Retracing History

In late June 2015 we headed off to recreate the first car journey from Cairns to Cape York (Australia’s most northerly point), a distance of roughly 1,000km. 

In 1928 Hector MacQuarrie and Dick Matthews drove a tiny Austin 7, which they named Emily, on a heroic journey through the bush and over numerous tropical rivers to be the first vehicle to reach Cape York. We acquired an almost identical 1928 Austin 7 to attempt to follow the same route, 87 years later. 

Cape York is still one of the great four-wheel-drive destinations in Australia, as the way is closed for six months of the year due to monsoonal rains and high rivers. There are now gravel roads built around the most difficult sections of the original route along the old telegraph line – the same horse track Hector and Dick went on in 1928.

Although it was our original intention to replicate the 1928 trek as much as possible, we did not end up doing the old telegraph line but took the development road for most of the way. 

Even with good intentions we were early in the season and learnt there were a number of crossings that we would not have managed, and we had no reason to destroy or damage such a cute vehicle.

We would be going completely alone and unsupported and, whatever the outcome, were assured it would be a lot of fun. 

Our little “Baby Austin” only weighs around 400kg, while a mighty 10 hp from the 750cc side-valve engine would be speeding us along. Many of the 4WDs that past us weighed up to eight times as much and traversed the rough tracks as if they were highways. 

The journey begins

We trailered the Austin to the home of our friend John Lenne in Cairns and after some great hospitality, we set off on  Thursday 26 June for all points north.

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

The very steep 15km climb up the range from Cairns to Kuranda tested the little girl, with a stop half-way 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 Daisy’s stride, using the increased performance. 

Although capable of going faster, we found about 60km/h was a comfortable cruising speed. Fuel consumption, once over the range, came in at 52mpg – about 6.7lt/100km. Fuel was not going to be a big expense and the 20lt tank and two 10lt jerry cans we were carrying would get us easily between scheduled stops.

We were delighted with the level of interest in Cooktown, and did an interview with the local paper: who were fully expecting us, though we do not know how. As Hector and Dick’s Austin 7 in 1928 was also the first car ever to drive to Cooktown, the town’s interest in us was keen.

Cooktown to Coen

We left 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 then struck out on the gravel, which had a few corrugations but Daisy handled it well.

We arrived at Laura late-morning and set up camp behind the pub. Daisy had her photo taken with another Austin 7 parked at the Laura Store. 

During the afternoon Lang worked on the brakes, removing each wheel and adjusting each one in turn. All brakes were virtually seized – something we had not spotted before leaving home.

In 1928, Hector and Dick put Emily on the railway that ran from Cooktown to Laura. This fell into disuse a short time later, after the gold and other local demand dried up. 

We arrived during Laura’s big weekend with the Picnic Races and bull riding but, thankfully, the crowd was camped at the show well away from us.

The next morning our oil gauge showed no oil pressure. Lang was able to use the thin wire from a bread-bag tie, provided by another motorist, to clear out the oil jets and we were soon on the way again, heading for Lakefield National Park on relatively good roads. 

We arrived at our pre-booked campsite 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 Sunday we continued through the National Park, calling into Lotusbird Lodge – a beautiful resort 28 km from Musgrave, where the owners Sue and Gary treated us to morning tea. 

We stopped at Musgrave Roadhouse and topped up with fuel. 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.

Conditions were horrendous on the main north-south road, what the government calls the Peninsular Developmental Road. The corrugations really made poor Daisy do a merry dance, and there was a lot more traffic to contend with.

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

We arrived at Coen at 3pm and were able to get a room at the hotel for the night. 

In 1928 Hector and Dick wrote 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.

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The BMC Experience Issue 16. Jan-Mar 2016 Magazine

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