We were expecting to linger around Cooktown for two nights before heading to Cairns for work, but just as we were making plans, a fantastic opportunity presented itself. The owner of a local farm needed some help for the week, and it was just the kind of experience we were looking for. Now that we were locked in to stay in Cooktown for a week, we had a little more time to get to know the town and the locals.
- Cooktown is the northernmost town on the east coast of Australia
- It sits at the mouth of the Endeavour River, named by Captain James Cook after his ship
- There are two seasons – the wet during December to April, and the dry from May to November.
- The region is very rich in biodiversity because it covers three major ecozones, and therefore is a place of interest for botanists.
The traditional owners call the region Gan gaar, which means place of the rock crystals because of all the quartz crystals.
In 1770, Captain James Cook arrived and moored the Endeavour at the mouth of the Endeavour River for shelter and repairs after running aground on the Great Barrier Reef. As the repairs were underway, botanist Joseph Banks and naturalist Daniel Solander explored the area and collected over 200 species of plants for documentation, and they also learnt words from the local people, like ganguru (kangaroo). There was an artist on board, Sydney Parkinson, who was the first British person to draw Aboriginal people from direct observation.
In 1872, gold was discovered on the Palmer River southwest of Cooktown and the site was populated by many diggers from all over the world. Cooktown was selected as the port through which the gold was exported and supplies were imported. Two years later, Cooktown’s population grew to approximately 4,000 people and it was established as a town.
These days, Cooktown’s population is less than 2,000. It has reached the status of a tourist destination because of its relaxed atmosphere and proximity to Cape York, the Great Barrier Reef, Lakefield National Park and the rainforest.
Points of Interest
The James Cook Museum
Whether you’re interested in the landing of James Cook in 1770 or not, a stroll through this fantastic museum is a must. See the original anchor of the Endeavour, learn about Cooktown’s Chinese history and local aboriginal culture, and discover the original use of the museum building. Fascinating stuff…
Nature’s Powerhouse & Botanic Gardens
Essentially, Nature’s Powerhouse is Cooktown’s Visitor Information Centre. Get a map, stroll through the neighbouring Botanic Gardens or have a toasted sanga and a coffee on the deck.
The gallery and museum are also worth checking out if you’re interested in flora and fauna. The Charles Tanner Gallery is a great exhibit of local animals such as snakes, bats, lizards and butterflies. The displays were both interesting and educational. The Vera Scarth-Johnson Gallery pays tribute to an artist and botanist. While we were there, they were showing the ‘Botanical Endeavour’ – Sir Joseph Banks’ Florilegium Exhibition from 1770.
OMG – one of the best lookouts we have come across on our journey. Stunning views of the surrounding mountains, the Endeavour River and Cooktown. Amazing.
Follow Finch Bay Road all the way to the end, past the Botanic Gardens, and you’ll arrive at Finch Bay. It’s is a great little beach with an estuary. We saw a big crab in the shallows and wished that we’d had a net with us to scoop him up!
About 25km south of Cooktown is Black Mountain National Park. It is a massive pile of granite rocks that has developed over the last 260 million years. Due to an unusual joining patter in the granite, fracturing and exposure to water has caused erosion and weathering of the boulders, but while the surface is just a mess of boulders, the solid granite core is underneath. There are three animals that are completely unique to the park – the Black Mountain boulderfrog, skink and gecko – making Black Mountain one of the most restricted habitats in Australia.
The early settlers and local indigenous folks both have stories and rumours about quite a few people (often criminals) venturing into the caves among the giant black boulders and getting lost. Whilst the people have never been seen again, the locals reckon you sometimes still hear them…
Food & Drink
This was the first pub we visited, and for a Saturday afternoon, it was fairly busy. Then we remembered – AFL Grand Final weekend. We sat outside in the beer garden and had a lovely lunch of pizza and parma before getting on with the rest of the day.
More like cranky-pants café! The owner of the store had a serious attitude problem, but the coffee was good, which is why people keep coming back. We found out later that the owner had had a tiff with his partner the night before and was therefore in a particularly cranky-pants mood that day.
The Italian (aka De Wogs)
Opposite the road from the Top Pub is a popular Cooktown institution that dishes out mountains of risotto and pasta, tasty pizzas made with fresh ingredients, as well as Chinese food at a dearer than average price. While Juz’s soggy but yummy parma lacked ham and chips, Dave’s capricciosa pizza was perfection, but to be perfectly honest, neither seemed to justify the price.
The Lions Den Hotel
About 30km south of Cooktown is an old pub called the Lions Den. It’s named after a mine in the area, which got its name when a stowaway named Daniel was working at the mines and while standing at the entrance of one of the tunnels, the mine’s owner said, “Daniel in the Lions Den”.
The pub has plenty of character, with scribbles, business cards and stickers all over the walls, as well as old hats, thongs, license plates and stubbie holders.
Information & Accommodation
Nature’s Powerhouse is on Finch Bay Road and is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm. Contact them for information about Cooktown by emailing email@example.com
Pam’s Place YHA – on the corner of Boundary and Charlotte Street. To make a reservation, call 4069 5166 or email firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.yha.com.au/Hostels/QLD/Cairns-and-Far-North-Queensland/Cooktown/
About 15km south of Cooktown is the turnoff for Archer Point. Continue along the dirt road until you get to the end. It’s a great place to camp provided you don’t set up right on a headland. The wind is strong and constant, but the views at sunset are breathtaking.