If you look back throughout the history of four-wheel drive vehicles, there’s one that really stands out as the beginning of it all — the iconic World War II jeep. Just over 600,000 of them were made to fight the evil Axis powers during the war, and quite a few of them ended up here in Australia.
Seeing that quite a few of those jeeps ended up in Cape York, and that Brad from MAXTRAX just so happened to have one sitting in his shed, we decided it would be historically irresponsible not to take it along with us on our month long journey to the tip. Excuses are best when they’re shrouded in some form of legitimacy.
It starts with a burger, presumably as all four-wheel drive adventures begin. It was a good one too, at Bramwell Station. I ordered the Works – it set me back $15, but all things considered, I thought it was a pretty fair price. I guess it’s a bit odd that the start to one of Australia’s most iconic four-wheel drive tracks is behind a glorified servo, but it sure was convenient to refuel before setting off.
We trailered the jeep (which by the way is actually a Ford GPW, hence the lowercase ‘jeep’) most of the way up here, and even though it had just been jumbled around for a thousand kilometres, it fired up without concern. It was a healthy little bugger, our ticket to adventure for the next week or so.
Information about the worst bits of the track had trickled back from those stopping at Bramwell after their attempt towards the tip. Depending who you asked, the difficulty of the Old Telegraph Track ranged somewhere between an expedition to the Moon, a walk in the park, and a gruelling, mud-slogging affair. Regardless of who we talked to, they assured us we were nuts and we wouldn’t make it beyond Palm Creek, the first obstacle. We let them boast and stroke their own ego, but we were confident that the little jeep would be just fine.
We only had to drive four kilometres to Palm Creek, but by the time we made it we were covered in red dust, and that made our big white smiles really easy to see. Sure, it was bumpy, loud, hard to drive, and a bit unpredictable, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We tried to be selfish and tell everyone how horrible it was, but it was quickly decided that we’d take turns at the different obstacles along the track. As the photographer, I’m pretty sure I got screwed on that one.
Palm Creek is like the shallow end of the pool where people slowly walk around until they finally realise they just need to jump in the deep end. It’s not as challenging as the infamous Gunshot Creek, but it’s something you need to have your head screwed on for. It always seems that four-wheel drivers arrive at obstacles like this in waves, and our wave drew quite the crowd, with everyone eager to see who was going to go first.
A brand-new 70-Series Double Cab and a HiLux were the first to give it a go. Despite locking differentials front and rear, some aggressive mud-terrain tyres, and plenty of V8 turbo-diesel power, he couldn’t make it up the far bank of the creek; he resorted to winching both himself and the HiLux. The crowd, which had grown even larger, just saw two very capable vehicles get stuck, so let’s say that the consensus was that the jeep would make it about two feet. We decided to think smart. Rather than driving up the heavily rutted track that had just been torn up even further, we grabbed a shovel and a few sets of MAXTRAX. The little jeep drove up with ease, which was par for the course for subsequent obstacles.
If you ever get a chance to drive the Old Telegraph Track, or even get some time to study a map of it, you’ll notice that it’s a game of creeks. Some are deep, some are shallow, some are rocky, and some are muddy. Each one is different from the last, and that’s what keeps the Tele Track interesting. Frankly, aside from a sporadic telegraph pole (which trust me, you’ll be searching for) there isn’t much of interest in the sections between.
But there lies the problem. Creeks. We’re driving a vehicle that has no roof, or doors, or snorkel. Some of the creeks, like Nolan’s Brook, are legitimately deeper than the jeep is tall. It’s times like this that it’s best to throw caution to the wind, or hand the keys to another guy that’s willing to take the risk.
The proper way to ford a creek is to drive smoothly but not too fast in order to create a ‘bow wave’ in front of your vehicle. This wave effectively pushes the water away from the car, making where you’re driving a little bit shallower. When you have no doors, and you’re trying to avoid getting your camera gear wet, you become very good at creating bow waves out of necessity. Frankly, it’s the only way we got through half of the crossings, and mind you we were travelling in June, which meant the dry season had just begun and the water was still high.
Gunshot Creek is probably the most-famous four-wheel drive obstacle on YouTube. It’s a massively eroded steep bank that has seen more than one vehicle put on its roof, and plenty of rear tyres in the air. When you’re a few thousand kilometres from a major city, nerves get high, and when mistakes are made, the consequences are serious – and often entertaining.
The main drop at Gunshot really is impressive, and almost vertical; it just wasn’t worth risking. Even the least challenging route was intimidating, and without a roll cage, seat belts, or well… any safety equipment, it was something you had to really think about. To add to it, since virtually all of the traffic that didn’t take the Gunshot Creek bypass now had to go through this drop, there was a substantial mud bog at the bottom.
This meant Brad had to go slow enough to not roll the jeep, but gain speed quickly enough to not get stuck and tarnish the ego of both himself and the jeep. He did it without getting stuck, but to do it meant he had to literally stand on the firewall to keep himself in control. Even the Sierra and the third vehicle in our group, a 105-Series LandCruiser, couldn’t get through without needing a recovery. I couldn’t even imagine going through the main obstacle.
A little over 30 kilometres up the track is something that no 4X4 could… or should… pass. Fruit Bat and Eliot-Twin Falls offer a playful respite from the relative stress and excitement of Gunshot Creek. If you had the time, I’m pretty sure you could spend a few days between them both. Crystal clear warm water flowing over smooth rocks in Cape York, without crocodiles – does it get any better?
Now more than halfway through the Old Telegraph Track, the jeep was chugging along just fine. Occasionally a little bit of water would get into the distributor, but it was easily fixed with some WD-40. Creek after creek, kilometre after corrugations, it wouldn’t die – and most importantly, everyone that had a chance to drive it still had a smile on their face. Though stories exchanged and overheard at the falls left us a little bit nervous for what was to come at Nolan’s Brook, the last major obstacle on the track. Rumour had it that the water, which is known for being deep, was over the roof on some full-size four-wheel drives.
Of course, it ended up being just a rumour, and there was only one four-wheel drive for which the water would be over the roof – the little jeep. Once again, the crowds seemingly appeared out of nowhere. For being so remote, you never really feel alone in Cape York. Plans were made and remade, strategies were argued for or against. Meanwhile, Brad, who owns the jeep, decided to take a nap in a hammock someone conveniently hung over the water.
The benefit of the jeep is that it most certainly has as little electronics as possible, for any four-wheel drive… ever – which is good. But it’s also about as tall as the tyres some people put on their four-wheel drives, and it doesn’t have a snorkel or anything to keep the water out. Turning back wasn’t an option, so the idea was to spray as much WD-40 into the distributor as possible to keep the water out, and then drive in the wake of another car. Hell-bent on completing the Old Telegraph Track, we went forward with the plan.
Now up until this point, everyone had been jumping and fighting at the opportunity to drive the little jeep. Grown men were yelling, occasionally crying or throwing tantrums. Now they were all silent, and it wasn’t that they were afraid of the water, it was that we were afraid of the repair bill and inevitable blame.
If you know anything about automobiles and have a bit of little basic math skills, you would have been able to predict that the jeep didn’t make it too far. The lead car who’s job it was to make an impossibly large wake drove away too quickly, and the lack of oxygen quickly killed the engine. It’s a versatile vehicle, but it doesn’t make that good of a submarine. We recovered it quickly, but it was still submerged for a few minutes.
So now we had a drowned jeep, in one of the most remote places in Australia (and the world) and you can’t exactly get parts for these easily. It turned into a test of bush mechanic skills. I’ll save you the details, but if there was something that wasn’t supposed to have water in it, it had water in it.
The fuel had to be drained and separated of water, and the engine oil needed to be changed. We took out the spark plugs and turned the engine over, and repeatedly pulled apart the carburettor. Luckily we had just enough oil to make the engine work again, but we didn’t have enough to change the oil in the gearbox and transfer case. We used a few water bottles and a length of hose to aid us in draining all the fuel. (a side note, we packed all the oil out with us). I’m just glad we didn’t have to do this on a new jeep, because we would have been there for a while. Finally after a few tries to get it running again, and plenty of adult language, the little jeep drove out on it’s own power and completed the Telegraph Track.
But that’s not where things end, because the trailer was chained to a tree at Bramwell Station. The jeep and its ragged, tired crew still had the best half of Cape York to explore – not to mention an obligatory trip to the Tip! Tired, frustrated, and disenchanted by spending the better half of a day working on the jeep, we headed for Vrilya Point.
The track there might have been one of the roughest I’ve ever travelled and it didn’t help that I was in the jeep, which by this point had seen better days. We put a sizeable bend into one of the wheels, and you could tell that the poor thing was even more exhausted than we were. I ended this day by drinking what beer I had left, drinking other people’s beer, and then eating lots of sausage and lamb. We were heading to the tip the next morning and I was exhausted.
I woke up refreshed on a remote beach overlooking the Gulf of Carpentaria, but I’m not so sure the jeep woke up as refreshed as me.
Gears were sticking, the engine was sputtering and the rough track bent yet another wheel. We stopped at Crystal Creek to have a swim and take some pictures of the war relic on the equally old log bridge. Things were starting to look up, and the jeep started running much better, it was like it knew its end was near. About a kilometre down the track, the jeep lost all movement. We didn’t know it at the time, but the 70-year-old gearbox and transfer case, presumably filled with water, systematically destroyed itself over the rough track to Vrilya Point.
In a rather anticlimactic ending, we pushed it into the bushes and kept going north.