It almost wasn’t meant to be. A couple of weeks ago, around 2PM on a Monday, I took a call from James Ward asking if I could cover a Volkswagen drive event that he was too ill to attend.
I obliged, and that's when he sprung the surprise: the flight was leaving at 4PM…
Rushing home to pack, I was then off to the airport for a flight to Cairns, where I'd then make my way to Weipa in far-north Queensland.
On the plane over, I started reading the event itinerary, which said that we would arrive to Weipa where a fleet of Volkswagen Amarok Core vehicles would be waiting for us.
The Amarok Core is Volkswagen’s solution to the entry-level four-wheel drive commercial ute segment. The well-equipped vehicle forms part of Volkswagen's strategy to tackle a greater portion of the market.
The Core is priced from $41,490 plus on-road costs for the 4Motion (Volkswagen-speak for all-wheel drive) cab-chassis dual-cab, increasing to $42,990 for its tray-bearing sibling.
An eight-speed automatic transmission can be had for an additional $3000 in each instance.
Read: 2015 Amarok Core Review
Our travel packs included food and water, along with some camping staples — such as a tent, torch, mozzie repellent, sunscreen and a sleeping bag.
It was hot and stuffy in Weipa, and the temperature only increased as we began trekking further north. Luckily the air conditioning system in the Volkswagen Amarok is solid enough to handle the tough Australian conditions.
It was only a matter of kilometres before we left sealed road and began driving on rutted and corrugated gravel roads. The journey would see us leave Weipa and head north for the start of the Old Telegraph Track.
The Old Telegraph Track has its beginnings in the late 1800s, when a chap named Edmund Kennedy trekked the track north to the northern most tip of Australia.
Within sight of the tip, Kennedy lost his life in a confrontation with the local indigenous people.
Around ten years later, the Jardine family set up a settlement near the tip that acted as a safe house for shipwrecked sailors. The Jardines also setup the Overland Telegraph Line. The line, which consisted of several telegraph stations connected a physical line that was used for Morse code signals to protect Australia from an invasion from the north.
The telegraph stations were heavily fortified and were used to protect travellers from the local inhabitants of the area. The line was eventually upgraded to a telephone line and then finally decommissioned in 1987.
To this day, galvanised steel poles still remain in the ground along the Old Telegraph Track where the line used to sit.
Our first stop before the start of the Old Telegraph Track was Moreton Telegraph Station. The trek to the Moreton Telegraph Station was fairly easy and consisted of corrugated and unsealed roads.
Moreton Telegraph Station is an interesting place. While the grounds are mainly inhabited by campers and people in recreational vehicles, part of the grounds are dedicated to ‘premium tents’, while the other part contains powered cabins, which is where we called it a night.
There was an eclectic mix of people camping here. They ranged from families driving around Australia to older couples getting away from the rat race. There was also a gaggle of backpackers earning a crumb working at various stations along the way.
The following morning, we were only on the road for a short while before we arrived at the start of the Old Telegraph Track at Bramwell Junction. This is the last place to get fuel before departing for the Old Telegraph Track and is a picturesque spot to grab a bite to eat before heading off.
Keep in mind that there is absolutely no mobile telephone reception out here. Being on the Optus network probably didn’t help, but I lost reception as soon as I left Weipa airport and only recovered it briefly, atop a big hill at the northern most tip of Australia.
The Old Telegraph Track gets progressively harder with the first few river/creek crossings generally dry in the dry season. These are the Palm Creek crossing, Ducie, South Alice and North Alice Creeks. These crossings gave us a good chance to test the Amarok’s all-wheel drive system.
Even with the rear differential lock left open, the Amarok was able to scrabble up the steep sandy slopes without a fuss. The Amarok’s ‘Off-Road’ mode engages off-road ABS and ESP modes along with hill-descent control above certain incline/decline angles.
With this mode selected there was very little stability control intrusion for climbing sandy banks and the ABS worked less to bite into the gravel more, to help pull up the Amarok when surprise dips would appear out of the blue.
The next two crossings are the Dulhunty and Bertie creek crossings. These both had water flowing across them and allowed us to begin testing the Amarok’s wading depth and traction after the creek.
It’s important that you engage your four-wheel drive modes prior to entering a creek crossing. Trying to fiddle with settings when the car is stuck is entirely pointless, which is why we manually engaged the rear differential lock and allowed the car to do the rest of the work.
After coming out of these crossings, it’s important to be mindful of less traction thanks to the tyres being wet and also the surface on the other side of the creek generally being quite muddy and soft.
Exiting the creek with enough pace and momentum is critical to not getting stuck. When the creek gets deeper, you also need to make sure your vehicle is travelling at the same speed as the tidal wave in front of it. Be moving fast enough to not get stuck, but not so fast that you have water flowing over the bonnet.
The Old Telegraph Track then starts to read like a ‘make your own adventure’ storybook. You reach a crossroad that allows you to travel to ‘Gunshot’ or to bypass it. It’s certainly worth checking out Gunshot, as it’s one of the most challenging four-wheel drive sections of the Old Telegraph Track and there are many videos on YouTube showing you what happens when things go wrong here.
While the Cholmondeley creek crossing that follows Gunshot is quite simple, getting there is the challenging part. Gunshot is famous for two near-vertical slopes that drop a car into a mud pit that is almost impossible to then get out of.
If you skip either of these two, there is another option that offers a less-intensive drop, but one that treks through soft mud that will have the car beached almost instantly. While we were here, a number of cars were stuck in this mud and had to be pulled free by winch.
To avoid damaging the trays on the Amarok utes, Volkswagen opted to the only cab chassis ute we had down one of the near-vertical Gunshot drops. From the outside it looked incredibly daunting as the car reaches a point of no return where even a firm foot on the brake pedal doesn’t stop it dropping into a pool of mud.
It was only a moment of hesitation that had the Amarok stuck in the mud pit; I’m certain that with a boot full of throttle early on, it would have made it through unassisted. With a number of bystanders nearby, we just snatched the Amarok out of the mud.
The rest of us took the Gunshot bypass road that spat us out at Cockatoo Creek. This creek crossing isn’t challenging, but has several huge holes that could very easily cause your day to end badly. It’s always advisable to walk these crossings first and map out a path to travel across. It’s often hard to fix a problem once you're stuck, so it’s easier to get a little wet to ensure you don’t lose a car.
After Sheldon Lagoon and Sailor Creek, the Old Telegraph Track temporarily joins the bypass road that takes you to the picturesque Elliot Falls. But, before getting there, you arrive at Scrubby Creek.
The standard Volkswagen Amarok Core has a wading depth of 500mm, which isn’t sufficient for most of these crossings. Scrubby Creek is one that really tests a car for water sealing and wading ability.
The aftermarket snorkel increases wading depth from 500mm to over 1m and with water levels coming to the top of the bonnet; it was great to see the Amarok just push through without any struggles.
Special channels allow water to fill inside the door itself, while seals around the door keep water from entering the cabin. Despite being underwater for around 20-30 seconds, the cabin stayed dry with the door cavities releasing their load of water when we exited the creek.
The final destination for day two was Elliot Falls. Wow, what an incredible place. With camp set up for the night, we ventured into the water for a swim and to relax, soaking in the amazing scenery this country has on offer.
As we depart Elliot Falls for our last day behind the wheel, the road gets more challenging and the creek crossings get deeper. The roads begin putting stress on the cars with continuous corrugations, exposed rocks and dips that push the Amarok to its limits.
With a lot of four-wheel driving experience, it was Canal Creek that scared me most. The entry is very specific and at one point causes the car to see-saw so far that I was convinced we were going to tip over.
After a change of underwear, the Sam, Cannibal, Mistake and Cypress Creek crossings are fairly straightforward. The Cypress Creek crossing is literally a bunch of logs tied together, so it’s fun to watch from the outside as they creak while cars are travelling over them.
One of the cool natural wonders is the myriad termite nests. They all face north-south with some passing two metres in height. They are dotted all over the landscape and are a reminder of the wildlife that lives in and around this ecosystem.
Our final two river crossings are Logan Creek and Nolan’s Brook. These are both quite deep, and Nolan’s Brook is challenging with a number of deeper spots located around the creek. Both should be crossed first by foot to ensure there are no problems when you are midway through.
The trip from here is on heavily corrugated gravel roads that literally had the dashboards of our Amaroks shaking. These roads are best tackled at speed, with the off-road mode constantly on. Bumps in the corrugations sometimes caused the car to skip across, which would cause the stability control to activate.
The off-road mode relaxed this intervention and allowed the car to move a little more freely as the road’s surface changed.
The final portion of the trip from Bamaga — one of Australia’s northern-most towns — is on an even worse portion of road, filled with surprise dips and heavy corrugations. Again, it was a case of just throttling on and pushing over the corrugations.
The northern most point of Australia, in Cape York, is simply stunning. As you roll out of the bush and on to the beach, there is an incredible sense of achievement. The scenery is simply breathtaking, with a brief hike to the northern-most tip, which offers a photo spot and plaque signifying the spot.
If I could recommend anything for punters attempting this trip, it would be to pack sensibly and make sure that anything you bring with you on the trip, you take away with you. There are no bins along the track, which means that rubbish is often just left there. Poor form.
Additionally, ensure you have all the four-wheel drive gear you need. While there are always people around to help you get out of creeks and mud if you get stuck, you can’t always rely on others. A winch and heavy-duty snatch strap is a must.
Most of all, remember to have fun. We are so incredibly lucky to live in such an amazing country. Don’t take it for granted and enjoy this unique experience.
It’s also proof that you don’t necessarily need a low-range gearbox to get about in these parts. My hat is well and truly off for to the Amarok. We belted these cars well beyond what they would normally experience in day-to-day life. They are an incredibly rugged and capable vehicle. Great job, Volkswagen.