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Cape York Australia - Tropical Rainforest, Islands, Wilderness, Adventures and 4WD Tours

Updated on February 21, 2017
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John has traveled extensively has developed 5 website guides for touring Australia & Worldwide. John has developed travelers tips & tricks.

Fabulous Wilderness Adventures

The Cape York Peninsula on the northern tip of Queensland, Australia, is a nature lover's and adventure tourist's delight consisting of a complex wilderness mosaic of pristine tropical rainforests, savannahs, shrublands, tropical and subtropical grasslands, wetlands, wild rivers, tropical savannahs, heath lands and dense mangrove swamps. Covering an area of approximately 210,000 sq. km., Cape York is surrounded by the Coral sea to the east, the Torres Strait to the north, and the Arafura sea and Gulf of Carpentaria to the west.

The Cape York Peninsula extends approximately 750 km north from Cairns along a narrow peninsula to its tip in the Torres Strait close to Papua New Guinea. There are more than 100 islands in the Torres Strait stretching north of the peninsula north to the Papua New Guinea. The remaining islands are home to the indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islands, that are linked to the Melanesian based people of Papua New Guinea, to the north. They are generally regarded as being quite distinct from the Aboriginal people in the rest of Australia to the south.

Rich cultural heritage of the Torres Strait Islands
Rich cultural heritage of the Torres Strait Islands | Source

Cape York Peninsula - Australia

These islands add to the attractions in the area, although only three of the Torres Strait Islands are open to the public. The most popular island and the most famous are Thursday Island, which used to have a major pearl industry and Horn Island. The Torres Strait Islands' economy for the local Polynesian inhabitants is predominantly based around fishing, in particular fishing for Spanish mackerel, rock lobsters and prawns and tourism. There are several delightful places to stay on Thursday Island, which has wonderful facilities. You can get to Thursday island using he local Ferry, or by flying to Horn Island and taking connecting boat to Thursday Island.

Cape York itself is very undeveloped, isolated and secluded with few inhabitants, accommodation or other facilities, though there are a number of resorts on the northern tip and on the islands. Access to the accommodation at the tip of the peninsula is by bitumen and dirt road from Cairns and Port Douglas, air, or via boat along the coast. A sealed bitumen inland road links Cairns and the Atherton Tableland to Cooktown and Lakeland Downs further to the north. North of Lakeland the road which continues right to the tip of the Peninsula, is unsealed dirt road that is regularly cut after heavy wet season rains (generally between December to May). Most people camp-out on the way to the tip. The administrative and commercial centres are at Cooktown, located in the far south-eastern corner of the Peninsula and to the west the bauxite mining town Weipa on the Gulf of Carpentaria. The remainder of the peninsula is sparsely populated with most of the population living in very small communities and on the cattle stations. Along the Peninsula Developmental Road, there are a handful of small towns at Lakeland (256 km north of Cairns), Laura (317 km from Cairns) and Coen (576 km north of Cairns).

At the tip of Cape York, there are the tiny towns of Bamaga, and Seisia, which is Australia's most northerly community. It is also the jumping off point for a range of marine based activities - day trips with fishing guides and tours to explore the Torres Strait Islands. If you bring your own boat there is a boat ramp and small outboard boats can be hired from nearby New Mapoon. There is a major service centre on nearby Thursday Island. Regular air services with connections operate from Cairns to Aurukun, Coen, Bamaga, Cooktown, Weipa, Karumba, Lockhart River, Thursday Island, Horne Island and Yorke Island.

The peninsula is an area of great contrast. The eastern side is rainforest - quite literally where the rainforest meets the sea, but to the west of the Great Dividing Range that runs up the centre of the peninsula, the land is mainly woodland, scrubland and grasslands, that can be very dry during the winter dry season. The climate is also marked by contrasts. The many rivers have a major change of mood varying from almost dry in the dry season (May-November) to overflowing and floods torrents in the wet season (December-April), when the road to the Cape becomes impassable. Obviously the best time to visit the cape is during the dry season especially if you will be travelling by 4WD vehicle on the unsealed roads.

Cape York Peninsula has a complex and diverse mosaic of pristine tropical rainforests, savannahs, tropical and subtropical grasslands and tropical savannahs and shrublands, heath lands, wetlands, wild rivers and mangrove swamps. These various habitats are home to about 3400 species of flowering plants and more than 95% of the entire Cape York Peninsula still retains its native vegetation and shows little fragmentation. Tropical rainforests cover an area of 748,000 ha, or 5.6 percent of the total land area of Cape York Peninsula and are of high conservation significance. The rainforest contains at least 1000 different plants, including 100 rare or threatened species, and 16% of Australia's orchid species. Cape York Peninsula also features of the highest endemism rates in Australia, with more than 260 endemic plant species found so far. There are more than 700 vertebrate land animal species known from the area of which 40 are endemic. The flora and fauna of Cape York Peninsula are a complex mixture of Gondwanan relics, Australian isolationists and Asian or New Guinean invaders.

The expansive wetlands on the Peninsula are amongst Australia'a the richest, largest and most diverse. More than 19 nationally significant wetlands occur on Cape York, mostly located in the extensive coastal areas and on the large floodplains. Important wetlands include the Lakefield systems, the Jardine Complex and the estuaries of the large rivers of the western plains. Many of these wetlands are periodic and only fill during the Wet season and support rare or uncommon plant communities.

To the west Cattle station leases present about 55% of the western area, mostly situated in the central and eastern areas. Indigenous land represents about 20%, and the entire West coast is under Native title. The remainder is mostly part of National Parks. Land uses include nature reserves, broad acre pastoralism, tourism, silica sand mining, bauxite mining and fishing. There are major bauxite deposits along the east coast or Gulf of Carpentaria coast and Weipa is the centre for mining on the Peninsula.


The Peninsula is a popular tourist destination in the Dry Season for camping, hiking, birdwatching, Aboriginal culture and fishing enthusiasts. Hire boats, helicopter scenic and charter flights, horse trail riding and charter sunset cruises, crocodile spotting tours and Cape York Tip tours are just some of the activities available. Many people make the adventurous, but rewarding, drive to the tip of Cape York, the northernmost point of mainland Australia. The options are to do yourself with you own group with 4WD vehicles (Travelling alone is not recommended). You can also join a guided tour with many operators providing tours using several 4WD vehicles or buses.

The Captain Billy Tour is designed to satisfy the needs of discerning travellers that want to experience the colourful heritage and rugged beauty of Cape York in comfort and safety. During this 16 day long and challenging 4WD wilderness safari tour that departs from Cairns. You will see a beautiful landscape full of history, Aboriginal culture, wetlands, billabongs, rivers, waterfalls and Aboriginal art. The tour will visit all the major scenic attractions, including a tour of spectacular Thursday Island, before finishing your special journey on Horn Island. You flights back to the city of Cairns are all pre-arranged and included in your Tour Package and enjoy a scenic air flight over the magnificent Great Barrier Reef before landing back in Cairns.

John Charlton's Cape York Adventures offers fully-guided, adventure and fishing holidays at the tip of Cape York Peninsula and fabulous 4WD tours departing from Cairns all the way to the Top. They arrange everything needed for you, transport from Cairns, equipment, accommodation, transfers meals and tours. All that is left for you do is relax, take it all in and enjoy yourself. Their range of activities include: fishing holidays, snorkeling, sunset tours, family holidays, sightseeing, birdwatching, history tours, water taxi, wildlife and general boat charters. You can be as adventurous as you want or enjoy relaxing: you can snorkel in lovely sheltered coral reefs, angle for tropical sports fish, go diving for crayfish, or take a short bush walk to enjoy fantastic panoramic views of the coastline and island islands, enjoy a fascinating visit Horn Island Heritage Museum, enjoy a beautiful pub lunch on Thursday Island, join an evening crocodile-spotting and a turtle watching tour, drive a 4WD to a remote waterhole, billabong or go beach combing along parts of the coastline only accessible by boat, returning every evening to your comfortable accommodation with lovely scenery overlooking the Gulf and Torres Strait.

You can also choose many 'tag-along' tours self-driving your own off-road vehicle, or a hired vehicle for a 4WD adventure up Cape York. Vehicles travel in convoy behind lead tour vehicle driven by experienced tour guides. This is one of the best ways to see the peninsula on a real adventure in a safe and fun environment.

Resorts, Parks and other Places to Stay

There are a range of resorts and caravan parks close to the tip. Bamaga is a small town which is situated only 40km from the tip and features Resort Bamaga that provides the ideal getaway for special interest and conference groups, families, corporate and government travellers, with affordable four star luxuries. Bamaga is one of the major gateways to the Torres Strait, with the surrounding areas boasting a multitude of interests for all travellers. The nearby town of Seisia, with its unspoilt setting, is a beautiful holiday destination and the Seisia Holiday Park is an ideal gateway for visiting the area being right on the waterfront with stunning views of the Torres Strait Islands to the northwest and Red Island to the west. Whether you crave the beauty and serenity of the natural environment, challenging 4WD adventures, thrilling fishing experiences, exploring the local history and culture or enjoying the colourful, rich and diverse wild life, Seisia Holiday Park is the ideal base for your journey into paradise. Seisia Holiday Park offers a range of accommodation and camping options.

Things to Do and See

Fishing trip operators including live-aboard vessel for charter fishing, operating from Cape York and the islands The angling from the local wharf is excellent and certainly worth a try. You can fish along both the west and east coasts, unspoiled estuaries, inshore tropical reef fringed reefs, islands and billabongs. At diverse locations, you can target some of the worlds best sports fish: Fingermark Bream, Mangrove Jack, Barracuda, Cobia, Queenfish, Barramundi and some species of Trevally, Tuna and Mackeral and lots more species. Fishing charter vessels encompass live-aboard boats and daytrip charter fishing vessels operating from Port Douglas, Cape York and Cairns. Diving and sailing cruising vessels and cruises aboard motorboats are also available for touring the area. The angling from the localized wharfs and your own vessel is very good, but be always remember that crocodiles are widespread in this area.

Hire vessels, scenic charter helicopter flights, diving, cruising and angling cruises, horse riding, eco-tours, crocodile spotting adventure tours and diverse Cape York Tip tours are just some of the numerous undertakings you can enjoy, that will match every taste and desire in this magnificent area.

Travelling North along the Cape York Peninsula

The 4WD adventure tour up the centre of thePeninsula is one of the most well liked excursion for 4WD enthusiasts in Australia and world-wide, with many of the other ones in the Kimberleys and desert localities in Western Australia. The Peninsula Developmental Road, as it is called, begins at Lakeland where you can load up on nourishment, spares, equipment and supplies. After this the next location along the 734 km trek to Bamaga (just a short way from the Tip) is the small township of Laura. Just south of Laura you can take the turn to Split Rock and see the magnificent Quinkan Aboriginal Rock Art Galleries, which include some fabulous and spectacular Aboriginal rock paintings - certainly not to be missed. If you are journeying through this district in June then you can visit Laura and see and enjoy the Laura Aboriginal Dance and Cultural Festival.

After seeing Laura you can head north again towards the magnificent Lakefield National Park. There is abounding of birdlife inside the reserve because to its large, rich and diverse wetland areas. To the north of the reserve is the attractive Charlotte Bay boasting some stunning Aboriginal rock art galleries, although it is a very tough track to get to the site. Along the coastal areas, east of the reserve, are two additional National Parks, the Starke National Park and the Cape Melville National Park.

North along the major track is the tiny town of Coen where you can get fuel supplies and minor repairs and equipment, as well as at the Archer River Roadhouse, which is further north again. Other enticements include the renowned Mungkan Kandju National Park, south of Coen and to the north there is the Iron Range National Park that is made up of the Janet and Tozer Ranges, and contains attractive rainforest, stunning scenery and many animals exclusive to this area. There are two coastal villages that you can visit inside the reserve, named Lockhart River and Portland Roads.

Further north along the major track, is the turnoff in the direction of Weipa. Continuing north you will pass by Batavia Downs which is the starting of the stream crossing section, with the two foremost streams being the Wenlock and the Dulhunty. Further along the track you will see the Jardine River National Park, and the stunning Indian Head Falls. You will soon come to the Jardine River Crossing, which is quite expensive to cross, but the fee does include camping permits that helps support the maintenance of the campsites throughout the Cape York Peninsula. North of the Jardine River the major village is Bamaga, which boasts a range of basic facilities. North west is Seisia which boasts several places to stay, including a major camping area, and the former port town of Somerset. Just north of Somerset is the tip of Cape York itself, which is most northerly point on the Australian mainland. Just off of the coastal area are the Torres Strait Islands, which you can get to by a variety of vessels from the tip of the peninsula.

© 2010 Dr. John Anderson


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