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Cape Crusaders | Columns | Gassit Garage

Nowadays they offer guided tours of the Telegraph Track, but back in 1969 three humble pioneers were the first to conquer it on bikes

Abandoned in 1928, the Telegraph Track to the northern most tip of Australia became a beacon for intrepid adventurers. Not least Hector MacQuarrie and his mate Dave who, together with a group of Aboriginals, half-drove and half-manhandled a 750cc Baby Austin 7 to the tip. It was only a matter of time before someone tried the conquest on a motorbike.

Sure enough, by the mid 1980s the ride to Cape York had become a rite of passage for aspiring adventure riders. Toting bikes across the waist-deep, crocodile infested Wenlock River was but the prelude to innumerable creek crossings: the precipitous drop into Gunshot Creek, the long slippery traverse of Mistake Creek, and the lack of a navigable bridge at Bridge Creek. All of these hazards were linked by treacherous twists and turns over soft grey sand, softer bulldust, and doses of quicksand. Many failed, and those who made it surely felt that no one since Hector could have done it tougher. Little did they know that, way back in 1969, three unassuming farmers from the Sunshine State had completed the journey in far more difficult circumstances than they could have imagined.

It was mid-June 1969 when Keithy Wellsteed, Graeme Cheal and Garry Pike unloaded their ute in Mossman just north of Port Douglas and saddled up to take the first two-wheeled shot at the track to the top. Their choice of machinery was the humble 100cc Hodaka ‘Ace’, which weighed in at less than 100kg complete with twin rear sprockets allowing them to pull through, or over, anything, albeit at walking pace. And that’s exactly how steady progress was made once 20-litre jerry cans, along with groundsheets, bedrolls and cooking utensils were loaded up.

Catering was by means of an over-under combo shotgun, a 30-30 Winchester and a fishing line. Spam and rice were carried as emergency rations but became a staple diet for most of the odyssey, with one very slow brush turkey, one very tough porker and one toxic eel being the only exceptions. So much for living off the land.

Having no previous motorcycling experience, Keithy was the first to stack, however, many falls followed; standard road tyres adding to the difficult of badly corrugated tracks. By the time they reached Coen the lads had to rebuild their luggage racks despite losing a fair bit of gear in the bulldust. The welds made it no further than the Archer River, so some bracing arms were fettled from a discarded telegraph pole crossarm and tie-wired to the racks using a Cobb and Co hitch. It may have been ungainly, but it was effective.

After seven days’ hard slog they arrived at Bamaga, achieving instant celebrity status as the first riders to arrive from down south. The children had never before seen a motorcycle of any kind, so it seemed only natural they were honoured guests at the next day’s ‘Coming of the Light Ceremony’, celebrating the arrival of the first white missionaries. The feast of local produce that followed provided the only decent feed they’d had since the counter lunch at the Coen pub.

Then, loaded up with more than a hundred litres of fuel they’d had shipped to Bamaga, they set off for home. Through many trials and tribulations they’d become accustomed to – if not comfortable in – the sand. They also became competent at the water crossings, particularly as the fuel load reduced – and after they’d each lost close to 15kg and discarded everything possible to lighten the load on the overworked Hodakas.

The trip to the tip remains on the bucket list of many two-wheeled adventurers. But now that the Wenlock River has been bridged, riders will have time to reflect on the Cape Crusaders’ feat as they negotiate the convoys of 4WDs lumbering up the track at the pace of a Baby Austin.

By Peter Whittaker