Sitting in the car parked in Cairns, at first you think the map is lying to you.
Tap in destinations such as Weipa or Seisia – two popular locations on the western side of Cape York – and the navigation estimate says it will take the better part of 24 hours or more to get there.
If the road was paved all the way, you could do the trip in about eight hours.
However, not only is the road not paved, it is mostly dirt of the worst kind: corrugated.
With the right off-road tyres (cushioned sidewalls, small rims) and the right suspension you could cover ground in a decent amount of time.
But tow anything – even an off-road caravan – and you’re reduced to a crawl much of the way. Even the long haul road trains who do this trip every week were reduced to walking pace at times.
I now know this having spent a week in Cape York – the peninsula north of Cairns – towing a double jet ski trailer.
I was part of a charity ride with a group of 14 jet skis that started in Weipa and ended back on mainland Australia after travelling via Thursday Island and the island of Daru in Papua New Guinea.
The Torres Strait crossing has been done by jet skis before – by four people with permission in 2013 and an unlucky fugitive who was nabbed during an escape attempt earlier this year.
Our journey was to raise awareness for Sarz Sanctuary, a charity set up to aid the families of murder victims.
The charity was established by the parents of Sara Zelenak, the 21-year-old Australian killed in the London terror attacks in June 2017.
The family is well known in the ocean-riding jet ski community, so this epic journey was done in her honour. Sara’s father was part of the road crew for this event, having been one of the four riders who did the crossing on jet ski in 2013.
Getting to the start line in Weipa was an adventure in itself. Driving from Sydney to Cairns was a three-and-a-half day exercise, but seemed like a snack compared to what was to come next.
For the road trip we enlisted the help of an Isuzu MU-X LST, the recently revised top-of-the-range model.
Aside from the nudge bar – and LED light bar perched across it – it was showroom standard.
The only additions I made were roof racks and a roof storage pod, and a large heavy-duty rubber mat to protect the floor and back seats while they were stowed.
We also borrowed an extra spare tyre and stored it under the luggage, which filled to the roof. In the end, you couldn’t squeeze a beach towel in there; we had used every nook and cranny.
There was no way the drop-down DVD screen was getting a run on this trip. But we figured plenty of food and water plus two spare tyres would be a wise move given the remoteness and the road conditions.
I also chronically overpacked. I could have been stranded for a month and would still have put on weight.
There is food in most of the small towns along the way, provided you arrive in daylight. Top tip: the burgers at the Great Northern Cafe in Coen (it’s the first one on the left on the way in from the south) are the real deal.
The roadhouse at Lakeland (between Cairns and Coen) does decent tucker as well. Plus there’s time for the food to settle because you’re on sealed road for the first 70km or so.
But after that, all hell breaks loose as the road turns into rubble, and you begin to question your decision to embark on this journey, especially when there is no sign of relief ahead.
Isuzu recently switched to highway-biased off-road tyres – rather than all-terrains – which initially made me a touch nervous, but the Isuzu rep assured us they would be fine for the journey.
Spoiler alert: incredibly, we didn’t get one puncture on the way there or back, although we did get a bubble on one of the four trailer tyres after hitting an edge when the road went from dirt to bitumen.
We switched the trailer tyre over in Weipa, but only after (luckily) finding a tyre shop who could swap it off our spare rim.
The trailer got new wheels, tyres and hubs for the trip. Unfortunately they didn’t match the stud pattern of the spare. Bugger. Thank goodness we found a tyre fitter.
On the Isuzu, I naively drove with full tyre pressures on the way to Weipa (about 36psi hot). However, once I was on the jet ski and in the water heading for Thursday Island, the road crew wisely dropped the pressures to about 32psi hot.
Four-wheel-drive experts will already know this, but for novices the rationale is as follows: less pressure in the tyre enables the rubber to roll over sharp rocks more easily, rather than having them dig into a tyre at full pressure and possibly puncture it.
The drop in air pressure made the steering less responsive but it made the car more cushioned over bumps. Well, cushioned in relative terms.
It quickly became apparent the lengthy navigation time estimate was close to the mark – and corrugations and trailers don’t mix. Like the road trains, we too were slowed to a crawl much of the time.
Some corrugations are shallow enough that, with enough speed, you can skim over them. But when they’re deep, nothing can save you except slowing down.
Because the traffic in either direction is so light – even in peak season, winter – and there’s plenty of visibility ahead on the long straights, it’s not uncommon to chase smoother sections of dirt even if it means crossing to the other side of the road.
Or using what we referred to as “the footpath”, the section of dirt on the other side of the guide posts. In many cases the footpath was smoother and easier on the car and its occupants.
Because it’s hard to see who is behind you in the dust, passing etiquette requires constant checking of the side mirrors (our rear view mirror was blocked by swags) and keeping an ear out for the two-way radio.
Most slower drivers move over, most passing drivers make sure you’ve seen them and give you a wide berth so you’re not showered in the stones thrown off their tyres.
Unfortunately, though, hoons still exist even in the four-wheel-drive community. Fortunately, they are in the minority and most people out here look out for each other.
The other thing that genuinely surprised me was the fuel economy we were getting out of the fully loaded MU-X while towing a trailer weighing, conservatively, 2500kg.
That may be 500kg less than its 3000kg towing capacity but we were still asking a lot of the whole set-up.
The average fuel consumption sat around 12.2L/100km for the entire journey, which was remarkable given the weight and the trying driving conditions.
We had budgeted on using 15L/100km. Given that the price of diesel ranged from $1.85 to $2.05 per litre, it was welcome financial relief.
Above: Fuel for the jet skis, not the Isuzu
Pushing through dirt on slightly under-inflated tyres is not as easy as driving on sealed roads with the correct tyre pressures.
I will also never again curse bumpy Sydney roads. The patches of sealed sections we were treated to on the trip were like finding water in a desert.
To my budding co-driver and me, the heat coming off the black tar ahead in the distance looked like an oasis. We wondered if it was real. Sadly, the relief was always short-lived and we were back on punishing corrugated dirt roads in no time.
The other element that staggered me was how easy the Isuzu's 3.0-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder engine was working, despite the conditions and its relatively low power output.
It ran mostly low in the rev range but still had plenty of grunt. I have previously criticised the Isuzu for not having much power or torque compared to its rivals, but it’s now apparent to me that the numbers are academic.
It gets the job done without raising a sweat, a not-so-quiet achiever. I’m starting to understand why some Isuzu owners are fanatical about their cars. It is, after all, a truck engine that’s been fitted to an SUV and a ute. No wonder it’s light work.
The key to keeping our sanity and making good time was getting an early start each day, on the road before sunrise.
It’s not ideal to drive in the dark – or at dawn or dusk – because that’s when animals become a danger on the road. But we backed off our pace until the sun was up. It was just important to get rolling and buy some time to help knock the journey over.
On the return trip from a campsite called Captain Billys Landing (on the coast between the Jardine River and Coen) we left at 3am and arrived in Cairns at 6pm after stopping only for food and fuel. The first 30km took 45 minutes.
We both wanted to sleep in. There was even talk of pushing back our start time to sunrise.
But once we rolled into Cairns and back to civilisation – and a hot shower – at dusk and in time for a decent feed, it was absolutely worth the effort.
Top 10 tips for four-wheel-driving in the Top End
1. Don’t tow anything, if you can avoid it. This may not work for everyone but if possible, the easiest way to make good time is to be in a self-contained four-wheel-drive, perhaps with a roof-top camper. But don’t make it too top heavy – and don’t overload it like we did. Towing means there is also more to break (such as the hitch or trailer suspension) and more tyres that could get punctured.
2. Good quality, all-terrain tyres with plenty of side profile are advisable, even though we didn’t get a puncture with the Isuzu MU-X’s standard Bridgestone Dueler Highway Tyres. These Bridgestones are either truly remarkable, or we got lucky. Possibly it was a combination of both. It’s also worth considering a tyre pump that can run off your car battery to re-inflate the tyres. Aim to pack a total of two spare tyres unless you’re good at tyre repairs and have a puncture repair kit. Tyre repair shops are few and far between.
3. Don’t pass a fuel stop. Out of an abundance of caution it’s worth topping up your fuel tank at every opportunity, unless you’re lucky enough to own a vehicle with twin tanks. If you’re renting a 4WD in the Top End, check if the vehicle requires petrol or diesel. We saw one poor couple stranded after filling their diesel-powered rental 4WD with petrol.
4. Bring cash. The shops in most towns have EFTPOS and credit card facilities but some places only take cash. Cash-only examples include a bakery in a Weipa shopping centre (good pies) and the ferry to cross the Jardine River ($50 each way for a 50 metre journey, thanks for coming).
5. Get a two-way radio and leave it on Channel 40. You hear a lot of nonsense as some drivers forget everyone else can hear them, but it’s handy when passing or being passed. Or to warn others of a hazard you just encountered – or be warned of a hazard you’re about to encounter.
6. Be prepared to have no phone range in most of Cape York. Weipa and Seisia have Telstra coverage, so too does the shack at Jardine River. But south of there the only phone range is at Coen and Lakeland. Punsand Bay and the immediate area near The Tip was patchy. Everywhere else is non-existent.
7. Consider a satellite phone and/or EPIRB. If you need help out here, time can mean the difference between life and death. The easiest way to raise an alarm is a satellite phone or EPIRB. But even with an EPIRB emergency crews will prefer to make phone contact first, to ensure it’s not a false alarm.
8. Don’t overpack. Unless you’re camping every night, you can get most food supplies in most towns. Snack food should be enough to live on between towns. That said, having plenty of water on hand is a good idea. It could help you or someone who is stranded.
9. Buy a hard copy map of Cape York. With no phone service there’s no way of using your phone to check your bearings and it’s easy to get disoriented.
10. Allow ample travel time. It took us 16 hours to travel an 800km stretch, twice as long as it would have taken than if it were a sealed road.