UNESCO has listed the Quinkan paintings and engravings in Laura as one of the 10 best rock art sites in the world, so Denyse and I knew it was bound to be a worthwhile pursuit.
We have been to Cooktown many times, passing the Laura turn off at Lakeland, but the road to Laura has always had a bad reputation for corrugations and dust. Last year, the 62km from Lakeland to Laura was sealed, opening the way to any 2WD vehicle and caravan, and making the trip a far more appealing prospect for us.
THINGS TO DO
We started our journey at the Rifle Creek rest area at Mt Molloy, 43km north of Mareeba on the Mulligan Highway (Highway 81) and at the junction of the Rex Range from Mossman. From here, we headed up the Desailly Range to Bob’s Lookout. In spring, you will see the brilliant yellow blooms on the kapok trees of this area and lots of cream flowering hakeas and orange grevilleas.
After passing Bob’s Lookout, which offers sweeping views of the surrounds, you come to Palmer River Roadhouse, 113km from Rifle Creek. The roadhouse used to be a tin shed on the other side of the river and we can remember it being there on our early trips. Back in those days, the road was very corrugated with bull dust patches and several river crossings on the way to Cooktown. After the bridge was built in 1972, the roadhouse was shifted to its current position and was later expanded and clad in locally-mined slate.
This is an excellent place to take a pit stop, grab a coffee and wander through the old museum (free entry). At the rear of the roadhouse is an attractive beer garden and picnic area. Inside you will find some interesting details, such as slate walls and a water feature with a gold miner beside the pool table.
Finally, we reached our destination. Laura was a very important supply centre in the gold rush days, but is now a fairly sleepy place. There is one small shop selling basics and fuel, the one-pump roadhouse, a motel, the Quinkan hotel, and the modern Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre. Opposite the pub is some historic machinery, including a huge steam engine that arrived with a broken axle and was never used, and the original jail.
The Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre is impressive and worth a look around. Various rooms give a vision of what life was like in this area and cover such things as the aboriginal heritage and settlements, cattle stations, rock art, and all aspects of the Quinkan country and information on the region.
Select sites at the Quinkan rock art area can be viewed only on formal tours, which can be arranged at the Cultural Centre. A phone call to the manager a couple of weeks prior to our visit confirmed that this time of the year was not busy, so they would require only one day’s notice to fit us on a tour.
Those who don’t plan ahead or for whom time is limited, be sure to visit the public art site at Split Rock, 12km from Laura. The early morning sun lit up the massive rock walls and many of the paintings across the three art sites. The track up to the galleries is quite steep with many rock steps, but should be no trouble for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. The three galleries are close together and there is a good view across to the ranges on the other side of the road.
While we saw none of the famed Quinkan figures (Aboriginal mythological beings) at the Split Rock art site, we saw some human forms as well as a number of animals and they were all explained by informative signs. Some of the engravings here are over 13,000 years old. We were able to spend as much time as we liked up there and no one else arrived to break the aura of this special, ancient place.
The Rifle Creek rest area at Mt Molloy is just over 100km north-west from Cairns, via Mareeba.
From Rifle Creek rest area, it’s 113km to Palmer River. Palmer River to Lakeland is 27 km and from Lakeland, it’s 62km to Laura.
- This area is full of interesting history and worth a visit for the famous cave paintings and engravings, considered one of the top 10 rock art sites in the world. Take a tour or visit Split Rock galleries on your own
- Explore the old gold diggings around the Palmer River and fossick for gold. Get permits and property owner’s permission first.
- Visit the outback and enjoy the drive as well as the sweeping views from some of the lookouts in the area.
The full feature appeared in Caravan World #538 June 2015.