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stories from Australia


Cape Melville - Bathurst Bay

Far North Qld - September 2007

by Theo Moret


    Describing anything as paradise must surely be an overworked cliché yet referring to Cape Melville as paradise does not seem to stretch the imagination.  Surely having uninterrupted water views from your accommodation which is located under a giant fig tree on a beach should lay a solid foundation for such an honour.  Add to this that it is not crowded, has good weather, great fishing and scenery it seems a justifiable moniker for Cape Melville.

     After years of planning and one aborted departure we are finally on our way.  But why is it that people focus on their worst fears when planning such a trip?  Some of our crew were absolutely certain that they would end up as a crocodilian main course and these people are not novice travellers.  Stories of croc attacks don’t help but as sensible travellers we are very aware of them and exercise caution.    

     Apart from the aforementioned crocs other expressed concerns included the threat of taipans and irukandji jelly fish and it is off course prudent to be aware of these dangers but there is a point where this turns into paranoia.  I am pleased to be able to report that the trip resulted in no sighting of the deadly jellyfish but then again they are so small you wouldn’t see them anyway.  There was however a brief sighting of a brownish snake scurrying from the loo at Kalpowar Crossing and this may have been a taipan but we only saw its tail so who knows.  I’m guessing it was a brown tree snake as there were plenty of frogs there at night.  We did have a croc visitor on 3 days of our camp, on one occasion it casually cruised by about 100 meters off shore and we would estimate him to be about two meters long.  He also visited our beach front over two nights just looking over the rise at our camp from about 40 meters away.  All in all it was an acceptable interaction with the dangers of the bush and statistically we stood a greater chance of harm on the highway from Brisbane to Cairns.

    Our crew consisted of 9 experienced travellers in four vehicles all towing trailers.  These intrepid travellers are veterans of the Cape, Kimberley, Simpson, Kakadu and our local haunt Fraser Island so we felt sufficiently experienced to try a more challenging destination.  It comes as no surprise that the desire to go to Cape Melville came from a previous visit in 2002. Our visit then was restricted to only a brief day trip from Kalpowar but it firmly planted a dream to return one day for a more leisurely extended stay.  Our plan for this trip was for two weeks of sightseeing and fishing, maybe not in that order.  Due to holiday restrictions it had to be a late September visit which is the tail end of dry season so we were expecting things to be well worn and dry.

    There are a couple of ways to get to Cape Melville and we chose the less adventurous route via the developmental road to Laura due to time constraints.   Previously we have done this trip via Cooktown and Battle Camp Road and there is the coastal road via Hopevale which is more scenic and challenging but time was a problem.  The journey to Cape Melville started for us at Kalpowar crossing in Lakefield NP which was a comfortable day’s travel from Cairns.  We had planned to overnight here and just as well as we managed a couple of flat tyres, one each on two of the vehicles, already from just one day of travel.  You just don’t know when flats are likely to strike, sure the road from Laura to Lakefield was rough but one was between Lakelands and Laura and the other was just a slow leak so who knows!

    We have camped at Kalpowar Crossing on several other visits to the Cape and it just seems to be a good stop on any trip.  There is a fair bit on offer here such as the toilet/shower block and it sure is comfortable camping but most of all you start getting a flavour of the Cape – the nightly bush noises and a sense of remoteness.  In past visits we have spent several days here as a base for exploring, fishing and boating.  Our plan was for an early start in the morning to arrive at Cape Melville shortly after lunch, well things hardly ever go to plan and after dealing with further tyre issues in the morning we had a leisurely breakfast.  This meant that we started later than planned and little did we know that this was to set the tone for the day ahead.

    Finally the journey commences with the crossing at Kalpowar and finding the road easy going we figured we’d catch up the time lost in the morning – wrong!  A conveniently timed breakdown determined our morning tea break and after some welding and fitting of a new spring to one of the trailers we were on the road again.  We have long ago become self sufficient in these events and find that this removes a lot of pressures and stresses when something like that happens.  But little did we realise that these events would contribute to a sense of urgency by the time we arrived at the other end.  I missed the behind the beach turn off that takes you past the fresh water and on to the Cape and ended up at the beach seemingly on the wrong side of some mud flats – didn’t remember these from last time.  Anyway we are an adventurous lot and noticed some tracks crossing the flats so off we go because we knew we had to be on the other side.

    It is hot and now mid afternoon on day one in paradise, a walk to the other side suggests a way through so away we go.  Little did we realise that this would be our undoing for the rest of the day.  One by one we became bogged in our effort to get to the other side and then back when that proved fruitless.  We were extraordinarily lucky in that this was the neap tide and water did not join us to make it even more interesting.  After a couple of hours and one recovery after another we are back on the beach where it all started with no daylight left a decision was made to camp there for the night.  We were sure glad to be sleeping on dry land even covered in sand fly bites until the wind hit during the night.  There were some doubters emerging from our group that this place was not paradise but possibly hell!

    The new day beckoned with renewed enthusiasm and a short backtrack had us on the right track and all is good again, so how far up the beach should we go was the question and we had visions of being right up the other end previously.  Through the freshwater crossing and as we passed a couple of really good looking camps we pushed on for even better up near the tip.  Day two and we were setting up at windy camp – so named after the gusts that almost flattened us the following night.  It was clear that the wind was starting to take the shine of this camping spot with several of our group having a sleepless night saving their belongings from being blown away.  Getting up at day break and seeing a fellow camper in his pj’s trying to save his awning meant that any greetings of “good morning” was lost on him.  A decision to move was made and we headed back to one of the better sites we had seen the day before.

    We arrived at our third and final camp under a huge fig tree which was so large we were able to park three trailers and cars under its branches, a smaller tree next to this one housed the other trailer and tent.  After lunch it seemed safe to unpack a little further and unloaded the boats which for all of us meant we were staying.  The weather was good for our remaining time here and it became clear that “position” was also important in paradise.  The tree was about 50 meters from the water and had million dollar views over the water it seemed more like the place of our dreams.

    There are off course a number of camping options at Bathurst Bay and a lot of people favour the western side to be closer to the rivers and creeks.  Cape Melville National Park did not extend to the western side and this also had some appeal to campers.  However a recent redistribution of park boundaries and the return of a large parcel of land to traditional owners may have changed the status of these camp sites and it is worth checking before you decide on where to set up camp.

    Our camp had an exposed reef out in front and we walked across this on a couple of occasion to view the colourful coral and sea life living here.  A convenient star picket on the beach meant we were able to secure all three tinnies for the duration of our stay there.  We had enough fuel to run the tinnies and a generator for a fortnight and had all intentions of a comfortable stay with plenty of everything else in the way of lighting, chairs and a large table.  That night a communal dinner which was followed by watching the sun sink on the horizon helped clear the memories of the last two nights.  A good night sleep meant that all was well again – the plan was back on track!

    Day four arrived with great weather and a glassed out bay just perfect for fishing.  It wasn’t long before we had caught some macs and they were quickly devoured for brunch.  We made a couple of trips to the nearby islands but being exposed to the prevailing winds the water can be choppy so some extra care is required to go there.  Seafood was on the menu and no one was complaining and we were never short of fish even on a couple of occasions being given fish by some campers nearby.  You meet the nicest people in the bush and our neighbours were no exception. 

    We had two camps nearby and it is only polite to go and say hello.  The first one was Daryl on his way to a job on the Cape (lucky bugger) he was living the simple life and one morning caught half a dozen large sea mullet just outside our camp we had them for breakfast what a nice gesture.  The other camp was a family group that has been coming here for more than 20 years and we wanted to let them know about a croc that was cruising around, they were aware and thanked us.  Well, later when one of our outboards broke down it turned out that one of them was a small engine mechanic and came to have a look.  They also had some great luck fishing and had a offered a huge slab of mackerel that they simply would not be able to eat – those steaks we had brought along just had to remain frozen for now.

    There are off course plenty of tales like the resident croc that visited us on three separate occasions and our fishing tales of which there are plenty.  How about this one, Karen our fishing expert was trolling just out from our camp when something BIG snaps the rod holder and drags the borrowed rod overboard.  Now most of us would have written that one off but not Bob the captain who immediately slowed the boat trolling the remaining line over the other and unbelievably hooks it.  They pull in the line and wind it on a thong retrieving the rod and the fish which turned out to be a huge toad fish.  And they barely get this sorted when they land the largest fish of the trip a GT too big for the scales on the very rod and lure that went overboard.  Some people suggest that fishing is a skill but they weren’t thinking of Karen because that has to be the luckiest set of circumstances I have ever encountered.

    Trevor and Ernie were our family group next door and they had managed to get stranded by the tide up the river on the other side of the bay the day before.  They managed to literally pick up an esky load of mud crabs and had six large neatly tied crabs to give to us so we had them for lunch - nothing like full fresh crab for lunch is there?  It is appropriate for me to make a little confession here.  We were also up this river a day or two earlier and had seen the crabs migrating out to the bay we surmised it had something to do with the monthly tide cycle because the tides were only just getting large enough to allow this to happen, but I digress.  The bride was telling me to get the scoop net and just flick them into the tinnie as it was only knee deep water and all I could do was to say that I didn’t want those large beasties in the tinnie unrestrained, I have been ridiculed ever since – oh the shame.

    One of the regular chores was to do a water run for our fresh water needs.  The creek was about 4K away and we had about 300 litres to fetch every couple of days.  This water served us for drinking and showering and our system was pretty refined.  A pump up from the creek into a series of containers to be used as required.  We have been told by a number of sources that this water supply is very reliable and has never been known to dry out.  Another chore was a regular burning of rubbish and the occasional fire to attempt a camp oven meal otherwise there was no fire.  There is plenty of timber if you would want one though.

    About 5 to 10 litres for each shower made this 5 star accommodation which was enjoyed with the local wildlife.  A mangy dingo was a regular visitor but never seemed to get closer than about 50 meters.  Several colonies of insects also shared our tree including swarms of native bees that were hell bent on sharing anything containing moisture.  A swarm of large yellow and black hornets were queued up for the same moisture and whilst the bees were totally harmless we did have one stinging victim from the hornets – it was impossible not to grab them when picking something up.  An owl that left on day one, some coppery coloured skinks, a collection of birds and a tree snake a couple of rooms over made up the wildlife tally.

    Now I did say this place was quite so it came as a complete surprise when a large customs vessel arrives on the horizon and dispatches a zodiac that zooms around the bay checking for safety gear.  I don’t wish to belittle the importance of safety gear but it seemed an over kill when our family group neighbours got stung for $150 for not having the appropriate gear on board.  This is remote camping where very few (if anybody) will come to your rescue if you’re in trouble.  What was even more surprising when another DPI crew did a round the next day, I have never seen such a big presence anywhere.  We had more safety gear than you could poke a stick at and had no trouble when they pulled us over.  Interestingly they were checking to see if the flares had expired and if my catch was legal, they could see from the large fish frames in the bucket that there was no problem there.  The next question was where we caught these as the area near the point is a green zone – so easy to get caught out with these things.

    Having a tinnie on such a trip sure is a bonus as it makes travelling along the beach a lot easier than doing it by car.  Sightseeing was done mainly by boat so there was a need to keep a close eye on the tides particularly if going up one of the rivers as it is easy to run out of water on your return.  Heading west along the Bay there are a series of creeks and rivers they seem deep enough but the problem is getting in and out when the tide gets low.  It is a good idea to understand the tides for the area before you depart.  Looking around and fishing these rivers was a day trip for us and we had the place to ourselves apart from a million midges.  Heading east took us to the point at Cape Melville along the way we visited the memorial to the 300 or so people that lost there lives here at the turn of the century.  The point was also the way to the islands and some old plane wreckage that can be seen at low tide.  Low tide is the time for oyster gathering along the rocks and there are some big ones here.

    The last day rolled around rather quickly and there is no question that time flies when you’re having fun.  Geoff and I decided for an early morning troll to the point and we did pretty well in a short time nailing a couple of quality fish, a mac and a cobia weighing nearly 20 pounds each these were our best fish for the trip.  This would be a fitting finish to this trip so we return to camp to slowly pack for a quick departure the next morning.  We squeezed in a last trip to fetch water so we would have plenty of water for the journey home. 

    Our departure the next day was a rather rushed and sombre affair with everyone on the road by 8 am.  Our return along what is now a familiar track to the freshwater creek and to the left turn off the beach we are back on the main track to Kalpowar via Wakooka.  A short drive along we pass the turn off to Ninian Bay on the left, this is also worth a visit one day but not this trip as we have run out of time.  Another flat and a stop for lunch at the grave stone we press on to Kalpowar.  The grave stone is well maintained and belongs to one Brian James Meldrum aged 14 who drowned in 1961 it must have been a tragic loss in such a remote place.  He has obviously not been forgotten.

    We had experienced some seriously slow going in the sandy parts of this track on the way to Cape Melville.  Even having to unhook a couple of trailer to get through but better track selection on our return made this part uneventful.  The trick is that there are a couple of diversions from the main track and these save you from the very soft sand which can be tricky.  And reducing tyre pressure will off course help in the soft stuff.  In comparison the return journey was easy going even though we had some fires lapping near the track at one stage with plenty of smoke about which was a concern.  Some locals hunting pigs just off the track near the Normanby River caused a number of pigs to scramble across the track just ahead of our travel we had seen a lot of pigs in this and the Lakefield area.

    Our arrival at Kalpowar Crossing was not without its problems the camp ground was full for the first time for us!  We checked the board and noticed no commercial site booking so that was ours after clearing it with the ranger.  A basic camp and a very quite afternoon strolling around the crossing finished our Cape Melville adventure.  Would we go again?  You bet as this place is paradise and there is still so much to see.

    Quick facts

  • Distance - approximately 14 hours from Cairns via the developmental Road.  Broken down as 7.5 hours from Cairns to Kalpowar and 6.5 hours from Kalpowar to Cape Melville.

  • Fuel cost – Lakelands  $1.33 (approx 10c more than Cairns) and Laura $1.44.

  • Water at Cape Melville – is available via permanent spring

  • Remote area - From Cape Melville the closest help is at Kalpowar Ranger Station – this is remote camping.

  • Fishing - There is a “Green” fishing zone near the tip of Cape Melville – no fishing permitted.

  • A tinnie would be an advantage.