Ask anyone about Cape York wether they have been there or not and you’ll hear words like remote, harsh, adventure and even unspoilt wilderness. But what about the history ?. Theres just so much to explore up in the tip of Australia from plane wrecks, gold fields, first fleet landings right through to huge TNT bombs exploding it is literally a mine field up there.
The area was inhabited by aboriginal people for thousands of years before the first white fella came along, some estimates are around 40,000 years. They lived off the rich land and from the sea only taking what was needed to feed family and to survive. Theres evidence of early ships passing along the coast trading as they sailed from the rock art that's thousands of years old that's scattered throughout the area.
Some of the early European history dates back to when Cook damaged the Endeavour off the coast and subsequently limped into the river mouth at Cooktown in June 1770. When they landed for repairs it was a difficult task rebuilding the hull of the ship after it hit a reef on their hard and arduous trek north.
Even tho there are reports of other nationalities sailing past before Cook, he was the first to lay claim on the land. Around Cooktown there’s masses of monuments, sculptures and dedicated points of interest to Cook and his crew. From mini ship and canon replicas, old water wells through to a life size statue, Cook definatly made his impression on the town.
Coastal explorers Allan Cunningham and Phillip King reached the area in 1819 naming several mountains and rivers on their trek to the cape as they were mapping the Australian coastline and with Cunningham as a botanist he was avidly collecting new plant species. Around town heritage buildings date back
A few years later in 1873 massive amounts of gold was found in the Palmer River by James Mulligan starting a gold rush for many years. When the Palmer River fields were in full swing they were regarded as the biggest and most productive in Australia, if not the world. Later on gold was discovered to the south near the Wenlock River called the Batavia Gold Fields.
Miners left the Palmer River area to head to Batavia as gold was running out and conditions were harsh in the middle of the cape. It was 1892 when gold was found near the Wenlock and mining contain red right through WW11. Ironically at this time the Australian army dismantled some of the more gear and covered in some mines because they were worried about an invasion from the north and the enemy utilising the mine gear.
After the gold ran out the mine companies pulled the pin on any further activities and simply walked away. Today there’s a host of gear in the area from stampers, boilers, rail tracks and machinery that’s slowly decaying away.
During WW11 when an invasion was near immanent, the cape was extremely vulnerable and there were many attempts to take the area over. Around the whole area from Mutee Heads where a radar station was set up to monitor the airways to the north ( had nearly 40 service man living nearby ) to plane wrecks around Bamaga there’s still plenty to see today.
The radar station skeleton is still visible today and if you wander around the site on top of Mutee Heads, you can still find building foundations, fuel drums and even the old water well. The radar is the last one standing from WW11 in Australia.
Just near the airstrip at Bamaga, there’s several plane wrecks that can be found and viewed. Wreckage is strewn across the area where they crashed and with info boards its humbling to read the insight on why the planes are there. Scattered throughout different areas theres also thousands of 44 gallon drums which indicated where the fuel dump were across the cape.
Down near Lockhart and the Portland Road area, there was some pretty serious war involvement going on too. Portlands had a huge jetty where the US ships docked allowing for the movement of soldiers and gear into the area. A few years later ( 1960 era ), Operation Blowdown was put into gear where government agencies wanted to test the effect that a nuclear bomb would have on the area.
The site was chosen in the dense jungle like landscape as it represented areas to the north of Australia. Luckily the government at the time decided against using a nuclear bomb, but insisted on using 44ton of TNT. It took troops six months to tag and record every tree in the area before the blast to see what effect the blast would have, on the flora and fauna as well as mock up troops, equipment and their war conditions.
Today there’s a huge area that has only got grass growing where the bomb devastated the eco system, it may take hundreds of years for the trees to grow again. Down at the Lockhart Airport there’s plenty of readable history on how and why the US army spent time in the area.
Another area of interest is on the east coast of the tip at Somerset. Here in 1864 an outpost was established to supply goods and as a refuge for those passing in ships. John Jardine was appointed the police officer of the area ( and some say he had his own law ) where he lived in the police magistrates house at Somerset. A year later his sons decided to move a huge mob of cattle from Rockhampton up to the Cape to establish the first cattle station in the area. There were heavy losses but the brothers succeeded.
Over the next few years Somerset failed as a regional centre but John Jardine stayed and developed the cattle station even further for many years and in 1873 he married the niece of the King of Samoa. Over the next few years John also played a part in the construction of the telephone line, saved many ship wrecked survivors yet lived a lavish life at Somerset.
Today the ruins of Somerset can still be found as well as stone walls across the headland, old canons, the freshwater well and windmill. John passed away in 1919 of Leprosy and is buried near the beach at the base of the property along with other members of his family, pearl divers surrounded by others unmarked graves.
The remoteness and isolation of Cape York needs to be experienced once in everybody’s life. Now while there’s loads more history within the Cape a lot of it can still be explored today, it all depends on how deep you want to delve into it. From abandoned towns, remote homesteads, the overland telegraph line, to once rich goldfields, across to the maritime history to the early explorers who punched their way towards to the tip, there’s definatly something for everybody when exploring the rich and vast areas of Cape York.