Updated: Oct 28, 2021
It’s not often I get excited by ‘just’ a road, but after spending a week checking out so much history in a stunning location I'm sold on the area. While in Cape York we though we would just shoot into the much talked about Chilli Beach area to see just what all the commotion was about.
The Portland Road turn off is about 100km north of Coen, along the Peninsular Developmental Road ( PDR to the locals ) and like nearly all other roads, its dirt pretty much all the way across to the coast, and well sign posted to Lockhart River plus Portland Roads.
The majority of the Cape has Traditional Owners protecting the land and at the start of Portland there’s a couple of very informative boards explains their history, ownership and other valuable insights. There’s some pretty strict rules in the area so by studying the boards here and obeying them, you’ll keep on the right track.
Straight away the bone jarring corrugations start and bull dust holes are everywhere along the first part of Portland Road, some of the holes are that deep and wide that there’s bypass tracks around the original bypass tracks. But saying that, we did this trip at the end of the dry season, so hopefully graders do fix up the start of the road seeing though there’s a few communities along the way.
The first 20km passes through dry scrub bushland not unlike to most of the cape, tall anthills and patches of grass trees break the scenery up between the gums, all covered in dust either red, white or grey from the long dry season they’ve had. Up in the Cape during wet season ( generally late spring through summer ) things are huge like storms, the wind and water flow.
The first and mind blowing indication to this is when you approach the infamous Wenlock River crossing. It's not till you get to the top of either side and realise that its back to a low gear both down across and up the other side, it's just that steep to allow the massive amounts of water to flow through during the wet. These days the actual water crossing has a concrete base for better traction for traffic crossing the Wenlock.
Anyone doing any research for a trip to the Cape will discover that there is just so much history in the north from war, through to goldfields and right down to pastoral history. One very significant area that I wanted to explore was the Batavia or Wenlock Goldfields.
The shiny stuff was found in the Cape as early as 1876 but the Batavia area was proclaimed later on in 1892 and there was that much gold found here that it was declared the most productive goldfield in the Cape during the depression around 1930.
After crossing the Wenlock heading towards the coast there are two miners tracks to the left, either one leads to the fields and can loop out on the other. The first road in follows the Wenlock and we found where one of the camps, with a series of mango trees and levelling of the ground where veggies were grown in long rows beside the river to feed up to 130 men and families working in the field.
There are several small concrete slabs around and a bottle dump. An interesting find was the lone grave of Mr Thomas Power who apparently died in a gunfight back in 1930.
The road in doesn’t see much traffic these days so we found there were plenty of trees and washaways to avoid but that’s part of the adventure too. Further around on the loop road ( talking about 3 km ) the main mining work area just cant be missed, literally.
Theres a staggering amount of relics trackside and the more we looked the more we found. Away from constant rainfall and the salt air, most of this gear still looks pretty good. From steam boilers, water tanks with hand made pot rivets, old trucks, trolley lines even a rare Huntington roller stamper.
Normal stampers have tall still rods and a heavy head where they’ll crush the rock in the bottom. This one has a series of weights that go around a huge round tank, crushes the rock and then feeds it out. I’ve seen many stampers in my time but never one as impressive as this. Reading reports, one of the early ones here was a three head stamper that ran 24 hours a day, imagine trying to sleep with the constant thud all night.
Every where we walked was evidence that this was a huge area that was mined from surface workings, small pits to several tunnels covering an area of 13 sq km. It’s mind boggling how they got the gear in here and the work undertaken, especially when you read the dates and manufacturer location. A lot of this gear was made and shipped from London before 1900, somehow just cant imagine the logistics.
Originally there was only one field but in 1915 an Aboriginal women, Kitty Pluto was pushing a barrow and found a large nugget in the wash. It was then that the lower fields were discovered and named Pluto after Kitty, who not only found gold here but several other areas becoming one of the most successful Aboriginal prospectors in Cape York and is the only woman recorded as discovering a goldfield in Queensland
Strangely in 1942 the Australian Army dismantled some of the mine gear and mines, thinking that if there was an invasion from the north, the Japanese could not utilise this area. Some 5 years later the mines kicked off again and the Portland Road was properly constructed all the way to the coast and the new settlement of Portland. Right up until the late 1940’s this area was producing some pretty impressive gold figures, but in the massive storms in 1950 the whole area flooded and mines filled up with water. This was the demise of the Batavia gold fields and work started to wind down.
The road out is 4wd only ( or depending on which way you’ve come ) where there’s several dry creek crossing where the going can be a bit tough and more mines trackside, some with some serious depth. Portland Road continues towards the coast crossing creeks and winding its way up, over and around several small ranges, sometimes getting down to single lane tracks but other sections as wide as a freeway. Keep an eye out when crossing Garraway Creek for the massive central pier for the bridge construction in 1946 when a proper road was built to the coast.
Along the way a huge mountain range started to loom closer, feeling like it was peering down at us around every corner. Midway along there’s a pulloff area with a short sign posted walk highlighting flora and fauna plus local aboriginal history to a viewing deck looking towards the Tozer Range. Age old granite volcanoes spewed red hot pumice out millions of years ago leaving layers of ash across the landscape, over a period of time it fused together to form welded tuffs, just like a hard volcanic rock.
Over a period of time and with great weathering the landscape has been carved to what stands today. The most prominent landmark is Mt Tozer standing 545m high, but other bands of rock can be seen in the ranges where the health grass won’t grow in the poor soil, its part of the Kutini-Payamu National Park, or the Iron Range NP.
For another 15km Portland Rd is sealed with views in both directions toward the range and wind shaped trees and low heath. Theres only a couple of designated camping areas in this part of the world, and if you haven’t booked online beforehand, you’ll need to detour towards Lockhart and stop at the QNPWS office.
Theres no reception along the way so we had to call in to book, with its self registration computer system, the process works, although very slow. Our camp for the night was back along Portland Road at the Rain forest number 1 area. Surrounded by thick almost impenetrable forest its a stunning area with plenty of shade and a small walk to the toilets.
At night we were greeted by the elusive Cuscus, which looked like a large yellow possum scurrying around and eating the mangoes above. From this camp there’s a stunning 5 km walk through the rainforest to discover more of the area and its unique animals and plantlike only found in this part of Cape York.
We found this was a great base for several days to explore other parts of the coast after the effort getting in here. 30 mins along Portland Road is the amazing Chiili Beach known for its wind swept and bent coconut trees, 7km of stunning white and desolated beaches with views across to Restoration Island in which Cook explored back in 1789.
Before we headed out here people told us that the east coast trade winds were making things uncomfortable and there wasn’t too many campsites out of the wind. Dont get me wrong, its a ripper of a spot jammed in between the reef and rainforest but it frequents a lot of rubbish from the ocean currents.
To the north of Chilli Beach, some 10km away is the community of Portlands Road. On a good day there’s about 10 people living here around the bay and you can walk the streets in about 10 mins but its the underlying history that makes this place pretty special.
Prior to WW11 a jetty extended out from the shore and was a base for local fishing boats trading along the coast, but during the war effort there was a need for a berthing point for large Navy ships serving the nearby Iron Range Air Force Base.
Today only timber stumps protrude at low tide from the ocean sands and steel beams lay rusting away in the nearby shores. To protect this valuable jetty, naval fort structures were built in the headland overlooking the north but thankfully this area was never targeted.
Portlands played a key role in keeping supplies to the bomber groups that operated nearby delivering strikes on Japanese installations which was a turning point in WW11 before the front pushed further north. Overgrown and lost in the thick scrub, the only remnants left are concrete bases, an observation post and where the gun placements were.
Heading back towards camp some 30km a turn to Lockhart River township caught my eye, but not before noticing huge cleared areas in the middle of the rainforest. Its here back in 1963 that Australia only nuclear blast has been set off. Named Operation Blowdown the government at the time wondered what such a blast would have on a tropical rainforest, during the Cold War and possible conflict looming from the north. For several years before 17,000 trees surrounding the central b last area were tagged and recorded to see what effect the blast would have. Huge steel platforms were erected and finally a 50 tonne bomb was placed 140 feet in the tower. Thankfully only TNT was used but it decimated the area and even today only grassers grow where the jungle once stood.
Further towards Lockhart, the historical Iron Range Airport is a must see where relics, memorials and a plethora of information is on hand to fully understand just how significant this area was in the protection to our country during war times.
Lockhart itself is now a thriving community with a checkered history dating back to 1789 when William Bligh made contact nearby, later on Explorer Kennedy passed by in 1848 on his ill fated attempt to reach the gulf. From early pearl divers through to sandalwood trading and war expositions it all happened nearby. Aboriginal culture is strong and alive at Lockhart where the whole community have a strong identity as one.
What started off as a ‘quick’ detour, turned out to be a huge adventure exploring masses of history, finding relics and whetting my appetite for another explore along Portland Road in Cape York.