I reached the end of the road on my first trip toAustralia. North from Sydney, along the Pacific, Bruce and Captain Cook Highways, to the last of the bitumen at Cape Tribulation.

There’s a photo of me there, grinning smugly and leaning against my car, its front wheels nudging the dirt. Behind me, the rocky bed of the Bloomfield Track meanders beguilingly north into the rainforest. As I smiled for the camera I could feel it calling me, beckoning me into the unknown. “One day,” I vowed silently, “I’m going there”.

It’s taken eight years and the better part of $3,000, but travelling in the Cape York Peninsula has never been easy. The long finger of Queensland pointing across the Torres Strait to Asia, this tropical wilderness is widely touted as Australia’s last frontier. With an area of 115,000 sq km and a diverse patchwork of landscapes and ecosystems, it’s a region that embodies the Australian mix of sweeping plains, ragged mountains, drought and flooding rains.

Each year the wet season inundates the complex river systems and renders the road north impassable; with each dry, the corrugations crack and set like iron.

Fewer than 20,000 people live here, yet about that number make the pilgrimage to the northernmost tip of Australasia at Cape York each year. The lure of the dirt road is strong as it snakes its way among waterlily covered billabongs, fragrant heathland and dense rainforest, past giant termite mounds, ancient eucalypts and lonely roadhouses. It’s a journey for journeying’s sake, and the pleasure is in experiencing the road rather than the destination.

And what a road it is. The classic route to the tip is via the Overland Telegraph Track – a dirt road hacked through virgin bushland to service the telegraph line that delivered Morse code messages to colonial outposts in New Guinea.

Although the line was dismantled in 1987, and only one of the repeater stations along its way remains standing, the OTT continues to offer the adventure that Cape York travellers crave. It’s not maintained by any official authority, but each year as the wet dries out, the track is beaten through by 4WD enthusiasts/nutters (check out the photos of mud-splattered men, Land Rovers up to their windshields in fast-flowing creeks, and winches that are distinctly the worse for wear at the Archer River Roadhouse for an idea of how it’s done).

Fortunately for the fainter hearted, the Peninsula Developmental Road takes you all the way to the mining town of Weipa in relative comfort, and the Bamaga Road bypasses the crazier creek crossings along the OTT. It’s perfectly possible to get all the way to the tip without pointing your vehicle nose-first into a 2m vertical drop, but where’s the fun in that?

Tip top

Regardless of your route, there are swimming holes, beaches and unforgettable detours along the way that shouldn’t be missed. Take a dip in the freshwater pools at Fruit Bat, Eliot and Twin Falls; saunter along the shore at Seisia or drop a fishing line off its wharf; get a feel for the region’s ancient history among the Aboriginal rock art sites near Laura – then learn about more recent events at the mangrove-fringed beach at Somerset, once home to the pioneer Jardine family. If you can, take a trip to the Torres Strait Islands, where stories of the pearling past and World War 2 bombings provide an intriguing contrast to laidback island life; if you can’t, sit back with a beer at Loyalty Beach and watch the sun set over them instead. 

But the real highlight of a trip into this vast wilderness is experiencing Australia’s wildlife at first hand. Lakefield National Park is awash with lagoons, creeks and billabongs haunted by fresh and saltwater crocodiles, while white-bellied sea eagles, kites and wedge tails patrol the skies above, joined by magpie geese, jabirus and brolgas.

There’s kangaroos, wallabies and wallaroos for cute factor, plus frogs, spiders and alarmingly-sized bugs to keep your camping experience real. But it’s the parrots that get my vote for most entertaining wildlife, from the raucous pink-and-grey galahs to magnificent red-tailed black cockatoos and the elusive, extravagantly-mohawked palm cockatoo.

The fauna isn’t there to be played with, though. A close encounter with an estuarine crocodile is likely to be a once-in-your-lifetime experience, and among the numerous species of snake that call Cape York home is the taipan – the world’s deadliest. If the only thing that bites are a couple of mozzies, March flies and sugar ants, you’ve got off lightly – though believe me, it doesn’t feel that way at the time. 

And what of the end of the road itself? It doesn’t disappoint. Frangipani Beach is the kind of tropical paradise that for most of us exists only in the imagination.

The spine of the rugged outcrop of Cape York looms dark behind the champagne-coloured sand, while the channels in the ocean floor paint the sea in bands of blue: indigo, aqua, pewter, turquoise, cobalt, teal. Tantalisingly close to the shore, the islands loom like stepping stones to Papua New Guinea, 150km distant.

After I’d posed for the obligatory cheesy shot beside the Cape York signpost, I gazed across the hazy horizon towards Port Moresby. “One day,” I thought quietly, “I’m going there”. 

The damage & the details: The 13-day Cape York camping safari with Wilderness Challenge (Freephone: 1800 354 486, www.wilderness-challenge.com.au) costs $2,895.

Wanna do it?

If you’re thinking about tackling the road alone, your first step should be to think again. Although there are long stretches of bitumen and the Peninsula Developmental Road is well-maintained, this is strict 4WD country: you can’t just rock up in your beaten-up camper and step on the gas. In any case, most hire agreements forbid travelling on unsealed roads.

Now think some more. You’ll be crossing large tracts of Aboriginal land, for which you’ll need a permit. Some of these areas are dry – if you’re carrying alcohol, you’re not allowed to stop. You mustn’t bush camp in some parts of Cape York, and in others you’ll need a permit even at campsites. Refuelling stops – for you and your vehicle – are few and far between, so you’ll have to be largely self-sufficient. There’s patchy Telstra coverage along the way but don’t rely on mobile phone reception, and don’t even bother about internet access.

Still keen? Good on ya, that’s the spirit. There are several operators that run camping safari tours out of Cairns. Travelling with a group means all the above is taken care of, though be prepared to pay for the privilege, and to share your trip with an eclectic bunch of retired Australians. If you’re determined to go it alone, do your research thoroughly and travel sensibly.