Cooktown, located on Cape York Peninsular, North Queensland, was named after the British explorer Captain James Cook, who became stranded here in 1770 when his boat, The Endeavour, took a bit of a knock from the reef south of Cooktown. Whilst wwoofing our way around Australia we spent three weeks in this little town.
Following Cook’s visit to the area there was little interest until gold was found in the area in 1872 and the port town was built to accommodate miners in the area. The town quickly boomed to boast 47 pubs, hotels, a newsagent, dress makers, brothels, a brewery and a bakery serving approximately 7,000 people in the area. Following The Gold Rush the port town shrank and is now home to around 2,000 residents.
If you are to find yourself in Cooktown now there is much less to keep you occupied, but what they do have is charm and some of the nicest people I met in Australia. On Tuesday nights many locals can be found at The Sovereign, enjoying T-Bone Tuesday. This is a great way to spend an evening, enjoying a scooner, a steak and chatting with the locals.
The real joy of the area is getting out of the town to the beaches. We visited two, Finch Bay and Archers Point. Finch Bay is lovely. To get their head to the Botanic Gardens. We went for a walk through the gardens, which are small and well maintained, and came out the other side to join a dirt path to the bay. Wandering along the beach we noticed the sand had been rolled into tiny sand balls to form incredible patterns. We later discovered these are created by colonies of small blue crabs that dig little burrows in the sand when the tide goes out. Archer Point is much further out of town and you will need a 4×4 to get there as the road is a dirt track that can be washed away in parts. This beach is beautiful, and had a few other visitors camping near the sea. Neither of the beaches would be good for sun bathing, thanks to the strong winds whipping off the sea. Our hosts had taken us to Archer Point to watch them learn to kite surf. Whilst they were busy losing a battle with the wind we took a dip in the sea and swam merrily until the waves began to grow a little larger. On the way home one of the guys mentioned how brave we were, choosing to swim close to the river mouth. Little to our knowledge there are crocodiles – large, wild crocodiles – that inhabit the mouths of rivers at both of these beaches!
Back in town it’s worth heading to the top of Grassy Hill, which I think is a creative name that captures the green elevation perfectly. This is where Cook went to plan his route out through the reefs that fill the waters here. It’s a great spot to look out across the town and further up the river Endeavour and surrounding rain forest. Cook himself was not so impressed, describing the landscape as “indifferent”, the captain’s description is proudly emblazoned on a plaque at the top of the hill.
If you’re eager to read some more mildly insulting quotes from Cook head back into town to the James Cook Museum. This museum is definitely worth a look in, offering a number of exhibitions including the Gold Rush, local aboriginal community artefacts and some from Captain Cook’s original landing. My favourite, and I would imagine the most popular artefact, is an anchor and cannon from the Endeavour.
One of the liveliest times of year is the Cooktown Discovery Festival, which takes place n the long weekend in June every year. the main road fills up with market stalls, food stands and a fair. Come evening there are plenty of activities to keep you busy, from drinking in The Sovereign to a progressive dinner that takes you all around town. On Sunday there is a wonderful parade through the town, which is pretty good fun and showcases all the community projects and groups.
The weekend’s big event is a re-enactment of the Endeavour landing. Unfortunately for us we were there the only year this has ever been cancelled, but the locals say it’s pretty fun to watch. the weekend is then finished in style with a firework display which the locals tell us is better than the new year fireworks, but thanks to the terrible weather these were cancelled as well.
Another great way to party like the locals, during the festival or just any old weekend, is to head to The Lions Den. Located out of town you’ll need to hitch a ride there but it’s worth the effort. The Den is a quirky space with pretty cheap drinks (by Australian standards) and a great crowd. There was a hippy vibe in the night as the small building overflowed into the night, filling the emptiness with happy chatting, dancing, laughed and live music. Our night there was wonderful, with live music from Timber and Wood. The crowd when we arrived was already on their way to tipsy, and we slipped straight in to join them. Graham spent his time in the warm night chatting to new friends on one of the outside picnic benches, whilst I could be found shakin’ it with the best of ’em, singing my wee heart out and giving my suppressed inner hippy a good work out.
Getting to Cooktown from Cairns is easy, but does require an early start. The bus goes from outside The Jack Backpackers at 7AM, give Country Road Coachlines a call for up to date daily times. It takes 6 and a half hours, with a stop off for lunch along some lovely scenic roads. If, like us, you enjoy a drink or two but find Cairns a little too much then Cooktown is a beautiful part of Queensland with some of the nicest locals you are likely to meet in Australia, it’s worth heading out of your way for.