As the crow flies, Cooktown is only about 75 km (47 miles) north of Cape Tribulation. There is a road between them called the Bloomfield Road that is about 104 km (65 miles) long, but it is a very rough, twisty four-wheel-drive dirt track over hill and dale and fording creeks that our little motorhome would not handle well. The only other choice is to drive back south to Mossman (having crossed on the Daintree Ferry) and around on the Mulligan Highway through Lakeland to Cooktown, a total of about 320 km (200 miles). So that’s exactly what we did because we really wanted to see Cooktown.
Two events happened to shape Cooktown’s history. First, in June of 1770 James Cook, the English explorer who was then a navy lieutenant but the captain of the HM Bark Endeavour, ran aground on the uncharted Great Barrier Reef off Cape Tribulation. That’s where Cape Tribulation got its name – “Where our troubles begun,” wrote Captain Cook. Once his ship was afloat again but leaking badly, he needed to quickly find a sheltered place where he could repair his battered boat. He found that shelter and beached his ship in the estuary of a large river that he named Endeavour in his ship’s honor.
Of course, there was no town at that time. He and his crew stayed for 48 days while they repaired the ship’s hull, thus becoming the first Europeans to set foot on that part of the continent. During that time, two naturalists on his crew, named Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, explored their enforced surroundings collecting over 200 new botanical specimens and categorizing many animal species, including the first kangaroo ever seen by European eyes. The captain and crew also met and observed the Aboriginal people who lived in the area, noting in their journals the ways that the people lived in harmony with the land.
The second event that led to the actual founding of the town of Cooktown was the 1873 discovery of gold in the Palmer River inland from Cooktown. Soon a tent city named Cook’s Town (in honor of the location’s connection with Captain Cook) grew up as miners and their suppliers landed there on the banks of the Endeavour River to seek their fortunes. By 1880 the population had reached over 4,000.
The Cooktown of today is quite different from what we had expected. It hasn’t been very long ago that it was still considered a “frontier” town with all that implies. However, a paved road and tourism have changed all that. Now with a population of over 2,000, Cooktown is a charming little remote but accessible town on a hill above the Endeavour River. It has all the amenities from caravan parks to hotels, restaurants and pubs, a nice supermarket, a state school (preschool through year 12), a lovely botanic garden, and an events center. It even has cell service. And everywhere are historical monuments, statues, and markers commemorating its interesting history. The oldest grave in the Cooktown Cemetery is dated 1874, and a Chinese Shrine there was used in burial rituals of the Chinese laborers who came by the thousands to work the goldfields in the 1870s and ‘80s.
An easy day’s drive from Cooktown is the tiny town of Laura. A railway line was built in the 1880s from Cooktown inland to haul ore from the gold mines. Laura grew up around the construction workers who came in to build that railway. The railway had been intended to reach clear to Maytown in the heart of the goldfields. In 1891, a railway bridge was built over the Laura River near Laura, but the goldfields began to play out, and the project was abandoned. One test train crossed that bridge, the only one to ever cross it – a true “bridge to nowhere.”
But Laura has interesting history, too. Nearby are Aboriginal rock art sites of worldwide significance. The Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre near Laura explains in beautifully written text and illustrations the origins of the rock art (some believed to have been created over 45,000 years ago), explanations of the language groups of the Aborigines, the effects of European exploration and settlement on the Aboriginal people, life on the cattle stations, expansion of communications technology such as the electric telegraph, and the ongoing attempts of the Aborigines to gain recognition of their traditional ownership of the land and their human rights. While we didn’t visit the more remote rock art sites that are accessible by guided tour only, we did visit Split Rock Aboriginal Rock Art Site.
We have been observing how similar Australian treatment of the Aboriginal people was to the treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans in the United States. We of European origins don’t seem to have a very good track record in this regard wherever we go. However, there does seem to be a clear effort at what is called “reconciliation” here now. Certainly, the Aboriginal history and culture play a significant part in the development of every one of the national parks we have visited, and many of them are administered cooperatively by various levels of government and the “Traditional Owners.”
Cooktown and Laura are as far north as we will be driving on the Cape York Peninsula. The roads from there north deteriorate quickly, so now we are starting west instead.