It’s 6am and the sun is only just beginning to transform the sparkling waters off the coast of Cairns from the inky blackness of night to its translucent blue through a gloriously golden sunrise.
This feature was originally published in a previous issue of MOTOR
Its rays are piercing through, and spraying out of, a gathering of fluffy clouds on the horizon and snapper Brunelli and I are wiping the sleep from our eyes as we exit the hotel foyer ready to start one of Australia’s most epic driving adventures; a trek to Cape York, the northern most point of the country.
It’s a 3000km round trip from the top end’s tourist trap to the tip and back again, and one that’s normally tackled over a couple of weeks by fully-kitted four-wheel drives loaded to the gunnels with fuel, spare tyres and stuff to dig you out of trouble. Not us, not today…
Nope, sparkling in the early morning glow outside the Reef Hotel on Cairns’ waterfront is the same giant-killing Mazda2 rally car I thrashed (and occasionally bashed) around the Apple Isle in last year’s Targa Tasmania. And, apart from a spit and polish as well as fitting its original gravel-spec wheels and tyres, it hasn’t been touched since. That’s obvious by the fact it is still wearing its Targa door stickers, my name – and co-driver Rod Black’s – is plastered on the rear windows, and the two battle scars it received from the Armco in Tassie are still there.
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And we’re going to do the whole thing in three days, earning this adventure a new nickname; Targa Top End. We’re not doing it solo though; just as it was in the opposite end of the country, thankfully we’ve got a service crew with Mazda tech specialist, Shane Bradford, and the company’s technical training manager, John Reid, chasing us in a BT-50.
Curling over the roll-cage and dropping into the snug confines of the Mazda’s race bucket brings back a sense of familiarity for me, but not for Big Gull Brunelli who, after eventually securing his camera gear amongst the spare tyres and basic tool kit somewhere in the back, clambers into the passenger seat, tucks his knees under the Terratrip computer and buckles into the six-point harness.
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And if two large blokes in a little car doesn’t look weird enough, the number of goggle-eyed glances and fumbling finger-pointing we receive from the drunken backpackers stumbling out of Cairns’ night clubs at this time of day highlights just how out-of-place a little Mazda rally car is in this part of the world. Thing is, we know it’s going to get stranger the closer we get to the tip, where towns are as sparsely populated as the Mazda’s stripped-out cockpit and ratio of people to white LandCruisers is one-to-one.
We’re not long out of Cairns, past an obscure statue of Captain Cook on the outskirts of town that looks as though he’s saluting from the Brandenburg Gates, when we start the steep and twisting climb towards the rainforest village of Kuranda.
It’s a great little ribbon of tarmac that, when it’s not spoilt by grey nomads and petrol tankers heading inland, is almost as good as anything in Tassie with its never-ending series of cambered switchbacks matched only by the majestic views of the cane fields and mangroves stretching into the azure blue waters off the coast.
Not surprisingly, despite its spongy gravel tyres, the Mazda feels as spritely and as grippy as it did down on the Apple Isle too; its Murray Coote suspension helping it dance across the blacktop following the lead of my hands on the suede-rimmed, three spoke steering wheel.
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The landscape changes almost as soon as we hit the top of the ridge line onto the Atherton Tablelands; the dense rainforest disappears and transforms into sparse arid cattle country and the road straightens towards the horizon. And Brunelli’s search for photographic locations is dependent on how long he can keep his eyes open for, such is the monotony of the landscape, notwithstanding with the drone from the Mazda’s stock standard 1.5-litre four revving at 3500rpm through the open exhaust and the noise from its tyres.
It stays that way for 150-odd kays through the nondescript towns of Mareeba (allegedly Australia’s coffee-growing capital), Mount Molloy and Mount Carbine until the winding stretch that rises rapidly out of the plains and over Mt Elephant – literally in the middle of nowhere – finally grabs the Gull’s attention and we stop for a quick happy snap.
The twists and turns continue, although not as dramatically, as we traverse the Byerstown Ranges past the Palmer River Roadhouse onto Lakeland, a red dust-covered farming community with a massive truck wash at the entrance to town and, on the other side, the final intersection that separates us from Cape York; the turn-off onto the Peninsula Development Road where the <real> start of our epic adventure begins.
It was only a couple of hundred metres after the turn off that we spotted a symbol of just how harsh this place can be; a collection of dead LandCruisers parked behind a shed. “If they can’t hack it out here, what chance have we got?,” asked Brunelli.
“Dunno,” I respond… “but we’re going to give it a shot. We can’t turn back now, it’s just starting to get interesting.”
The road is still tarmac for another 30km out of town as it meanders through a gulley where massive Brahman cattle graze freely – and unfenced – amongst the termite mounds and the shrubs on the side of the road. And then, all of sudden, it stops, turns red... and dusty... and bumpy... and very, very noisy.
The drone of the Mazda’s tyres on tarmac is now overshadowed by the unfiltered, uninsulated cacophony of stones peppering its underside and constant corrugations vibrating the car like one of those dodgy motel beds you see in films. I can’t hear myself think, let alone anything Brunelli is trying to say, and, at less than 80km/h, it feels as though the little Mazda won’t last until lunchtime, let alone all the way to Cape York.
So I do the only thing thinkable and put the boot in, leaving Shane and John in our BT-50 support car in a cloud of red dust. At 100km/h, the noise doesn’t change but the Mazda starts to dance over the corrugations and, with a little tickle (and maybe a bit more) on the throttle, they almost disappear.
At least now I can concentrate, which is handy because the road isn’t just corrugated, there’s patches of bulldust, the odd sharp rock pokes its way through the top, the road suddenly drops away in sporadic dips for flood crossings and there’s the occasional corner. And, of course, there’s traffic... ranging from B-double trucks through four-wheel drives (with and without caravans) to motorcycles, which, no matter what the size nor direction of travel, create a massive cloud of dust that hangs in the air for ages, and then paints everything on the side of the road Outback Orange.
So overtaking comes with a degree of caution – and trepidation – to pull out of the dust and decipher whether there’s, firstly, nothing coming the other way, and secondly, enough road to get past. And, as I brave my first attempt to get around a fully-loaded Landie cruising at 60km/h, I sure as hell hope they can see me coming.
They do. They indicate to the left acknowledging they’ve seen us, and then wave as we go by. Then take a second look. And another... Clearly, they didn’t expect a stickered-up rally car smaller than the tinny they’re carrying on the roof to roar past them. Not up this end of the country, anyway.
We get the same reaction a couple more times until we stop for lunch at Laura, a one-pub town that is surprisingly staffed by a couple of good-looking Irish backpackers enticed out to Nowheresville for a couple of months to earn, and presumably save, enough funds to continue their travels. It’s the kind of place where you’d rather eat the sole of your shoe than the fisherman’s basket, but the schnitty sandwich is great and generous enough to make you wonder what kind of chicken it actually came from.
It was also served with enough paper napkins to make you wonder whether they were on commission from Kleenex. But their generosity was both fulfilling and proved a godsend when we got back on the road; Cristian ripping one of the napkins in half and stuffing it in his ears to dull the noise once we hit the dirt again. It was a genius idea that, despite making us look stupid, worked a treat.
Because out of Laura there’s only a series of short 2km-long stretches of sealed road every 30km (designed specifically for overtaking) between us and, 700km away, the top of the country.
There’s also not too many corners either, so, after a couple of hours dancing across the top of the corrugations in a straight line, I slide the Mazda like Sebastien Loeb into the first intersection we come to and realise this is what the car was built for.
Compared to its twitchy nature on tarmac at high speeds, it progressively drifts into lift-off oversteer on the gravel and modulated easily back into shape through either the handbrake or the throttle. It’s massively fun, and with no traffic for hours, we stay and play for a while.
Little did we know, though, that literally 400m further up the road is a campground on the river next to the Musgrave Roadhouse. We sheepishly cruise past, wondering if anyone had heard us mucking around up the road, and pull into the Roadhouse to fuel up. No one even bats an eye, thankfully, not even the local cops that have stopped for a fill-up too.
After eight hours on the road, Musgrave Roadhouse is also not that far from our overnight stop at the Lotus Bird Lodge; a selection of quaint timber cottages nestled around the edge of a world-renowned bird-watching wetland. Big Gull decides to take advantage of the scenery and setting sun and take a pic next to the water’s edge, but it’s only later, over dinner with a bunch of wallabies for an audience, that Tom, the owner, tells us about the local community of crocs in the swamp. Ummm, nice to know…
We get the same information after stopping for a swim in the gorgeous Fruit Bat Falls, just past Bramwell Junction where the old Telegraph Road begins, the next day. Hindsight is something those toothy buggers don’t care about, but bugger me if I haven’t learnt my lesson; the only safe place to swim up this end of the country is in a chlorinated swimming pool, of which there are… stuff all.
And that’s a tragedy, because after two days of driving every pore in our bodies is caked in red dirt and, as we watch the sun drift into the crystal blue ocean from the boat ramp in Seisa – 30km from Cape York – all we want to do is jump in the water.
But we’re this close, and apart from a few roadside service stops to scrape mounds of dust from inside the rims, the Mazda hasn’t missed a beat; Just as it did at the opposite end of the country in Tasmania. It is clearly the toughest little car in the world, and I don’t want to jeopardise its arrival, or mine for that matter, at the northern-most point of Australia by taking a dip with Snappy Tom and his mates. That moment will have to wait until tomorrow morning though as we bunk up for the night in Bamaga, the biggest of five towns in the Northern Peninsula Area managed by the local Injinoo community.
Before we head off on our final trip to the tip the next morning, we discover there are plenty of other interesting sites to explore around the Cape, including a couple of WWII plane wrecks out near the airport and the Lockerbie Homestead ruins.
However, the most surreal of them all is the abandoned Pajinka Wilderness Lodge a few hundred metres away from the car park at Cape York. Its 24 bungalows, swimming pool, reception and restaurant were nestled amongst the lush rain forest but it went bust a decade ago and the previous owners literally walked out, leaving vandals and Mother Nature to reclaim it.
While walking around the resort was an eerie experience, it was quickly extinguished by the elation of pulling up to the most northerly car park in the country and then traversing the rocky outcrop to the absolute tip of mainland Australia. We made it, and proved the giant-killing capabilities of Mazda’s little rally car once again… something we should never had doubted.
But then we realised we’ve only just completed half of the adventure and still had to get back to Cairns, which turned out to be a little more adventurous than we hoped for. Y’see, full of Cape-conquering confidence, we decide to head to the beautiful Punsand Bay for a bite to eat before heading south again. We have no dramas getting there, even crawling through a rather treacherous river crossing, bouncing through a narrow, gnarly goat track of a road and driving the car onto the pearl white sand for a photo.
But… let’s just say, oil and water don’t mix very well. Oh, and the back seat of a BT-50 is much quieter than a rally car!
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