Page 29

A Three Day Safari To Cooktown

The Daintree

Greetings, dear Reader. Well, finally the weather changed and every day became warm and sunny, so we four - Phil and Dawn having moved on - decided to embark upon a three day tour to Cooktown which was built on the spot where Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook ran his ship Endeavour ashore for repairs in 1770.


So, where is Cooktown? On the rough map (left) the yellow arrow points to Cooktown and the blue arrow points to Cairns, our temporary base. As the crow flies, Cooktown is 170 kilometres north of Cairns but by the inland (and only) sealed road it is 320 kilometres. The final section of that road was only completed in 2006 (last year).

There is, however, a shorter route. It is called the Bloomfield Track and it goes pretty directly from Cape Tribulation to Cooktown through the rainforests of the Daintree National Park. It is a dirt road with very steep gradients in places, frequently in bad condition, and totally impassable during the wet season. Even in the dry season it is only suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles. That is the way we decided to go.

Working on the principle that it's better to wreck somebody else's vehicle than our own, we decided to travel on a commercial "4WD Safari to the last frontier". Consequently we were collected from the caravan park at the obscene time of 7:20 one Sunday morning by a strange-looking vehicle that was to take us on the initial (tame) section of the journey as far as Cape Tribulation.

The first stop was at the crocodile and snake infested Daintree River where we had coffee and biscuits before embarking on a river cruise.The captain of our boat had missed his way, he should have been on the stage. There was a lot of amusing banter between himself and the support crew before we even departed. As he started the engine he announced, I hope I can drive this boat - they don't teach you much on these prison release schemes.

Then, as the boat moved into the river he reassured us, No, you'll be safe with me, I took my pills this morning and I've left my axe at home.

A female passenger quipped, But will you be safe with us - we haven't taken our pills!

No came the quick response, And I didn't leave my axe at home either.

Launching into a dissertation on crocodiles, he assured us he would quickly find one to show us.

If I don't show you a croc in the first five minutes, he said, I'll dive in and find you one as all good guides should do . . . and there aren't many of us left.

Fortunately for him he found one on the bank almost immediately.


A croc lying in the mud by the mangroves, eyes closed but certainly not asleep.

He explained that submerged crocodiles can hold their breath for two to three hours by slowing their heart rate and shutting down all non-essential organs. Also, being cold-blooded, after a good meal they can survive for a whole year without eating again.

I'm trying to teach my kids at home to do the same, he informed us. So far I've got them up to half an hour.

We also saw snakes so cleverly hidden in the trees that I couldn't find them later on the photographs. There was a tiny bat hanging from another tree; how our eagle-eyed skipper spotted these animals I don't know.

Tree snake

There's a tree snake, said our captain, stopping the boat. He used a mirror to reflect the sun onto the snake.
The right hand picture is an enlargement of the area circled in red.

While we were on the cruise, our tour guide had taken our 'bus' across the river on a ferry further downstream. He was standing with a colleague on the river bank, waiting for us. This prompted our captain to launch into his best David Attenborough impression:

And just as I was telling you that our cruise was over, there on the bank are two prime examples of the rainforest's most deadly killers . . . the bus drivers.


Where we disembarked from the boat, some enterprising stall-holder had set up shop selling bananas for $5 per kilo. Just a reminder; before Cyclone Larry five months earlier, bananas were selling in the supermarkets for around $2.75. The cyclone wiped out the Queensland banana crop and the stock on the supermarket shelves went up to $12 almost before the wind had died down. As a consequence the majority of shoppers wouldn't touch them on principle - somebody was making a killing and it certainly wasn't the unfortunate banana growers. Anyway, this self-imposed abstinence had convinced us that we'd die for a banana, so when we saw local bananas advertised for $5 a kilo, everyone rushed to buy some. We then ate bananas for a week. Indigestible things - never really liked them that much.

Cape Tribulation

We re-boarded the bus and were taken to our overnight accommodation at Cape Tribulation. Our last visit to this area is covered on Page 15 of this website. Sadly we learned that the mother cassowary that we'd seen on that occasion was later killed on the road, leaving this species of large, flightless birds even more endangered.

The 'Cape Trib Resort' was very comfortable and situated almost on the beach. Guests stayed in chalets scattered through the rainforest. The restaurant and bar were in the open air, a huge sail protecting diners from sun and rain. Through the centre of the restaurant grew a large tree around which the wooden floor and overhead sail had been shaped. Adjacent to the restaurant was a swimming pool.

The wide beach spanned the gap between the Coral Sea and the rainforest of the Daintree National Park - both listed World Heritage areas and the only place in the world where two such areas meet.


The meeting of two world heritage areas, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Daintree National Park.
The rainforest grows right down to the beach.

Before we left the following morning a long snake was spotted near the beach. This created quite a lot of excitement amongst the overseas guests. Somebody had declared it was a python, so thereafter a python it was. To me it looked too thin to be a python, more likely a tree snake. But hey, who knows?


Python, Tree Snake or something else? It was at least two metres long.

If it was either a python or a tree snake, it didn't have venom as both are constrictors. This snake didn't look butch enough to squeeze the life out of a human, but . . . perhaps it was something else, something really deadly!

The London Crocodile

While we were watching the snake a very excited English tourist came up and announced he'd seen a crocodile at the edge of the forest just up the beach from where we were standing. It seemed unlikely, though not impossible, so we got him to show it to us. As we walked he told us he was from London. When we reached the spot where he'd seen the crocodile, he pointed. There! Where? said Jan.
There he said, pointing again.
We edged closer.
Show me again said Jan. He did.
You don't mean that little Monitor Lizard, do you? she asked.
Oh . . . .

Monitor Lizard

This well-camouflaged and completely harmless monitor lizard - now known to us as a
'London Crocodile' - was wondering what all the fuss was about.

The Bloomfield Track

The next part of our journey was up the Bloomfield Track. We had heard much talk of this track in caravan parks - it was a 'must do' experience. There is a very weird pub called the Lion's Den along the track which has also to be seen. Well, finally we were about to travel the Bloomfield Track and visit the infamous Lion's Den Hotel.

Oka vehicle

This time it was an Oka (Australian-made) vehicle that picked us up.

Now, do you remember when we went on the 4WD safari to Frazer Island? We learned a most important lesson; never ride on the back seat over the rear wheels because you get shaken to bits. Well guess what? When Pam and I boarded the Oka it was already full except for two places . . . in the centre of the back seat. Not even a window seat! From there we saw little of the scenery and could only tell when the Oka was climbing steeply by the engine's labouring and the way all the trees appeared to be leaning forward. Fortunately the track had recently been graded so the bouncing wasn't too bad.

After two hours or more we arrived at the Lion's Den. The place was along the lines of the Daly Waters pub that we visited on our way through the Northern Territory and which, in my opinion, was much better. We had lunch which was quite nice despite (or because of?) the cook being off sick, and then we hit the trail again. Soon the Bloomfield Track joined the bitumen road and before we knew it we were in Cooktown.

Perhaps our opinion of the Bloomfield Track was jaundiced by our seating on the Oka but Pam and I concur - why take a rough dirt track when there's now a perfectly good bitumen road, albeit a much longer drive. And the Lion's Den? If you really want to see it, go from the Cooktown side.

James Cook

Way back in 1770, Lieutenant James Cook was returning from Botany Bay where he'd raised the Union Jack to claim Australia for King George III of England. His course took him up the east coast and - unbeknownst to him - he was in an ever-narrowing channel between land and the Great Barrier Reef.

He'd just retired to bed one night when his ship, H.M.B. Endeavour, struck a coral reef. Captain Jim was said to have raced on deck in his underwear to find his ship fast on the coral with her hull badly holed. Worse, they were thirteen kilometres offshore with no lifeboats, only a couple of longboats which were woefully inadequate. Water was flooding in so the crew manned every serviceable pump while Captain Jim sent off the longboats to drop anchors astern of Endeavour. He then used the windlass and capstan to drag on the anchors in an attempt to pull the ship backwards off the rocks. It didn't work.

Next Jim ordered the crew to throw six cannons, iron ballast, water casks and food overboard - fifty tons in all - in an effort to lighten Endeavour. That didn't work either. There was nothing left to do but wait for the next high tide and try again. Fortunately the leak wasn't too bad as long as the coral was jammed in the hole, but what would happen if the ship floated off? Jim decided he had no real option as there was no possibility of rescue. In fact, the next European ship didn't pass that way for another fifty years.

At high tide Captain Jim again tried to pull the Endeavour off the reef and this time he succeeded. However, as anticipated, the sea now flooded in. A midshipman told Cook of a ploy he'd once seen used in a similar situation and Jim, having nothing to lose, told the midshipman to give it a go.

The crew smeared all sorts of nasty sticky stuff over a sail, lowered it over the side, and positioned it over the worst hole. It worked - water pressure held the sail fast against the hull and the water leak was reduced to a level where the pumps could cope. It was obvious, however, that urgent repairs were needed. Not without much difficulty did Jim eventually find a river mouth just deep enough to accept the Endeavour and entered it on 17th June. Rounding the first bend in the river, Lieutenant Cook beached his ship on a sheltered mud bank and laid her over.


The very spot where Lieutenant Cook beached Endeavour.

Upon inspecting the damage with the ship on her side, Cook found that far from the reef collision being a major catastrophe, it was in fact a blessing. Many of the planks in the hull had been eaten away by worms and the ship was in a perilous condition; the next bad storm could have finished her. Jim, therefore, was obliged to undertake more extensive repairs than he'd anticipated and he didn't leave the river until 4th August.

While I'm here, he thought, I might as well name this river after the Endeavour. So he did. He also named Cape Tribulation because here begun all our troubles.

For a hundred years after the Endeavour left these shores, no European settled on the banks of the Endeavour River. Then, in 1872, gold was discovered in the nearby Palmer River. A gold rush began, necessitating a convenient port for unloading miners and supplies. The Endeavour River again presented a safe, sheltered and very suitable anchorage. Thus Cooktown was born. Today it's a beautiful, unspoiled place though we do think it's stretching a pretty long bow to claim it was "Established in 1770". After all, the good Lieutenant Cook didn't establish the town and those who did were not even alive in 1770.

After a fruitless search for Cook's ditched cannons by the people of Cooktown, they were eventually recovered by an American team of archeologists in 1969.

View from hotel

The view of Cooktown from our hotel door. The estuary in the morning.

Charlotte Street

Historical Charlotte Street, Cooktown's main street.

Perhaps the relevant words in the last paragraph are Today it's a beautiful, unspoiled place. Cooktown was opened up last year when the last section of the inland road was sealed. How long before the greedy developers move in and transform this little fishing village, this last frontier, into a major resort town with housing developments, high-rise hotels and shopping centres? How long, God forbid, before McDonald's fast food packaging litters the streets?

In the early days, Cooktown's drinking water came from public and private wells as fresh water was to be found just below the surface. In 1940, the town's main well had become putrid and was cleaned out by the army. They found one human skull (but no other bones) and three cannon balls at the bottom.

Cooktown Well

The well, sans skull and cannon balls, has subsequently acquired a few empty beer cans and bottles.

Naturally the bank of the Endeavour River boasted a statue of Captain James Cook although he was not promoted to that rank until he returned to England after claiming Australia for King George. Poor old Jim, it must be so hard to continue looking stern and dignified, standing on a plinth with dried bird poo down your face.

James Cook

Captain Cook with the setting sun behind him . . .                                         . . . and in all his glory.          

The Queen's Steps

The Queen's Steps

What must be the strangest 'attraction' in Cooktown is known as The Queen's Steps. The steps in question are on the bank of the Endeavour River and were constructed to aid H. M. Queen Elizabeth II to come ashore when she visited Cooktown in April 1970 to open the James Cook Historical Museum.

In the event, the tide was at an unsuitable level so the steps were never used.

The Queen's Steps

They are merely three very basic concrete steps, spattered with bird droppings. There is nothing even remotely unique or attractive about them and they serve no purpose whatsoever, yet they rate a mention in all the tourist literature. Am I missing something . . . ?

The Story of Mrs. Watson

On Charlotte Street is a magnificent memorial to "Mrs Watson". Her name was Mary but she seems to be remembered only as Mrs Watson. Poor Mary met a pretty awful fate. The white version of the story goes something like this:

Watson Memorial

Robert and Mary Watson lived on Lizard Island with their infant son, Ferrier, and two Chinese employees. In September 1881 Robert and a friend went off on a six week fishing expedition. While he was away a party of mainland Aboriginal men landed on the island. One of the Chinese, fearing attack, fired at the Aborigines. An altercation broke out during which one of the Chinese was killed and the other injured. Fearful of further attack, Mary and the surviving Chinese took Ferrier and left the island in a square tank that was used for boiling bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers). They drifted north until they were washed up on the waterless Howick Number 5 Island. There, all three died of thirst. When the bodies were found, an expedition was mounted against Aborigine people in the area and perhaps 150 were killed. The actual attackers were never brought to justice.

The memorial to Mrs Watson who, along with her son and a Chinese employee, died of thirst. It describes her as the Heroine of Lizard Island and, significantly, incorporates two drinking fountains.

The Aborigine version of events goes thus:

Lizard Island had always been a sacred place where young people were initiated. When smoke was seen coming from the island, a party of men sailed across to tell the people to go because they were on sacred land. The Aborigines could not speak English and when the Chinese saw them coming they opened fire and a skirmish resulted. The Aborigines allowed Mrs Watson to leave because their intention had never been to kill, only to tell the people to leave sacred land.

The two versions appear totally compatible. However, when you add the language difficulty, misunderstanding, and cross-cultural distrust, you have all the ingredients for the tragedy which resulted.

The Russian Threat

In 1885 there appears to have been some paranoia in Australia over the possibility of a Russian invasion. The good people of Cooktown sent a wire to the premier in Brisbane requesting arms and ammunition as the town was defenceless against attack. The Queensland government responded by sending an 82-year-old cannon and three cannon balls. Realising that was insufficient they also sent two rifles (but no powder) and 'a competent officer'. The Russians must have got wind of what awaited them for, to this day, they have never attempted an attack on Cooktown.


Visitors gaze in awe at Cooktown's state-of-the-art weaponry.

The two rifles and three cannon balls are depicted on the sign. There is, of course, a great deal more to Cooktown. It's history is chequered, going from boom during the gold rush to bust when the gold ran out. There was a curious railway built to service the goldfield. It was planned to extend it further but it ended on an eight span bridge that was never used. The railway, which would have been a great tourist draw today, has been removed entirely.

Incongruously, there was once a large convent in the town. The nuns were evacuated when a Japanese invasion was feared during the second World War. They never returned and the magnificent building fell into disrepair. It was saved at the eleventh hour and now proudly houses the James Cook Museum.

The sad history of the one-sided conflict with the Aborigines is as evident in Cooktown as anywhere, almost a whole tribe having been massacred in 1873 at a place ironically named Battle Camp. Not the least of the problems encountered by this town over the years has been the constant danger of cyclones during the wet season.

Notwithstanding all of the above, Cooktown is a pleasant and very picturesque place with a friendly population of 1,800. The next boom will undoubtedly be tourism. The town seems well prepared for it, the pavements lined with plaques telling of the history and the river foreshore well endowed with monuments and historical artifacts. Pam and I would have no hesitation in returning one day.

Footnote: This re-working of Page 29 was completed on 12 April 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.