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An Epic Motorcycle Road Trip in Australia

On an eight-day, two-wheeled odyssey from Cairns to the northernmost point in Australia, IAN LLOYD NEUBAUER battles bull dust, plays chicken with cassowaries, jumps Gunshot Pass and duels the Old Telegraph Road, pushing his limits, and his motorcycle, into overdrive.

Published on Jul 14, 2017


"ANYONE WHO RIDES a motorcycle here needs psychological help," says Gary Conners of Lotusbird Lodge, an outpost in Cape York, one of the world's largest wilderness areas.

Conners does make a good point. As his other guests pass the sizzling hot afternoon sipping chilled white wine and birdwatching under a veranda, our group of a dozen men and two women stand around sucking lukewarm water out of bottles and flasks while a farmhand pumps fuel into our burly dirt bikes. Covered in grime and sweat, we are at the halfway mark of an eightday, 1,400-kilometer ride that, once complete, will give us the ultimate off-road bragging rights: we've ridden to the northernmost point of mainland Australia.

Stirring up dust on the road north.
Stirring up dust on the road north.


 DAY 1 & 2 

The first day is deceptively easy: a leisurely ride north out of Cairns along The Captain Cook Highway. Named after the first British Cook is regarded as the country's primo motorcycling road—a riot of curves and switchbacks that winds above towering sea cliffs with stellar views of the Great Barrier Reef. After passing Port Douglas we stop for the night at Cape Tribulation for dinner and drinks at a local pub, followed by some shuteye at a hostel.

Early the next morning, reality sets in as we leap headfirst into the Bloomfield Track, a rough-as-guts logging trail that cuts through the heart of World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park, the oldest surviving rainforest in the world. The Daintree is also the only place on the planet where two World Heritage List sites—mystical lowland rainforest and the fringing reefs of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park—exist side-by-side. The views, when they appear, are preposterously beautiful: jungle, beach, reef and sky in a single glance. But they come at a steep price, literally. There are 35-degree inclines, creek crossings, muddy bogs and ruts as well as cassowaries to contend with. Large, flightless emu-like birds with dagger-like talons, cassowaries sprint across the road in a mad-capped game of chicken that's bound to end in tears for any biker who hits ones. Many lose traction and go down on the mud—though they all get back up again thanks to the encouragement of our guide Roy Kunda.

Grilled eggs
Grilled eggs.

Originally from Victoria, Kunda fell in love with Cape York while circumnavigating Australia solo on a motorcycle in the mid-1980s, moved Originally from Victoria, Kunda fell in love with Cape York while circumnavigating Australia solo on a motorcycle in the mid-1980s, moved to Cairns and set up the now-famous Cape York Motorcycle Tours. "When I began doing this 25 years ago, it was mostly goat tracks through here," he says. "Now we've got all these wide comfortable roads."


 DAY 3 - 6 

Wide, maybe, but only a dirt-demon like Kunda could describe Cape York's road as comfortable. After veering into a mountain range north of Cooktown where the thick blue smoke of controlled forests burnings lingers in the air, we reach the Peninsula Development Road. A long strip cutting through bone-red Outback, it goes on for days without a single turn.

Easy riding? Well, no. The Peninsula Development Road is riddled with millions of corrugations—horrible little speed-bumps created by the slipping tires of four-wheel vehicles that make life for those of us on two-wheels a living, shaking hell. Over the next three days, I feel every bit of the road, a constant rattling of the bones that, like this journey, never seems to end.

A forest of license plates.
A forest of license plates.

But the toil isn't without its rewards. Twilight is my favorite part of the day, when the group huddles around a campfire to swap war stories over steak dinners and ice-cold beer. I grow fond of my fellow riders, who, with the exception of a father-and-son team that ride like the wind, have little to no off-road riding experience. Yet what they lack in skills they make up for with dogged determination. "I would recommend any woman to do this trip," says American Harriet Jones, one of the female riders in our group. "So long as you know the basics, Roy will teach you the rest."


 DAY 6 - 8 

Brave words, for they are said prior to our duel with the Old Telegraph Road. Constructed in the 1880s to support a telegraph line that was the only lines of communication in Cape York until World War II, "the Tele" is 100 kilometers of dusty fun.

Patches of bull dust—superfine chalk-like sand that is as slippery as mud—run a meter deep in parts. There are countless fjords and rivers to cross, some which are infested with man-eating saltwater crocodiles and one that's so deep we have to wheel our motorcycles across on a log bridge.

The highlight of day six, and perhaps the trip, is a lunch stop at Eliot Falls. A 100-meter wide natural limestone pool edged in tiered waterfalls with little fish swimming around is like a scene from Blue Lagoon. A swim in the mineral-rich water soothes our aching muscles and bones.

Cooling off after a ride up north.
Cooling off after a ride up north.

Later in the day, when we reach the infamous Gunshot Pass, the group comes to a halt at a three-meter vertical drop in the road. Ten out of 14 riders don't even attempt it, handing their bikes over to Kunda. Of the four who do give it a go, three riders, myself included, make it. But the last guy flips over his handlebars. When the dust clears, he has three broken ribs.

Even for those who don't break any bones, riding Cape York hurts. It's exhausting, it can be frustrating and it takes me weeks to get the grime out of my clothes. But when after eight hot, punishing days we reach a signpost on a rocky crag overlooking the sea that marks the northernmost tip of Australia, we know we've achieved something real. A shared satisfaction hangs in the air as we take in the hard-won tableau. Along with a coat of bull dust, there's a smile plastered to every face. Riding with this gang of instant-friends (just add mud) has been a hoot—one of those rare holiday experiences that go the distance in the memory files, probably because so many interesting things happen in the space of each day. "You don't need psychological help if you want to ride to Cape York," Kunda says with a glint in his eye. "Riding up here is psychological help."

Road trip map; eight-day Cape York adventure, A$5,500 per person.



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