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The Beginner’s Guide For Driving To Cape York: Everything You Need To Know To Before You Go

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Driving to Cape York, the northernmost part of mainland Australia, from Cairns in Far North Queensland is considered one of the wildest and most remote journeys Australia has to offer. A true bucket-list adventure that requires planning, preparation, and determination to tick it off. 

As more paved roads are completed and more cell towers are erected, the prospect of driving Cape York becomes more and more accessible every year. But even with these advances, the opportunities for wild, unsupported overlanding adventures are limitless in this vast wilderness.

If you are planning a Cape York trip or just dreaming about your own Cairns to Cape York 4wd adventure, we have several tips and answers to Frequently Asked Questions for tackling the Cape York peninsula you might like to know before you go.

Here is our complete list of what to know before you go to Cape York, to help you prepare or plan a trip to Cape York.

Need a rugged vehicle for a rugged trip?

Do I Need a 4WD to Drive from Cairns to Cape York?

An abandoned car driving to Cape York serves as a reminder to make sure you have the right vehicle for the job

Yes.

Even along the major ‘highway’, long stretches of the rough unsealed road remain. Corrugation, dust holes, and dips make for a bumpy drive and can be catastrophic for conventional vehicles.

If you do plan to tackle Cape York with a 2WD stick to the PDR and take it slow. We wouldn’t advise it, but hey, it’s your Cape York QLD adventure!

If you don’t have a 4WD but would like to give the Cape York trip a try you can rent a four-wheel-drive out of Cairns.

Do I Need to Be an Experienced 4WD Enthusiast, Offroader, Overlander, Mechanic, and Camping Fanatic to Survive Driving to Cape York?

It helps, but no.

You just need a give-it-a-go attitude, a little courage, and the guts to jump on the UHF radio to ask for help when you run into trouble.

Challenging though it might be, contrary to popular belief, Cape York is a trip that is accessible to everyone even four-wheel-driving novices like ourselves.

You will certainly learn a lot on the way, and there are plenty of enthusiasts and experts along the way ready to help and share their wisdom with newbies.

You might find that you are a hardcore off-roader at heart or discover, like us, you will likely never be spotted white-knuckling it around the local 4WD track. Nevertheless, don’t let your lack of experience deter you from this trip. Just make sure you are well prepared and well informed before you head out!

Should I Take My Caravan?

If in doubt leave it out. Many caravans have not survived the trip from Cairns to Cape York

We wouldn’t!

Regular weekender caravans can easily be damaged driving to Cape York. We have heard the stories and seen the evidence of many a caravan that has left behind various bits and pieces or simply broken in half on ill-fated trips to the Cape.

That being said, if you have an off-road caravan and you are an old hand at off-roading with it then perhaps the trek is for you. We did, however, see plenty of people, including overlanding experts, at the Tip rebuilding their caravan after being banged around on the rough dirt tracks.

When Is the Best Time to Drive from Cairns to Cape York?

The best time for driving to Cape York is the dry season. The Cape is essentially unreachable in the wet
Driving from Cairns to Cape York is only accessible during the dry season

Dry season.

The best time of the year to travel from Cairns to Cape York is during the dry season, in fact, it is the only time. Most of the Tip is cut off from the rest of Australia during the wet season and driving to Cape York is impossible. The Cape York dry season runs from May to October each year and the Cape York wet season from November to April each year.

How Long Does It Take to Drive from Cairns to Cape York?

10 days +.

The distance from Cairns to Cape York is some 2,000 kilometers return, but with the condition of the roads, driving times are often longer than expected.

We spent three weeks driving to Cape York but many people make the journey from Cairns to Cape York in two weeks or even one.

To give yourself enough time to stop and enjoy the sights, and not spend every hour rattling around in your car burning through expensive fuel, I can’t imagine doing the trip in less than 10 days. And if you have more time, you could easily spend a month or more here exploring the trails, parks, and communities of the cape.

Is the Road from Cairns to Cape York Sealed?

Much of the journey from Cairns to Cape York is on unsealed roads
Driving to Cape York is a long and dusty road

No.

While there are some sections on the way to the Tip that are sealed, the majority of the road is unpaved. The drive to Cooktown from Cairns along the inland road is fully paved as well as the road to Laura. After Laura, there are sections along the way that are unpaved which are best traversed with a 4WD.

Do I Need to Carry Spare Fuel?

No.

Should you? Probably.

To get between fuel stations along major roads, you do not need to carry spare fuel when driving to Cape York. But you must be vigilant about filling up at every opportunity. It also means that if something goes wrong and you need to go off course, double back or a fuel station doesn’t have any fuel, you will be at the mercy of more prepared travelers.

If you plan to journey off the Peninsula Development Road or tackle some of the 4WD tracks that Cape York is renowned for, then carrying extra fuel is definitely recommended.  

Fuel is available at the following roadhouses along the PDR:

  • Palmerson Roadhouse
  • Lakeland Roadhouse
  • Laura
  • Hann Roadhouse
  • Musgrave Roadhouse
  • Coen
  • Archer River Roadhouse
  • Lockhart River
  • Weipa
  • Bramwell Junction
  • Jardine Ferry
  • Bamaga
  • Seisa

Fuel is typically 60 – 90 cents more than it is in major cities. And we found it to be most expensive is in the middle of the Cape and cheapest at the bottom and at the top.

Do I Need to Have a Radio? 

No.

A UHF radio is not a requirement for driving Cape York, but it can provide piece of mind as an important piece of safety equipment.

Cheap to buy and free to use, UHF or CB radio will allow you to communicate with nearby vehicles also equipped with a radio. On the Cape’s narrow and treacherous tracks they can be used to communicate traffic, road conditions, or, in an emergency, an SOS.

If you are planning on tackling some of the more remote areas of the Cape York Peninsula or a few of the more harrowing Cape York 4WD tracks, it is probably wise to ensure your vehicle is equipped with a UHF radio.

Channel 40 is used by truck drivers, and channel 10 is recommended as the 4WD channel and it can be helpful to monitor these channels when driving in the Cape as well as to frequently set your radio to scan.

Should I Carry Recovery Equipment for Driving to Cape York? 

Driving to Cape York can involve lots of off-roading...if you want it to

Yes.

A fundamental requirement for driving Cape York is carrying at least basic recovery gear with you. In a place as treacherous and remote as the cape, getting stuck is common, and the wait times for rescue long. Having the ability to be able to self-recover will come in handy if you do find yourself stuck.

For a list of the recommended recovery equipment you should carry on your drive from Cairns to Cape York check out our Cape York Trip Checklist!

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Do I Need to Carry Spare Parts Driving from Cairns to Cape York?

Yes.

If you do break down, not only could it be a long time waiting on a tow into the nearest community, but waiting on spare parts could take weeks, not to mention be extremely costly. One of the best tips for Cape York is to make sure you pack the essentials. Some basics include:

  • Tyre repair kit
  • Air compressor
  • Drive belts
  • Air filter
  • Fuel filter
  • Engine oil

It is also wise to carry the necessary tools like screw drivers and socket wrenches in case you need to use those spare parts. For a complete list of spare parts for Cape York, check out our Cape York Trip checklist!

Will I Have a Mobile Signal Driving from Cairns to Cape York?

This map shows the sporadic network coverage around Australia
A signal at the TIP is sporadic to say the least

No.

For the most part, no. You won’t have service while driving to Cape York. There are some communities and hotspots that have 4g service, but don’t expect to be reachable every day. The cell service, however, in these 4g areas was fast and reliable. We were able to work in these places using video conferencing without problems. Places we stopped with service all had fuel, supplies, and good camping.

  • Noah Beach in the Daintree (on the beach only)
  • Myall Beach in the Daintree (on the beach only)
  • Bloomfield
  • Cooktown
  • Laura
  • Coen
  • Lockhart River
  • Weipa
  • Bamaga
  • Wroonga Point
  • The Tip (intermittent H+ service)

Another great tip for Cape York, if being connected is important for you, consider traveling with a mobile signal repeater. A mobile signal repeater will boost the 3G or 4G signal in the area allowing you to stay connected. While a repeater is expensive (just under $1000) its a handy piece of equipment if you need to be online.

Mobile Phone Signal Amplifier Kit – Vehicles

Does Google Maps Work on the Cape?

No.

Google Maps isn’t the most reliable navigational system on the way to the Tip. We recommend stopping in at the Information Center in Cooktown and grabbing an old school paper Cape York Peninsula map. Or, you can pony up the $100 to purchase the online HEMA map which is designed for 4WD enthusiasts. 

For more information on how to plan your route from Cairns to Cape York, check out our step-by-step Cape York trip planning guide!

Do I Need to Carry Cash to Cape York?

Yes.

Although we carried cash with us, we did not use it on our trip. Everywhere we went had card facilities. However, given the limited infrastructure up here, if the internet goes down, it could be a long drive to the nearest cash point.

There are a handful of ATMs around such as the one found at the Umagico Supermarket or the Lockhart River Retail Store, but it is unlikely you will be in these specific locations when you need the cash.

In our opinion, it never hurts to have some cash in case the card reader malfunctions. You don’t want to be left stranded unable to pay for gas or other necessary supplies.

How Available Are Supplies in the Cape?

Fuel stations like this one between Cairns and Cape York sell basic supplies...but they aren't cheap

General stores are available at Laura, Coen, and Lockhart River, and supermarkets can be found at Weipa and Bamaga. Limited supplies are available at the other roadhouses along the way.

With that being said, supplies out here come at a premium and selection is limited with the exception of the supermarkets. Plan your meals ahead and take as many required supplies with you as you can.

We planned out our meals for our whole three week trip and took enough canned and dry ingredients to last the whole journey. We also took fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy, and meat for our first week. After that we restocked on milk, eggs, fruit, and veggies when we could. Forward planning meant that we didn’t have to pay a fortune.

Are There Restaurants Along the Way?

There are a few opportunities to eat out on Cape York

Yes.

You won’t find fancy sit-down meals or fast food joints like McDonalds driving to Cape York. But what you will find are pubs serving counter meals, roadhouses serving burgers, and caravan parks selling fish and chips, pizzas and standard pub food.

Just as with most things driving to Cape York, expect to pay a bit more for meals “out” than you would otherwise. But no trip to the Cape is complete without at sampling at least a few roadhouse burgers along the way. Our favorite places to eat in Cape York were the chicken burger at Bramwell Junction and the fish and chips at the cafe in Portland Roads.

Is Drinking Water Available in Cape York?

Yes.

Drinking water is available in Coen, Weipa, and Bamaga. We do, however, recommend that you can carry enough water for at least a couple of days for you and your party. You never know what may happen on the Cape.

Can You Take Alcohol to Cape York?

Capricorn Spiced from Saleyards Distillery in Rockhampton
Spirits are NOT ALLOWED in Aboriginal Communities on Cape York

Yes.

If there was one thing that surprised me during my Cape York trip planning was the existence of alcohol restrictions in Cape York. There are alcohol restrictions in 19 communities in Queensland of which 9 are in Cape York. The degree of the alcohol restrictions vary based on the each community.

Dry communities are communities where no alcohol is permitted.

These communities are located primarily on the western coast of the Cape. Lockhart River, on the eastern coast, is also a dry community, however, there are certain exemptions for “bona fide travelers” passing through on the Frenchman’s Track or the Portland Roads Road. But, if you deviate off these roads to stop in the restricted community even for fuel, you can be subject to hefty fines up to $50,000.

The Bloomfield Track from the Daintree to Cooktown also passes through a no alcohol community for which the “bona fide travelers” exception applies.

Other Cape York aboriginal communities place restrictions on the amount of alcohol you can possess in your vehicle at one time. These restrictions are per vehicle and not per person. The restrictions range between 1L of wine or 30 cans of beer to as much as 2L of wine plus 90 cans of beer.

Make sure to check the most up-to-date information available posted by the Queensland Government before stocking up on grog for the Cape.

Can I Buy Alcohol in Cape York?

Yes.

Alcohol is available at most roadhouses on the PDR although your selection will be limited and the prices steep. Once in the Northern Peninsula Area, alcohol is sold at the Bamaga Pub from 12:00 pm – 9:00 pm each day excluding Sundays. Purchases here are limited based on the alcohol restrictions in place.

Is There Free Camping in the Cape?

The tip of Cape York
Free camping Queensland doesn’t get much better than this!

Yes.

There is a lot of free Cape York camping to be had. If you are self-sufficient there is no need to pay for camping once you get above Cooktown. Our favorite free camping from Cairns to Cape York were down by the river just north of Coen, tucked away off the Bamaga Road at Rocky Creek, and perched on the headland at Roonga Point.

What Cape York Accommodation is Available Along the Route?

If camping every night is not for you or if you want to camp somewhere where there are some facilities, there is plenty accommodation and caravan parks along the way.

  • Palmerson Roadhouse
  • Lakeland Roadhouse
  • Cooktown
  • Laura
  • Hann Roadhouse
  • Musgrave Roadhouse
  • Coen
  • Archer River Roadhouse
  • Weipa
  • Bramwell Junction Tourist Park
  • Bramwell Junction Roadhouse
  • Moreton Telegraph Station
  • Bamaga
  • New Mappoon
  • Seisa

Are There Showers on the Drive from Cairns to Cape York?

The best showers are often the natural ones like a dip in Eliot Falls

Yes.

Heaps.

All of the roadhouses along the Peninsula Development Road have hot showers available for a small fee (usually $5). And once you reach the Tip, caravan parks will allow you to shower for a small fee (even if you’re not staying).

Even better than a shower at the end of a hot dusty days driving is cooling off in some of the pristine watering holes on the Cape like Fruit Bat falls or Eliot falls.

What Is the Old Telegraph Track?

The Old Telegraph Track or the OTT is one of the most famous tracks on the Cape. It was first cleared in the late 1800s to allow access to the telegraph lines that connected the Cape York Peninsula to the rest of Australia. It was used in this capacity until 1962.

For a long time the OTT was the only way to get to the top of the Cape. Today, bypass roads allow you skirt this rough old track, but most people who have done the Cairns to Cape York consider it an integral part of the adventure.

The OTT is a serious four-wheel-drive track but it is not so difficult that first-timers can’t give it a go, at least for some of the tamer sections (for example between Fruit Bat Falls and Sam’s Crossing). There are always plenty of experienced four-wheel drivers on the track, willing to lend a hand instructing and guiding over difficult crossings if you ask.

Do I Need to Book the Jardine River Ferry in Advance?

No.

You just need to show up and pay the fee. Once the ferry attendant wakes up from his nap and notices you are waiting, you will be told to drive onto the barge. Just a short 100 m later, you will be on the other side ready to tackle the last leg of the journey!

The costs $100 which seems steep but the money goes back into the local community and there is plenty of good free camping north of the Jardine so we didn’t feel to hard done by.

Can I Refill or Swap My LPG Gas Cylinder in the Cape?

Yes.

You can find swap and go gas cylinders at Bamaga and Weipa, and refill gas at the fuel stations in Bamaga and Seisa. Plan to pay a little more than you would at home!

We hope that after reading all of our FAQs about driving to Cape York, you are better prepared and ready to take on this amazing Australian road trip.

If you have any questions or think we have missed some important information you learned on your last trip to the tip, let us know below!

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