Cape York has some pretty amazing and definatly significant Australian history. Up here the landscape is pretty wild where huge storms can often flood the area and in summer the heat can be unbearable for months at a time.
Not surprisingly the the town has a lot of influence from when Cook landed here back in 1770, and it was by accident that he did. His vessel Endeavour hit a reef just north of Cape Tribulation and was in dire need of repairs when he beached his ship in a bay near present day Cooktown in mid June 1770. Over the next few months Cook explored the new area with mixed fortunes and along with botanist Sir Joseph Banks who collected and recorded many new species of flora and fauna were slowly making history as being the first settlement of Europeans on the east of Australia.
Cook spent 48 days repairing his ship in the bay and named the area Cook’s Town for obvious reasons but it was 104 years later that the town was officially named Cooktown. It was around this time in 1874 when the Queensland government sent explorers north to look for gold, and they found traces to the west through Palmer River. A gold rush exploded throughout the area and a port was built to accommodate the boom. Just 12 months later reports say there were a staggering 65 hotels ( some official and others sly grog tents ), several churches, schools, the telegraph line was connected and Cooktown even had its own fire brigade. Over the next decade Cooktown was called the unofficial capital of Cape York where activity grew within the whole area with Chinese influence abound, botanical gardens were established and even a rail line put in to Normanby some 50km away.
Today it's a stunning place to visit and some say its still the capital and the gateway to Cape York but the Cook influence is definatly noticeable around town. Cooktown is accessible by 2,000km of sealed roads from Brisbane. The first thing you notice when driving down the main street are the amazing heritage listed buildings and monuments that seem to be everywhere.
One of the best starting points to explore the town is at Endeavour Park on the banks of the Endeavour River where there are memorials, displays, statues and even one of the original water well that was used for clean fresh water before a pipeline was installed. The story goes that when the well was cleaned out for restoration some years ago they found several canon balls at the bottom plus a human skull, luckily the new pipeline was already installed.
Just near the well is a Canon made in Scotland in 1803 and was sent to Cooktown as a gift from Queen Victoria, now fully restored it still fires and is used at times in the re-inactment for Cook’s landing. Ironically it was sent with 3 canon balls and 2 rifles for an officer to defend Cooktown in case there was a Russian invasion in 1885, luckily this never eventuated.
Walking around the streets some of the heritage and National Trust buildings date back to 1890 where huge double story banks operate as modern day business with lace fassards and stunning archways, old convent buildings are now working museums and the restored Post Office is now the Cooktown History Centre.
The Botanical gardens that were first planted in 1878 are to die for where visitors can explore modern day plantings within the historical garden sections, some where the Chinese started market rows and where others traded flowers for food and goods. The Chinese had a huge influence on Cooktown’s and indeed the north’s growth, where at once stage they consisted of one third of the population. At the end of the main street three Chinese statues celebrate their involvement. Another interesting statue is of the gold prospector that gives recognition to those who landed here to trek to the Palmer River Gold fields nearly 300 km to the west. Miners from all around the world rushed to the area where at its peak it was declared the richest gold area in the world, but sadly only lasted a few years. Hardships were enchanted from the stifling heat, lack of water in the dry times, then the torrent of rain in the wet, where cyclones often wrecked mines and machinery.
Cooktown has several stunning lookouts, but one that ticks all the boxes is Grassy Hill just minutes away from town. A steep winding road leads you to the top where 360’ views are mind-blowing from the mountains to the sea and beyond on a clear day. At low tide you can see exposed parts of the Great Barrier Reef sticking out above the sea water, and only imagine Cook’s dismay when he climbed this hill looking for a way out of the bay after the Endeavour was fixed. In 1886 a small tower with a manned kerosene light was built here to warn others of the dangerous reefs around, over time it has been converted to a fixed light and automated.
Archer point to the south of Cooktown has amazing coastal views across the way where distant islands pop out above the reefs and where the oceans floating rubbish seems to gather. But even on the worst days here, its one of the best spots on the east coast of Australia to see just how close the mountains come down to touch the sea.
Exploring the area by road is extremely interesting around Cooktown especially to the south where the Bloomfield Track heads down to the Daintree area. This stunning drive through world heritage national park has a host of amazing areas waiting to be explored. It's a 30 km 4wd road that winds its way through old growth areas, beautiful rainforest pockets, it has access to forever flowing waterfalls and quite more than often stunning views across out across towards the Great Barrier Reef area.
The road is known worldwide for being a challenging 4wd track, where conditions change across the seasons. In the dry times the narrow and steep track is dusty, has plenty of bull dust hols and has corrugations around every corner, yet in the wet the river crossings are impassable and the dust soon turns to muddy quagmires.
Then there’s Black Mountain National park to the west, where millions of strange black granite boulders make up a series of awe-inspiring and geological interesting mountains. Dating back 260 million years molten rock ( think Volcanic ) hardened deep underground and overtime the above ground eroded away exposing these mountains. Today they seem to be harsh and deep black but in fact they are grey a host of minerals with a film of algae growing on the surface. Tales of people and herds of cattle getting lost in the labyrinth of rocks and never to be seen again are often told, but have never really been officially verified.
So Cooktown has more to explore than meets the eye, where history dates back to the first landing and where modern day explorers can bask or whet their appetite in the amazing culture and stunning scenery that the town has to offer.