Tuesday, July 10, 2018


Off the beaten track, away from the mainstream tourist hustle and bustle, a place that captures the essence of tropical Australia, a place that retains something of a frontier town atmosphere and combines rich history and rugged scenery.  There are many ways to describe Cooktown but I can't think of any that really captures the spirit of the place.  

Thanks to a tip from Graham, I've remembered how to embed a map so you can see where it is. 

It's situated on the Great Barrier Reef between the Endeavour River and the Coral Sea and, thanks to its isolation, has remained untouched by the development and commercialisation that many other idyllic spots have been subjected to. 

The site of modern Cooktown was where Captain Cook, limping up the coast after his ship was seriously damaged on Endeavour Reef, found a safe place to  carry out repairs (in 1770).   The British crew spent seven weeks on the site repairing their ship, replenishing food and water supplies, and caring for their sick.  After a while Joseph Banks, the scientist with the expedition, met and spoke with the local aboriginal people and recorded about 50 native words, including the name of the animal that intrigued the visitors called gangurru.  He transcribed this as "Kangaru".  I had never heard that story before!

The first recorded sighting of kangaroos by Europeans was on Grassy Hill, which rises above the place where the ship was beached. Cook climbed this hill to work out a safe passage for the Endeavour to sail through the surrounding reefs, after it was repaired.   My sister, Tricia and I went up to the lookout twice to take in the 360 degree unobstructed views.  On both occasions Cooktown was earning its reputation as one of the windiest places in Australia and visibility was limited. 

Looking down over the town

The lighthouse on Grassy Hill

Cooktown itself was founded just over 100 years after Cook's visit when gold was discovered nearby in 1873 as a supply port for the goldfields at Palmer River.  Within a month 400 people had arrived; in six months, at the height of the gold rush, some accounts say there were 15,000, with 12,000 of those being Chinese. Others say 30,000 with 18,000 Chinese. Either way there were so many inhabitant that everyone thought that Cooktown was going to be the next capital of northern Australia.  Then it was virtually wiped out by two large cyclones and the economic depression. Now, the population in the 2016 census was 2,631 and that, would you believe, makes it one of the few large towns in the Cape York Peninsula.  

It's  coming back to life now boasting  world class game fishing, its stunning coral reef, picturesque scenery and rich Aboriginal culture.  

Oh, and while I think of it, I learned why Cape York Peninsula was so named.  Cook had named the river "Endeavour" after his ship, and the reef which crippled his ship was given the same name.  Then, as he sailed away north, he hoisted the flag and claimed possession of the whole eastern coast of Australia for Britain.  I doubt if he told the locals of his intention.  He named Cape York Peninsula after the then Duke of York and Albany.  Yes, The Grand Old Duke of York himself.  Love those stories!  

When all the gold started coming into town, the bankers followed soon after and by 1874 had built the first bank adjacent to the current site of the Westpac Bank. 

Cooktown was to become the second busiest port in Australia. It had a two and a half mile main street with more than 60 pub licences and almost as many brothels.

And then, of course, religion arrived.  Many souls to be saved.  The Catholic church built a magnificent three storey brick and iron lace girls school which now functions as the James Cook Muiseum. In World War II, the building was used as a U.S. command post and the Sisters of Mercy were evacuated, never to return. The building fell into disrepair until 1970, when it was restored to its former glory and reopened by the Queen as the James Cook Museum and is regarded as the best regional museum outside any capital city in Australia. 

It's a wonderful museum.  There's a fascinating collection of Captain Cook's memorabilia, documents and records and it also showcases collections featuring  the regions maritime, mining, indigenous and Chinese history.

View from the verandah of the museum
The streets of Cooktown are wide and, while we were there, mostly free of traffic. 

On one side are impressive historic buildings - a reminder of days gone by - and on the other side is parkland with a variety of memorials.  In total there are six Cook Memorials but this one, the most impressive, built in 1887, is the only one I photographed. 

It stands near a cannon which was brought to Cooktown in 1885 to repulse a possible Russian invasion.   So convinced was everyone that the invasion was imminent that the Cooktown Council sent a telegram to the State Premier requesting a supply of arms, ammunition and a competent officer to take charge and lead the locals against the invasion.  The cannon, which had been cast in Scotland in 1803, was duly sent with 3 cannonballs, 2 rifles and an officer.   It is still fired once a year during the Cooktown Discovery Festival.  Love those stories!  Sorry, I've already said that!

Trish giving the cannon the once over.

We spent one morning strolling around the Botanical Gardens.   The tropical setting is tranquil with huge trees, many varieties I was not familiar with. The hugest mango tree I've seen is towering above one of the pathways. A few orchids were sighted but for me it was mainly about the trees - and the tranquility.  The cafe was a popular spot and provided an excellent lunch.

In the afternoon we discovered the cemetery and headed to the oldest section.

In the back corner was this sad little grave.  Who was Rob I wonder?  Did no-one really know his full name?  Obviously someone cared enough to put a marker there for him.  I threw on a couple of extra sticks.  I got the feeling Rob wouldn't have wanted flowers.

In the newer section was this classic.  Obviously the last resting place of a "bit of a character".

This is reputed to be one of the town's two swimming beaches. Pretty sure this one is Finch Bay, close to town with vehicle access and a small car park.  It is partly protected from the winds by high, densely vegetated headlands. Alligator Creek crosses the centre of the beach.  (How many Alligator Creeks are there in Queensland I wonder.  I can name three.  Weird, when there are no alligators and so many crocodiles!)  The car park is beside the creek, with a short walk to the beach. Maybe it was one of the swimming beaches because there was definitely a crocodile warning sign at the entrance to the beach.  I made sure Trish was armed with a brolly before we ventured down to the beach!

We dined each night at the Bowls Club which provided a courtesy bus to and from their establishment, giving me a break from driving.  I believe there are quite a few excellent restaurants in Cooktown but the Bowls Club had been recommended to us by a man in Port Douglas and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the area.  The beer was cheap and the food first class. 

The sun cover over the bowling green

down by Fisherman's Wharf 

Cooktown, you didn't disappoint.  I'm so glad I got to see you.


  1. Great blog post Pauline and Cooktown certainly has a very interesting history. I had a great time reading about it and also looking at your photos. It has been a long time since my last visit but it is so good catching up.

    1. Hi Denise, I've pretty much lost my blogging mojo but my trip reignited a bit of a spark.

  2. Great post. Do they collect the canon balls and reuse them. Three wouldn't last long.

    1. I agree, Adrian. And imagine the one officer trying to organise a bunch of miners into a defensive force!

  3. A place worth being on any must see list!

    1. It certainly is, Messymimi. It's a shame in a way that it's so isolated but, on the other hand, thet's what gives it its character.

  4. What a beautiful place. I am always up for a stop in a cemetery while touring around a town.

    1. Me too, Michelle. Somehow the history of a place touches you when you walk amongst their dead, I think.

    2. Me too, Michelle. I always feel that some of the history of a place touches you when you walk amongst their dead.

  5. Well with a population 1/7th the size of Stornoway it certainly is a small place but it looks to have some grand buildings still standing. Now that I've taken up bowls I love the idea of a covered bowling green. Here it might keep the rain off. On the other hand it would provide a midge heaven and wouldn't last through a hurricane. Having said that it's presumably lived through a cyclone or two. Ah well. We've certainly visited some cemeteries in our various safaris and I think that Rob's grave is up there with the most poignant.

  6. Hi Graham, I don't think Cooktown has taken a direct cyclone hit since they put the roof over the bowls club but those Trade Winds sure can blow up there. Temp was around 30C when we were there, yes that is winter temperature, so the roof would be greatly appreciated in summer! Yes, they have some wonderful historic buildings that have weathered a few cyclones. I don't think I've ever been as touched by a grave as I was by Rob's.


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