First to Cape York by Austin 7

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Cape York by 1928 Austin 7

In late June we will be heading off to recreate the first car journey 1,000km from Cairns to Cape York (Australia’s most northerly point). In 1928 Hector Macquarrie and Dick Mathews drove a tiny Austin 7 on a heroic journey through the bush and over numerous tropical rivers to be the first vehicle to reach Cape York.

We have acquired an identical 1928 Austin 7 and will attempt to take this little 87 year old car on the same route. The Cape York trip is still the great four wheel drive destination as the way is closed for 6 months of the year due to monsoonal rains and high rivers. There are gravel roads now built around the most difficult sections but we will attempt to follow the original unmade route along the old overland telegraph line – the same horse track Hector and Dick went on in 1928.

Many four wheel drivers steer clear of this difficult track but we reckon that the groups of helpful aboriginals who helped push and actually carry the tiny car through deep creeks in 1928 might be replaced by the odd helpful Landcruiser in 2015 to assist us up the near vertical banks. Apart from adhoc pulls on the rope if required from passing 4×4’s we will be going completely alone and unsupported.

Whatever the outcome it will be a lot of fun and we will keep you posted.

The Austin Seven

In 1922 Herbert Austin decided to build a tiny car to replace the motorcycle sidecar – which was all that was available within the financial range of many people in Britain at that time. The result was a vehicle that stayed in production for over 15 years and sold more than 300,000 units around the world. It was also built under licence in several countries such as the French Rosengart, the American Bantam, the German Dixi – for BMW’s first motor car and the Japanese Datsun – their first “full size” car.

The car only weighs around 400kg (the Landcruisers who will be passing us weigh 7 or 8 times as much). A mighty 10 hp from a 750cc sidevalve engine will be speeding us along.

Friday, June 26, 2015

On the Road

The first of many brake repairs at Mareeba.

After some great hospitality, we set off from John Lenne’s house in Cairns (where the ute and trailer are stored) on Thursday 26th June for all points north.

The little car, now christened “Daisy” by Bev, has been cruelly loaded despite all efforts to reduce the weight. Initially the engine sounded like a machine gun but it was discovered the timing was extremely advanced. With a bit of fiddling the distributor has been modified to use both its internal automatic advance and the original hand lever on the steering wheel and now is purring nicely.

The very steep 15km climb up the range from Cairns to Kuranda tested the little girl with a stop halfway to replenish the radiator. On arriving at Barry Dick and his partner Linda’s place at Mareeba the left rear brake was removed after it was found dragging and frozen. It is amazing how much better a car goes without the brakes half on!

A nice night at Lakeland Downs pub was followed by an early morning run into Cooktown. Some seriously steep hills were now taken ‘in it’s stride” by Daisy using the increased performance. Although she will go faster we find about 60kph is a nice comfortable cruising speed. Fuel consumption, once over the range has come it at 52mpg – about 15km per litre. Fuel is not going to be a big expense and the 20 litre tank should get us easily between stops.

Cooktown has been great with lots of interest and an interview by the local paper who were fully  expecting us – how we do not know. As the Austin 7 in 1928 was the first car ever to drive to Cooktown their interest is keen.

Tomorrow on the Battle Camp Road and our first dirt to Laura.

Crossing the Normanby River

On the 27th we set off from Cooktown in the rain.but the weather cleared once we were over the range. We forded the Normanby River on the Battlecamp Road with no problems and then struck out on the gravel which had a few corrugations but the car handled it well.

We arrived at Laura late morning and set up camp behind the pub. Daisy had her photo taken with the Austin 7 parked at the Laura Store. During the afternoon Lang worked on the brakes removing each wheel and adjusting each one in turn. Seems all brakes were seized – something we had not spotted before leaving home.

In 1928 Hector and Dick in Emily put their Austin 7 on the railway that ran from Cooktown to Laura but this fell into disuse after the gold and other local demand finished shortly therafter. Laura’s big weekend was on with Picnic Races and bull riding but all the crowd were camped well away from us at the show..

Leaving Laura on the 28th we had no oil pressure. The thin wire from a bread wrap-tie from a motorist parked at the roadhouse to clear out the oil jets soon had us on the way again.

We then headed for Lakefield National Park on relatively good roads. We arrived at our pre booked camp site at Hann Crossing on the North Kennedy River before lunch and enjoyed a very relaxing afternoon at this idylic spot totally out of sight of any other campers on the banks of the river.

On the 29th we continued through the National Park calling into Lotusbird Lodge – a beautiful resort 28 kms out of Musgrave where Sue and Gary the owners treated us to morning tea. We stopped at Musgrave Roadhouse and topped up with fuel and as we were leaving we passed Jan and Alan Pike returning from Weipa. Alan boiled the billy and we swapped tales of our trips. They were travelling south so were able to give us some clues about the road ahead..

Now we are on the main north-south road the conditions are fairly horrendous. The corrugations really make poor Daisy do a merry dance, and there is a lot more traffic to contend with.

We have been having trouble with Daisy overheating and during the afternoon she just stopped dead and Lang found the points closed. Despite a daily dab of grease, the new points are wearing their rubbing block very quickly and will need checking regularly.

Not many water crossings this time of year.
There were several different styles of termite mound.
The Austin 7’s at Laura
Leaving Lakefield National Park.

We arrived at Coen at 3pm and were able to get a room at the hotel for the night. In 1928 Hector and Dick talk about what once had been a thriving inland town dying because the high cost of labour had forced the gold mines in the neighbouring mountains to close.

Coen to Bramwell

30th  We are off by 0700 with very few cars on the road through to Archer River. The road conditions vary from OK to downright awful. After refuelling at Archer River and having some breakfast we made the decision to not side-track into Weipa, and put Daisy through another extra 200kms of corrugations.

Turning onto the Telegraph Road we decided we had made the right decision as this part of the road seemed to be in much better condition. We called into Moreton Telegraph Station for lunch and continued onto Bramwell Station for the night. During the day we struck quite a bit of rain which made it fun when cars passed and the windscreen turned red. As the wiper does not want to work we found we could tilt the whole windscreen and wipe with paper towel each time someone passed us.

At Bramwell Lang with the help of Les, a volunteer at the station, again worked on the brakes which continue to give us problems.In the evening though, we were able to relax and enjoy a very nice meal and live music until 9pm.

A chance meeting with Alan and Jan Pike and a quick coffee in the bush.
Les and Lang fixing brakes.
Jardine barge on a busy day.
Typical termite mound – no, they don’t all face north!
Fruit Bat Falls. Great spot but too easy to get to for the herds travelling north.

Bramwell to Seisia

No brakes so we had a get-away line onto the Jardine barge.

An Injinou family.

1 July Before setting off Lang had to fix the accelerator cable and then we went 10km to Bramwell Junction Roadhouse and refuelled. We are getting 17kms to the litre so Daisy is proving very economical. She has a 20 litre tank and we are carrying two 10 litre jerry cans. During the day all brakes failed so Lang is just reading the road and using the gears, emergency stops are achieved by turning the ignition off.

We called in at Fruit Bat Falls which are lovely but over-run with 4WD’s and people so continued on to the Jardine River Ferry crossing. Again there was a huge line up of vehicles and it took about an hour and the help of Tina, who was driving the car in line behind us, to cross. We tied a rope from her front to our rear so we didn’t get away and go down the steep slope, across the barge,  and end up in the Jardine. We had considered trying to reenact the 1928 crossing and even brought a large tarp with us to float the car across. Unfortunately there did not seem to be anybody who was willing to wade across the river with the crocodiles, Lang probably would have given it a try but this little duck certainly wasn’t going to.

The roads again range from OK to awful and we eventually hit bitumen just out of Injanoo and headed through Bamaga and onto Seisia. This is a tiny but pretty seaside town with a very nice caravan park. What it also has is Mark the mechanic at Top End Motors. We organised to have Daisy looked at the following day and booked a donga at the park for the next three days..

We make Cape York

2nd Lang headed off to the garage and worked there all day with Mark at Top End Motors rebuilding the brakes and the leaking radiator. I went down to the wharf and managed to get on the ferry over to Thursday Island where I spent the day. It certainly has changed since we were here 30 years ago!

3rd  We are off early to head for the tip. The road is pretty rough but we covered the 34kms to Cape York by 09.30 despite drowning Daisy in a deep creek crossing. As it was low tide we were able to take Daisy onto the beach for photos of our arrival. Lang and I walked out to the tip and by the time we returned the car park was filling up and on the way out we passed dozens of 4WD’s all heading to set foot on Australia’s northern most point. The road from Bamaga to the tip is the roughest so far and we were limited to second and third gear on the corrugations.

A bit deep for Daisy – nearly made it.
A lovely day at the tip.
The famous Croc Tent Cape York road
Australia’s most Northerly point.

We are still having radiator problems so it is back to Top End Motors for some more repairs.

Heading South

4th We did not get away from Seisia until early afternoon but decided to head south as far as we can during the afternoon. We are the only car on the ferry and at about 4pm we turned off on the Old Telegraph track to Sailors Creek to find a great spot beside the water with nobody for miles.. We had a refreshing swim in the creek followed by a nice meal under the stars. The car has been running well all day

5th Set off from our camp site and after refuelling at Bramwell Junction we decided to go into Bramwell Station again as they have had a horse race, bull riding, greasy pig etc festival on all weekend. After lunch we are off and all-but reach the main road when Lang detected a strange lurch and crunch and realised we had broken the right rear axle housing completely off the differential.

We limped back into the homestead and Lang and the station truck driver welded the crack.The light axle was also fitted with a neat cross support brace under the differential like off-road race trucks to cope with any further excess overloads.

We decided to stay the night at Bramwell Station and enjoy the live entertainment once more.

Southbound across the Jardine River
Almost luxury!
Sailors Creek. Beer was only cooled in the creek but washed the dust away.
Typical road – nowhere near the worst.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

On to Musgrave

Kids enjoy the car at Bramwell Station
Archer River

Broken fuel line.
Daisy is pretty small.

6th Off again with Daisy fixed and raring to go. Called into Moreton Telegraph Station and selected breakfast from their vast menu of pies or pies. Despite the culinary paucity it is a lovely green place for travellers to stay under shady trees with friendly staff. The road is still pretty crook and we decided not to sidetrack into Weipa for an extra couple of hundred km of corrugations. Just north of Archer River Daisy died and we discovered a fuel union had worked loose and all our petrol had slowly run out on the road (no fuel gauge in 1928 Austin 7’s). A young couple with a couple of kids stopped and I jumped in with a jerry can to go 25km to Archer River for petrol and hitch a ride to return to Lang who was fixing the fuel line. Before I could leave Archer River Lang appeared having been refueled by Shane who was passing on his way to Weipa with a can of chainsaw fuel – Austin 7’s will run on anything it seems. Having a petrol engine is becoming a serious remote area planning issue in this day of diesel engines in 90% of 4×4’s.

We soon had camp set up and dived into the clear waters of the Archer to get rid of the dust.

7th Leaving the Archer we bounced over a terrible road towards Coen. There was no generator charge and after a bit of investigation it seems the primitive cut-out had failed although the generator was still working. We managed to get a charge by Lang revving the engine with me under the bonnet pushing the contact in but the rough road and gear changes caused the engine revs to drop and the contact to pop out. We figure the car will run for days on a full battery and we have switched off our stereo, Engel fridge, airconditioning and electric seat adjustment to reduce electrical consumption.

Musgrave Telegraph Station is a nice break with good food and a welcome cold beer.

The Northern tip of Australia looking towards Torres Strait. Daisy on the beach.
A nice run back to Cairns near Port Douglas.

8th In deference to Daisy we elected to travel the shortest distance to the bitumen straight south to Laura. There are some bitumen strips several kms long but in between it is the roughest section of road we have encountered. We stopped at Hann Roadhouse for a break before arriving at Laura late morning.

Here we  took more photos of the two Austin 7’s together. The store owner at Laura has had one parked outside his roadhouse for many years so it is symbolic being able to have them side by side.

From Laura we are back on a lovely smooth road surface with no more white knuckle, heart in the mouth, bone rattling travel. We stopped at Palmer River roadhouse for a late lunch then made it to Mount Carbine where we checked into the caravan park and are able to secure a cabin overnight. This is not just two beds in a donga but the cheapest accommodation so far and the size of a small unit with all mod cons, very welcome.

9th We have a pleasant trip down the range into Mossman and then along the coast, arriving back in Cairns at midday having completed our circle with Daisy purring along and the two of us feeling very much more relaxed.

The trip has been great fun and we have been able to bring history alive which is what we set out to do, and we achieved our aim. Driving old cars though, especially under such rough conditions, you are constantly aware that you are testing the boundaries. Lang did a fantastic job driving the entire route and attending to all the mechanical needs Daisy required. Of our two New Zealanders in 1928 Hector only learnt to drive between Sydney and Cairns and he said in his book he was always happy, like me, to be the passenger. I can only imagine how difficult it was for them, no communications, no roads and no idea of what lay ahead, true pioneers who should not be forgotten.

Total distance covered from Cairns to Cape York and back was 1,624 miles (2,598km). Total fuel used was 58 gallons/230 litres giving 43mpg in the old money – pretty good seeing we spent a lot of time crawling in third and even second gear. On the good sections we played it conservative and although Daisy would do much more, we sat on 35mph/60kmh. Several of our problems were caused by the huge load she was forced to carry. The corrugations are constant throughout the trip and although the Austin 7 rides nicely, effectively having no shock absorbers results in regular out of control “drift driving”, particularly on corners. A winner on the English country lanes for which it was designed. Just goes to show you can take any car anywhere as Dick and Hector proved in 1928.

A great little car for its day but it will be back to the 4×4 for us for a while until we feel in the need of more punishment.

We made to the top and then back to Cairns


Monday, July 13, 2015

1928 Austin 7 to Cape York

Daisy, the 1928 Austin 7, after returning from
Cape York