Cooktown isn’t hard to come by when sitting behind the wheel; just start going north of Cairns and stop before everything turns wild, which is roughly 329km. This is one of the many stops you’ll make if doing the drive to Cape York (for which you’ll need a 4WD), but if Cooktown’s your goal than any beaten up wagon should do you proud. Country Road Coaches has a few bus services headed up there during the week, taking either a coastal or inland route so different travellers should be satisfied. I spent a night here with a camping tour during my ‘hugging Australia’ odyssey and a nice time was had. If peace and tranquillity is what you want, this is a place to look out for.
Now for the historical part; Cooktown has gone down in western history as the landing place of Captain James Cook, the guy who supposedly discovered this great southern land. In truth his ship the HMS Endeavour got snagged on a reef in 1770 but the moment was grand enough to get the town named after him. Once a gold mining community made up of Indigenous, European and Chinese peoples, it’s remained largely unchanged since its establishment. You will find very little a commercial element in Cooktown i.e. no McDonald’s. But before I really start talking about what it has become today, I want to share a few words about the road I took to get there.
Heading out of the Daintree (which I’m saving for a future post), you’ll come across a few locations worthy of some camera time. First up are the waterfalls in Wujal Wujal, itself meaning ‘many falls’ in the local Indigenous language, which had our immediate attention; the falls are a curtain of hard white water and the home of the odd crocodile. One story I’ve since heard is that the other falls may only be looked upon by the women of the native Indigenous tribe. This is a sacred site and should be treated in a respectful manner.
A few more things I learnt along the way was that alcohol has been banned in Wujal Wujal (there are heavy fines if you’re caught) and the tour I was on wasn’t a ‘glamping’ one; glamour camping is an idea I’ve refused to accept so I was most relieved for the remainder of the trip.
Along the way you should stop in at the Lion’s Den Hotel, described as Cape York’s most iconic pub. Built along the Little Annan River, the Lion’s Den has been standing since 1875 and surrounded by tropical landscapes. We were here for maybe a few hours where we found it really inviting; we mostly played pool (I was awarded a tin of spam meat by my tour group for pocketing the 8 ball in advance – anyone who shamed themselves had to keep the spam. The second time I got it was further north and involved a roll of toilet paper) and read the messages that past guests had written on the walls, but you need to have stayed here overnight to write something down. This pub provides a good atmosphere for everyone who stops by.
When arriving at Cooktown you’ll find a place that can be got around with little trouble and where the locals are most welcoming. If you’ve come for fishing then that’s what you’ll get. If you’ve come for Aboriginal culture then that’s also what you’ll get and so on. During our short stay we spent a night in one of the caravan parks but we got enough done to create a few memories. There are two of them that I’d like to share.
If you’ve arrived towards the day’s end, be sure to head up to the Grassy Hill lookout to take in the glorious sunset; there weren’t many people up there so you’ll have a good seat to see everything happen. It did get windy but the view was pretty rewarding, and if it hasn’t sunk in yet, this sheep is all about a good view. Grassy Hill is also the site where Europeans first saw kangaroos, or kangooroos, which was one of the variant spellings at the time.
At the end of it all, having written this I’ve realised just how refreshing Cooktown was to me. Back home I’ve got an interest in historical sites but some of them have fallen victim to commercialism (which I find a little disappointing), so I found this town in the north as a bit of a blessing.
It’s a place you might enjoy.
PS I've since learnt that Country Road Coaches have gone into receivership. However, if you can get yourself a car or good tour the roads are still there.
Links: www.tourismcapeyork.com, www.nationaltrust.org.au/qld/JamesCookMuseum, www.bloomfieldlodge.com.au, lionsdenhotel.com.au