Travel: Cooktown a remote treasure rich in history

Cooktown in far north Queensland delights visitors each year.
Cooktown in far north Queensland delights visitors each year. TEQ

UNTIL the completion of the Mulligan Hwy in 2006, getting to Cooktown - 328km north of Cairns in Far North Queensland - was a long and arduous task.

Most of the road was unsealed with suspension-breaking corrugations, large bull dust holes and tyre-destroying rocks.

Cooktown, located at the mouth of the Endeavour River, is home to about 2500 people and was first settled in 1873 as a port to service the nearby Palmer River Goldfields.

In 1770 Lieutenant James Cook was sailing HM Bark Endeavour up the coast when the wooden ship was damaged on a reef.

Cook beached his ship at what is now Cooktown to make repairs. The crew spent seven weeks repairing the ship, replenishing food and water supplies and caring for their sick.

It was during this time that the first European sighting of kangaroos took place. Renowned naturalist Joseph Banks met and spoke with the local Guugu Yimithirr people and recorded some 50 words, including the name of the intriguing animal the natives called gangurru (which he transcribed as Kangaru). Cook recorded the local name as Kangooroo, or Kanguru.

It was also during this stay that the first recorded reconciliation between Europeans and indigenous Australians happened.

A skirmish had broken out between the ship's crew and the Aborigines after Cook refused to share the turtles he kept with the local inhabitants. They set fire to the grass around the camp twice, burning the area and killing a suckling pig. After Cook wounded one of the men with a musket they ran away.

Cook, Banks and some others followed them and caught up with them on a rocky bar, which is now known as Reconciliation Rocks.

A "little old man" appeared from the group of Aborigines and after speaking to Cook and his men they were able to reconcile their differences.

There is an Aboriginal Community Centre on the main street called Gungarde (from the original Aboriginal name for the region) which features the Milbi (or Story) Wall which marks the place of the first encounter between the British seafarers and the local people.

The wall tells the story of Cooktown and the Endeavour River from the perspective of the Aboriginal people in tiles and is an outstanding monument to reconciliation.

Also located in the main street is the Cooktown History Centre which is housed in the oldest building in Cooktown. It was erected in 1875 as Cooktown's first post and telegraph office. The display is open from 9am to 3pm, Monday to Saturday and well worth the small entrance fee charged.

Located in another historic building is the James Cook Museum which is housed in a rare 19th century brick building constructed during the period of the 1880s gold rush. It was known as St Mary's Convent and operated by the Sisters of Mercy until it closed due the Second World War in 1941.

The museum houses a lot of the history of the area including an original canon and anchor from the HM Bark Endeavour.

No visit to Cooktown would be complete without a visit to the famous Lion's Den Hotel in Helenvale, 28km south of Cooktown and 4km off the Mulligan Hwy on the Bloomfield Track. It was built in 1875 on the banks of the Little Annan River and is surrounded by 100-year-old mango trees and tropical landscapes. It is a landmark hotel made of timber and iron and is famous for its quirky decorations and walls adorned with visitor's signatures. The hotel offers a range of accommodation options including camping and safari-style lodges.

Travellers coming into Cooktown will pass through the incredible Black Mountain National Park. To come around a corner and see the huge mountains of black boulders is a sight to behold.

The park covers an area of 781 hectares with its main feature a mass of granite boulders, some the size of houses. The total lack of any soil gives them an eerie appearance totally out-of-step with the surrounding landscape. The boulders were formed as magma some 250 million years ago and over time when the softer land surfaces eroded became exposed. The boulders have become blackened by a film of microscopic blue-green algae.

The area has a bad reputation as entire herds of cattle, people and those searching for them have disappeared without trace giving Black Mountain the nickname "Mountain of Death".


Located 2000km north of Brisbane, 330km north of Cairns.

Closest town to the Great Barrier Reef and gateway to Cape York.

Serviced by Hinterland Aviation six days a week (+ every second Sunday). Contact: 1300 359 428

Trans North operates a bus service every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday via the inland route and Monday, Wednesday and Friday via the coastal route. Contact: (07) 4095 8644

Topics:  cooktown tourism and events queensland travel

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