How we prepared for Cape York & what we’d do differently next time

Planning for the Cape can be a bit daunting. We’re on a few Facebook groups for Cape York travellers, and it seems that the questions people ask prior to going fall into one of two categories: Itinerary or Preparation. The latter being the one that concerns people the most.

I can’t say I blame them either - we had the same questions before we set off. I know I struggled to find an article or blog that I felt was a single source of truth for the kind of trip we wanted to do.

I’d be lying I said we got our setup 100% right. But really, does anyone? Almost everyone I know is in the constant process of evolving their setup, and even then there are huge variables: terrain, duration, season. That in mind this guide is just that, a guide. Chances are your setup will be vastly different based on how you choose to travel, your vehicle or budget. But regardless, I’m going to do my damndest to unload every detail of our setup, in the hope that even if it helps a handful of people feel more confident about theirs it’ll be worth it.

So, let’s begin!

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First up, our car

Where better to begin than with the car itself! A lot of people get a bit nervous about not having a car that is modified enough, but really, you don’t need a lot. The Cape seems a bit scary but a few wisely-selected mods will get you a long way.

We have a 1999 TD42 Patrol and have the following full-time on the car. Bear in mind, a lot of these things have been on it for the better part of 20 years, so we’re not running the latest and greatest of everything.

  • ARB bullbar

  • Front winch

  • ARB dual battery system

  • ARB front air locker & onboard compressor

  • Rock sliders and brush bars made by MattFab™ (Seriously, just a backyard shed project but he manages to turn out some good looking stuff)

  • Roof rack

  • Awning

  • 2 x 9” LED spotlights

  • 33” Nitto Terra Grapplers on factory steel rims

  • Safari Snorkel

  • (Older) Dyno tune to increase power by 40%

  • Intercooler fitted (not factory standard)

  • 3” Exhaust

  • 2” Old Man Emu lift of unknown age

  • Excedy Safari Tuff Clutch

  • 15-year old twin rear drawer unit - solid as a rock

  • GME Antenna & UHF Radio

  • Kenwood headunit with rear camera & built in Garmin GPS (was there when we bought it - we probably would never have bought it ourselves but we love it)

  • Clearview towing mirrors (although we took them off and swapped them with the original mirrors that the original owner had held onto, lest they get smashed!)

  • Additional 12v power points added throughout car

What we took

We did a few ‘test’ trips in the lead up to the Cape, one being a week on Fraser (the first non-weekend trip with our Patrol), and another 4 day trip to Rover Park to test our Rooftop tent.

These helped immensely - we got into a rhythm with our tent, we figured out things we felt we needed that we hadn’t thought of (rear tyre bin bag, tweezers, etc), and I am pretty comfortable in saying I can count the things on one hand we didn’t use. That said, we both would still do some items differently, which I’ll talk more about later on.

Below is the exact list that sat on our kitchen counter the week before we left. You can view it here. Feel free to print it if you’d like!

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Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty.

What we would leave behind next time

CAMP SHOWER - I was convinced we would need this at some point. In our 3 and a bit weeks up and back, we stayed at quite a few sites without showers, and I thought that between the dust and the heat we would be sweaty, dirty messes. The truth of it is though, we swam, a lot. It seemed that anywhere that didn’t have a shower had a waterhole, or it was only for a single night and we knew the next day we’d be swimming again. This really mainly applies to Tropical North Queensland, not many places in Aus have such an abundance of waterholes!

BBQ PLATE - We took our flat grill plate, and didn’t touch it once. Since getting our Bedourie I find that we just reach for it more often, and it’s far more versatile as it can go on both the gas stove and the fire. Any steaks, etc we had on our trip were from pubs (it’s SO fresh up there, plus you’re supporting the locals!), and we kept our camp meals to those we’d cook in a frypan or saucepan. If you’ve got both and need to shed weight this is a good way to do it.

JERRY CAN - We bought a jerry can as a “just in case”. We figured at least if we had one we were covered if something went wrong on any of the cars. In hindsight, I feel that there were no places we went that we couldn’t have relied on the kindness of strangers if desperate (it’s easy to form a sense of kinship with those you meet tackling the same obstacles along the way) and it’s honestly not that far between refills. We’re fortunate enough to have a factory subtank, and it served us well. If you’re unsure, just check how much you have at every station before moving on - it’s not more than a couple of hundred k’s max between them. That said, if you’re planning on going right off the beaten track it could be worthwhile.

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What we didn’t take that we would next time

The worst thing we didn’t take was our air compressor. Matty was talking about using the ARB air compressor that lives in our engine for our front locker to pump back up our tyres, but then we had also packed our little Thumper air compressor. I asked if this was necessary if he was confident in the ARB one, and we left it behind. Sure enough, day 1 we aired down and then spent the better part of 45mins trying to pump back up the tyres after, only to add a measly 5psi.

Safe to say the next morning we found ourselves in a BCF somewhere just outside of Rockhampton, buying a new one. Thankfully it was reduced, then reduced again as a member, and then we had a gift voucher left over from our birthdays. And the thumper was getting on a bit in years, so it was okay in the end. But - motto of the story - make sure you know your new kit will do the job if you’re planning on leaving ol’ faithful behind.

What we were really happy with

There’s nothing like being 3000kms away from the creature comforts of home to make you really appreciate the things you have brought with you. These items were the real MVPS of our trip. I’ve also added links to the items we bought, but there are so many comparable products out there to choose from.

SNORKEL - Seriously, don’t do the Cape without it. It’s wet. Very wet.

ROOFTOP TENT - I love our Rooftop Tent. I don’t know if I’d buy this exact model again – the quality is what you would expect for the price point, but I think next time we’ll upgrade to something with a stronger build standard. We like the touring version with the additional cover over the back as we can have the back open with only the flyscreen zipped, and still maintain privacy, and also climb up and stay somewhat dry in adverse weather. I like being up off the ground, especially in the bush and it’s nice to be able to pack it up your tent and not worry about dirt being stuck to it. Not to mention waking up with a view out over the site is so lovely. The only downside of a RTT is when you are staying in a place for more than one night, but want to move during the day. Fortunately for us, we only had this issue once during our stay, as we like to move about a lot and explore new sites.

The winch saved us here.

The winch saved us here.

Setting up the Rooftop Tent.

Setting up the Rooftop Tent.

Winch, Snorkel, Snorkel Sock and Aerial were all brilliant.

Winch, Snorkel, Snorkel Sock and Aerial were all brilliant.


UHF RADIO + QUALITY ANTENNA - Probably the second-most important thing on the Cape is good, clear communication. At times the dust forces you to travel up to half a kilometre or more apart, and this can be a bit testing on some of the cheaper entry level models. We have a GME antenna with great range and when some of the others in our convoy couldn’t hear one another we had to play mediator to both, relaying info between them. There’s nothing worse than being the last car with a huge cloud of thick dust in front of you, when a huge road train pops out of it right in the middle of the road without warning. Leaving a safe distance is imperative, but good comms from the beginning to end of your convoy helps so much.

DUAL BATTERY SYSTEM - We had others in our group without and they fared okay with a solar blanket to help top-up charge if needed, but it’s nice to just hop in and not even have to worry about whether your car may be flat. A no-brainer.

FRIDGE - This is probably the one thing that I think I could never, ever go back to living without. If there’s one item you can take away from this post that you won’t regret, whether for the Cape or not, it’s a fridge. We purchased the 50L Waeco with the insulated bag and it’s never skipped a beat, plus it fits all our food for a week or more. There is something magical about not having soggy food that’s lived in an esky for a little too long.

Our friends are also stoked with their Engel / rear drawer slide setup.

Our friends are also stoked with their Engel / rear drawer slide setup.

HEMA map (not guide), along with an old guidebook & our itinerary.

HEMA map (not guide), along with an old guidebook & our itinerary.

The dust coming out of the airfilter, even with a sock on.

The dust coming out of the airfilter, even with a sock on.

FRIDGE CAGE - With a full car and a fridge that’s mounted to a drawer slide, often stuff can fall into the space left behind when the fridge is pulled out - breaking the drawer, or even the item itself. The cage prevents this, but also provides a great spot for mounting things to. I picked ours up for a steal on gumtree, and it’s this Dunn & Watson one. Sturdy as - super impressed with it.

WINCH - This is one we ummed and ahhed about. Look - we could have got by without it IF we hadn’t got stuck something chronic in the most unassuming little boghole on the Frenchmans track. We attempted a snatch recovery for a solid few minutes, over and over and over again, and we didn’t budge - eventually we gave up, got out the winch and we were out in 30 seconds. And I think that’s the thing about winches. They’re a big ‘IF’ purchase. IF we hadn’t got stuck that time, we wouldn’t have used it once. IF we had and we didn’t have it, what would we have done? IF we’d got stuck on our journey up when it was just the pair of us, how would we get out? IF we’d struggled on the OTT (thankfully we didn’t) how would we have coped? Neither of the other cars had one, and we felt a lot better knowing one of us did. I read elsewhere that it was cheap insurance, and they weren’t wrong. We ended up with this one, and it didn’t let us down when we needed it.

INVERTER - I picked up our 1000W inverter on catch.com one day, but really any pure sine wave inverter would have been great. The relevance of this bit of kit depends on how you operate, but as a keen photographer running 6 hungry batteries across two DSLRs and a macbook, we really needed something that could keep them going. Matty wired it up on top of our fridge cage to keep it safe, and then ran a powerboard to the front of the cage so I could charge multiple batteries on the go.

SNORKEL SOCK/PRE-FILTER & SPARE OIL - We (weirdly) didn’t see a lot of people using these, but they were honestly amazing. Every evening when we pulled up the guys would rinse them out, wring them dry and re-oil them. The amount of dust they caught each and every day was staggering, and even on the 2-3 occasions the boys opened the air box to clean the air filter, we still found heaps of dust. I would hate to think what they would have looked like without them.

Wheel ramps in action.

Wheel ramps in action.

Evening camp kitchen setup.

Evening camp kitchen setup.

Spare tyre bin bags can be useful for more than just rubbish…

Spare tyre bin bags can be useful for more than just rubbish…

TABLE - We bought a smaller 1m blow-mould trestle table (instead of our 6ft standard) and it was perfect. Big enough to cook and prep, not too cumbersome for the car. It’ll probably end up our new standard now.

WHEEL RAMPS - We bought these after two average trips trying to level our rooftop tent. Don’t go without them if you also have a RTT.

BUSHMANS - Best mosquito, midge, sandfly repellent out there. Worth its weight in gold.

HEMA CAPE YORK GUIDEBOOK - I actually didn’t buy this, but I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat! I purchased the map, which I used incessantly, but someone else with us had bought the guide and it really is worth having. Historical information, fun facts, additional info - it’s all there, and it’s so much better understanding the stories of the places you are visiting.

HEADTORCHES - Just cause it’s so much easier to do stuff in the dark when your hands are free.

RTT BAG - We had a huge vinyl bag that we had two pillows and our doona in (because COMFORT = HAPPINESS). We also put in a tent light, a headtorch, painkillers, tissues and some gum. It meant we could just throw it up in the tent on setup and then unpack when we got up there later, and we didn’t have to come down and search for painkillers, etc during the night. It also kept our stuff in a waterproof bag! If you’re fortunate enough to be able to fit these things in your RTT when it’s packed down then I am eternally jealous.

TOILETRY BAG - We had two cheap cooler grocery bags from Coles, you know the type with the zip? Each had a towel, a toilet roll in a ziplock, our PJs and our toiletries. That way when we pulled up at camp and wanted a shower, all we had to do was grab the bag and know we had everything we needed, and that the contents wouldn’t get soggy if we had to sit it on a bathroom floor.

DIY DOOR BIN - This little guy may seem simple, but it’s so good we’ve kept it in the car full time since the Cape. I’ve seen it a lot on Pinterest and the like, but had never really given it much merit. A cereal container, a plastic bag and any small bits of rubbish you generate in the car are instantly taken care of. Museli bars? No worries. Baby wipes? Come at me. Up n Go? Yep, it fits. I shove a half dozen balled-up spare bags in the bottom and it’s good to go! Obviously not all cars have the space in the door pocket to do this, but honestly even if it was in the footwell I’d still be a fan.

BABY WIPES - Buy a big pack of these bad boys. After just a few hours on the roads up north your car will be coated in a thin but vibrant layer of red dust. Any time you touch your car, accidentally or intentionally, you end up covered in it. When water is a commodity you need to store and preserve, it’s much easier to wipe off quickly. If you’re worried about waste, go for a biodegradable option.

What we would do differently

This is a bit of a tricky one, and one we’re still trying to figure out ourselves.

WATER SETUP - We had our two tanks on the floor shelf in our rear seat, and whilst this was a good spot for them, it would be much better if we had strapped them down individually (they slid a bit due to being side by side), or even better if you can rig something up on a rear bar setup.

GAS - The propane tanks are great to store on trips like this, but I hate how hot the gas burns vs LPG. We’ll be reverting back for our next trip.

CHARCOAL - Would definitely bring some next time to make cooking on the fire a quicker process. Generating coals for the oven after 8hrs + on the road is just not something we loved doing.

REAR BIN BAG - These are brilliant things, honestly. Cans, bottles, plastics, boxes - it all went in here. But, I would never buy a cheap one again. As soon as it got slightly heavy it sagged and was pretty much ruined after a week. We’ll be buying a good quality one with sturdier straps for our next trip.

SCRAP BIN - Again, another thing I would take again, but I would pack a much smaller one. Having the scraps in an air-tight bin we could hose out at a safe spot (rather than throwing them in the bush to attract crocs and god-knows-what-else) was great. I think at the time we had been restricted by what was in stock and ended up with something to the tune of 10L, but a 2L bin would have been plenty.

What tools & spare parts we took

Knowing we had the most spare room out of everyone in our convoy (both the roofrack and entire wagon) we offered to bring the most tools to cover us for a variety of potential mechanical situations.

  • Socket set in varying sizes

  • Spanners

  • Screwdrivers

  • Lump hammer and claw hammer

  • Pry bar

  • File

  • 1/2” impact and battery drill and bits

  • Gas torch and solder

  • Assorted screws / fasteners

  • Zip ties

  • Batteries in a range of sizes for different components in the car

  • Duct and electrical tapes

  • Spare air filter (That we changed at Hann River after our last day on the red dirt roads)

  • Spare fuel filter

  • Various fuses

  • Spare wheel nuts and lugs to suit front and rear of car

In hindsight this may have been an excessive amount, but we felt better about having them and not needing them, than not having a tool and needing it. Other stuff I would bring next time? A small roll of steel tie wire for bush mechanic fixes, a roll of cloth tape.

How we packed our car

We are incredibly fortunate that our car came with a bed extension for the drawers, allowing us to fold down the rear seats and have a flat platform above. This is INSANELY helpful for packing. We opted to take it one step further and remove the seats for the Cape, and Matt made a marine ply shelf that I painted grey and then he bolted it to the seat mounts beneath, giving us a second flat surface to store items. One of the best DIYs we’ve done. Anything low touch sat in the middle of the car, or underneath the bed extension. Water was strapped in underneath so as to be readily accessible when we stopped.

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Matt and I each took two hats - straw and our beloved Akubras - and we didn’t want them chucked in the back of the car only to be crushed at the first corner. We purchased a small luggage/cargo net made for a motorcycle and strung it across the ceiling of the car so it was taut and held our hats. It worked a treat (our hats survived), but sagged a little at times and irritated Matt on the highways. Hat savers would be a good alternative, but we struggle with justifying $100 on two clips.

We separated our drawers into two distinct purposes - the LHS for food, the RHS for medicines (very back), cleaning and cooking utensils.

On the roof we stored all our tools and spares parts, spare gas canisters for our cooker and a length of hose - just in case. We also stored our Jerry can in a custom holder Matt made with steel offcuts. Basically anything that we didn’t have to access day in day out went up there, with the exception of our rooftop tent, of course.

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What we ate

Okay this is another topic that I’ve seen pop up a bit the last few days on Facebook, and a last minute addition to this post.

We tend to cook the same things on the road that we eat at home. Many people cook ahead and defrost/reheat, but we prefer to just keep the meal prep required simple and eat fresh food.

When we do our camp shop we try where possible to buy hardy, dry goods that don’t require refrigeration. If they do, we opt for smaller items that can be stored at room temperature first and cooled for consumption as needed, like tetra brick 1L juices and long life milks, Up n’ go poppers, and cans of drink as opposed to bottles.

Our friends didn’t do a huge shop in Cairns, knowing they were happy to purchase more meals at roadhouses along the way. We were working to a tighter budget as we had an extra 2 weeks of travel, so we decided to make more and buy less. We all also stocked up again on a few things in Coen, but after that the next place you can buy proper groceries is Bamaga.

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The below is by no means an exhaustive list, but meals we ate included things like:

  • Nachos - Mince, seasoning, corn chips, sour cream, avo in a tube (remember - longevity), black beans, cheese, jalapeños

  • Lamb Gyros - Lamb steak, tomato, salad onion, spinach, fetta, wraps, bottled tzatziki

  • Chicken Tacos - Chicken, soft taco kit w. sauce, pre-cut coleslaw mix

  • Stroganoff - Beef, onion, mushrooms, tomato paste, garlic, pasta

  • Spag bog - Mince, sauce, onion, mushrooms, pasta, cheese

  • Pizza - Bases, tomato paste, asst canned and fresh toppings

  • Stir fry - Chicken, broccoli, cauliflower, hokkien noodles, sweet chilli sauce, sesame oil

  • Wraps - With whatever deli meat / salad / cheese / sauce combo we felt like

Snacks:

  • Museli Bars

  • Protein Balls

  • Popcorn (bagged)

  • Nuts - Cashews, Mixed

  • Dried Fruit

  • Biscuits 

  • Crackers

  • Hummus (big tub)

  • Apples 

  • Bananas

  • Mandarins/Oranges

  • Blueberries

  • Mini laughing cow cheeses

  • Yogurt packs

  • Gatorade - also masks the taste of shit water if/when you get it

  • And last but not least - a couple of blocks of Lindt dark chocolate for when we had a sweet craving

Most of all…

I hope you found this post helpful! Please if you have other questions, leave a comment and I’ll amend the post to include it.

There’s a million different ways to prepare for the Cape. Do your research, reflect on what you like about your setup already and refine the things you don’t love, stay within your budget and don’t reinvent the wheel for your trip without testing it first. But most of all, have fun - and don’t forget, no matter what happens, it’s all part of the adventure.

Happy Travels,

Em x

Brisbane-based lover of travel, off-roading, camping and photography.