Cape York, Queensland travel guide: The last great adventure destination in Australia

It's hard to know where this country ends and the next one begins. The northernmost tip of Australia's mainland tapers to a fine point, shattering into 274 islands and creating a garland of stepping stones between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Borders are swallowed by the turquoise swirl of the Torres Strait; people move seamlessly between mainland and islands, the peripatetic children of forever separated parents.

It's from here that the world's first climate refugees are said to have originated in the 1940s, escapees from the low-lying, saltwater-inundated island of Saibai which, though officially part of Queensland, lies just four kilometres off the PNG mainland. The islanders came ashore at Cape York and established settlements, enmeshing their New Guinean and Torres Strait Islander culture with that of the region's traditional landowners.

"This northern peninsula area is a very unique place," says Jo-Anne Adidi, Bamaga resident and member of the Naygayiw Gigi Dance Troupe, which seeks to preserve Torres Strait and Saibailgaw culture.

"Even though we're at the top of the mainland of Australia… you have the Aboriginal people and the Torres Strait people and the New Guinea people, and these are quite different people, even though they're so close."

Adidi's maternal grandparents were among those first Saibai settlers on Cape York. The imperilled islanders sailed in two old pearling luggers to Muttee Point on the peninsula's western shore, crossed the beach and walked inland to the Indigenous community of Injinoo.

"They asked the Aboriginal people, 'Where can you give us land?' And they said, 'You've got a creek here, you have another creek there and you have another creek here'. They showed them, 'This is where you can build your place'. There was nothing here – they cleared this scrub by hand and started to build Bamaga," she says.

Today, the town forms the centrepiece of Cape York's northernmost collection of townships – Seisia, also settled by Torres Strait Islanders, and the Indigenous communities of Injinoo, Umagico and New Mapoon.

"Because of trade there's always been some understanding, [and] the people exist in unity here," Adidi says.

"Over the years the cultures have merged, too. The two cultures living together and learning off one another and marrying together – a lot of people have intermarried – they've learned to live alongside one another."

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THE LAST GREAT AUSTRALIAN ADVENTURE

M6RK3M WWII war plain remains in the bush around Bamaga Cape York Australia 
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The wreckage of a WWII-era transport plane that crash landed at Bamaga in 1945. Photo: Alamy

Bamaga is a sultry, affable town, the final frontier on an endless road leading northwards through wetlands and Stringybark thickets and melaleuca woodlands to that barren scarp where, in so many people's imaginations, Australia effectively ends. Though it's connected to Cairns by 1000 kilometres of road (including the legendary Old Telegraph Track), it's effectively marooned from all but the most adventurous of 4WD travellers by river crossings and gorge-like corrugations and a wet season that renders it thoroughly impassable.

But regular flights from Cairns and the development of tourism infrastructure by the Indigenous, community-owned social enterprise, Bamaga Enterprise (BEL), have improved year-round access to Cape York. Besides the campsites frequented by road-trippers during the dry season, there's the modern, Indigenous-owned Cape York Peninsula Lodge with its air-conditioning and swimming pool; here, guests can hire cars and book guided excursions around the peninsula, the Torres Strait islands – reached by ferry from nearby Seisia – and Bamaga itself, where the wreck of a wartime transport aircraft which crashed here in 1945 is preserved. An application by BEL to build 15 motel-style accommodation units behind Bamaga Tavern was recently approved; and the tavern's bistro – refurbished during lockdown and melodious with conversations in Torres Strait creole – has a new menu serving an impressive spread including fresh-caught fish and jackfruit vegan burgers.

"We're ready for tourism," says Chris Foord, BEL's general manager. "And it's one of the last adventures, to come up here."

JOURNEYING TO THE UNTAMEABLE TIP

Tip of Cape York Peninsula sign
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Image for Traveller from Tourism Tropical North Queensland, pls note credit requirements

The Tip of Cape York. Photo: Tourism Tropical North Queensland

The short flight from Cairns, though it bypasses the obstacles preventing so many people from visiting Cape York, is an adventure, too; that thrilling, notorious route is compressed into a fragment of camouflage mottled green and flaxen and khaki, furrowed with gullies and laced with spidery, glistening water slicks and the dark, bronchial tributaries of the Jackey Jackey Creek. I can't conceive of the journey made here on foot and horseback by Frank Jardine in 1864 and 1865; it was murderous, in every possible way: for the Aboriginal inhabitants slaughtered with impunity by Jardine and his men as they advanced; for those flagging men and horses and the livestock they were herding from Rockhampton all the way to the new British outpost at Somerset on the peninsula's tip. Though the men somehow endured, just a handful of horses and only 50 head of cattle survived the journey.

"To this day, there's still wild cattle running around from these guys, down that east coast," says my guide and former Bamaga resident Anton England.

We're standing on a fire-red bluff watching the Arafura Sea and the Pacific Ocean collide; the wind sharpens the wave tips and froths our hair and whiplashes the lone coconut palm lurching skywards from silica dunes.

"When you get right down there to the mangrove flats, that's where they are, a little mob of shorthorns still living there."

Other remnants of the settlement remain at the sheltered crescent of nearby Somerset Bay – crumbling foundations, a scattering of gravestones (including those of Jardine and two pearl divers who worked on an island across the bay). Nature has reclaimed whatever else those settlers tried so boldly to prise from it.

Just a few scalloped bays northwest of here lies the northernmost point of continental Australia. To reach it, we must rattle back down oxblood-coloured roads, passing the turnoff to a lake we'd visited earlier, a glowering obsidian pool rimmed by a chalky beach bearing the imprint of a saltwater crocodile. Signposts at the bay near The Tip warn of these deadly creatures, yet a camper has waded in up to his knees and is casting his rod into that painfully luminescent, heartbreakingly dangerous water.

From here, I gaze out at the expanse of blue tourmaline where once a land bridge stretched, connecting this country with the next. A lone yacht is anchored in the bay, and a helicopter circles it once, twice, three times before flying away. Border patrol, I wonder? A sign at the beach cautioning Torres Strait Islanders against bringing ashore prohibited items (animals, soil, fresh produce) is turned, oddly, away from the ocean from whence they might arrive towards the Pajinka Road. Perhaps its aim is to reassure those arriving by car that this porous boundary is safe from foreign threat.

It's a short hike to The Tip itself, a rocky spur sloping into the sea; lurking just offshore are York and Eborac islands, ramparts metaphorically safeguarding the motherland. The rocks we've scrambled down to reach land's end tell movingly of the mythological place this frontier holds in the Australian psyche. "Forced himself to drive this track as his final wish… the place where he said he felt normal," reads a plaque commemorating a youngster who died of cancer at the age of just 17. "Lifelong dream was to make it to The Tip," says another, in remembrance of a man who'd been granted a far longer lifetime in which to make this epic journey.

SHIFTING BORDERS

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Green Hill, Thursday Island, Queensland

Green Hill, Thursday Island. Photo: David Heenan

But the journey doesn't end at The Tip; indeed, the final frontier lies beyond it, in that shifting, inscrutable, almost-borderless Torres Strait. As the ferry casts off from the mainland, I perceive Australia from the islanders' point of view: it's just another island, a slip of green flowing above the waterline, baking lazily beneath the shared tropical sun.

In turn, Thursday Island (Waiben) is an extension of the continent with its esplanade and neat Queenslander houses and mango trees dripping with sloppy, bird-pecked fruit. Yet for eons before Galician explorer Luís Vaz de Torres stamped his name on this strait as he sailed through it, and before Captain James Cook claimed nearby Bedanug as Possession Island, the archipelago was inhabited by Melanesians. Today, their descendants occupy around 18 of the islands, of which Thursday Island is the administrative centre – and Australia's most northerly town. Here you can enjoy, quirkily, Australia's northernmost happy hour.

"It's also known as Thirsty Island, as you can imagine in the tropics," says Sue John, a tour guide with Peddells Thursday Island Tours.

Most visitors, it seems, come to see the fortifications built here during the Second World War, when the island was commandeered as a strategic outpost. The canon at Green Hill Fort is aimed at the barely-inhabited Prince of Wales Island (Muralag), from whose hilly folds smoke arises. But it only ever fired one serious shot, in warning, to a ship that had failed to identify herself, "giving the people on-board the fright of their life," says John.

Horn Island (Ngurapai), a short ferry ride away, was less fortunate. Unlike those symbolic guardian islands of York and Eborac, it defended the mainland in a most pragmatic sense, taking the brunt of enemy force – a veritable spraying of Japanese bombs. Today, Horn Island residents Vanessa Seekee and her husband Liberty are still discovering military installations and wartime debris obscured by tussock grass and buried between the kapok trees.

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Horn Island, Queensland, Australia

Horn Island. Photo: Darren Jew

"We keep finding new things each year, because the wet season comes along, washes away the top layer of soil, and things bubble up," she says.

Many of these relics are preserved alongside Indigenous artefacts at the island's Torres Strait Heritage Museum: traditional drums; a life-size figurine of the fearsome King Kebisu from Warrior Island (Tudu), who was persuaded by missionaries to cease headhunting; myths and legends passed down through stories and song.

But perhaps most poignant of the exhibits is the Torres Strait Islander flag, designed by the late Bernard Namok of TI to represent the people's connection to land, sea and sky. A white Dhari (headdress) and five-pointed star (representing the major island groups and the islanders' seafaring and star-navigating roots) are imprinted upon a deeply significant backdrop: two horizontal green stripes – PNG and Australia – separated by a band of blue. Scored along the rim of each emerald border is a black line: the Torres Strait Islanders, dwelling between the two worlds that birthed them, claiming their own place in the shifting, borderless Arafura Sea.

FIVE MORE REMOTE AUSTRALIAN DESTINATIONS

COOBER PEDY, SA

Much of the population lives underground in this remote opal mining capital of the world, to escape the season's extremes of heat and cold. The apocalyptic landscape of shales and fissures has been transformed over the decades into a "kupa-piti" (Coober Pedy) or "white man's hole" by the many nationalities who've congregated here in the hope of striking it rich.

TIWI ISLANDS, NT

Aboriginal culture is tenderly preserved on Bathurst and Melville islands, accessible by ferry or plane from Darwin, through rites such as Pukamani (a traditional burial ceremony in which carved grave posts are used to mark burial sites), and a rich arts culture encompassing bark paintings, screen prints and fibre weavings.

CAMERON'S CORNER, NSW

This distant junction, around six hours by road from Broken Hill, marks the convergence of three state borders – Queensland, South Australia and NSW – and a surprising diversity of landscapes: clay pans, rugged ranges, a vast wetland and the Simpson and Strzelecki deserts.

GIBB RIVER ROAD, WA

Stretching for 630 kilometres between Derby and Kununurra in Western Australia's Kimberleys, this fabled road trip begins, for most, with a flight to Broome and carves through a primordial landscape of gorges, mountain ranges, rainforests and extraordinary Aboriginal rock art and burial sites.

THREE HUMMOCK ISLAND, TASMANIA

This Bass Strait island was once the summer hunting ground for Aboriginal people living on neighbouring Hunter Island; they'd swim five kilometres to reach it. Today it's somewhat easier to access (boat, helicopter or light aircraft, depending on your budget) but is still remote enough to boast air that is reported to be, consistently, the cleanest in the world.

THE DETAILS

MORE

traveller.com.au/cape-york

tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au/where-to-go/cape-york

bament.com.au

FLY

Rex flies from Cairns to Bamaga six days per week, with two flights on Mondays and Fridays and single daily return services on all other days except Saturday. Another two weekly flights will be added to the schedule from March 2021. Fares start from $198 one way, see rex.com.au. QantasLink offers regular flights from Cairns to Horn Island, see qantas.com.au. Transfers to the mainland can be booked with Peddells Ferry, see peddellsferry.com.au.

STAY

Standard rooms at Cape York Peninsula Lodge start from $245, see cypl.com.au.

Glamping is available on Roko Island. See rokopearls.com.au. Thursday and Horn islands offer a variety of accommodation. See torres.qld.gov.au/tourism/accommodation

VISIT

Cape York Peninsula Lodge offers vehicle hire and can arrange a variety of activities around the Northern Peninsula Area, including island-hopping tours, fishing expeditions and day trips to The Tip, see cypl.com.au. Peddells Ferry provides transfers from the mainland to various Torres Strait Islands, and offers tours of Thursday Island and Horn Island, the latter in conjunction with Torres Strait Heritage, see peddellsferry.com.au. Torres Strait Heritage can customise tour packages on Horn Island, including overnight stays and activities. To book with them, contact Vanessa Seekee on intheirsteps@bigpond.com or at 0427 90 3333.

Catherine Marshall was a guest of Bamaga Enterprises Ltd, Peddells Thursday Island Tours and Rex Airlines.

See also: The Australian island that's now a world-class destination

See also: Australia's 10 most spectacular waterfalls

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