Cape York in 1981 – Part Two

Last issue Vic Widman had reached the Jardine River in his convoy of two Subarus and one Daihatsu in his epic 1981 trip to the top of Australia. With no vehicle ferry operating, he had no choice other than to drive through this treacherous stretch of water.


We had come well prepared for what we knew would be our greatest obstacle, crossing the Jardine River. It was 100m wide and around a metre deep with a jump-up onto a log ramp near the northern end. We knew our best chance of getting across was the Daihatsu – at least it was more like a real 4WD than our Subarus on their 14-inch wheels. Back then crocodiles were not as much of an issue as they are today. In 1981, crocodiles had been culled almost into extinction and during our visit we didn’t see any. Just as well, as we had to walk the Jardine several times – marking deep holes with sticks, and ascertaining that we needed to drive in an arc so the river flow would push us towards the log ramps that would aid our exit.


We set about preparing the Daihatsu for the crossing. This included putting a rubber glove over the distributor with the fingers cut out so the spark plug leads could fit through it, then sealing the whole thing up with Vaseline to prevent water entry. We disconnected the fan belt to stop the fan rotating and propelling itself through the radiator, and fitted a large tarp to the front to help keep the water out of the engine bay. We even took an old vacuum cleaner hose with us and fitted it to the exhaust pipe, tying the end up to the roof rack to keep water from coming back up the exhaust. With Tony and I clinging to the roof rack and balancing on the rear bumper to give weight to the rear wheels, and Frank navigating whilst Irene drove, we set off across the river. To be honest, we were crazy… but we made it. The jump-up onto the submerged logs (which we had marked with sticks) was spot-on; but the bucking nature of the cart-sprung Daihatsu saw me thrown off the back for a refreshing dunking.


Next we planned to get Tony’s Subaru across. After similar preparations, he set off. Just a third of the way across water entered the clutch and, although the motor was running, he had no drive. Water filled the cabin to just over the driver’s seat. We used a 30m length of rope (no proper recovery gear in those days) to pull the Subie back out of the river. A crowd of about 20 people had gathered to watch… we didn’t know where they had come from. They were even more impressed when Tony opened the door to release a torrent of water. By now the clutch had drained and he simply drove the soggy vehicle back to our camp. I already knew I wasn’t going to make it, so all six of us walked back over the river and piled into the Daihatsu (it was rather cosy!) for our trip to the Tip.


We had a big day – visiting Bamaga and restocking with some essential food items, seeing the various plane wrecks from WWII and (of course) taking the walk to the very top of Australia. We had achieved our goals. All we had to do now, was get back! By the time we returned to the Jardine it was nearly dark, so we parked up and walked back over the river. Next morning it was back across the river, and we did the rubber glove and Vaseline thing. The fan belt was taken off and all of us piled on/in to give the little tin can some weight. Coming back was easy – dropping off the logs and ploughing through the water. It was all over in about 25 seconds. The return journey back down the old Telegraph Track was a similar story to the trip up. Despite worrying about how we would climb the difficult southern exit of Gun Shot, we accomplished it no problem; careful wheel placement and some momentum was all that was needed. There was a lot of wheel lifting and cheering from the onlookers.


In 1981, there was a short-cut to Weipa via Stones Crossing. We took it, but Stones Crossing proved quite difficult with a very rough rocky base under the water. It took quite a bit of time to assess it and then drive the Subarus over the large rocks. Mine became wedged on a rock, just long enough to allow about an inch of water to flood the floor. No drama; being mid September (and without air-conditioning) it soon dried out in the hot weather.


Our next deviation took us on the road to Iron Range (now known as Lockhart River and the Frenchman’s Track). This was a rough and rocky track and it tore the rear exhaust system off Tony’s Subaru, so with that item tied to my roof rack we decided to turn back. At Musgrave Station, we headed east through Lakefield National Park – a spectacular drive through dry flood plains and then beside beautiful lagoons filled with waterlilies and birdlife. We camped that night at the Old Laura Homestead.


Next we arrived in Cooktown, our first real town in over two weeks. We enjoyed real showers. We went to the shops and visited the museum and lookout. But our focus was on the final part of the journey. We had heard about the CREB track (Cairns Regional Electricity Board): Let me assure you, in 1981 this was a cracker. Unlike most of Cape York, this was more like the country around Coffs and Barrington. Steep hills, giant washouts and slippery as an ice rink in the rain. Not to mention the deep river crossings. We passed Lions Den and the giant mound of black rocks nearby before the jungle-like terrain along the CREB. Everything was going well until, on one long steep climb, my Subaru slipped into a deep rut and something went ‘bang’ in the rear end. Reversing back down to the bottom with heavy metallic thuds, my mind was racing: “What the hell had I done?”


We jacked up the Subie and found that the rear axle had literally popped all the bearings out of its case. There was no drive going to the rear wheels. With a handful of axle grease, bearings and just the rubber boot holding it in place, things looked grim. Tony did mention we could just disconnect the rear axles and I could reverse up all the hills. We couldn’t see any actual broken parts so we popped all the bearings back in, re-greased the axle (yes we were carrying grease just in case) and put it all back together. Bingo, it worked! Two hours later, we were back on the track. During our trip down the CREB we came across a motorbike rider who had been stranded on the track for a few days. He had help coming, but we still gave him some food and water.


We walked the river crossings, marked the big rocks and eased our trio of vehicles through. Then we came to the Daintree – almost as wide as the Jardine and just as deep. We all had to cross it. Off with the fan belts and on with the rubber gloves. I fashioned a vacuum hose onto the air intake and channelled it up the ‘A’ pillar like a snorkel. Off we went. I still remember that crossing like it was yesterday. When the bonnet went totally under and the level reached the wipers, I must admit the pulse rate did go up a tad. But the Subarus made it. We both had water on the floor but none in the motor. Even Tony’s clutch lasted long enough to get across. A small group watched us from the bank and their words to us were simple: “We have never seen anything like that before, you guys are crazy!”


We may have been crazy, but that night in the camp we were the talk of the town. It seemed a lot of people had heard about the Subarus doing the Cape. Total strangers came up to speak to us. We were legends in our own lunch boxes.