Travelling Lakefield National Park
More than just a detour on the way to The Tip, Lakefield National Park is the most accessible park on the Cape York Peninsula and a destination in its own right.
When to visit: Between July and November
Beyond the popular tourist destinations of tropical north Queensland lies the Cape York Peninsula, a rugged landscape that can chew up and spit out well-meaning travellers whose vehicles succumb to the extreme conditions and endless corrugations. A trip to the tip of Cape York is an ambitious adventure that requires a lot of preparation and a capable rig, but for confident caravanners who want a taste of the peninsula without days of bone-rattling roads, Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park is the perfect destination.
Lakefield National Park rests within the Laura Basin, a low-lying landscape intersected by a vast network of rivers, floodplains and wetlands that drain into Princess Charlotte Bay. It’s the second largest National Park in Queensland and is said to be the most accessible of the peninsula’s parks. It’s possible to drive from Cairns to the park’s southern entrance near Laura in around five to six hours without ever leaving the blacktop and then once inside the park, the unsealed yet well-maintained Lakefield Road runs north-west through the centre, with dozens of tracks branching off to serene campsites and scenic destinations.
Lakefield National Park is closed for six months of every year, when the wet season makes the majority of tracks impassable as swaths of land are swallowed up by floods. It’s open to the public between July 1 and November 30 when smaller waterways run dry and driving surfaces that weave between waterholes and lagoons dry out enough for easy four-wheeling. It’s best to visit between July and September, when daytime temperatures sit in the low-30s and night-times drop to a comfortable range in the mid-teens. From October until the park closes at the end of November, the temperatures move into the mid-30s, while storms become more common and the humidity soars.
THE MAP PATROL
My opportunity to visit Lakefield National Park came on the back of a Hema Map Patrol trip to the area in early-September. I joined up with the team in Cairns, after they had pushed the LandCruiser 79 Dual Cab up from Brisbane over the course of a weekend. I was greeted by Bryce, who works as a cartographer and GIS analyst, and is the man responsible for organising and carrying out the bulk of the Map Patrol’s work in the field, with him was Tim, who works in tech support and is the go-to guy for all things HX-1. And of course, myself, editor of Hema’s print and digital publications.
We drove north from Cairns along the Peninsula Developmental Road, passing by Laura on our way to the park’s north-western entrance, which can be reached by heading east at Musgrave. Our first night saw us unfurling swags at the Musgrave roadhouse, where an eclectic crowd of campers were gathered; dusty-skinned enduro-bike riders returning from the cape, caravanners passing through on their big lap, a family of bird watchers from Japan with zoom lenses longer than my forearm and four-wheel drivers of all shapes and sizes.
In the morning we topped up our diesel (the Map Patrol truck carries a whopping 180-litres between two tanks, plus jerry cans if need be), ran through our daily vehicle checks and hit the road.
THE DRY SEASON
We rolled through the north-western entrance to the park and pulled up at the first of many information boards. Once upon a time, this is where we’d have filled out paper slips to register our camping; these days, however, that’s all taken care of online. The board hasn’t been replaced since this new system was adopted, it’s simply been updated with a laminated sheet of paper that gives a phone number and web address you can use to book sites if you haven’t already. Considering that none of us had any mobile reception since the afternoon before, this struck me as a fairly useless system for anyone on a spontaneous detour, since the only practical option would be to drive directly to the ranger station to register there – but that’s at least another couple of hours drive from that point.
Fortunately for us, Bryce had organised our campsites well in advance, so we were soon back in our air-conditioned cabin, rumbling up Marina Plains Road. The landscape that rolled p