Cooktown and down to Cape Tribulation

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Oceania » Australia » Queensland » Cape Tribulation
September 21st 2012
Published: September 25th 2012
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En route to Cooktown, we stopped at the Mighty Palmer River Roadhouse for the night. It’s one of those places in the middle of nowhere – a proper Australian outback rest stop. We went for a powered campsite but hadn’t realised that everything runs on generators which are switched off during the night! We set up camp in time to see the most amazing sunset. The colours were incredible and the photo I took doesn’t even do it any justice.

The next day we travelled onwards through Mt Cook National Park. As with many areas in Australia, they had recently had controlled bush fires. It felt a little strange driving through the smoking fields.

Cooktown is really quite lovely. I’m not exactly sure what my expectations were, but I do know that it succeeded them. I suppose I had expected it to be more touristy but it’s actually very laid back with warm and friendly locals. There is a lot of history here and according to our Lonely Planet, Cooktown can claim to be Australia’s first non-indigenous settlement, albeit for just 48 days. From June to August 1770, Captain Cook beached the Endeavour here, and his botanist Joseph Banks wrote the first European description of a kangaroo. He recorded it as “an animal as large as a greyhound, of a mouse colour and very swift". I suppose that sums it up!

That said, there is now a thriving and friendly native community in Cooktown. The local gallery displays a selection of aboriginal (and other) art and there are lots of pieces of art displayed around the town too. The most memorable piece is the Milbi Wall. This curved mosaic-tiled story wall was created by the Gungarde aboriginal people and tells the story of European settlement from their perspective. It was nice to see many positive aspects, such as education and medicine, and a ‘reconciliation’ piece consisting of Australian and native flags as well as a black hand shaking a white hand.

If you are ever in Cooktown, you mustn’t miss a visit to the top of Grassy Hill. It’s a very long, steep hike (we drove!) but the views from the top are sensational! You get a 360 degree view of the town, river and ocean. There is also a little 19th century lighthouse. As with the town, a lot of effort has been put into presentation: the pathway at the top of the hill is painted to depict a rock python and studded with personalised plaques of what looks like locals’ and visitors’ names. The rock python is significant as it features in an aboriginal story of how the Endeavour River, which flows into the sea at Cooktown, was created.

The story tells of Dyirimadhi, a young blackbird, who had fallen in love with the two beautiful daughters of Mungurru, the python. He asked Mungurru for his permission to marry the girls, but he said no. In his anger, Dyirimadhi carried a big rock high into the sky and dropped in on Mungurru’s head while he was sleeping. Today the rock is still on the peak and the python’s head is still flat. In agony, Mungurru slithered from the hill and headed out to the sea to bathe his wounds. As he dragged himself along, his body formed the Endeavour River. The story continues to tell how he drifted back to shore and found a nice sunny spot where he fell asleep. When he awoke, he was unable to move as he had slept too long in the open and had turned into the rock which is now known as Dyiirrii (Nob Point), northwest of Cooktown.

After our Grassy Hill excursion, we checked out the beach at Finch Bay (we weren’t quite sure whether it was safe to swim there so, to be on the safe side, we didn’t!) and the botanic gardens. For the first time since leaving Townsville, we checked into a caravan park – something that I had rather been hoping we could avoid as there are so many nice national parks in Queensland, but apparently camping in the township of Cooktown carries a fine of up to $1500! However we settled in nicely, enjoying the swimming pool and reconnecting with fellow travelers Trish and Dave, our biker friends that we met in Rubyvale!

The next morning, after a swim in the pool (I love it when caravan parks have a pool that’s long enough to do laps in!), we made our way to the Cooktown Saturday market. Um… it was a mini market! There literally weren’t more than about eight stalls – but never mind, it was relaxed and inviting.

Thanks so much to my friend Shanna who gave us plenty of tips of where to go and what to do in Cooky. Shanna, we ticked off every item on the list! We even did a ‘wharfie’ (for the non-Cookies, that’s driving to the wharf at end of the main road, going round the roundabout and heading back!).

Our next stop was the eccentric Lion’s Den Hotel in Helensvale. This grand old pub is a bit of an institution and has stacks of character. The walls are covered with notes of every imagine currency, postcards, flip flops (?!), hats, stickers, posters, paintings… but most importantly signatures. The story behind the signatures stems from the area’s early tin mining days. The miners frequented the hotel for many years and, as security of personal belongings was limited, some of them left their pay packets at the Lion’s Den and wrote how much money they had on the wall so that they could keep track of their spending. Most of the old signatures are long gone these days but many travelers have contributed with their signatures and poems etc. I was all set to make a little contribution myself when the barmaid told me that you have to be staying at the pub to be allowed to do that!

After leaving the Lion’s Den, we continued on to the township of Wujal Wujal, a remote aboriginal community with the beautiful nearby Bloomfield Falls. Like many native settlements, the possession of alcohol is banned here (not that that stops everyone – we saw a couple of guys driving a ute, holding cans of beer). The rules state that, unless you are “a bona fide traveler passing through in a vehicle” you are liable for a fine of up to $75k, 18 months in jail and confiscation of your vehicle. My understanding is that, because alcohol was only relatively recently introduced to aboriginal communities, their tolerance to it is a lot lower than that of white people.

After Wujal Wujal came the time to make a decision. We had been considering the odds of successfully passing through the Bloomfield Track, a 30km 4WD-only track to Cape Tribulation. It was either that or a 250km roundtrip on tar seal. You would think that we had learnt our lesson when we flooded our engine a couple of months ago but, having made sure we had enough fuel in the tank so that we could turn around part-way through the track, we reasoned that it was the dry season so there shouldn’t be too many flooded creeks. Are we a little stupid? Yes. Did we make it? YES! :-) It was actually a gorgeous drive through the bush and, although some sections were very rough and others extremely steep, our trusty van (and the driver of course) did an awesome job of navigating the creeks, hills and rocks. As some of you know, Dean’s answer to just about everything in life is duct tape. The challenge of driving the Bloomfield Track was no exception and our air filter got the duct tape treatment to ensure it was properly sealed off before driving through the creeks. According to our GPS, the road we were on didn’t actually exist. So instead, we relied on a couple of road signs along the way. What I loosely refer to as road signs were sheets of corrugated iron with “that way” graffitied onto them.

When we had almost made it back to tar sealed road, we picked up a forlorn-looking hitchhiker. This very dedicated Sydney girl had walked 8km in search of a swimming hole in the bush. We gave her a lift back to PK’s Jungle Village, a backpacker style resort which we recognised from our visit to Cape Tribulation a couple of years ago. So we decided to stay there too! Our appetite for adventure thoroughly satisfied, we hit the beach and spent the evening chilling out in the Jungle Bar.

We loved staying at PK’s, so extended our stay to three nights. It wasn’t that dissimilar from the Arts Factory in Byron Bay – lush and homey, but more relaxed. Unfortunately there was an abundance of biting insects which, of course, took a shining to me. It wasn’t the mozzies this time; instead I was eaten alive by midges, ants and horse flies. Midges clearly have no shame as they left lines of bites behind… accurately along my arteries! However, I discovered that coconut oil is an awesome anti-itch remedy. I cook with it all the time and, aside from being mega yummy, it really does ease the itchiness.

Our second and third days were quite laid back with dips in the ocean, snorkeling and a couple of nice walks. One was along the Dubuji boardwalk through the rainforest (Dubuji means ‘place of spirits’) and the other was along the beach to the head of Cape Tribulation. This is where we saw an enormous iguana a couple of years ago (going for some picnickers’ sandwiches!). It was a pretty busy area, so we headed back to Myall Beach (my favourite beach so far – the water is as warm as bath water in places!) where we got lots of space to ourselves. We climbed the rocks at the end of the beach for a great view and even spotted a reef shark in the clear water. That evening, we headed to the Whet café (a lovely bar/restaurant with small cinema filled with armchairs and beanbags) to watch Aussie black comedy ‘The King is Dead’. It certainly was an alternative kind of movie but quite entertaining.

We looooved our time at Cape Trib and leaving PK’s was sad. We will miss the sofas in the lovely big bar, where Dean enjoyed many a cold beer and where I clocked up lots of study time. It was a proper little holiday!

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