DENYSE AND I have been visiting Cooktown, Far North Qld, since we first met in Cairns back in 1973. The town is still much the same, although the 320km trip from Cairns is a lot easier now the road has been sealed.
To be honest, I still don’t understand how we made that drive so many times back in the early ’70s, cruising in my Holden station wagon, just for a weekend away, leaving after work on Friday arvo and driving through the dark. Not even a puncture. Oh, to be young and carefree again.
Cooktown is home to a wealth of Australian history. The town was named in 1770 when Captain Cook spent almost two months here after beaching his ship, the Endeavour, in what is today called the Endeavour River, for repairs following damage to the hull suffered on the Great Barrier Reef. Crew members are said to have spotted their first-ever kangaroo on Grassy Hill.
In 1873, the town was designated to service the gold mining industry centred around the Palmer River, and later at Mayfield. This was Qld’s largest gold rush and Australia’s richest alluvial field. At one stage, there were more than 17,000 miners on the field. You can read the full history in Cooktown’s James Cook Museum.
The town centre is still much the same as it was when we first visited in ’73, although an old friend of ours, Linda Rowe, has since built a couple of new shops in the middle of town, including her Croc Shop. Linda is quite a character and loves talking to visitors. She is also a fount of knowledge on the whole area, having spent several years living in Cape York. She has even written a book on the area, Paradise Found, which is available in her shop.
You can also check out the many heritage-listed buildings, including the Bank of NSW, Seagren’s Inn, and Ferrari Estates. There is also the post office, RSL, bowls club and the original town well, plus several monuments on the waterfront.
Visitors should also note the original stone pitched gutters and wide streets, which were originally designed to allow horses and carts to turn around. Just a little further on from the wharf you’ll find the powder magazine, built in 1874 to house explosives for the gold miners in the Palmer area.
The Cooktown hospital, built in 1879, has been renovated and is now in wonderful condition, as is the James Cook Museum. Administered by the National Trust, this would have to be one of the best rural museums in the country. It was constructed in 1889 as a convent for the Sisters of Mercy.
The town is well catered for, with an IGA supermarket and several fuel outlets, plus a particularly wonderful bakery. Reef trips and river cruises are available, and don’t miss the award-winning Guurrbi Tour with Willie Gordon.
One natural attraction that should not be missed is Grassy Hill, which Captain Cook climbed to get a view of the reefs and navigate a passage out. Cooktown is the closest town to the Great Barrier Reef. There is a 360° view of the surrounding area and you can see several close inshore reefs.
The historic lighthouse and view should also be at the top of the to-do list. The shire council has improved the road and developed a picnic spot near the top, so drive up in the evening for a few sundowners.
AROUND THE AREA
Your best bet when travelling to Cooktown is to give yourself about a week to see the town and have a look at some of the beautiful surrounding areas. A short drive (28km) back down to the Annan River gorge is a great day trip. There is a waterfall on one side, with some great swimming holes on the other side of the gorge.
Around 1km down the road on the journey back, take the graded dirt road to the famous Lions Den Hotel (see CW August ’11). Built in 1875, this weird and wonderful old pub is well worth the short trip, and they serve good coffee in addition to a range of drinks and meals. See if you can locate Denyse’s and my names written on the wall.
Returning towards Cooktown, you will soon come to the Archer Point turn-off. This 12km dirt road can be good if graded or rough if it has rained. In the ’60s, the nearby Lakeland Downs property was farmed for sorghum and the owner built a jetty at Archer Point to ship it out. The remains of the jetty can still be seen, and it’s a great fishing spot. The last time we dropped a line there Denyse caught two fish before I could even bait my line. There are also good beaches and a lighthouse you can drive to, as well as a fabulous spots for a picnic or lunch.
Located just 5km on a sealed road via the golf course, Quarantine Bay is a delightfully unusual spot to visit because it contains a mixture of dry and wet tropics flora. The road continues as a dirt track down to the Annan River mouth.
Keating’s Lagoon is a conservation park for birds and wildlife, and after a short walk from the car park you can view it all from the bird hide. On this visit we spotted a large python resting in the roof rafters after he had just had a good feed.
Finch Bay is the local beach, and a short walk from the northern end takes you to secluded Cherry Tree Bay. But be careful if you walk south at Finch Bay; we saw a large croc slide into the creek.
There are some remarkable botanical gardens backing on to Finch Bay, with a 600m walking track. These gardens were constructed in 1884, but fell into disrepair around 1917. In our early days visiting Cooktown they were not known to most people, and were re-discovered in 1980. They have since been beautifully restored and we sat and thought about about how ladies of yesteryear would dangle their feet in the pools of running water while their men played cricket beside them.
On this trip we drove out to the quiet and isolated Elim Beach, passing through the Aboriginal community of Hopevale. A 300m walk (or drive) along the sand will bring you to some beautifully-coloured cliffs, reminiscent of Rainbow Beach in southern Qld, but without the traffic. There is a short walk into a cleft, which features some especially brilliant colours. There are also freshwater springs along the beach.
The road to the right before you reach Elim Beach takes you to Eddie’s camp. Eddie is a local Aboriginal elder who lets tourists camp on his beach. This is strictly 4WD-only country, although we did see a Coromal van and Hilux in there.
The drive passes Endeavour Falls, and then a short detour on Battle Camp Road takes you to Isabella Falls, both of which are well worth visiting. This day trip was a real highlight for us.
Cooktown Holiday Park is the only one in town belonging to a national chain (Big4). It’s rated at 4.5 stars and has powered, unpowered and camping sites, and is our choice for a number of reasons. It also has a range of cabins.
Most sites have shade and the park has a very tropical feel. Birdlife abounds and you should see orioles, scrub turkeys and Torres Strait pigeons, among others.
The landscaped resort-style pool is wonderful to relax in after a long day of exploring and the camp kitchen is comparable to the best we have seen and features a large TV. More amenities and another camp kitchen were being constructed while we were there.
The park is only 1km from town, and you have to pass the bakery to get there, so make sure you stop in for the best pies I have had for a long time.
Cooktown is located 330km along the Mulligan Highway north of Cairns in Far North Qld. This road is now sealed and suitable for all vehicles and caravans.
Cooktown Holiday Park is a member of the Big4 group and is rated at 4.5 stars. They can be contacted on 1800 255 162,
(07) 4069 5417, or by visiting www.cooktownholidaypark.com.au
For tourist information, call Nature’s Powerhouse on (07) 4069 6004, 1800 174 895, or visit the website www.naturespowerhouse.com.au
WORDS AND PICS Tony and Denyse Allsop
Source: Caravan World May 2012