One track Mind: A Trip along the Frenchmans

While I have not had a chance to get up to Cape York recently the following story was published in the May 2018 Issue of 4WD touring Australia. 

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Sitting at Moreton Telegraph Station we were having a well-earned rest having recently reached the Tip of Cape York.  A grey nomad sitting near me excitedly remarks to his partner, “I just heard that it took someone 6 hours to do the 50km stretch and another person flooded their car in the Pascoe”. It was looking like our fun was not over yet.

Most who make the pilgrimage to the tip have one track in mind.  The Telegraph Track.  And while the ‘Teli’ is famous, there is another less travelled track that is one of the Cape's most testing – The Frenchman.  The Frenchmans Track is a ‘shortcut’ (in distance not time) from the Peninsula Developmental Rd to Kutini Payamu (Iron Range) NP. 

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Contemplating what I have just heard, I read over the 4WD rental agreement one more time.  The good news is that it does not say we can’t go on the Frenchmans.  The bad news is we have no winch.  At this point I begin to question the decision to hire a 4WD rather than drive my own car all the way to the Tip.  But, like many, the ability to take enough time to travel from one side of the Country to the other was not feasible.

Having flown to Cairns, we hired a 4WD with the aim of exploring as much as possible in the short time we had off.  While the thought of trying to explain why we turned the rental into a submarine was not pleasant, there was no turning back. 

Leaving Moreton Telegraph Station we head south looking for the small turnoff, having been told it can easily be missed.  Sure enough, we miss it. Turning around we spy a sandy track deviating off in to the open forest.  After a short drive the tree canopy begins to close in, the vegetation doing its best to remove the dirt scar through its heart.  We soon realise that the lush green canopy is accompanied by what was to be the first of many bog holes.

The term ‘bog hole’ does not do them justice, as the reality is, they are really long, watery slush pits.  While we do our best to test how deep it is, the distance makes it impractical, and no one volunteers to walk their length.  While sensibility would have us turn around, with plenty of right foot and turns of the wheel, we power through each of them, hooting at the end of each one.  This was fortunate as the lack of a winch or maxtrax (sitting comfortable at home on my own 4WD) would have made it a very slow dig.

After 12 very slow km we reach the Wenlock River and the next real test of what a stock 4WD can really do. The trusty landcruiser drops down the steep rutted entry to Wenlock River with only a few heart palpitations being caused.  I am definitely glad I’m not going up the other way.  The base of the river is firm with water lapping the top of the tyres.  “This is not that bad after all”, I think, as I slowly get lulled in to a false sense of security.

From here, a mix of sandy, rutted and open tracks provides all manner of variety keeping the drive fun.  However the smile is quickly removed as we stop perched at the top of a bolder strewn drop off.  I stare down into the Pascoe River, and the thought of our conversation back at Moreton.  Unsure what frightens me the most, the rock littered track or the depth of the flowing river, I take one last check of that rental agreement again.

Throwing caution to the wind, I thrust it into 1st gear low range and descend over the ledge. The stock cruiser, wanting to show of to the growing congregation, works its magic descending the track like a ballerina hoping lightly from one ledge to the next. 

Like all river crossings up the Cape the level of difficulty is proportional to the amount of rain.  However the Pascoe is deep most of the year with large rocks hidden under water ready to destroy a diff if you pick the wrong line.  This is one crossing that must be walked to locate any deep holes ready to test out the insurance claim. With a mix of power, low tyre pressure and fingers crossed we part float, part lurch to the other side.

It is not over yet with a steep exit so we point the nose to the sky and hang on tight. Coming to a stop at the top, the blood begins to return to the knuckles griped around the steering wheel like a boa constrictor snake.  The grin of both relief and exhilaration returns to the face knowing that I won’t have to do any explaining to the hire company.

From here we cruise along the white sandy heathland, grey termite mounds standing like soldiers on either side celebrating our success. We eventually join Portland Road and make our way to Iron Range National Park with a quick stop at Lockhart River for supplies. Lockhart is famous for the Lockhart River Art Gang, where you will find a studio with local artists producing paintings, basket weaving and other traditional craft works.

Back on the road, Iron Range National Park lives up to its name with its yellow and red rocky escarpment. While early travellers came here in search of another yellow mineral following the discovery of gold by John ‘Jack’ Gordon in 1934, the modern day traveller can enjoy bird watching in one of the largest remaining area of lowland rainforest in Australia.

However our aim was to see if we could spot one of the much rarer green pythons the area is famous for.  Heading out for a walk along one of the tracks at night, we have been told the pythons are sometimes seen curled around branches overhanging the track ready to catch any unsuspecting dinner morsel. The torch catches glimpses of red from the reflecting eyes of the crocodiles looking at us as a possible dinner morsel. Having walked for 15 minutes I am surprised to see what looks like a rubber snake directly in the middle of the track.  As we approach the plastic snake begins to move.  It seems luck was on our side, not only getting through the Frenchmans unscathed, but seeing one of these majestic creatures in the wild.

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Having spent a few nights at Chili Beach with its postcard palm lined beach, we return to the Peninsular Development Road. Crossing the Pascoe river again, this time a much easier ford, we re-live the excitement of the previous few days.

Our last stop is Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park. During the wet season this low-lying area becomes an inland sea making it completely impassable. But during the dry, the numerous wetlands and streams come alive. Surrounding the Lakes, the Nifold Plains are an endless sea of tall grass interspersed with hundreds of termite mounds. Camping by one of the numerous Lily covered Lagoons we watch the magpie geese and sarus cranes search for breakfast amongst the red lotus flowers.  It is advised not to get to close to the edge for risk of ending up breakfast for the crocodiles that also inhabit the wetlands.

Our last camp is at the Old Laura homestead, a great spot to relax and share the stories of conquering the Frenchmans in a stock fourby. While many put off visiting Cape York due to the distance to get there, the idea of hiring a 4WD may just be the ticket you need to experience this part of Oz. ….But just remember to check the rental agreement before you take the plunge.