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How to Drive on Dirt Roads in Cape York

Driving on Dirt Roads in Cape York

A Brief Beginner's Guide
aerial image of red dirt road
One of the large, straight sections of the Peninsula Development Road (PDR) in Cape York. Even these straight sections can be risky. See if you can spot a colour or texture difference.

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:

  • Sand holes – bull dust/sand holes in the road – some of the worst road damage around
  • Rough surface – Another BIG one.  Even some of the bitumen surfaces have large uneven patches, that could catch you out if you were travelling fast and towing a trailer.  There’s a bend on a range, and a new causeway that both have VERY bad rough bitumen surfaces.  ANY time you see a ‘rough surface’ or ‘sand holes’ sign, slow down, there IS something coming!
  • Dip – dips in the road, sometimes with washouts at the bottom
  • Roadworks – you don’t want to fly into a road work area.  A. You might crash into backed up traffic.  B. You’ll piss of the workers and get dust on their lunch.  Not cool.
  • Gravel ahead – these signs signal the end of the bitumen (and you can tell when the right lane starts to get redder and redder).  Some of the drop-offs from bitumen to dirt are nasty.  You also never can tell the condition of the dirt road ahead, it’s often not the same as the section before. You don’t want to drop off into a dust hole at 100 km/h!!  Also, if there’s dust ahead and you can’t see into it, there could be a truck doing 20km/h ahead.  My old boss did this once, came off the bitumen at 100 km/h, into a dust cloud and slammed into the end of a truck doing 20 km/h.  He was lucky.  His wagon…written off. 

#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. 

ute and man next to road washout
After the wet season, there are still many washouts in the roads. If you come flying into a 'dip' you might run into one of these. There's one on the PDR that is a little like this all year and can only be crossed going about 5km/hr.

#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.

#4 Rest

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. 

a rocky straight road in Cape York, Australia
Whilst this was a rocky road, it drove well. It was straight and the corrugations were small & consistently spaced. Avoid the rocks and you'll have no worries.

#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

  • Never brake all the way into a dip if you’ve come into it too fast.  Your front springs will be fully compressed and have no travel left in them to absorb the bump/dip etc.  I’ve found (and have heard many others recommend this too) that accelerating at the last instant before bottoming out will lift the front of the vehicle enough to get some travel in your springs and change the angle of your vehicle to the dip and potentially save a catastraophe.
  • Be patient.  Trying to overtake a truck when you’re 6th in line can be tough.  Hang in there, you’ll get around eventually.  And use your UHF.
  • Remember, there are people in the Cape that work and live there and are familiar with the roads and will probably drive faster because they know the roads and their limits.  Don’t feel bad about going slow, but don’t get angry because they’re going faster.
  • Clean your windscreen, windows, mirrors and lights!  A clean windscreen (in and out) makes driving in the dust much easier.  Fill your wiper water, use good soap.  Keep your mirrors clean to keep an eye out behind too.  And clean your headlights and brakelights from time to time, especially if you’re towing or driving at night.
  • Two of the simplest preventative maintenance tasks you can do are: checking/tightening all nuts on ALL your wheels.  And if you’re towing, get underneath and check the nuts on your U-bolts that attach your axle to your leaf springs (or whatever you have going on).  Corrugations can loosen these in a day easily.

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!

red dirt road with corrugations
This section was just south of Injinoo and was absolutely shocking. The corrugations were huge & inconsistently spaced. You know when a road is bad when even the tracks in the table drains have corrugations!
19 Responses
  1. David Tweddle

    Good advice here.

    I was hoping you would solve the mystery of how corrugations occur. You would think a round Tyre would roll them flat!

    We do a lot of dirt road driving here in West Australia and corrugations are “fine tuned” to cause the maximum damage and minimum comfort. Sensible speed is best.

    Just thought I’d also say we thoroughly enjoyed our Cape York adventure…it was that good we might do it again!!

    Cheers
    David Tweddle

    1. Cockatours (Rossy)

      Thanks David!

      I’ve heard a few theories but never anything definite! You’d things so ay!

      Haha fine tuned for damage and minimum comfort, I might have to borrow that for the next tour 😛

      Glad to hear mate! Anytime, we’re starting to add a few new trips to the list as well!

      Kind regards,
      Rossy.

  2. Chris

    I was nervous beforehand, now even more so. will be travelling up around July this year, you will spot me easily, a 70 year old with fingers chewed back to her knuckles.

    1. Cockatours (Rossy)

      Hi Chris,

      Sorry darl, that wasn’t our intention. It’s never as bad as what your thoughts seem to conjure and is very doable and safe, especially if you’re sensible. It’s not the wild west anymore and there are plenty of people around to help, SHOULD anything go wrong.

      You fingers will be fine 😛

      Cheers,
      Rossy.

  3. Ron McSHANE

    Good advice from you guys, maybe a pamphlet on dirt road driving say any Laura info centre or Sony of the others would be good
    Your advice on checking suspension, wheel and other nuts etc is very good advice , I have fitted double nyloc nuts to all suspension components and still I have to check em every day or so by doing this you will no doubt spot any potential failures before they become big ones

    1. Cockatours (Rossy)

      G’day Ron,

      Thanks mate, that’s always nice to hear. That would be good wouldn’t it!

      Yeah it’s very simple and only takes 5-10 mins doesn’t it! But has devastating consequences if one of those should fail! That’s true isn’t it, and while you’re underneath you often have the chance to spot other issues before they go too far!
      Cheers,
      Rossy.

  4. Carol

    Velly intellesting – thanks. Always wondered about tyre pressure. Can’t say I am as confident as yourself but I don’t drive fast on rough stuff (especially when I am towing) and I try to miss the holes and rocks. The only time I have had flat tyres is on the bitumen!

  5. Thank you for this article. I am heading off for my new life on the road in 2 weeks and Cape York is on my bucket list. It gives me a bit more confidence knowing what to expect on dirt roads as I have only ever driven bitumen. I will be sure to follow your facebook. Look out for Nana On The Road when I am passing through.

    1. Cockatours (Rossy)

      G’day Gaye! I just checked out your website, great work and great story! Be sure to say g’day if you see us on the road and we will likewise! Pleasure to have helped! It’s challenging but not by any means overly difficult. A dash of patience and determination and you’re right as rain!

    1. Rosalie

      Very good info. Going to do the Tip in 2020 with some family and maybe friends, all going well. Been thinking about it for a few years and need to do it soon. Thanks

  6. Chris Pilko

    Could I please add another couple of points from the perspective of a long term Weipa local. Many people on the Cape drive the PDR on a regular basis and through Facebook etc keep up to date and are very familiar with the usual “bad spots” etc. We generally drive at a higher speed but within safe limits, because we just need to get to Cairns or return generally in about 10 hours. If you are sightseeing on 70 or 80 kph and see a vehicle move up behind you, do yourself and your windscreen a favour and just pull over and let them past. When you hit a bitumin section please don’t speed up and try and keep ahead of the car trying to pass. This is the number one hate of locals against tourists. Guaranteed this will see you overtaken on dirt with rocks flying. In a nutshell please be polite and thoughtful of a local just wanting to get home with tired kids. Another point to note is if you need to stop in dust pull right off the road. Many accidents have occurred where a vehicle has plowed into the rear of a stationary vehicle obscured in dust from a passing truck. Understand that plenty of idiots drive this road at speed at times on your side of the road and if you look at the cans along the road understand that alcohol can be a factor so be prepared for the unexpected. A good point made earlier about corrugations is to slow down on rough bends or you will be off the road facing the other way hopefully not on your roof. Cape York is a wonderful place to explore and the locals are all to happy to chat and help out; please just understand that not everyone travelling the road is on holiday with plenty of time. Cheers Chris.

    1. Cockatours (Rossy)

      Great points there Chris. Especially pulling right off the road in the dust and speeding up on bitumen sections. It also frustrated me as I lived in Coen for years and would have to do work runs to Cairns. The important thing I guess is that we’re not intentionally driving fast to annoy people or be dangerous, it’s just what we are comfortable with, with our experience and we have work to do (or kids to get home as you say).

  7. Robert

    Thank you for the driving tips. However, I must comment on your suggestions for tyre pressures. I do appreciate that this is a slightly controversial topic but lowering tyre pressures on dirt and corrugated roads improves ride and handling significantly and actually reduces the chances of a puncture. That being said you do need to be careful with normal road tyres with their soft sidewalls. Light truck tyres are the tyres of choice. Certainly a mixed sealed/dirt road does present challenges but keeping speeds to below 80 km/h manages tyre temperatures reasonably well. Of course you must carry a compressor to reinflate your tyres.

    1. Cockatours (Rossy)

      G’day Robert! No worries at all. Yeah you’re right there, it’s a very controversial topic haha, which is why I avoided it mostly. You’re spot on that it improves the ride on dirt, and maybe in some circumstances it reduces punctures. With the heat of the roads in the Cape York, and so many intermittent bitumen stretches, a happy medium between soft and hard is needed. Also, if you go with a low pressure, your sagging sidewalls will have a pretty high chance of causing at least one puncture on a Cape York tour of 3000-4000 kms. The reality at the end of the day is NOBODY constantly gets out and deflates/reinflates for each bitumen dirt section. It comes down to personal preference and your accepted level of risk with punctures.

  8. Lou

    Having been an off road driving instructor with the army plus having worked in all conditions all over Australia, Simpson desert, Nullarbor etc, I agree with not touching tyre pressures too much. It’s up to the driver mostly. Some people you could put in a leopard tank and they would be walking in a week!!!!!

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