Cairns To Darwin

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Updated: October 5, 2020

A ride from Cairns in FNQ to Darwin in the Northern Territory crosses the Gulf Of Carpentaria and runs through some of Australia’s most wild and isolated country, and Cape York Motorcycle Adventures has announced it’ll offer this amazing trip in 2020. WTW’s editor was with Roy and CYMA when the ride was trialled in 2011, and it was an adventure on a scale only Cape York Motorcycle Adventures could manage. This could be you in 2020…

Water crossings come thick and fast on rides in northern Queensland. Sandy, t ractionl ess riverbeds alternate with submerged gibbers, invisible wheel ruts and uncertain depth to make every crossing a challenge. There’s crocs too, of course. Big, snappy-jawed, ugly bastards that somehow manage to stay invisible until the moment they strike.

So the long, concrete causeway at Drumduff Crossing on the second day looked a luxury. It wasn’t until about three-quarters of the way across it became obvious why there was a causeway in the first place. The raging current slowly but inexorably dragged the DRZs closer and closer to the crumbling concrete edge. The slippery surface offered no real purchase and the depth and sideways pressure increased as riders juggled throttle and body weight to try and make the other side.

In a last final lunge I roosted to safety, heart pounding, hands shaking and water cascading from bike and rider. There was no way to tell the depth of the river on the drop-off, and I’d made it by the very tiniest of margins.

I looked back just in time to see someone not so fortunate.

It was one of those moments where time seemed to slow down, and a great deal happened in just a very tiny instant. Bike and rider plunged awkwardly sideways off the causeway and both disappeared below the surface. At the same time, the rear of the bike behind followed, but the rider threw himself off and managed to keep himself and his bike mostly on the concrete. As we gazed in disbelief, the first rider’s head reappeared and began to bob its way downstream in the current as other riders tried to put their bikes in a position to help the pair. Of course, they were in the grip of the current as well, and, for just a few seconds, things looked very grim indeed.

A wonderful start to a long ride had quickly turned to shit in a big way.

very tiny instant. Bike and rider plunged awkwardly sideways off the causeway and both disappeared

Piece Of Cake

One of the best things about a guided tour is that all the riders have to think about is riding and enjoying themselves. After more than two decades in the trail-tour business Cape York Motorcycle Adventures has this sorted nearly as well as it can be done. Before you could say, “Crikey!”, tour leader Roy Kunda, sweep Lee Schirripa and support driver Bevan O’Conner had everyone back on dry land enjoying a cool drink and a luxurious lunch. The soaked rider was able to offer up a wry, damp chuckle as he woofed into the lunch buffet and cold drinks while Roy and Lee set about drying out his bike. In 45 minutes or so everyone was well fed and back on the trail with no time lost and no real damage done.

What could’ve been a very nasty situation had been less trouble than a spurting countershaft seal at Borroloola, thanks to the competence of the Cape York crew.

In any case, it was a sobering reminder that despite the comfort and ease of the early part of the trip, this was serious shit. It’s a long wait for help of any kind in Far North Queensland once you leave the coast, and by camp on the evening of that second day the group was nearly 750km west of Cairns.

Nobody cared, because the second night of any tour with Revvin’ Bevan O’Conner was lamb-chop night. And that’s backed up with orange poppy-seed cake.

No-one’s going to let themselves be drowned and miss out on that lot.

Guinea Pigs Might Fly

This was Cape York Motorcycle Adventures’ first trip to Darwin, so the group was told at the start things might not go as smoothly as usual. There was some pioneering to be done, but with only six riders and three support crew it was set to be a pleasurable and low-stress tour.

And that’s the best kind.

The first day had been a text-book settling-in run over the hills behind Cairns, through the incredibly dense rainforest to Mount Molloy pub for the usual lunch, then out to a fabulous camp on the sandy banks of the glorious Mitchell River. Around the campfire it emerged that the Kiwis on the tour were dairy farmers, and much technical talk about teats ensued (I tried to join in, but apparently the type of teats I knew about weren’t the same). While all that was going on, sweep rider Lee wandered off in search of yabbies and arrived back with something the size of a small Korean car. After a great deal of hooting and hollering the cherabin – a freshwater yabby normally the size of a large prawn – was roasted over the coals and carved into bite-sized pieces before being shared around.

Lee had finally realised his dream. He was a prawn star at last.

Tents Situation

As always, tents were offered, but everyone followed Roy’s advice and slept on the supplied bunks under the stars, and believe it or not, that’s a major drawcard on this ride. That far from civilisation the skies are a deep, velvet black and the stars form a glittering blanket from one horizon to the other. You can imagine it from your city or small town if you like, but you’ll never understand the majesty of the spectacle until you lie there and try to grasp the magnificence of it all yourself.

The snoring and farting of your campmates might take the edge off a little, for sure, but it’s still a great experience.

After the slip from the causeway was handled with such ease it was a real shame to have a simple, low-speed fall put an end to that same rider’s trip a couple of days short of Darwin. Nursing damaged ribs, he retired to the front seat of the LandCruiser and was forced to listen to Bev’s Lee Kernaghan albums for the rest of the journey. It may seem harsh punishment, but it’s a harsh life out there, and only the toughest survive.

All that grimacing and those packets of painkillers were nothing to do with his ribs.

Oh Boy

But that was later. Before that there were the sights of Borroloola and Normanton to be taken in, camps at the incredible Adel’s Grove and quirky Lorella Springs, and several more waistline-boosting camp dinners to be enjoyed in exotic and secluded locations most Australians will not only never see, but will never hear of or know they exist. That’s along with big stretches of the Development Road and Savannah Highway, of course. There was serious distance to cover each day.

Roy’s sense of humour got a workout at the Calvert River camp.

After crossing into the Northern Territory everyone’s spirits were high as the day’s 400km rolled away. The morning was a superb winding trail past cattleyards and across some astonishing scrub flats, and with the sun setting Roy pulled everyone up to say there was someone at the campsite and to ask how we felt about sharing with a Swedish backpacker. He was left talking to a diminishing dust cloud. At the words ‘Swedish backpacker’ it was as though

the gate had dropped at an AMA outdoor and there was a short run to the first turn.

By the time a smirking Roy caught up with the group everyone had introduced themselves to Stefan – who was German, not Swedish – and begun gathering firewood for preparation of the grain-fed eye-fillet steaks promised that evening.

Swedish backpacker, pffft.

It did get everyone into camp quick, though.

For Goodness Snake

It’s not easy to convey in words the sheer magnitude of the isolation and unspoilt beauty of the Gulf country. The images of these pages will say far more than words can, but to be standing there in settings like the Northern Territory’s Lost City or the magical oases of Edith Falls and Butterfly Springs is something only experience can truly convey. These impossibly beautiful places are becoming popular with bus tours and especially with the grey nomads, but right now are as they must’ve been for thousands of years. Better still are the rivers, billabongs and monoliths that don’t have names. They’re just fabulous sites in a country covered in fabulous and amazing sites, and a bike is the ideal way to see them, stopping whenever something catches the eye.

Speaking of catching things, Roy pounced on a sizable snake and gave everyone a chance to have a hold of it before carefully releasing the little feller into the bush. Later on, stopped by a picturesque billabong, one of the guys noticed a tiny snake’s head protruding from a hole and everyone gathered round expectantly. Roy, standing well back, explained the difference between a taipan and a black-headed python, and everyone kind of lost interest in snakes after that.

It was good to see one of the world’s most venomous killers, though…from a distance.

Knobs!

The riding wasn’t technical at any time. There’s plenty of river crossings and some slippery riverbanks, and on this trip there was a lot of dust. But mostly it’s long, dirt-road and bitumen stretches. A couple of the days covered well over 400km, and one day was 570km. That’s serious distance on a DRZ.

Sometimes stupendous, unbroken horizons are so wide and so distant that the curve of the Earth seems visible. Other times the dust is an almost solid wall that sits in the baking, still air for hours and challenges a rider to have the courage to keep going. Road trains with four trailers share the roads with buffalo, wild pig, ’roos and, of course, you.

There’s plenty of adventure out here. Just because the terrain isn’t challenging in itself doesn’t mean there’s much time to relax.

Roy trialled a DR650 on this first ride, and the DRZs coped well and were a heap of reliable fun in the swoopy dirt sections (there were still plenty of those). The deep sand in some sections was challenging enough on the lighter and more agile DRZs, but was a right cock-up on the 650 with the stock TrailWing tyres, as was the occasional patch of wet clay.         

A Bucket-Lister For Sure

At the end of the eight days the very smelly, dusty, smiling group collapsed in the foyer of the Frontier Hotel in Darwin. Everyone was justifiably thrilled at having made the finish, and everyone was wide-eyed at the things they’d seen and learned.

Everyone was even more wide-eyed at airconditioning, hot showers and the sexy receptionist (definitely female this time, even though she wasn’t Swedish).

It’s not a hair-raising enduro ride. The guys from Cape York Motorcycle Adventures make sure of that. Bike maintenance and tyre changes are done quietly by the crew while the riders settle in to dinner or breakfast. Fabulous, restaurant-quality food appears from camp ovens and around the campfires before the bunks can be set up and sleeping bags unrolled. The route, refuelling and emergencies are all covered.

All that makes it sound as though there’s not much adventure left in a ride like this one, but there is. Heaps. Road and trail surfaces change in an instant. Fuel stops that were open when the ride kicked off were closed when we arrived. Exotic animals darted out from behind trees and stumps or snuffled through the open campsites in the middle of the night. Best of all, people did unpredictable things that set everyone to rolling around laughing or jumping into action in situations where seconds could save lives. Even the population centres like Katherine and Normanhurst – where there were sometimes dozens of people – were wild and different in their own ways.

And there’s always the hope of a Swedish backpacker.

Oh yeah.

Adventure rides don’t get much bigger than this one.

Get on the Ride

Cape York Motorcycle Adventures will be running the Cairns-Darwin ride in 2020 and is looking for expressions of interest. If you’d like the riding experience of lifetime – one that’s becoming more and more difficult to find as the environmentalists shut us down a bit at a time – give Renae a call on (07) 4055 0050, or log on to www.capeyorkmotorcycles.com.au