Cape York roads are a challenge! Every year on Cape York roads there are numerous crashes. The roads aren’t always in good condition, resulting in written-off vehicles, severe injuries and sometimes even fatalities. You will hear hundreds of varying opinions on how to drive on dirt roads in Cape York, some with good points and some…not so good! Here I hope to give you a handful of VERY BASIC tips that will help you survive the drive and not have your vehicle returned in a rubix cube state.
Firstly, I’m not going to delve into the make of vehicle, your kit or technical four wheel driving. I simply want to provide a basic guide for people not sure what to expect of Cape York roads.
So, in order of importance here is my advice…
What makes me experienced enough to comment?
At 11 I began driving on cattle stations. Throughout my teens I drove loaders & tractors with trailers on banana farms, a mix of tricky machinery on wet and boggy tracks. I rode my enduro motorbike from South America to Alaska clocking up 100,000 km of riding. Most relevant though, I have lived in Cape York for several years and driven some of the most challenging tracks for work as an ecologist. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve driven the Peninsula Development Road (PDR), in all seasons. More recently, I drive clients on tour through Cape York in our tour truck and trailer.
It’s not necessarily about what you drive…but how you READ the road.
#1 Piece of advice: heed the signs and warnings!
I remember it took me a while to really observe the signs and every time I tiredly stared straight through the ‘sand holes’ sign, I no doubt would find myself “ohhhh F*^k” ing my way through one! It’s a really simple one, but I GUARANTEE you, it will save you somewhere along the line. These are just a few of the signs to watch out for:
#2: Read the road: textures & colours!
Reading the road is probably the next most important skill (as is not being fatigued). When I drive, I’m constantly scanning, a good distance ahead of the vehicle, for anything that is a different colour or ‘texture’ to what the rest of the road is. Often a sand hole will be a white or yellow patch in a sea of red for example. Big rocks are often different colours. Sand looks different to gravel which looks different to clay. Watch for these changes in colours and textures as they’re often the first giveaway of road damage ahead. Of course, when possible, avoid driving over sticks and fist-sized rocks…no matter how indestructible you think your tyres are.
#3 Lights, mirrors, UHF
Now we all forget sometimes, but if you drive without your lights on on a dirt road in Cape York, you’re either a newbie or a nutter! They help you see oncoming cars from miles away, or highlight them in dust clouds. But they also help you see them in your mirrors! Mirror checks to see what is behind you is critical too! And of course, keep an ear out on UHF Channel 40, and use it to help when passing. It’s not polite to flood CH40 with endless banter though, so for longer conversations jump a couple channels down.
A really basic one, but you’ll be surprised on the effect. When you start to get hazy on the road, pull over for a piss break, or inspect an ant mound. Something to take your mind off the road, even for 5 minutes can help you reset for another stretch.
#5 How fast do you drive on corrugations?
The famous question…with no absolutely correct answer. Why? Because every vehicle drives differently, is set up and weight distributed differently and every driver’s skills and confidence vary. As you go, you will get better at judging corrugations. Travelling at a reasonable pace over small and consistent corrugations is OK, but it’s much harder to travel fast when you get the big buggers that could hide a soccer ball and are spaced inconsistently over the road.
If you are towing, the dynamic of your vehicle entirely changes as well. The trailer creates a see-saw like effect when travelling over bumps and when driving over large, inconsistent corrugations, sometimes the only option is to do 20 km/h. Don’t worry, this is fairly normal! Some guys with more experience, larger utes and good 4×4 trailers can float over these corrugations though.
If you have consistent corrugations, set a nice pace and coast over it. Remember corrugations on corners are incredible dangerous. Essentially, your tyres are only contacting the road 50% (lets say) of the time compared to normal, and if you lose control around a corner it’s much harder to regain control.
#6 Tyre pressure
I wasn’t going to touch on this, but just briefly…
Personally, I don’t alter my tyre pressure too significantly. I’ve heard of some guys dropping pressure to 10-20 PSI. I think the lowest I’ve ever gone is 30 in my ute, but most the time I never touch it. My reason being…I’m confident with my driving and vehicle handling, and my comfort level, that I’m not worried about it too much. I find that a higher tyre pressure results in fewer punctures.
Also, with all the bitumen patches in between the dirt these days, if you drop it too low, you have a chance of your tyres heating up too much on the bitumen sections.
#7 Other tips
I hope this has been helpful! If you have any questions, feel free to contact us via email or phone. We’re always happy to help! If you found this helpful, leave a comment and let us know what you think, and sign up to our blog mailing list (by clicking here). We post some great stories and media media on Facebook & Instagram too, and it’s worth a look!
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With Cockatours owner & ecologist, plus either his phenomenal Kimberley/NT guide or Cape York chef, these tours are jam packed with experiences and tasty food! We hate to say, but our job isn’t letting you go home skinny! Being owner-operated we can be very flexible on the road, make for a fun, stress-free tour! We are super excited with the tours we’ve produced for 2020 & we can’t wait to share the adventure! We aim to make our tours senior friendly tours and we craft each tour with that in mind! Tours operate between May – September each year, departing from Cairns.