The Weekend Read: Trip to the Tip

STANDING in tropical sunshine, gazing across the shimmering waters of the Torres Strait with an inflatable gecko beneath my arm, wasn’t quite the image I had in mind for my final road-trip in Wheels colours.

Behind me, sitting proudly on oversized rubber and baring its mud-splattered body like a badge of honour, the bright yellow Mazda MX-5 that had brought us here seemed as incongruous as a Landcruiser on the Mulsanne Straight.

We’re a long way, 3500km in fact, from the Japanese restaurant in Sydney where I’d first floated the idea of taking the world’s most popular sports car and twice Wheels Car of the Year winner, to the rough, tough and dusty tip of Australia. Mazda’s Allan Horsley, a craggy-faced, gravel-voiced bear of a bloke, had listened, nodded, and then taken the bait like a striking barramundi. 

As the reel spooled out, the bloke who collected the Australian touring car title with Allan Moffat in 1983 and four 12-hour races with RX-7s in the ’90s, reminded me that it was he who conceived and executed taking a pair of Mazda 929s to the Cape in 1996, getting them there and back in a couple of days without dramas.

Now, as then, Horsley loves a challenge and by the time the teriyaki beef arrived he was already well engaged with the mental process of how and where the MX-5 would need strengthening, what sort of fuel range could be extracted from its 2.0-litre engine, and other logistical arithmetic.

Fast forward several months and the fruit of Horsley’s labour sits gleaming in the forecourt of a Cairns hotel on a steamy tropical morning. Mechanic Shane Bradford burrows busily beneath the canopy of a heavily-laden Mazda B-Series, making final checks and adjustments to an array of spares that’d make a WRC team envious. Nearby, Horsley’s right-hand woman, Jodie Steward, runs an eye over an itinerary so tightly scripted it lacks only for predictions on where we might stop for toilet breaks.

Horsley’s years of motorsport management mean nothing is left to chance and what had been conceived as a leisurely trip to the Tip, has now morphed into an all-out rally assault, complete with pace-notes. Wielecki’s already whingeing about the lack of photo time, but Horsley’s regime demands strict adherence to team orders; and his attractive itinerary-Nazi will be his perfumed steam-roller.

Before leaving Sydney I check in with an old 4x4 journo mate, Allan Whiting, to find out what we might be in for. Having never been much farther north than Cooktown, I figure Whiting’s 20-plus years of Cape travel might come in handy. But I sense the disdain in his voice when I tell him our proposed route.

“Only sooks go up the Bamaga Road,” deadpans Whiting, before acknowledging that tackling the 4WD-only Old Telegraph Track in a sports car might be a bit daunting, even for a hairy-chested Tip veteran like him.

He expects the sump, gearbox, shock absorbers and springs to be our major mechanical weak links, but Horsley’s already anticipated that. With the help of old motorsport partner-in-crime Murray Coote, he’s fitted special coil-over shocks at each corner, a sturdy metal bash plate running the length of the car, and rally-style stone deflectors ahead of the rear wheels. The standard 17-inch alloys have been ditched in favour of Mazda Tribute wheels clad with 195/65R16 Michelin Agilis tyres.

The chunky Michelins, reportedly favoured by WRC reconnaissance teams for their strong sidewalls and excellent puncture resistance, may raise the ride height and fill the little roadster’s guards manfully, but on the run up through the damp, rainforest-draped Kuranda Range it’s immediately obvious they have bugger-all grip in the wet. I almost lose it before we get going as the front-end washes out on a bend, the rear end twitching and squirming nervously as I bring it back on line with a lift and a handful of opposite lock.

It’s a case of short-shifting and feather-footing it up the rest of the climb through a dripping, overhanging canopy. Even so, I relish the flexibility of the fizzy little 2.0-litre, the intimacy of the fast, accurate steering and the snick-snick precision of its short-throw six-speed.

Near the rainforest village of Kuranda, famed for its scenic railway and colourful markets, the road flattens and within minutes we’ve transitioned from the rainforest gloom to more open tropical savannah. On through the dusty streets of Mareeba we head north to Lakeland, where the Mulligan Highway veers north-east to Cooktown and the coast, and the Peninsula Development Road spears north-west to Laura, Coen, Weipa and beyond.

Our orientation is north, like the towering magnetic termite mounds dotted either side of the road, but we’ve travelled only a few kilometres more when the bitumen abruptly ends and we strike the first of the dirt. The MX-5 is soon being shaken so violently by corrugations that I’m forced to slow to 80km/h for fear Wielecki’s Marty Feldman eyes will rattle out of their sockets.

We soon realize that the road conditions, like the passing landscape and vegetation, are extremely variable, with the transition from well-maintained to heavily-corrugated dirt happening in the blink of a (big, red) eye. Between the worst patches, where the corrugations and loose sand nip and tug at the steering, slowing us to below 60km/h, we make good time and are in Laura for lunch.

A half-crippled old ringer with a battered stockman’s hat pulled low over his brow takes in the sight of us filling the little yellow jellybean outside the general store.

“We don’t often see them this flash up at the Cape,” he offers in a rasping voice, seasoned I fancy by decades of dust, rum and roll-your-own ’baccy. He tells us to watch on the next stage for rocks from oncoming vehicles that’ll shatter a windscreen, and that creeks and rivers to the north have been over their crossings recently.

“There’s been water over the Wenlock, but I dunno what the Archer’s doing… It’s been up and down like a whore’s panties lately.” Struggling to his feet, the old-timer hobbles over to the MX-5, measuring the top of the rear bumper against the mid-part of his thigh. “That’s about how deep them dust holes are up there,” he adds with a nod to the north. “Just poke along steady. Don’t fly into them culverts. Once you do that, you’re stuffed.”

Sage advice duly noted and stomachs full after a round of Barra burgers at the Quinkan Hotel, we’re not long back on the road when an innocent U-turn for a Wielecki photo causes the first bogging of the trip. I’m as red-faced as the soft, freshly graded sand in which the Mazda is embedded as I summon the B-Series for the recovery operation.

Shane goes about the job with an enthusiasm that suggests he relishes the opportunity to delve into the bag of tricks in the back of his ute. With the help of a snatch strap we’re soon out of the bog and making good time to Musgrave Roadhouse, where we steer east off the main road for the 30km run to our overnight digs.

We roll into Lotusbird Lodge just on dusk, the cluster of elevated timber cabins standing handsomely among paperbark trees alongside a lily-clad billabong. The expected tranquillity is shattered the moment we open the car door, however, by the raucous honking of hundreds of magpie geese, enthusiastically accompanied by an orchestra of their feathered friends.

Our dust has barely settled and Shane has the MX-5 up on jacks, painstakingly checking wheels, tyres and suspension components for evidence of damage or fatigue. After a half hour he gives the thumbs up and we head thirstily for the open-sided bar-cum-restaurant.

Given the lodge’s close proximity to the billabong, I ask owner Gary Brown if crocs are a problem. He answers no, but says he did once have a “13-foot lizard” in the billabong that occasionally could be heard crunching 70kg wild pigs into edible bits. Curiously, no-one opts for a post-dinner stroll.

Day two dawns with Jodie urging haste as we’ve eight-to-10 hours of driving ahead of us to be at the Jardine River ferry before its final 5pm crossing. Rumour has it that not even Chris de Burgh’s money will convince the ferryman to make another run after five.

Wielecki’s still stressing about the pace of Horsley’s itinerary and, having consulted with some locals overnight, reckons there’s no need to push quite so hard. Horsley, speaking via mobile back in Sydney, snuffs out the dissent with the brutality of Captain Bligh.

“Don’t ask the locals about road distances,” he tells Jodie gruffly. “They’re good for the weather and that’s about it.”

We’ve been told that the road from Musgrave Roadhouse to Coen will be the roughest so far, and it doesn’t take too many kays of bone-jarring corrugations and billowing dust to realise the pundits weren’t kidding.

Mercifully, stretches of good quality bitumen also appear sporadically, like a tarmac-coated mirage. Even so, we’re an hour behind schedule by the time we hit Coen, the halfway point of our journey.

And then it starts to rain.

As rust-red rivulets run down the centre of the greasy road I ponder for the first time the possibility that we may not actually make it. Yesterday’s dry bogging showed just how tenuous our grip on forward progress is and I’m under no illusions that if the rain closes in we’ve Kennedy’s chance of keeping the rear-drive MX-5 headed northwards.

Between Coen and Archer River the road deteriorates further into a roller coaster of undulations punctuated by washaways that require a downshift to second, or even first, to negotiate safely. In these conditions the responsive little engine earns its keep, providing plenty of verve to get the roadster back up to speed again. The steering, too, is excellent, feelsome and well-weighted yet free of rack-rattle or kickback, even over the worst corrugations and bumps. And the well-calibrated ESC works brilliantly, correcting in a largely unobtrusive fashion the subtle slews and slides that are part of dirt-road driving.

Forty kays north of Archer River the Peninsula Development Road veers west for the 146km run across to the bauxite mining town of Weipa. But we keep the little Mazda’s bright yellow beak pointed resolutely north, turning onto the southerly juncture of the Telegraph Road.

Later, at Bramwell Junction as we pump unleaded into the Mazda’s tank at $1.80 per litre, the roadhouse manager Jamie Molyneau sums us up in the dry, understated style of the Northerner.

“You don’t see too many of these around here… But there’s a first time for everything, eh? Just shows how good the road is if you can get these up here without too much hassle.”

I wanted to tell him it was our sheer skill and daring that had got us this far, but figured the jig was up when he added that, “Bamaga locals regularly drive to Weipa or Cairns in Falcons and Commodores.”

“But not MX-5s?” I prompted. “No, not MX-5s,” he conceded. It would have been a bummer to get this far and find the MX-5 Club of Australia had been through just last week.

It’s here that the dinkum four-wheel-drivers part company with the Telegraph Road and branch out on the Old Telegraph Track, a more direct but rough-as-guts route that crosses numerous creeks and rivers before rejoining the Bamaga Road at the Jardine River Crossing.

North of Bramwell Junction the landscape changes constantly: from savannah to coastal heath to tropical rainforest and back again. At times the road resembles a beach access track as it ducks and dives over sandy ridges hemmed by dense scrub. The last 20km is as rough as anything we’ve encountered but there’s a real sense of achievement when we sight the ferry crossing at 4:35pm, with less than a half hour to spare.

The crossing itself is a bit of a non-event, however; just an old cable-operated barge taking three vehicles at a time across a strip of river so narrow you could throw a stone across. Nevertheless, it’s too deep (and probably croc-infested) to be forded. It strikes me that it’s also got to be one of the world’s shortest and most expensive cruises, at $88 per vehicle, or $96 if you’re towing a trailer.

The dreaded bulldust and potholes large enough to swallow a car have failed to materialise, and as we get closer to Bamaga the dirt gives way to high quality bitumen that links the Cape communities of Injinoo, Bamaga, Seisia and Umagico.

Thankfully, this sort of sealed civility hasn’t yet reached the Tip, however, and just metres out of the north side of Bamaga the MX-5 once again thrums to the beat of corrugated dirt.

At the Croc Tent on the juncture of the tracks to Cape York and Punsand Bay we stop for a yarn with owner Lea-Anne Mears. She tells us the road is freshly graded and that we should have no problems, but not far into the journey we realize she probably doesn’t drive an MX-5. The corrugations are brutal and the track is tight, forcing us to slow to below 60km/h in places, which in turn sends wave after wave of violent judders through the little roadster’s body.

All the bumps, thumps and dust seem worth it, though, when we round a bend and catch our first, filtered glimpse of the sparkling waters of the Torres Strait. Our excitement is tempered slightly when we discover there’s still some work to be done, with the last 500 metres or so accessible only by foot.

The clamber over that final rocky headland heightens the sense of anticipation at being so near the most northerly point of the Australian continent. Despite this, our pace is slowed by the inconvenience of lugging the MX-5’s bootlid, which Wielecki has decided will make a useful prop at the Tip; his ‘logic’ being that at least one part of our trusty chariot should make it all the way. Personally, I’d have been happy with the owner’s manual.

Fifteen minutes later, having worked up a decent sweat in the tropical heat, we gaze out across the blue-green ocean, surging in a powerful tidal change between the mainland and nearby York Island. Descending the headland for the obligatory team photo beside Australia’s most famous signpost, we pass a group encountered earlier in the trip. “Is that all that’s left?” asks one wag, grinning at the grimy bootlid tucked under my wing.

It’s water off a duck’s back to a bloke who’d earlier been convinced to pose semi-naked with a fluorescent gecko. As the architect of that ignominious image scooped sand into a bottle to complete his collection gathered at Australia’s other geographic extremities, I savoured the sense of achievement at having driven the diminutive roadster to this point. Along the way we’ve been chided and derided by fishermen, pig hunters, four-wheel-drivers and backpackers, but we’d made it and the MX-5 had proven a terrifically durable and capable travelling companion.

So, has the Tip been “myth busted”, as Wielecki put it? Well, yes and no. Our success owed as much to smiling weather gods and fortuitously timed grader crews as to anything else. In the absence of these elements, I wouldn’t recommend driving there in your Porsche Boxster. Then again…

Thomas Wielecki was eventually forced to upgrade his inner-city home to accommodate his burgeoning soil sample collection. Shane Bradford built a new MX-5 out of the bits left in the back of his ute. Jodie Steward is expected to make a full recovery but no longer works with photographers. Allan Horsley is contemplating taking the MX-5 Cape York Edition into series production. And Ged Bulmer was last seen sailing towards Thursday Island … on an inflatable gecko.

Have you bought our media-rich iPad edition yet? A quick trip to the Tip was originally published in November, 2010. Next week in The Weekend Read, two of Porsche’s most accomplished race cars tackle the spiritual home of Australian endurance motor sport

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