We’re back! Peter and I arrived safely back in San Francisco today after nearly a month in Cairns, Australia. To say that it was an amazing trip would be an understatement, so I’ll just commence with the stuff you vultures want to hear about anyway….the dirtbike trip! I managed to get most of it written during my 20 hours of airports and airplanes over the past day and a half, and will post it up one day at a time here.
June 19, 2007: Cairns to Bamaga via Horn Island and Thursday Island
A tiny bit of background.
The Cape York Peninsula is in northern Queensland, Australia’s northeastern state. The peninsula is marked in yellow below:
This trip was through Roy and Renae Kunda of Cape York Motorcycle Adventures, who specialize in off road bike trips all over the Cape. We opted for their 8-day trip, where you fly from Cairns (near the bottom of the yellow rectangle above, on the coast) to the tip of the Cape and then ride back down to Cairns.
Cairns – Horn Island.
6:30am and Renae was waiting for us outside the Golden Sands. We stumbled down to meet her, dragging our two allowed bags — one large disposable plastic bag of riding gear and one small blue duffel bag containing our “street clothes” and toiletries for the week. Renae zipped us along in her 4×4 through the city streets of Cairns, periodically sending or receiving phone calls from Roy up in Bamaga. We stopped at a hotel for Dennis from Brisbane, whose wife and kids were flying to Bamaga the following day to take a 4×4 trip down the Peninsula.
We met the rest of the group in another van at the Cairns airport, where we filled in some paperwork (a security deposit on the bikes and a check of our drivers’ licenses). I’m sure we were all introduced but it seemed a whirlwind.
At the Qantas counter, there was some small confusion between the airline reps about some new regulation of weight versus volume of checked luggage. We were asked to choose one of our bags as “priority” — of course, you can see where this is going. Most of our group chose the blue duffel bag of toiletries as priority since those contained any needed medication, glasses, etc. Bags were checked, security was gone through, and we were on our way to Horn Island.
The two hour flight was fairly uneventful and I believe I slept through most of it. A quarantine flyer warned us not to bring chickens into Horn Island.
Once on the island, we exited the plane to general confusion. A shuttle was ready to take us to the ferry station for Thursday Island but — surprise! — most of our luggage hadn’t made it onto the plane in Cairns. Since we had mostly marked our blue bags as “priority”, almost everyone in the 15-person tour was missing their riding gear. Qantas dutifully marked our surnames and baggage claim numbers onto a sheet of paper, Roy was called, and we shuffled on off to the ferry, sans bike wear.
The ferry from Thursday Island to Bamaga wasn’t until 3pm, so our tour group did what any respectable group would do when faced with a free day on a historically significant and culturally impressive foreign island — we headed to the pub.
The Grand Hotel didn’t start serving food until noon, but they were happy to pour schooners of VB and hand out coolies for Cascade Lager in the meantime. Peter and I quickly figured out that there were two main groups in our tour — a large club contingency from a South Australia town near Adelaide, and a slightly smaller group from New Zealand. Peter and I were of course traveling alone, as was Dennis from Brisbane. Everyone was very friendly, though, and all of the groups intermingled well, telling stories and jokes and tossing back beer. Food arrived shortly after noon, and then small groups wandered off to explore the island.
The Grand Hotel outdoor seating:
Thursday Island was originally settled by Europeans in 1877 after literally thousands of years of indigenous occupation (who called the island “Waiben”). It is the major commercial and administration center of the approximately 140 Torres Strait islands and houses 3500 permanent residents. At just 3 square kilometers in size, it was easy to wander around the main areas of Thursday Island, even on a hot day after a few drinks.
The ferry from Thursday Island to Bamaga takes about 45 minutes and gives a great view of the Endeavor Strait. The major landmark along the way is Possession Island, from which Captain James Cook claimed all of Australia for Britain on August 22, 1770.
Two 4×4 Land Cruisers met us at the ferry stop in Bamaga to take us to the Loyalty Beach campground, which is actually closer to the small community of Seisia than to Bamaga itself. The road in to the campground was rutted and muddy and even had a small water crossing — we joked that that was the test for the ride; if you couldn’t leave the campground, you couldn’t come on the ride. If only the “test” was that simple….
Once at the campsite, we finally met Roy Kunda, our fearless leader for the trip. Assisted by two miraculous cohorts, Lincoln (Linc) and Joel, Roy would be responsible for our sorry hides for the following week.
But, the first item of business: BIKES!
Most of the fleet were Suzuki DRZ400s, with a couple of DRZ250s thrown in. There was one KTM 400 for the trail leader (generally Linc), one TTR-250 for the sweep (Joel), and one TTR-230 for the shortest member of the group…..any guesses as to who that would be?
The TTR-230 felt very comfortable for me right off the bat — it’s a very similar bike to my XT225 and, in fact, shares a motor with its slightly smaller cousin. Roy and Linc swear that the handling on the TTR is better, and I’ll have to compare with my XT on some similar trails, but my gut feeling is that only a seasoned trail rider on some pretty bad roads would really be able to tell the difference.
At sunset, a few of us went walking along the beachy mudflats after promises from Roy that there were no crocodiles (we’d find out the next day that that was a lie, but I digress….). Little shrimp made popping noises in the mud as they surfaced for food, causing the whole area to sound bubbly and full of life. Geoff and Mic tried their hands at fishing, with no success, and the rest of us “helped” by offering very useful advice and color commentary fueled by more cans of VB and Carlton.
Dinner was a fantastic campfire cookout of lamb chops and chocolate cake cooked in a dutch oven under the coals. And, of course, more VB.
Our tents were already set up, with comfortable cots (even Peter, at 6’4″, says they were pretty good). We set up our brand new sleeping bags, wondering why we were concerned about the 15C rating on them — Bamaga is tropical and is pretty much about 25C and humid all day and all night long.
The Milky Way was out in prime form over the small campground, and we fell asleep that night to the sound of tropical birds and the ocean lapping against the shore.