Palmer River Goldfields and the Old Coach Road

During my research for the Cape York part of our trip I kept coming across the Old Coach Road which seems to be famous, or infamous, and is often mentioned as the hardest 4WD track on Cape York. It runs for about 70km from the old goldmining town of Maytown on the Palmer River north to Laura. In the late 19th century, Cooktown was established as a port to service the goldfields and the railway line was built as far as Laura. From there Cobb & Co ran a coach service to Maytown and the goldfields, hence the track is now called the Old Coach Road.

So, Maytown and the goldfields became our first destination after Cape Tribulation. We restocked in Mossman and then had a night camping at a lovely property Feathers ‘n’ Friends just past Mossman. Then it was an easy drive to the Palmer River Roadhouse for lunch. After lunch we back tracked slightly to find the Palmerville Road which leads to Maytown. There are a number of ways into Maytown, but this seems to be the easiest. It was about a 1.5 hour drive along a well graded gravel road with quite spectacular scenery.

There is an official campsite at Maytown, run by Queensland National Parks, but everything we read used the same word to describe it – ‘woeful’ – so we decided against paying the standard $26/night and instead headed for the unofficial site at Dog Leg Crossing, just south of Maytown. We figured that at least if it was also woeful it would be free. It turned out to be beautiful, perhaps our best campsite of the trip so far. We found a lovely spot beside a large waterhole in the otherwise dry Palmer River and soon decided to stay two nights instead of one as originally planned. That meant we had a lovely relaxing day swimming in the waterhole, playing games, baking bread, rotating Mali’s wheels and trying to sort out replacement poles for our tent (OK, it wasn’t all relaxing). The tent poles are on ongoing saga – we managed to jerry rig a fix for the broken pole while we were at Cape Tribulation and slept in the tent two nights, only to have the pole break again, in a second spot, during our rest day at Dog Leg Crossing.

As we were packing up to leave, the local farmer drove past to warn that he would be mustering cattle through the area the following day. That didn’t bother us but when we told him which way we were going he did look rather doubtfully at Mali and told us that a number of cars had got ‘hung up’ on the track over the previous few days. So, with that vote of confidence we were off towards Maytown … well we were for about 80m. Rather embarrassingly I got us momentarily stuck before even making it to the start of hardest track on Cape York by finding a nice soft patch of sand trying to get out of the dry river bed! Everyone had a good laugh and the kids even enjoyed helping out – a little digging and letting the tyres down got us moving again.

Maytown and the goldfields are interesting although hardly worth the drive in. The town itself was once the largest town on Cape York with 12 pubs. Now there’s not much left other than the impressive gutters of the main street and the stumps of the post office. A passionate team of volunteers have built a replica miner’s hut and filled it with some artefacts and placed plaques down the main street showing where each shop, pub, etc was. Out of the town a bit there are a number of mine sites where there is still a fair bit of old machinery, batteries and the like.

There is still a bit of mining activity in the area which, as best we could tell, seems to be undertaken by a group of rather eccentric individuals who are very protective of their plots.

We had a look around for a while but then it was time for what we had really come for: the Old Coach Road itself. The track heads basically due north from Maytown for 70km to Laura and the hard stuff starts immediately after leaving Maytown. The track is very rocky with large moguls and rock steps and goes up and down a number of short steep sections. Liam and Mali were both great and we got through well – and had a lot of fun on the way – but it was slow going. Lindy and I were often out of the car checking sections before driving them and guiding each other through over our hand held radio. Matthew really enjoyed it as well and he got into the swing of things by jumping out of the car with me and adding useful comments like ‘We better warn Mummy about that rock’.

The section right after Maytown turned out to be most difficult section although there were also plenty of difficult parts just before the track left the Palmer Goldfields Resources Reserve. The wheel ruts in the track were often quite deep and it’s easy to see how cars could get hung up as we had been warned so picking the right line was critical.

After leaving the Palmer Goldfields Resources Reserve the track settles down for a bit into a much easier drive but it was along that section that we had our second little mishap for the day. We’re still not quite sure what happened except that Lindy was driving and she swears the road just disappeared under Mali’s left wheel – probably she was a bit close to the edge and the road collapsed. Anyway, we ended up with Mali’s left wheel dangling with nothing below it and the trailer just resting on its body in front of and behind the wheel. It looked pretty bad when I first got out of the car but a bit of swearing – and some help from the winch – got us out easily enough. In all the excitement/stress I forgot to take a photo so you’ll have to imagine Mali about 5m behind where she is in this photo (and yes, there is plenty of extra room on the other side of the track – don’t worry, Lindy and I ‘discussed’ that).

I think the kids actually thought that was the best part of the day and it was great the way they both got out and really helped with rigging up the winch and getting us out.

There were some final difficult sections just before the turn off into Jowalbinna, our stop for the night. Along that section of the track there are a number of ‘chicken’ tracks around some of the most difficult obstacles although some of the chicken tracks are still tricky enough and there are still plenty of difficult sections without chicken tracks.

Finally, we pulled into Jowalbinna at about 5.30pm. The driving was great fun and we all had a good time. Lindy had originally not been particularly enthusiastic about doing the track but then wouldn’t get out of the driver’s seat once she was in! It was, however, very slow going and quite tiring. Particularly because we had the trailer we were constantly concentrating on the track and which line to take for most of the day. When we stopped at camp we had managed a total of 58.1km for the whole day. Although the Old Coach Road continues to Laura, Jowalbinna marks the end of the difficult sections. The remaining 30km to Laura is a much better road and only took us about half an hour the next morning.


  1. I am loving following your journey! You both must have been exhausted after concentrating on that track!!!

  2. I love love this blog! Finally a family travelling the really remote tracks. Thank you so much for sharing your travels and making your blog. I recently just got back from around that part of the world, visited Endeavour Falls and some local areas. Just beautiful remote country.

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