We are about 20 miles south of coastal Cooktown in the far north of Australia when we pull off the main highway onto a side road. I glance at my map and notice a place name further down this less traveled route: The Jump Up, just past Wajul Wajul.
I have to ask.
"You'll know why when we get there. Anywhere out here where to road goes up to another level really quickly is a jump up. This one has about a one-to-three gradient."
I'm doing the picture in my head of what that might look like—scary is my first thought—when the sealed road ends and our massive 4WD Oka hits the dusty ruts and we rattle sideway.
"Oh yeah, and of course it isn't sealed," says Dean with a dry laugh.
Thank God we're stopping at a pub first. And not just any pub.
Remote parts of Australia have become my passion in recent years. Driving the long way between Alice Springs and Uluru—off the sealed roads and into lost canyons—and flying low over hundreds of miles of red desert where animal trails between waterholes create odd abstract patterns have been particularly memorable experiences. And usually quite solitary ones.
Despite the seeming emptiness, the desert is rich with life and seasonal changes turn dry creeks into raging deep torrents of roiling water.
And the Far North of Queensland (the pointy bit up to Cape York known as York Peninsula) where we are traveling now in the sturdy Oka—a region almost three quarters the area of Britain with cattle stations the size of Belgium—is yet another eye-opener.
Standing at the remote tip where a sign in the rocks proclaims we are the most northern point of the Australian continent I ask Dean Nulty, guide and driver to our group of five, where the nearest traffic lights might be.
About 650 miles, unless you turn right about halfway down the Peninsula and head to the bauxite town of Weipa on the west coast.
Australia Without the Australians
This is a vast country and you can drive a long way without seeing another car or people once you leave the small settlements. You do however see a lot of termite towers. We haul over to photograph one that stands 30 feet high. Every now and again we see a kangaroo, emu, wallaby, dingo, or strange bird and, near rivers and inlets, enormous crocodiles. We're advised not to walk along riverbanks or too close to the edge of deep creeks. We don't.
Out here the landscape constantly changes and there are 22 different kinds of tropical savannah, dense rainforest near the coast further south, areas of vast flat dry desert. Near the Archer River Roadhouse there's a crude hand-painted sign by the muddy creek nailed up a tree which reads "We were here in a boat 14th March 2003". The river had risen 48 feet, and that's why they call it "the Wet Season".
In our five day drive from the tip back to the city of Cairns on the coast we have been to a deserted, croc-infested beach which was once going to be a city to rival Singapore. We've photographed the skeletons of planes which crashed here during World War Two and walked where 19th century explorers trekked in search of water, a route, and fame (many achieving only a lonely and thirsty death).
We have chatted with Aboriginal people in small communities dotted about, seeing their rock art dating back thousands of years and looked at petroglyphs which are even more ancient.
And of course we have stopped at pubs.