OFF-ROAD adventuring has been the backbone of the Cape York tourism industry for decades, yet has somehow survived with the bare minimum amount of support.
It has been people power that has kept the 4WD market ticking over – often individuals who have cleared tracks or built makeshift bridges through remote parts of the Peninsula.
However, there is a real fear among locals that we could lose the adventure tourism market.
When the road from Lakeland to Weipa is fully sealed – and it should be by 2030 – tourists might as well be on the Bruce Highway.
This is why Cape York needs serious investment in our off-road tracks.
Sealing the PDR is not up for debate – it’s a must and will actually increase the number of tourists visiting the Cape – but we need to keep them here to avoid them racing up to the Tip for a quick photo before returning south.
The tourism market is a competitive beast and Cape York will be left behind if we don’t act.
It has been pleasing to see Cook Shire Council and the Torres and Cape Indigenous Councils Alliance throw their support behind keeping the Bertiehaugh Road open, but you can bet it won’t be the last time we hear opposition from the Irwin family.
It’s time for Australia Zoo and local stakeholders – Cook Shire, the Mapoon, Napranum and NPA councils, Weipa Town Authority and the Western Cape Chamber of Commerce – to come up with a long-term strategy for this important loop road.
It can be a game-changer for tourism in this region.
Since the track was pushed through last year by a group of locals, it’s likely that fewer than 100 people have traversed across Stones Crossing and made it 63km to the other end of the track.
But it won’t take long until the word spreads further and more people are taking the opportunity to experience a new challenge.
The concerns of the Irwins are legitimate – people have ventured off the track, spread weeds and most likely damaged the environment and habitat of some precious native species.
However, their refusal to sit down with stakeholders and work on fixing some of the problems is perhaps the bigger issue.
Remember, it was the Irwins who agreed to the road.
After being gifted the property by the federal government, they put a lock on the gate of the existing road.
As a trade-off, they agreed to a new gazetted road, with a line drawn on a map.
But most of the track only existed on paper. It wasn’t until last year that it became a reality.
Now it’s become a problem for Australia Zoo, which has pulled out all stops to try and get it closed and de-gazetted.
Thankfully, Cook Shire has said no. It’s only a matter of time until they lobby ministers and the southern media to drum up support.
When Cape York Weekly’s article appeared on Ron & Viv Moon’s Remote Australia page last week, it attracted more than 1700 likes and 600-plus comments, most of them in support of the loop road.
The Moon family are icons in Australian off-road tourism and understand the value of good 4WD tracks, especially new ones.
Cape York desperately needs alternatives to the Old Telegraph Track, Frenchman’s Track and the handful of other roads that attract thousands of motorists annually.
Weipa especially needs it.
It’s estimated that of all the tourists that venture to the Tip each year, only a quarter go to Weipa.
With the opening of the new Bertiehaugh Road – which is only accessible for half of the year – that number might increase.
Imagine leaving Lakeland for Weipa, crossing the Wenlock River through Stones Crossing and hitting the Bamaga Road just south of Bramwell Station.
You’re suddenly at the doorstep of the Old Tele Track and have only driven 160 clicks from Weipa.
Motorists must do the right thing on this track. They mustn’t venture off course and they can’t be camping there or starting fires.
It is, after all, private property.
But there is also a great opportunity for the Irwins to promote the work done on the reserve and why it’s important to respect the land.
They certainly lose credibility when they host private tour groups and lease part of the property for cattle grazing.
The Western Cape Chamber of Commerce has teamed up with Cook Shire Council to erect signs at the entrance of the track with important information for motorists.
Perhaps the Irwins could reach out and get a helping hand with support for government funding to help protect their valuable asset.
That, however, would require them to concede on their stance of the track being there.
Matt Nicholls is the editor of Cape York Weekly and secretary of the Western Cape Chamber of Commerce