Cycling Trip from Cairns to Cooktown, September 2011

Summary: Kuranda, Blackmountain Road, Daintree, Bloomfield Track, Cooktown

by Holger Knublauch

In my previous life (before kids) I often went on extended cycling holidays where I loaded my tent on my mountain bike and traveled from place to place, visiting national parks and doing hikes along the way. With small children such trips are impossible, so I took a break for many years, switching to occasional car-camping trips instead. In September 2011, my parents in law visited us in Australia, making it easier for me to sneak away for a week and go on a journey all by myself. Here is the report from that wonderful trip - maybe useful for others who plan to travel through this region as well.

2011-09-10: Kuranda to Julatten along Blackmountain Road (56 km)

I started very late and arrived at the beginning of Blackmountain Road in Kuranda around noon. From where I live (the Cairns Northern Beaches suburb Kewarra Beach), the road up to Kuranda is rather dangerous (too much traffic for such a windy narrow road) and definitely not recommended for bicycles. So my wife kindly drove me up with my bike disassembled in the boot of the car. Blackmountain Road starts on the top of the Kuranda range, heading north straight through the rainforest along a pretty good gravel road.

The first section (about 26 km) of Blackmountain Road was in good shape when I came though. The dirt/gravel surface was in very good condition, and the trees from the surrounding rain forest and occasional pine tree plantations provided plenty of shade even in the middle of the day. There was essentially no traffic on that road apart from maybe 3 cars and a handful of trail motor bikes. I saw an echidna crawling on the ground after a few kilometers. The road is mostly flat with only gradual climbs in the first section. Somewhere out of nowhere the road reached a clearing with some cattle and a farm, but apart from that this is a very isolated quiet road. I took a quick lunch break on the intersection to Mona Mona - make sure you follow the road to the right - there are no road signs so any side road with a different name by default is not Blackmountain Road.

After around 26 kilometers the first section of Blackmountain Road ends and I arrived at the intersection with Quaid Road. This is a private road that is apparently not used. I have heard that it is possible to follow this road on bicycles all the way from the tablelands down to the coast at Wangetti. Quaid Road was straight and sealed. Blackmountain Road continues on the other side of the intersection. I met a lone motorcyclist who had a break on Quaid Road. He warned me about Cassowaries and told me he had met cyclists who were attacked by them. Cassowaries are large flightless birds that live in the rainforests. The males raise their chicks and may charge after anyone who comes near. Apparently they are armed with very sharp and strong claws as well as a sharp beak that they may use to rip you up. The motorcyclist had his own story to tell in which a cassowary once ran after him, forcing him to sit up on a tree until the animal lost interest after half an hour of siege.

Encouraged by such stories, I continued on my way and - surprise! - saw a large cassowary standing on the middle of the road after just one kilometer. The bird noticed me and observed me curiously, tilting its head. I stopped and turned my bike into a "flexible" position that provided me with options to continue into either direction quickly. I looked at the beautiful animal for a few minutes until it lost interest and continued on its way and slowly disappeared between the trees. On this second half of Blackmountain Road, the surface became rougher and there were two steep hills to climb that were difficult to make on the gravel, so that pushing my bike up was the cheaper option. As the road became narrower, the rainforest was closing in around me, creating a rather dark and wild ambience. After a further 20 kilometers, I finally reached bitumen again, which was a relief as I got a bit tired of the rattling surface with a fully loaded bike.

The route continued through cattle farm land with rolling hills and excellent views of the magnificent rainforest mountains behind Mossman. It was becoming late and when I reached the main highway in Julatten, turning north I saw a sign announcing a small camping ground on the right hand side which was conveniently located next to a small shop with yummy fish and chips - just the right thing after a day on the bike. The night up there (still on the tablelands) was very cold and I was thankful I had selected my best sleeping bag (that I once used to bivouac in the German snow).

2011-09-11: Julatten to Lync Heaven in Daintree NP (78 km)

The next morning I started around 9:30 from Julatten's camp ground. After a short uphill section, the next 8 km were delightfully all downhill along a winding road very similar to the road up to Kuranda but almost without traffic. I then joined the main highway towards Mossman where I stocked up my rolled oats supply at the local Woolworth supermarket. Heading north out of town, I crossed the Mossman river on the bike lane that continued for a few more km parallel to the road. Traffic was overall still light on this section, and the terrain remained flat through cane fields until the road touched the coast around Wonga Beach. It was hot and there was no shade, but the wind was mostly favourable from South-East. I finally arrived at the Daintree Ferry, where the girl at the booth had to check the price for a pushbike (just one dollar). Overall I did not see any other cyclist on this trip.

On the other side of the Daintree river the traffic became even lighter and the road narrower. The sugar cane fields gave way to lush rain forest again. With the ferry behind me, the few cars that were on the road all came in groups of 5 to 10, while most of the time I was alone with the trees. After a few kilometers, I had to climb Alexandra Range, which I found quite exhausting after the already long day. From the top of the range, the road was pleasantly downhill and then flat for the remainder of the day. I took the short side road towards the Jindalba section of the national park. I skipped the ridiculously expensive Daintree Discovery Centre (which may have been good for a coffee though) and instead walked the easy Jindalba Boardwalk.

I had been in Daintree before, for a couple of day trips with my family, but day trips from Cairns never really provide enough time to explore the area. So I also decided to take the side road to Cow Bay this time. This was a relaxing 6 km through rain forest and farm land, on a totally flat well surfaced road without traffic. After visiting the secluded beach I rolled the 6 km back and saw another Cassowary crossing the road. At the end of the day I found a good camping ground called Lync Heaven a few km north of Cow Bay township on the main road. They have a peaceful setting between the trees and a small private rain forest walkway. In the evening I had an excellent rib eye steak at their restaurant, washed down with a VB or two. A nice way to finish the day.

2011-09-12: Lync Heaven to Cape Tribulation (23 km)

After a good night's sleep in the rain forest camp ground, I left Lync Heaven around 9:30. I only had light breakfast in my tent so I appreciated a small shop on the right side, after just one kilometer and had the traditional Australian junk food, aka Beef Pie. The main challenge with this food is not to burn your tongue. My schedule today was basically a rest day to get ready for the hard stage across the Bloomfield trail on the next day. So all I needed to do was to follow the flat quiet road through Daintree all the way up to the end of the sealed road at Cape Tribulation.

Along the way I stopped at Thornton Beach (where there is another cafe right at the beach) and then walked the pretty (albeit a bit crowded) Marrdja mangrove boardwalk. Unfortunately only half of the trail was open, but I had been there before with the kids. From there it was a minor hill all the way to Cape Trib, where I did an extended lunch break at Dubuji Boardwalk where I saw a large Cassowary close to the trail, gulping down one large fruit after the next. There were some other walkers around and the animal was not scared, neither was the smaller, juvenile cassowary a few meters down the same trail.

I checked into PK's Jungle Village at Cape Trib, which I cannot really recommend (there is another campground at Cape Trib that I did not check out). The camp sites were small and not really nestled in the forest, the food was underwhelming, but more importantly the camp ground aims at young party backpackers with drunken fellows making noise until late. I wouldn't mind if this were the Gold Coast or a place where you expect this, but this was quite unfitting for a World Heritage Area rainforest. And just around 2:45 am a rooster starting crowing in regular 5 minute intervals. I got very little sleep that night.

When I put up my tent, I felt a small prickle or sting on my foot and noticed a small black spider on my sandal. I was able to catch it to see whether it was a redback spider, but it turned out to be harmless - yet it's always exciting to be bitten by a spider in Australia...

On the positive side, PK's is very close to the beach and the lazy afternoon walk along Noah's Beach to Cape Tribulation itself was nice. Overall this was a good relaxing day.

2011-09-13: Cape Tribulation to Lions Den (78 km)

On check-out from the Jungle Village, the people at the reception asked me how I slept and were not at all surprised about the drunken guys (attracting those seems to be their business model after all), but told me the rooster has been set free by someone and they cannot catch it. Well, at least the friendly guy at the reception gave me some fresh cold milk the next morning, so that I was on my way before the adjacent shop opened at 8 am.

On my route today was the infamous Bloomfield Track, an unsealed route that was controversially cut right through virgin rainforest to create a connection between Cape Tribulation and Cooktown. This is pure 4WD country with several river crossings and extremely steep hills. Detailed trail notes for 4WDs can be found here. The dirt/gravel road was in good shape overall, and the first few kilometres were a pure pleasure to ride on this quiet morning. Traffic was naturally almost non existent. The main challenge was to not get entangled by wait-a-whiles that were dangling from the trees over the road. Emmagen Creek was a river crossing where I waded through the refreshing water. Driving through on the bike would have been difficult as the rocks were slippery. Although my pannier bags are supposed to be waterproof I did not want to risk that. There were two other river crossings later but at this time of year after months of dry weather they were not really obstacles but rather welcome refreshments.

After Emmagen Creek the hills started and Donovan Range was the first place that was ridiculously steep so that it was time to get off the bike and push up the hill. The steepness is hard to capture on photos, but you may get an idea from this image. Fortunately the climb was not too long, so that I was optimistic when I reached the top. There was a small hidden beach with mangrove trees at the northern base of this range.

A few kilometers after that, the real climb started, up Cowie Range. This was just silly from a cycling perspective. To get an idea of the steepness, scenery and other cyclists' experience, make sure to read the diary and look at the pictures by the Wills Brothers. The climb up to Cowie Range has a 33% gradient, and that's so steep that they had to install bitumen surface so that at least the 4WDs can make it in the dry months. During the wet season I assume this whole trail is closed as it would be impossibly steep and slippery. Curve after curve it went up, and indeed I didn't know whether I should laugh or cry by the sight of yet another climb. Going downhill was also not trivial, because you need to take care not to fall over the handle bar. I would estimate that strong disc brakes are mandatory to avoid losing control on the downhill sections.

Along the road I was occasionally overtaken by a group of trail motorbikes that were taking a guided tour through Cape York. Some of them were quite careful when they overtook me to avoid blowing up too much dirt or stones, while others were less aware of this and just zoomed past. Some of the drivers were waving and supportive; I don't believe anyone expected a bicycle in this area.

On the far side of the Cowie Range, the road went down to reach sealed surface at the Aboriginal community of Wujal Wujal after 32 km. In the heart of town was the crossing of the Bloomfield River, which was no problem on a causeway at this time of year. There was from my perspective not much to see in this township, so I took a lunch break at the Bloomfield Inn - with rather deplorable junk food. I probably should have had lunch instead at the IGA at Ayton a few kilometres later. The area between Wujal Wujal and Ayton was a relaxing sealed road along the Bloomfield River.

After Ayton, the excitement of the Bloomfield Trail gave way to a rather dull ride along a bumpy gravel road through a broad shadowless valley. This was dusty and hot and even the nice scenery of Cedar Bay National Park could not compete with what I had previously seen. A seemingly endless climb followed across a pass over the Cedar Bay range, with some sections again covered by bitumen because they would have been too slippery otherwise. Fortunately the wind was strong and coming from behind, so this lifted me up when the muscles became sour. I got really tired when I reached the small township of Rossville on the northern side of the range, but disappointingly I did not see any shops for refreshments, so continued along dusty roads through farming country all the way to the "historic" Lions Den Hotel in Helenvale.

The Lions Den is a nice little country pub with character, and a pretty camp ground in the back. This was a very welcome place to stay and there is a river with a nice swimming hole nearby. The pizza in the evening on the verandah looked very yummy but had a rather disappointing taste. I am sure they have better food on the menu. The night at the campground would have been perfectly relaxing but the wind was very strong that night and rattled the tent continuously.

2011-09-14: Lions Den to Cooktown (30 km)

The final day on the bike was short and very easy. I started early and decided to skip breakfast in the hope of finding some shops along the road. Well, there was nothing between the Lions Den and Cooktown, 30 kilometres away but the wind was pushing so strong that this was a pure joyride compared to the exhausting exercise from yesterday. Apparently the winter wind is always so strong around Cooktown, and predominantly from the South East.

The ride towards Cooktown was a completely different experience compared to the previous days. Lush tropical rainforest was replaced by sparse sunburnt forests with cattle grazing dry grass under the trees. Some bushfires had been passing through the area recently so the soil was partially black. A few kilometres into the ride, I came past Black Mountain National Park, a weird hill of solid black rocks. There is not much to do in that park though, and I was happy to reach Cooktown for an early lunch break.

For days I had been longing for some spicy food, and the Chinese Take-away on the left hand side of the entrance into Cooktown was much appreciated. I had lunch or dinner there three times on the two days that I spent in town. I picked a nice camping ground and put up my under some large trees that gave some shelter from the endless wind. The afternoon I spent walking around Cooktown - make sure to visit the graveyard with some historic perspective. I also walked up Grassy Hill and down on the other side to two quiet beaches.

This night my $15 made-in-China air mattress that served me well for this trip developed a hole, and I soon found myself on the hard floor. I spent an hour or so to figure out whether I could repair this mess, but gave up eventually. Until the morning I at least got a few hours of sleep, however hard and uncomfortable, as my sleeping bag was providing at least some basic cushioning. When I "woke up", my refreshed mind remembered that I had a bicycle chain repair kit with me, a device that makes it possible to push metal bolts out of a chain. Thankfully the Australian 50 cents coins are very large and thick, can be perfectly pushed together to press any piece of rubber. With the chain repair kit and the two coins I was able to fix the broken mattress for at least another night.

2011-09-15: Hiking Day in Cooktown

I stayed another day in Cooktown to climb Mount Cook. on the next morning. The views from the top were stunning, and I met some friendly folks who explained something about the local plants. I also saw a slender tree snake climbing up a bush. After a lazy afternoon break, I also went to the local Botanical Gardens - not really worth a visit though. Overall Cooktown was interesting for two days for its history, but it's a very small and isolated place. The main reason for spending another half a day there was that I had to wait for the bus back home to Cairns that only runs three times a week.

The final excitement of the last day of this trip happened during the night. The wind had again become stronger, and my tent and the trees around it were shaken like mad. I contemplated about the fact that most casualties from such storms and the recent hurricane in the US were due to falling trees and branches. In fact, just as I was trying to get some sleep around midnight, I heard the branches around my tent seriously cracked. With a huge thump and crash, something large fell on the ground a few meters away from my tent. As I was camping directly in a forest of 25 meter tall Eucalyptus trees, I thought it was time to think about an evacuation, and I wandered along the camp ground to find a safer spot. At 1 am I finally took my whole tent, with sleeping mattress and everything and moved it to a different site that had no trees overhead. This at least gave me a bit of sleep. On the next morning I examined the branch that had crashed next to my tent, and in fact it would have easily destroyed my tent and probably seriously injured me.

2011-09-16: Return Journey to Cairns

In the morning I visited the interesting Cooktown Museum, where they exhibit the original anchor and a cannon of the Endeavour, Captain Cook's ship that ran aground the Great Barrier Reef in 1770. They had to throw the cannons overboard to save the sinking ship so that they could make it into the river mouth on the present location of Cooktown. After the museum, I had another Chinese take-away before I took the bus home to Smithfield/Cairns along the inland road. The bus ride was enjoyable through very different dry country. The driver charged me $97 including the bike in a trailer. I arrived in Smithfield at 5:30 pm before dark and cycled the last few kilometres along familiar cycling paths towards Kewarra Beach and my family. A very beautiful trip overall.