When the pull of sun and sand lures you to the top of the Sunshine State, these are the beaches you’ll want to head towards. They rate as some of the best slithers of sand on the Cape, perfect for fishing, camping and kicking back to watch the sun go down.
Few travellers reach this string of remote coastal camps on Bathurst Bay. To get there, you have to tackle some of the most rugged offroading north of Cooktown. At the base of the Melville Range’s towering heap of tumbled granite, sandwiched between sweeping savannah lands and the sea, the camping areas imaginatively called Crocodile, Oystercatcher, Wongai and Granite, offer nothing but scenic vistas and unbeatable fishing.
The coastline is pristine and the fishing is next level, but this spot is so remote that you’ll really want to be escaping from it all to find yourself this far away. If that’s you, put Cape Melville National Park on your list and get packing. Traditional owners call this place Othawa, and it’s peppered with rock art, burial sites, and shell middens in the dunes.
From the Granite camping area, walk or drive the short track to the Mahina monument, which remembers the more than 300 people and 54 pearling luggers lost to Cyclone Mahina in 1899, in what was Australia’s deadliest and most intense tropical cyclone (300m return). If there is a downside to staying here, it’s that the roads in are deemed too rugged for camper trailers (you make the call), so perhaps unhitch at Wakooka outstation and swag it for a night.
The easiest access is through Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park, turning north at the ranger station past Kalpowar Crossing and following Wakooka Road for 70km to Wakooka Outstation. Another road from the east joins here, taking the adventurous route 180km out of Cooktown that veers north off Battlecamp Road and crosses the Starcke and Jeannie Rivers before reaching Wakooka Outstation where both routes join. The final 40km to the coast is slow, rough and arduous.
Tackle the Trip: All up, you should allow five hours’ driving time from Kalpowar and up to 12 hours from Cooktown (via the eastern route). Carry recovery gear and a satellite phone, travel in pairs and be aware that access roads don’t open until 1 August each year. Download access maps at parks.des.qld.gov.au.
FLYPOINT AND NANTHAU BEACH
If reaching The Tip of Australia is not nearly enough for you, discover this sandy loop that takes you beyond Frangipani Bay to faraway Fly Point. You can bush camp en route at the equally stunning Nanthau Beach, where an insanely tempting turquoise sea laps shimmering white sand, and sailing boats coast past in the current, pushing them at great speed through the tight squeeze of Albany Passage.
Predictably, there are no facilities on offer at any beach or headland along this loop, but there are no camping fees either and catching dinner is pretty much a sure thing. The fast-running tides that wash over the reefs here can catch boaties off guard, but if you time it right, you can be eating an enormous queenie or GT by sunset.
Tackle the Trip: Drive 10km south of Frangipani Bay and at the junction, head 7km east on Somerset Road. At the next junction you can either continue straight on to reach the campground at Somerset, or loop right on Narau Beach Road and follow the coastline back to Somerset via Nanthau Beach, Vallack Point and Fly Point (a 15km loop).
SOMERSET HOMESTEAD RUINS
Tucked behind Albany Island, this scenic spot was well-chosen back in 1864 when police magistrate John Jardine ruled, ran cattle, and welcomed shipwrecked sailors to his homestead at Somerset. There is little to remember this bush pioneering family, but with a bit of exploring, you’ll discover the beach graves of Frank, his wife Sana, and pearler Kobori Ichimatsu, along with a memorial to explorer Edmund Kennedy.
Today, Somerset provides the only bush camping facilities close to The Tip, where travellers can launch their tinnies and 4WD south along the coast to discover remote beach camps. Seek out the stunning cave paintings located in a coastal cave, north of the homestead ruins. If you’ve come to fish, wait for slack tide to brave Albany Passage for catches of Spanish mackerel, and when the wind is up, you can fish off the beach for threadfin salmon, queenies, and trevally.
Although John Jardine kickstarted Somerset, it was his sons, Frank and Alick, who famously pioneered a route up Cape York’s western flanks in 1865. Shunning explorer Edmund Kennedy’s disastrous eastern route, the Jardine Brothers spent 10 months pushing a mob of cattle and horses from Rockhampton up the Cape’s western coastline. While they were successful, their controversial expedition involved Indigenous battles that left up to 72 people dead.
Tackle the Trip: Somerset is located 33km from Bamaga (take Somerset Road, 10km south of the Tip). Camping is free and toilets and a shelter are provided (BYO drinking water and firewood). As always in the far north, be aware of estuarine crocodiles while boating and fishing.
CAPTAIN BILLY LANDING
No list of great beach camps could omit this idyllic, windswept spot, nestled beneath towering sea cliffs and the heath-covered dunes. Some travellers love it for the beach fishing and the grassy campground, while beachcombers come for the nautilus shells found heaped up along the beach that stretches endlessly north.
Its name remembers Captain Billy, an Indigenous guide who led government surveyor Dr Logan Jack to the coast on his 1879–80 Cape York expedition. Sunrise from the top of the high dunes is incredible and the stunted coastal heathland is full of dusky honeyeaters, yellow-bellied sunbirds and rainbow bee-eaters that feed on the wind at dusk and dawn. Facilities here are generous — a huge picnic shelter, tables, a toilet, and fire pits. There’s no mobile reception in camp so book your stay before you arrive.
Tackle the Trip: Drive 67km north of Bramwell Junction, take the signposted turn to the coast and continue 27km. Campsites cost $6.75/person or $27/family, per night (kids under five years are free, parks.des.qld.gov.au).
Another faraway fishing haven 120km north of Cooktown, Cape Flattery and its sandy white camp at Connies Beach is a favourite getaway spot of mine. You’ll have a bit of sandy fun just getting there, but when you do, you can launch your tinny straight off the firm beach to troll for enormous Spanish mackerel (our’s measured 1.2m).
Camping takes place beneath the shady paperbarks and coconut palms that fringe the foreshore, their feet dug into tannin-stained springs that linger long after the end of the wet season. You’ll have good success flicking a lure off the rocky point for barramundi and mangrove jacks, and away from the water, you can climb as high as you like up Cape Flattery itself, for vistas that capture distant Lizard Island to the northeast.
Tackle the Trip: Connies Beach doesn't provide facilities so arrive fully stocked. From Cooktown follow Battle Camp Road to Starcke Homestead, beach drive for 20km to Cape Flattery Silica Mine (check the tides first) and continue to the north side of the Cape.
A blissfully deserted spot on the see-through sea just across the Jardine River, Mutee Head is a top choice for camping en route to the tip. It’s little more than a grassy clearing shaded beneath the she-oaks, but on early morning walks you’ll likely spot sea turtles floating in the sandy cove, and if you love to beachcomb, all kinds of great sea junk gets washed ashore here.
You can camp on both sides of Mutee Head but I like the northern side where there’s enough level ground for a handful of camper trailers and a couple of fire pits to cook up your daily catch. If you’ve hauled a tinny, you can launch it on the southern side for catches of mackerel, queenies, trevally, flathead, and perhaps a threadfin salmon. To battle barramundi and mangrove jack, follow the signposted sandy track north to reach the Jardine River, keeping an eye out for some big crocs too.
Tackle the Trip: Take the signposted turn-off 27km north-west of the Jardine River ferry crossing and continue 20km west. Camping at this spot is included in the cost of your Jardine River ferry ticket (currently $133 return for a car plus camper, nparc.qld.gov.au).
At the time of writing, the Gudang/Yadhaykenu Aboriginal Corporation announced it was closing visitor access to The Tip of Cape York due to concerns from Traditional Owners about the lack of toilets, littering, and graffiti. If the situation is not resolved before the start of the 2021 travel season, that would mean no access to Pajinka (The Tip), Somerset bush camp, Fly Point and Nanthau Beach camp. Access has also been denied to Ussher Point and Captain Billy Landing. This situation may be resolved in coming months, so for up-to-date information, head to nparc.qld.gov.au.
MORE CHILLED SPOTS
A beautiful, palm-fringed sweep of sand, Chilli Beach is one of the most coveted camping areas on the Cape, with 25 beachfront camps and a never-ending breeze. You’ll find it in Kutini Payamu (Iron Range) National Park, accessed via the track to Portland Roads, just north of Archer River Roadhouse. On Cape York’s western shores, Vrilya Point is the pick of faraway 4WD camps, and Frangipani Bay at The Tip gets my nod for the incredible sunsets, great low-tide exploring, and for the thrill of catching dinner off the very tip of the country.
NEED TO KNOW
Hit the road between May and September. Check road conditions at cook.qld.gov.au, book national park campsites at npsr.qld.gov.au, and plan your trip at wildtravelstory.com and tourismcapeyork.com.