FNQ, or Far North Queensland is as much a state of mind - maverick, frontier and unscripted - as a mere region of Australia, and Cape York is as FNQ as it gets. "For most people, Cape York lies right off the map," explained Andrew Doolan, our Australian guide. "There are even Australians who believe that the country ends at Cape Tribulation." One hundred miles north of Cairns, Cape "Trib" is where 90 per cent of the tourism - and 99 per cent of the Tarmac - finally gives out. Soon, the flashes of tropical sunlight on the corrugated iron roofs of Cairns, Port Douglas and Daintree far below gave way to an brown hinterland varicosed with murky, meandering rivers that nudged through mangroves into the beach-lined Coral Sea.
For years, manicured fairways and gleaming malls have been creeping north up FNQ's coast. Under the onslaught, essential ingredients of Australian frontier life, such as pub brawls and unspeakable meat pies, are disappearing from places like Port Douglas, where Clinton golfed and snorkelled last year. Construction signs in the town now advertise an "exciting tropical shopping village and four-star resort hotel". Five hundred miles north at Bamaga, however, the notices outside the community shop spoke of quite different concerns: "Please take care slaughtering dugong along the waterside," it read. "This can attract crocodiles, endangering locals and tourists alike." Suitability tests don't come much better than this; if this is your kind of sign, then the Cape is for you.
Make no mistake; Cape York is tailor-made to satisfy the most expeditionary appetite. To bad roads, big crocs and the Papua New Guinean screw-worm fly add an impressive cast of snakes and spiders, big rains, hairy river crossings, climatic extremes and a happening mosquito scene. Choose heavy- duty sun creams, mosquito repellents and sun hat accordingly.
Plenty of visitors, mainly Australians, self-4WD the Cape but I had opted to join a local tour operator's six-day "safari" along with seven other Europeans and Australians of all ages, but of reasonable fitness. Cape York is no place to be nursing, say, a bad back; the dirt road's corrugations, potholes and yawning creekbeds are guaranteed to seek out every orthopaedic weakness. Typically, operators run weekly safaris on the Cape in alternate directions - in our case, south - to fit with the whereabouts of the vehicles.
Starting from the "Tip", Australia's northernmost point, Papua New Guinea lay just 100 miles away, while Brisbane, Queensland's state capital, was 15 times that distance to the south. Sharks and turtles surfed the island- strewn, battling tide-rip that separated the Arafura and Coral Seas. Andrew Doolan had brought along a chilled bottle of Australian sparkling wine. "Make you think of John O' Groats?" he asked me.
Nearby lay what remained of Somerset. It was established in the 1860s as Australia's answer to Singapore but never progressed beyond the homestead stage, and was abandoned to the voracious bush not long afterwards. All that remains of this fledgeling settlement are the graves of Frank Jardine and his Samoan Princess wife, along with their iron bath. Even now, just 15,000 souls, mainly scattered communities of Torres Strait islanders, aboriginals and miners, plus disparate stockmen and drifters, inhabit the Cape. Tropical shopping villages seem an unlikely prospect.
Although there is some tourist accommodation - most notably the surprisingly up-market Pajinka Wilderness Lodge at the Tip - camping is the true way to experience the Cape. Operators cater for every pocket. Budget packages expect client participation; in other words, you work. Blissfully, our outfit offered a camping experience from which all arduousness had been surgically removed, leaving us to savour the wilderness experience while Andrew drove and informed, leaving Rachel and Grant to set up a safari- style camp complete with tables and canvas chairs, prepare the tents, cook, wash up and keep the stubbies cold.
Our vehicle was a minibus with muscle, a mongrel cross between a truck and a jeep that was built for reliability, endurance and fearlessness, and to hell with looks. In the morning, Andrew drove us south from our campsite at Scisha, a tiny islander community, to the Jardine River where the none-too-busy Jacob, an Aborigine, operated the cable ferry service. "Haven't seen a vehicle for two days," he told us, then waved at us until we disappeared into the distance with a persistence that suggested, unsurprisingly, an acute hunger for company.
The afternoon was heat-laden. Insects were laying down dull, exhausted rhythms as we stopped to camp in the forest at Twin Falls. As Grant prepared barramundi fish for dinner, Andrew led us past crocodile warning signs to the riverbank. "No crocodiles here," insisted Andrew, but his audience was uncertain. We pushed him in just in case (he was the guide, after all) and watched our croc-bait attentively for five minutes before joining him. The relief from the heat soon banished any lingering fears.
We were following the old telegraph track which bucked and weaved through strange landscapes; expanses of gumtrees, straight and white as barcodes, great termite mounds like terracotta steeples, alarmingly precipitous creeks with names like The Gunshot, swamps that the map marked as "largely unexplored", and the lonely graves of telegraph operators who had died where they had fallen, their remains undiscovered for months. Sulphur- crested cockatoos darted among the trees, turquoise butterflies the size of saucers pulsed past.
At Moreton, a former telegraph station alongside an airstrip, a local stockman in a battered trilby was showing off a suppurating ankle wound. "Papua New Guinean screw-worm fly?" one of us asked sagely. "Oh, some critter in my swag," he replied. Moreton lies on the banks of the Wenlock River and provides accommodation, supplies and refreshment. For the last six days, the manager had been doing record business as unseasonably heavy rains had overrun the river ford. Forty-one vehicles, mostly holiday-makers heading for Cairns, had accumulated in his backyard to wait. "The river fell this morning and we finally got them across," he said. 'Thank God. Tempers were getting frayed. Supplies were almost out. There were mothers with babies. I was very happy to see them go.' This was nothing, however, compared to the summer rains that fall every year between December and May and close the road to everything but boats. 'We were here in a boat 14.3.96,' read a sign on a tree by the riverbank, 40 feet up. The Cape is extreme; in high summer, visitors are more likely to have bush fires to cope with.
The next morning, Andrew gunned us safely across the river, doors taped up to keep the water out. Brumbies, wild horses abandoned on cattle stations, turned and fled at our passing, throwing up little clouds of dust. Coen, a two-street townlet held together by a shop and a pub, came and was gone. We stopped to sample cheesefruit, which tasted like very bad Camembert, and green ants which tasted like fizzy lemons and were an Aboriginal delicacy, or so Andrew assured us. Was this the croc-bait getting his revenge?
The road ran into the distance, a red strip swimming in the heat. The yellow signs marked "DIP" to give warning of creeks ahead had attracted graffiti, every one of them. DIPstick, DIPlomatic, serenDIPity, they read. Beware DIPlodocus, bbqDIP, DIPtheria quarantine zone, DIP in the heart of Texas and, finally, I'm sick of DIPS. We sympathised. The dazed, twelfth- round expressions of the truckers who passed us said it all; this was a mind-scrambling road which did not bear repeating.
Outside Laura, we stopped at Split Rock, one of hundreds of Aboriginal rock art sites among the area's sandstone escarpments. Dingoes, crocodiles, birds, fish, human figures and malevolent spirits known as quinkans jostle for space on these little-visited, inspirational canvases - yellow, black and red ochres on stone, some 13,000 years old.
A brief stretch of Tarmac announced Cooktown, a grid of houses either side of Charlotte Street at the mouth of the impressive Endeavour River. Captain Cook put in for repairs here in 1770 but it was not until 100 years later, when gold was found on the Palmer River, that the township was established. Cooktown's pioneer history is superbly chronicled at the James Cook Museum on Helen Street, and the town still feels like a chancer's kind of place; old margarine lids hammered to the tree outside the post office bear scrawled advertisements for metal detectors, gemstones and bull mastiffs. A constant growl, which may have been human, was issuing from the pubs along Charlotte Street as I passed. A memorial caught my eye. It was erected in 1886 to one Mrs Watson, shipwrecked on a nearby island and found alongside her final diary entry 'Near Dead with Thirst.' The memorial took the form of a fountain.