,000,000, ISBN 9781865002279
Description from the Hema website: “The Cape York map now has a detailed topographic map of “The Tip” as well as the most detailed map from Cairns to the Cape that has ever been produced. It has been totally checked by GPS so it features Latitudes and Longitiudes for way points, a listing of the coordinates for the major destinations, highlighted informationand beautiful photography. This new Cape York map really is a huge leap forward and makes the trip to the Cape more accessible and safer than it has ever been.” Order from Amazon.co.uk or Order from Amazon.com, or see the Hema Maps website for a list of online retailers.

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Links to some websites about Cairns and Cape York

Savannah Guides
An excellent summary of places and services; the only site I’ve found that adequately covers the Cape York area, beyond the major tourist spots. Although it’s not as detailed as a guidebook, it’s a very good place to start.
Wet Tropics of Queensland Travel Dossier
Excellent information from Australian Geographic.
Cairns Today
Detailed site from Cairns Online, with information for locals as well as visitors.
Queensland Holidays – tropical North Queensland region
Overviews of Cape York places, tours, accommodation, and so on, though missing some important information, especially for campers.
Cairns
Cooktown and Cape York
Daintree and Cape Tribulation
Plus lots more.
Tourism Tropical North Qld
Search around for the places you’re interested in, or just browse to get an overview.
Frog-and-Toad Cape York pages
Covers Laura, Coen, Weipa, Bamaga, Thursday Island as well as major spots such as Cooktown.
Cairns, Tropical North and Cape York Queensland
Another site where you’ll need to dig around a bit.
Far North Queensland Bed and Breakfast list
Covers a limited area but has useful listings.
Birdwing Bed and Breakfast, Cairns
Newly designed modern butterfly themed rooms featuring tropical Birdwing, Ulysses & Lacewing butterflies. Awake to sounds of birdsong and soft beats of butterflies in a rainforest backdrop, relax in magnificent spa pool. Only minutes from Cairns City Centre.
Fishing Cairns
Lots of good information about ocean and river fishing in the Cairns area.
Diving Cairns
The ultimate guide to a North Queensland diving holiday.
Cairns Dining
Listings of places to eat.
Cairns Direct Car Rental
Rent from a local company.

Page last updated 5 November 2007