Cape York, The Old Telegraph Track - aka "Honey, I broke the truck"

Link to a few pictures here:

Now it was time to really start the Old Telegraph Track, no more talking about it, no more reminiscing about when I drove it last time in 1990, this time we are towing our camper-trailer up the most Iconic 4WD track in all of Australia. The track is famous for its ability to reward the effort of driving through some gnarly tracks and then swim and play in a myriad of crystal-clear creek crossings along the way to the Jardine River.

It is also famous for breaking trucks and trailers and we joined the growing club of people who have had a misadventure on the Old Tele track.

As we headed in from Bramwell Roadhouse to the start of the track, we were already aware it is quite late in the season, so could be dryer than expected and maybe less water in the creeks for swimming.

just a small set of wheel ruts - welcome to the Tele Track

Our first obstacle just minutes into the track was a little set of wheel ruts, fortunately dry, but about 6 feet deep. As this was the first of many obstacles I found a way round this first steep drop into the ruts [aka – the chicken track], while Michael edged the Prado through with no problems and gave us all a bit of confidence about the track to come. We took a few pictures to remind us how deep this little rut was and to give you some perspective.

Entry into Palm Creek

And just 3 minutes later we found ourselves at the first creek along the track, Palm Creek. No water running through the creek but a tricky rutted section of track at both the entry and exit points to the dry creek bed. We all got out for a look at the track and talked about the best lines to come in and out of the creek, we had met a couple who had broken their car on this creek just a few days earlier [broken CV joint] and had to be recovered and towed out for repairs. We both managed the crossing without any drama, there was plenty of traction even if everything looked a bit scary, and quickly moved onto the next creek crossing at Dulcie Creek hoping to find some water to play and swim.

No luck, Dulcie creek was also dry and again pretty steep little entry & exit points to the crossing, the exit requiring a bit more momentum while climbing out of the creek bed. No problems and onwards along the narrow track towards the next creek and hopefully some water.

Entry track to Dalhunty River

At Dalhunty River we were finally rewarded with a creek with flowing water, great to cool down in the heat of the day. There were a few other cars at the crossing already, they had been playing and lunching but made the decision to cross and keep going towards the next creek. It was only 2:30 in the afternoon and we had only covered about 30kms since leaving camp that morning but it was an easy decision to make an early camp and spend the afternoon playing in the water and enjoying a cup of tea under the shade of the gum trees alongside the creek. We had a fantastic afternoon doing not much other than sitting in the creek keeping cool.

Dalhunty River campsite

The next morning, we were up and about early, we had a fair distance to cover on to our planned campsite at Elliot Falls, and there were several creek crossing in between including the infamous Gunshot creek. We crossed the Dalhunty River and were quickly at Bertie Creek, again some tricky entry and exit points and although the creek was quite shallow, there were some big rock holes to avoid in getting safely across.

Bertie Creek

We made the decision to bypass Gunshot Creek, we had heard even the chicken track was in a bad way and didn’t want to break truck or trailer on our way to Cape York, so after Bertie Creek took the Heathlands detour around to the north side of the creek crossing, we were still interested in seeing exactly how bad Gunshot really was so turned south to go and check things out for a while.

A couple of extreme entry points to Gunshot Creek.

With Michael and the trusty Prado in front we made our way to Gunshot Creek to see if there were any brave/crazy people attempting the crossings, we were hoping to see if anyone was crazy enough to tackle one of the almost vertical drop-in entry points.

Here are a couple of youtube examples – we were not that crazy, well mostly not crazy, sort of…

When we arrived, there were a few people around and a car on the northbound side, almost rolled over attempting to exit using a steep off-camber track. Fortunately, there were enough people on hand to guide the driver back down into the creek and they came out via a far more sensible exit point. It is worth noting just 2 days later a Prado rolled onto its roof at exactly this point, it became part of our story a little later on.

We watched a few cars go across the creek, the kids played happily in the creek and so after watching a few cars safely make it up and down on the chicken track on the southern side and the almost sensible exit on the northern side, Michael decided to give it a go too.

Michael and Vicki took it in turns to cross Gunshot

With a complete lack of fuss, he drove down from the north side, across the creek and just drove up and out the other side. Simple, great drive. Except now he was on the wrong side of the creek again and this time with Vicki at the wheel, she calmly plotted a safe, sensible return crossing of Gunshot. A really good way to earn your 4WD stripes, driving Gunshot 😊.

After that little episode there was only one thing to do; leave. We packed the kids in the car and started northwards again towards Fruit Bat Falls. There was a small obstacle at Sailor Creek, our next creek on the track, the bridge was in disrepair and so the track around and through the creek was a little steep on the exit, no real problems but a bit of fun requiring a little muscle to get the trailer up and out of the creek.

Fruit Bat Falls. Simply Awesome

From there is was a relatively easy drive up the road until we found the side track into Fruit Bat Falls, I had been telling anyone that cared to listed about just how beautiful they were and thankfully when we arrived we were met by one of the most picturesque sights on the track. The water was flowing well for this time of year and we were soon in the water enjoying a much-needed soak. These are the moments we shall remember for a long time to come.

Another view of Fruit Bat Falls

After a while, and lunch, and another dip it was time to move on, we had booked campsites nearby at Elliot Falls where there were three swimming locations, so we said “au-revoir” to Fruit Bat, vowing to come back on the return journey in a week or two.

There were only a few kilometres to Elliot Falls although we did have to cross a deep creek to get there, we watched three other cars cross first before we drove through with the trailer on the back. The trailer was not 100% water-tight but fortunately there were no issues as we drove across. Michael followed on in the Prado making it look really easy when taken at the right speed.

We set up camp and went for a swim in the first of the three spots here, known as the Saucepan, it was deliciously refreshing and a great way to end the day.

The Saucepan swimming spot at Elliot Falls

It’s hard to explain the sheer joy at finding these places in the middle of a dusty 4WD track and being able to swim and soak away the dust from the journey, you really have to try it yourself.

Next morning, we were up pretty early and packed ready to move, but then we went down to the two other swimming spots here, Twin Falls and Elliot Falls proper.

Busy morning at Twin Falls

We had been impressed with the Saucepan but these two were equally stunning, probably our favourite being Elliot Falls as we jumped off the top of the falls into a cauldron of bubbling water below.

Elliot Falls - we all jumped off the edge of these rocks into the water below

Everyone had a go and it was incredible to see Sophie and Zoe leaping off the rocks with such enormous grins before doing it all over again and again. We should have stayed longer, and we only moved on because we had only booked the one night at the National Park campground and with their on-line only system there was no way to extend our stay. So very reluctantly we said our goodbyes and said with conviction, “we will be back” and planned to stay at least a couple of nights to swim here and Fruit Bat Falls.

Elliot Falls - huge fun, enormous smiles all round

We only had a short drive out of the camp site and onto the next creek crossing, Canal Creek. We arrived to find a convoy of four 4WDs waiting to cross the creek so did the only sensible thing possible, stood in the creek, had a chat to the other guys and waited for them to get safely across. It was a little tricky avoiding some deeper holes in the creek but careful wheel placement had us safely across and onto Sam Creek literally just up the road.

Canal Creek

We found the same group of 4WDs at Sam creek discussing entry and exit strategies, there were three very different entry options but really only one sensible line out the other side, we watched as the four cars took a variety of lines suited to each individual set up and vehicle, then it was my turn with the trailer.

I chose the entry with the straightest approach, there were a couple of big holes in the track but with careful wheel placement and some careful throttle application the Toyota and trailer walked slowly down into the creek and then safely out the other side, lifting a wheel or two in the process but all good.

Michael followed my route and apart from need a second bite at one of sections, he too was soon safely across the creek. Although we had only travelled about 4kms this morning, it was close enough to lunchtime that we decided to stop for a while, and that became our overnight stop as we found a few excellent places to swim and enjoy the moment.

Sam Creek - almost secret swimming spot

There were a couple of other people around so it wasn’t long before we were swapping stories of our travels so far and talking about places to visit in the future, all as we sat around the campsite or sat in the cool refreshing waters of Sam Creek.

The conversation had turned to two of the creek crossings a little further north, Logan’s Creek and the notorious Nolan’s Brook. Both were deep water crossings, deep enough to submerge my trailer apparently and Nolan’s Brook was famous for a sandy bottom, no traction and drowning poorly prepared cars.

And there was also Mistake creek just in front of us which was badly rutted and also causing a few concerns. After a lot of debate over a cold beverage or two we decided to take the side track out to the Peninsula Development Road [PDR], and to reinforce our decision making, when Michael was doing a routine check on his Prado he discovered some new, nasty, metal cracks in the inner-wings on both sides of the engine bay. The most practical and sensible thing was to take the side track in the morning to the PDR and go find some expert mechanical help in Bamaga, just a couple of hours up the road. It seemed like our adventure on the Telegraph track was coming to an early end.

We were up and about early next morning, packed and ready to go on our way, the track junction to the PDR was just a few kms further north and Mistake Creek just 1.5kms further on. We decided to go take a look at Mistake Creek, maybe have a play in the water and reflect on the remainder of the trip to the Cape.

The Old Tele track can be a little confusing at times because of so many side tracks, chicken tracks and washouts, so it was not so surprising I found myself well and truly into the entry to Mistake Creek before realising there was almost no space to reverse out with the trailer attached. No matter, we walked through the crossing and although there were some huge ruts on the southern side of the creek it looked possible to drive through and up the other side, turn around and then do it all again to get ourselves pointed south and out to the PDR. Michael suggested a very slow reverse back up the track and find/make a spot to turn and avoid the crossing but I was confident so made the decision to go down and through. It was more off camber and gnarly than it looked but I crossed northbound, drove out the other side without any real fuss and then turned around for the return crossing.

oops - I broke the truck trying to drive out of Mistake Creek, south bound exit track

I slowly made my way down into the creek again, and then across the creek. The ruts, holes and steep angle of the exit to the south of Mistake Creek looked worse than on the way down and proved to be a major problem.

As I was driving up through the biggest obstacles I heard a very loud “BANG” and all forward momentum stopped, followed quickly by some sliding back down towards the creek.

At this point the phrase “Honey, I Broke The Truck” came quickly to mind, along with a few other choice words. After making the truck safe on the track, I hopped out and peered underneath, my worst fears confirmed as I found big chunks of metal lying on the track all freshly coated in a mixture of hot grease and sand. I had broken the front left-hand CV joint, probably as the wheel came back down to ground under severe load (after being lifted by the huge ruts) and it broke at the differential end of the CV.

Winching out of Mistake Creek

Somewhat surprisingly I felt quite calm, I knew the truck was in trouble but we were well prepared and I knew what we had to do next to get us out of the current situation. With help from Michael we rolled out the winch and slowly extricated the car from the track. Over the course of a couple of hours we dragged the car to a safe spot where it was not blocking the track. We were still in the middle of nowhere with a broken truck but everyone was safe, the kids were playing happily in the creek and I was thinking about next steps.

I then spent an hour on a satellite phone trying to get some help from the RACV and a local tow/recovery company. It turns out the recovery team for this remote area were on another job out at Gunshot Creek, a car had rolled over and landed on its roof in exactly the same spot we had seen someone almost roll 2 days earlier. It would likely be another 24 hours before the recovery truck would be able to get in and help us. And yes, there was only one real recovery truck servicing this very remote part of the Cape York Peninsula.

While we were trying to come up with a bush mechanics repair to get us moving again, another 4WD truck came along and after a quick discussion it turned out he was carrying an angle grinder and so I would be able to cut away the rest of the CV and stub axle and then hopefully drive out to the PDR and Bamaga.

So, with some trepidation, I spent best part of another hour under the truck, nervously cutting through the high tensile steel CV joint, wearing out 3 rechargeable batteries along the way. I cannot believe how lucky we were, to have someone come along with the right tools and enough batter power to do the job. When eventually the cut was made, and the wheel back on the truck, we were mobile again.

Amazingly with the centre differential locked in, the truck became a rear wheel drive only 4WD and we packed up and started a slow, anxious drive out to the PDR and towards Bamaga where we would now be looking to get both cars repaired 😊.

And our adventure wasn’t over for the day, for although we were limping along quite nicely towards the Jardine Ferry and Bamaga, we came across a local lady in her 4WD parked in a precarious manner out on the PDR, one of her wheels had just fallen off as she was driving along and she had come to a rapid stop at the side of the road, car looking slightly worse for wear but again, no-one hurt.

With a little help from a local roadwork crew and the grader, we lifted the truck, reattached the wheel, straightened a few bent studs and redistributed the remaining wheel nuts from the rest of the car to the wheel that had fallen off, a real bush repair but safe enough and good enough to get this lady back to Bamaga for a proper fix. So now we had a convoy of three vehicles limping to Bamaga for repair.

Fortunately, from here the road was in pretty good condition (road crew had been working in the area) and we arrived at the Ferry, paid our dues and were quickly across and on the last little leg of the journey to Bamaga. We arrived just about 4:30 in the afternoon and went straight to the mechanics to see what could be done and when.

It turns out, my broken CV was a fairly simple issue to resolve, parts were ordered for delivery by air in a day or two, and I could drive around in my car until the spare arrived. Michael’s car however looked to have some more interesting issues (metal cracks in the engine bay) and it would take a few days of head scratching and a number of repair options before deciding what to do next.

Suffice to say when we arrived at our campsite, with the sun setting over the beach, we almost raced through a quick set up in both the camper trailers and headed to the local bar overlooking the beach for a well-earned, icy cold beer.

Certainly, the day had not gone to plan, but watching the tail-end of a magnificent sunset with a drink in hand, life wasn’t too bad and we had made it almost to top of Cape York almost in one piece.

Regards Roy, Helen, Sophie and Zoe

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