Visiting Cape York and putting your feet on the northernmost point of the Australian continent is on many 4WD enthusiasts’ bucket lists. Driving there is a different story though as you have to go through many unsealed Cape York roads.
Peninsula Developmental Road is a 571 km road between Lakeland and Weipa and the only way to get to the Cape York northern parts. This road can be very dangerous to drive during the peak season between June and September as any people want to fulfil their dream of visiting the iconic Cape York.
Some drivers rush to complete the trip in the shortest possible time due to the limited time they have. However, to fully enjoy all the attractions on the peninsula it is best to take your time, drive safely and see many beautiful spots on the way.
This guide applies not only to the PDR but also to all main roads leading to the tip further north in the peninsula including Telegraph Road and Bamaga Road with the section after the Jardine River Crossing.
#1 Check PDR road condition before you drive
Peninsula Developmental Road is being constantly maintained and upgraded over the years. The main goal of the project work is to fully seal the road up to Weipa. As of 2022, there is still 200 km of unsealed PDR.
Many people ask when the road will be fully sealed. Visit the TMR website for all information. There is a map showing all unsealed sections of the PDR.
At present, the road is divided into sealed and unsealed sections. The final part of the road before Weipa is under Rio Tinto lease management and is mostly unsealed and highly corrugated with many bends.
The road conditions vary and depend on the traffic. The worse months are between June and August when everybody wants to get to Cape York or Weipa.
Corrugations are common and occur almost everywhere. Take special care on bends and don’t overtake vehicles.
#2 Be aware of wildlife, especially at sunrise or sunset
Avoid driving early in the morning, evening or night as it is common the wildlife goes on the road to cross it in the most unexpected moment. You can expect kangaroos, wallabies and emus.
Also, be aware of eagles and kites feeding on the ground. Especially eagles are slow when lifting their body, so make sure to slow down to give them time to fly away.
#3 Don’t drive PDR in the wet season
Due to many unsealed roads and lack of bridges the Peninsula Developmental Road is unpassable during the wet season.
The river and creek crossings flood the area and even the biggest 4WD or road trains will not make it. Plan your trip in the dry season between May and October when temperatures are milder and there is not much rain.
#4 Read the signs and drive to road conditions
Don’t get too confident and read the signage, especially the ‘Dip’, ‘Roadworks’, ‘Stop’, ‘Rough Surface’ signs.
Often there is a nice stretch of road that ends suddenly in a big dip. If you drive too far, you can easily damage your vehicle.
Also, there are many roadworks and you may be stopped frequently.
#5 Scan the road while looking for hazards
Never get overconfident on PDR. Often the road looks good, but occasional washouts or sand holes may occur causing the vehicle to lose control.
Scan the road in front of you, and look for any obstacles. Avoid rocks or sticks that can damage your tyres. If you are not sure, slow down. Sometimes, it is just a weird shadow, but better to be safe than sorry.
#6 Use 4WD High Range on unsealed sections of PDR
Engage your 4WD High range on all unsealed sections. You will get better traction and stability. Also, with 4 wheels engaged you get better braking and the chance to slide your vehicle is smaller.
#7 Drop tyre pressure
Dropping tyre pressure can be beneficial in many ways. PDR is highly corrugated in many sections so airing down the tyres will give you better comfort, but not only. You will also get better traction (especially on bends), and less wear and punctures.
We recommend 28-30 PSI on PDR. Note that when you go back on the bitumen section don’t drive over 80 km/hour to avoid tyre damage as less inflated tyres will heat up quicker.
#8 It is flooded, forget it
As 4WD drivers, we cross many rivers or creeks. During a typical crossing, the water level is less than 80 cm and if you have a snorkel that is not a problem.
Flooding is different. Usually, it is an uncontrollable force of the water that is flowing very fast over the road. It is difficult to predict if your vehicle can handle it.
Don’t try to be complacent. when it comes to floodwater. If the road is flooded with fast-flowing water, or you can’t see how far or deep is the flooding don’t try to cross it. You may end up losing your vehicle or even your life.
#9 Negotiate corners, bends and dips
Dirt roads have loose surfaces. It is usually, sand, bulldust, small rocks, gravel or clay. For a driver, it means less control especially when you approach corners, bends or dips.
If you drive too fast on bends when the road is highly corrugated, your vehicle will be pushed out to the middle of the road or outside. If a car is approaching from the opposite direction, the crash may be inevitable.
Always slow down on bends to avoid losing control over your vehicle.
Peninsula Developmental Road is usually wide, and the most corrugated parts are in the middle. Look for side tracks on softer sand that are not corrugated.
As a rule of thumb:
- enter bends and dips slowly
- if you started to slide or spin, don’t push on breaks
- if you applied the brakes already, release it
- keep your steering wheel straight
#10 Let the grader do its work
Most of the road grading happens after the wet season, between April and June. As a driver you want a minimal disturbance for the grader drivers, so follow these simple rules.
- Don’t overtake a grader, unless the driver moved to the left and let you do it
- Don’t drive forward if a grader is coming towards you; stop on a side and wait
- Pullover to let the grader pass
- In general, they are at work and you are on holiday – let them do their job!
#11 Don’t stick to the vehicle in from of you
The road conditions on PDR are very dusty. If you drive right behind another vehicle it means you don’t see anything.
People drive on PDR will various speeds. When we see a slow vehicle, and we cannot overtake it, we usually stop for a moment and take a break. This way they can drive off and we can continue in good visibility afterwards.
#12 Don’t overtake on dirt sections of PDR
On our last trip to Cape York, we have seen so many cars overtaking us. We never drive slow – usually between 80 – 90 km/h (in good conditions), but still, it was too slow for some crazy drivers.
We were always wondering what they can see from behind our car if no cars are approaching from the other end.
Never overtake a vehicle on an unsealed road, unless you have full visibility.
#13 Use UHF radio for communication
UHF radios are very useful during off-road driving, especially on the Peninsula Developmental Road. Most of the Cape York area does not have mobile reception and the only way to communicate while driving can be done with a UHF radio.
The UHF radio is an inexpensive device and can be purchased for a small price starting from $50. The radio reaches for up to a few kilometres (depending on the radio model and antenna) and can be used for any type of communication. Usually, 4WD drivers use it as an information channel for road conditions or in case they want to overtake a vehicle.
Stay on channel 40 during your PDR drive and communicate with other drivers if necessary.
#14 Fatigue kills – plan your rest stops
Another important thing to remember is to stop frequently. Driving in dusty conditions is not an easy task and there are plenty of dusty corrugations to overcome.
On Peninsula Developmental Road it is easy to do as there are many roadhouses you can stop, fuel up and get some food.
#15 Don’t rush
When you decide to drive to Weipa or all the way to the Cape York tip, don’t rush – plan your way as there are so many places to visit on the way.
We recommend the following places to stop during your PDR adventure:
- Visit Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival in July
- Stay for a night in Hanh, Musgrave or Archer River Roadhouse and book a diner
- Stay for free at the Archer River Campground – a beautiful spot (arrive before 3 pm)
- Stay for free at the Bend near Coen
Have you driven PDR already? What was your experience like? Do you agree with the above rules? Write a comment below.
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4WD Equipment Checklist
Tire Repair Kit – to fix the tire by yourself when you don’t have access to the tire shop (we use Oztrail)
UHF Radio – for communication with your mates and in emergency
Full Recovery Kit (with Dampener Blanket) – must-have if you are going on real off-road
High Lift Jack – useful if you do serious 4WD tracks
Shovel – useful if you get bogged, also good for campfire cooking
Fuel funnel with water filter – additional protection when fueling up in dodgy places