Towing a Camper in Cape York
Words Sam Richards
Pics Matt Williams and Tourism and Events Queensland
After reading Hema’s crash crash of towing tips, you should have the confidence to tackle Cape York in a camper.
Cape York inspires equal parts admiration and fear in the aspiring traveller. Held up as the pinnacle of offroad adventure, the Cape carries its fair share of holiday-gone-wrong stories that cloud the public’s perception of this quite accessible destination.
Images of the near-vertical Gunshot Creek and water crossings up to the windows make a lot of tempted folks flee, but those who head north armed with information often find they achieve the Cape without worries, and head back home with awesome memories and an intact car and camper.
WHICH CAMPER TRAILER
If you plan on offroading the Overland Telegraph Track (OTT), Frenchmans, or similar, you’ll want a camper with limited overhang either side of the axle and high ground clearance, ideally higher than the vehicles. It’s best for your trailer to have a protected underbody, with no exposed piping, wiring or water tanks.
Hopefully, your trailer has an easily accessible spare tyre and shares its tyre size, rim size, and stud pattern with that of your vehicle, so that your tyres are interchangeable. It pays to have a common tyre size (not a crazy-large mud terrain) such that you can procure a replacement on the Cape. A quality camper suspension is key, especially on corrugations and a leaf-sprung suspension will be more easily managed if it has shock absorbers fitted.
The best campers for the job will have water-tight seals and a sealed underside, road covers and proper sealing to limit dust ingress, rated recovery points, ample battery capacity and options for charging away from mains power, a flexible offroad hitch, room to store rubbish away from bins or dumps, frontal protection such as a stoneguard, a quick set-up given the amount of ground to cover, a small campsite footprint to guarantee a spot at crowded camps and windows for ventilation.
If your camper is still within warranty, examine terms and conditions — some businesses cover offroad usage, whereas others do not. Also consider what terms and conditions are associated with the camper's insurance, how high up the Cape any roadside assist policy reaches, and how much it would cost under your policy if you needed to be towed out.
WHAT ROUTE TO TAKE
During the wet season the Cape is closed off by floodwaters, so plan to travel during the dry season between May to October. Early in the season, the main gravel tracks, such as the Peninsula Development Road (PDR), are likely to be less corrugated due to more recent grading. Water levels are higher earlier in the dry season however, meaning deeper crossings and muddier tracks offroad. Also, bear in mind that peak periods such as Queensland school holidays and the footy grand final weekend bring crowds. Some national parks you may wish to visit open later, such as Lakefield in July.
The unmaintained OTT features prominently in collective Cape consciousness but it only runs for 112km — meaning it constitutes only about one-tenth of the 1000km trip to the Tip from Cairns. The OTT presents unique challenges such as Gunshot Creek, Palm Creek, and Nolan’s Brook — which have flooded many cars in their time. The worst lines however, can be bypassed with alternative lines or entry points, or even completely boycotted by more extensive ‘chicken tracks’, such as the long one around Gunshot Creek.
In a bid to increase access to the Cape, the PDR is continuing to be sealed. Higher north, which is unsealed, is at least graded and features no major river crossings. The PDR starts at Lakeland near Laura and after reaching Archer River, its role is taken over by a series of bypass roads, notably Bamaga Road, the alternative to the OTT. Bamaga Road then provides access to the unavoidable Jardine River Ferry, from which it isn't far to the Tip.
A lot of camper trailer travellers decide to take the bypass roads beyond Bramwell Junction, which is the starting point of the OTT. Many set up camp there at the Roadhouse or Station and, not wanting to miss the excitement, tackle parts of the track without towing. Alternatively, many take the Southern Bypass Track to where it intersects the OTT and then travel just 3km down the northern section of the OTT to experience Fruit Bat Falls or 7km to access Eliot Falls.
Those who are less confident in their towing ability also have the option of leaving their camper in storage on Cape York and travelling further north without towing. Places which have historically provided storage include Bramwell Station, Mount Carbine Caravan Park, Wonga Beach Caravan Park, Laura Roadhouse, and Lakelands Caravan Park. Enquire before heading out to check if there’s room available.
Golden Rules for the Overland Telegraph Track:
- Consider taking a 4WD course prior to your trip.
- Don’t overload the camper. Only bring what’s necessary to reduce hindrance on your 4WD in offroad settings.
- Travel in a convoy if possible, with camper trailer owners at the front so drivers behind can observe for damage or lose items. Recovery becomes easier in groups.
- Bring recovery gear: carry tracks, a shovel, a snatch strap and shackles, know your recovery points and consider installing a winch.
- Prepare for recovery prior to obstacles. Have the winch strap out and ready and have the snatch strap in the passenger seat or attached and wound around the aerial or bull bar. Have a recovery vehicle in position ready for the worst if water is involved.
- Examine water crossings. Walk them if safe — keeping an eye out for crocs. Beware that the camper or car could float in strong currents. Consider all entry points and only drive in when the vehicle in front is out. Allow the base to settle for a few minutes between crossings, especially at Nolan’s Brook.
- When crossing water, maintain momentum, opt for low range and favour low gears. A steady speed will maintain a bow wave. Minimise turning and travel in a straight line where possible. Operate low tyre pressures on camper and car both.
- Accessorise for crossings: a water bra will prevent water from entering the grille and a snorkel will help keep water out of the engine during deeper crossings.
- Allow the chassis and underbody of the camper trailer and car to drain after completing the crossing to minimise track damage.
- Always have an exit plan. Only go places you can reverse out of and beware that it mightn’t always be possible to reverse out when the trailer is at an odd angle to the car. Know your jack-knife point.
- When picking a line in tight places, beware your trailer will cut corners when turning. However, as the trailer’s tyres are not driven but passive, vehicle tyre placement is more important.
- Use electric trailer brakes to your advantage, especially when going over sharp crests such at Gunshot. Increase sensitivity and apply trailer brakes to slow your descent and avoid damage.
Be willing to take the ‘chicken track’.Most importantly, put brains before ego and do the sensible thing.
Golden Rules for the Peninsula Development Road:
- Travel with your lights on to increase visibility.
- Maintain a healthy distance from vehicles in front.
- Limit your speed to reduce the risk of being caught off-guard by sudden bends or losing control by gliding over corrugations.
- Observe for hazard signage and hazards, including dust holes, roaming stock and fires.
- Lower your tyre pressures as necessary and have a compressor to pump them back up. This increases traction, reduces damage to your cargo and camper, and limits the development of corrugations for future visitors.
- Use your gears to assist with braking and limiting speed. Engine braking ensures greater traction compared to foot braking, which on loose surfaces can result in skidding. Beware of the longer braking distances caused by a camper.
- Use your UHF radio to communicate with your convoy, other travellers and truckies, about present risks, road conditions and overtaking.
- Minimise the amount of weight on top of your camper. A top-heavy camper can, when forced into extreme angles and fast cornering, be at risk of tipping.
- Pack items carefully to limit damage over corrugations. Wrap hard items or put soft items like towels between them. Minimise contact between items and secure large heavy items.