Cooktown, Qld is all colonial charm and thankfully undeveloped. In fact it is the complete opposite of Port Douglas and Cairns. When we visit in 2014 there is a well-worn pub, an even more worn pub that has lost its roof to a cyclone and a handful of shops as the road winds down to the waterfront. The harbour is just inside the mouth of the Endeavour River. It is a river of wide mud flats and sandy shoals and one glance explains why Cook chose this place to repair his ship the Endeavour after running aground on the reef.
The view from the lookout not only encompasses all of Cooktown but out to sea you can easily see the Great Barrier Reef which is only a few kilometres off shore. The now obsolete lighthouse stands about twenty feet tall, if that. The hill that it is on makes up for its lack of height.
On the town foreshore there is a majestic monument to Captain Cook and a marker showing the place where the Endeavour was beached for repairs. What captivates us though is the musical ship made of plastic water pipes that can be played with mallets as five separately toned instruments. The wharf area is busy and a dredge is clearing the river. The north bank of the river is all white sand whereas the south bank is muddy and rocky. And of course there are croc warnings along the shore.
Through the open window of the weatherboard Cooktown Hotel we watch eagles soaring on the thermals as we sip our beers. The soundtrack to all of this is ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ playing in the background, hmm nice, I like this pub.
We get a feel for the town by driving the back streets. Finch bay is the local swimming beach and it too comes with the obligatory croc warnings, there is a wide expanse of sand and large granite boulders at one end. Eagles soar high above the beach.
The Fisho drives through the caravan park every evening selling prawns and playing “Octopus’s Garden” over a PA system. Of course we buy some prawns. How could you not?
I’ve never seen so many 4WD’s as there are in Cooktown, they would make up 80% of the cars in the town. They are all covered in orange dust and most have tents and gear on top obviously Cape York is the preferred destination, “The Tip” as it is called up here. Down at the wharf Woody watches fishermen unloading live coral trout into holding tanks on the back of utes.
We visit the Botanic Gardens and learn an awful lot about tropical plants, even that you can cook food in Melaleuca bark as the bark doesn’t burn. The Botanic Gardens have an amazing collection of dead snakes in formaldehyde in fact every snake that is native to the Cape York region. That could be handy.
A trip to the old convent that now houses the James Cook Museum is just what we needed to get a grip on the local history and they cover every aspect. From the Aboriginal history to the arrival of the Endeavour, the discovery of gold in the Palmer River one hundred years later and the subsequent arrival of the Chinese who in time came to make up 90% of the population. The arrival of European gold miners and then the evacuation of the area in 1942 when it was thought that the Japanese would invade and of course the many cyclones. And there is the most wonderful view of the harbour from the Convent.