Cooktown (Part 1), Thursday 13 to Saturday 15 June 2019

When we reached Cooktown on the afternoon of Thursday 13 June, we had driven a total of 3,888 kilometres from home, The Sanctuary, at Rutherford in the Hunter Valley of NSW over 40 days. Except for the last segment from the Atherton Tableland to Cooktown, we had hugged the east coast of Australia. There is a coastal route from Mossman, just north of Port Douglas, to Cooktown, but the Bloomfield Track north of Cape Tribulation is for four-wheel drive vehicles only. The road from Mareeba to Cooktown is longer, but sealed all the way, and that is the one we took Matilda over.

Since Port Douglas, we had discussed our trip so far, and considered whether we wanted to continue with the next leg to Normanton and Kurumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and then the following leg to the Top End of the Northern Territory. We agreed that all three of us had had a wonderful trip full of adventures so far, but Ian and Katie were longing for the comforts of our home in the Hunter. Dexter, on the other hand, just seemed to live for each day. The thought of several more thousand kilometres of driving, with generally longer distances each day, was a bit daunting for Katie and Ian. Ian was having pain in his neck from driving, and we were unsure whether we would be able to get the awning fixed on the way. Otherwise, Matilda was going well, and we were all quite happy.

Ultimately we decided to head home after Cooktown, taking mostly an inland route through Toowoomba where we wanted to catch up with another Rob who was a work colleague from the Geological Survey, and Ian wanted to check out fifth wheelers at Winjana RV. We would still go to Victoria in October for the CMCA annual rally and then drop south to see friends in Melbourne, but the Top End, Lake Argyle, the WA coast, Margaret River, and the Nullabor Plan could wait for next year.

We really appreciate those readers and followers of our travel blog. We hope you enjoyed reading about our adventures as much as we have enjoyed reporting them.

We came to Cooktown for two reasons. Firstly, it is the most northerly town on the east coast of Australia that you can drive to by staying on the bitumen. Secondly, Ian wanted to learn about James Cook’s landing there in 1770 to repair the Endeavour after running aground on the Great Barrier Reef. Ian wanted to immerse himself in the history of the event. Be warned however, we have posted a lot on Cooktown as this place ended up greatly surpassing our expectations, and we stayed much longer than planned. We have broken Cooktown into two parts. This is Part 1 from Thursday to Saturday. Part 2 from Sunday to Tuesday follows.


We left Kerribee Rodeo Campground at Mareeba early in the morning, and after refilling a gas bottle at Elgas, headed north. We stopped at the Byerstown Range Lookout for lunch. It was a grey day, and there was not much of a view. The toilet was good, and there were some hanging signs with lots of interesting information about the area.

Byerstown Range lookout and rest area

We arrived at Cooktown and were surprised to find that all caravan parks were full because we arrived just before the weekend of the annual Cooktown Discovery Festival held during 14 to 16 June. This year marks the 40th staging of the event that highlights Cooktown’s unique environment, heritage and culture, and commemorates James Cook’s landing and 48 day stay in 1770. We could not believe our luck, having also arrived a few weeks earlier in the town of 1770 in time for a similar event—the 1770 Festival. A re-enactment of Cook’s time here was scheduled for Sunday morning. When we let Grant and Jacqui know what happened, Jacqui recommended that we stay for that as she had seen it and was impressed.

We enquired at the Cooktown Caravan Park, where the manager indicated that a vacancy for a powered site for a motorhome will come up on Sunday 16 June. We had already found online a RV Rest Area at the local racecourse where we could stay for up to 3 nights for a donation to the amateur jockey club. We booked 16 June at the caravan park, and headed off for the racecourse, which was only a couple of kilometres from town. The RV Rest Area was quite full of vehicles, but there were some boggy areas. We found a spot that was high and dry, and we set up our camp with chairs, the table and the dog pen. Cooktown Council staff came around to check on campers to ensure that they do not overstay. They were friendly and helpful, gave us a program for the festival. They said that the RV Rest Area was likely to get packed over the weekend.

The program mentioned a cruise on the Endeavour River the next morning with a botanist from James Cook University of North Queensland. Ian was very interested, so Katie gave her permission for Ian to go, and she would stay onshore and look after Dexter. Ian made a phone enquiry, was told that the cruise was dog friendly—there was already another dog booked. It was a warm night with light drizzle at the RV Rest Area. We enjoyed Thai red curried prawns with pumpkin and coconut rice for dinner.

What a pleasant surprise to Katie when she stepped out from Matilda on Friday morning to see a beautiful rainbow at our campsite.

Rainbow at the racecourse

We laid out our table, chairs and Dexter’s pen to mark out our site at the RV Rest Area in the hope that we would still have a place to park when we returned in the afternoon after our river cruise. We parked at the wharf precinct, and met Nick from Riverbend Tours, Darryn Crane from James Cook University, and Sally the chocolate Labrador. The cruise boat was full, and we had a total of 29 people and 2 dogs.

Darryn led the Botanical Cruise up the Endeavour River, spoke about Joseph Banks and Dr Daniel Solander who explored the area when they landed in 1170. Joseph Banks financed the scientific team on Cook’s voyage around the world. He took with him Swedish botanist Dr Daniel Solander. They did a 3-day long boat trip up the Endeavour River, which was named by Cook. During their 48 days onshore in the Cooktown area, Banks and Solander collected 325 species of plants, but surprisingly no mangroves, which are the most common plant along the Endeavour River. Darryn indicated that the journals of Banks and Cook are available online.

Darryn, the botanist from James Cook University

Darryn mentioned that now Australia has 22 of the world’s 70 species of mangroves. Mangroves are grown in the intertidal zone of estuaries, are therefore flushed twice a day with seawater. They can cope with low oxygen and high salinity. Mangroves are an essential component of ecosystems that are the ultimate source of much of our seafood. Mangroves are also world champions at sequestering carbon dioxide—better than the same area of rain forests, although rainforests cover a much larger area of the world.

An interesting fact is that Solander and Banks did not see any coconuts during their time despite specifically searching for them. We are confident that coconuts were introduced into Australia from elsewhere. However, Australia has fossil coconuts 10 million years old.

We searched for evidence of crocodiles in the river, which reminded me of our fruitless crocodile search in the Daintree River on our honeymoon. We found tracks that are most likely to have been made by a crocodile, but we did not see any live crocs.

Looking for crocodiles among the mud and the mangroves
Possible crocodile tracks, or Aquaman
A peaceful life way upstream

We had morning tea of blue berry muffins and feta and sundried tomato pesto tarts from the Driftwood Café with our tea and coffee. Dexter and Sally also enjoyed the cruise. This was a novel experience for Dexter, who Ian had to restrain to stop him diving into the water.

During the cruise, Darryn mentioned that he was also leading a botanically themed bushwalk the next morning. This was to start at Grassy Hill and finish in the Botanic Gardens. We met Tony Roberts, the curator of the Gardens, and asked him if we could take Dexter. Normally, dogs are not allowed in the conservation reserve, but he was prepared to turn a blind eye this time. It seemed that both Dexter and Sally were keen to go.

Dexter enjoyed the cruise

After the cruise, we walked around the main town centre and it was quite quiet. Stalls were setting up for the market. Ian was able to get a haircut in one of the hairdressing shops.

While we were walking around the parks near the riverbank, we met a young lady called Shadia from Chile who liked Dexter and wanted to play soccer with him. We enjoyed watching Shadia interact with Dexter. She is obviously a good soccer player. Katie took a short video and posted it on Facebook: .

Statue of a gold miner to commemorate Cooktown’s 125th anniversary. Cooktown was established as a substantial port in 1873, 103 years after Cook’s landing, to support the Palmer River goldfield.
Memorial to Captain James Cook
The landing place of the HMB Endeavour was well marked

Back at the RV Rest Area, our camp setup had not been touched, so we were able to slip back into our spot. That night, there were less RVs than the previous night, which was a bit surprising.

We were up early on Saturday morning, skipped breakfast, and met the shuttle bus to take us into the Botanic Gardens for our bushwalk. The driver had no problems with having Dexter on board, and Dexter behaved beautifully. We were pleased to be able to leave Matilda at the RV Rest Area so we were assured of keeping our camping spot. Eventually a crowd congregated at the Gardens, including Sally the chocolate Lab. Darryn and Tony arrived, and the shuttle bus took us in two groups to the lookout on the summit of Grassy Hill for photos. We understand that James Cook and Joseph Banks climbed the hill several times to get a good view of the coast and to help plan a safe route out through the reef.

Another informative plaque at the summit of Grassy Hill
Endeavour River from Grassy Hill lookout
Cooktown from Grassy Hill lookout

We walked down the road to the start of the track to Cherry Tree Bay. There we found yet another useful plaque that depicted the HMB Endeavour beached against the bank of the river for repairs. We were happy that Cooktown proudly displayed its history to visitors.

Plaque at start of the track to Cherry Tree Bay
Briefing at the start of our botanical bushwalk, with Darryn holding the straw hat and Tony pointing the way to go

After our briefing, Darryn led the walk while Tony backed up the rear. Darryn told us that Joseph Banks funded a scientific team of 10, including a geologist. This was particularly interesting to Ian who is a retired geologist. As the plaque at the start of the track depicts, the English befriended the Aborigines whom they called “Indians”. We would learn the full story at the re-enactment the next day. We made lots of stops to look at interesting plants.

Like Dexter, Sally the chocolate Lab enjoyed the bushwalk

Impressive nuts on an old cycad “tree”

When we arrived at the beach at Cherry Tree Bay, Dexter pulled Ian towards the water and had a splash at the water’s edge.

Cherry Tree Bay, where Dexter couldn’t help drawing attention to himself

We then had a very steep uphill section at the start of the walk back to the Botanic Gardens. One old fellow struggled, and Tony stayed with him and saw him safely to the end. The main group also stopped at one spot, but we decided to walk ahead. We were caught in a light shower, but the activity kept us warm. We were the first ones to arrive back at the Gardens. We took the shuttle bus back to the town centre which was well alive with festival activities. We were so hungry and couldn’t resist the temptation of coffee and steaming hot donuts with zero nutritional value. Probably not the healthiest breakfast choice we could have made, but we deserved a reward after our three-hour strenuous bushwalk! We also ate the doughnuts while sheltering in the Navy stall during another shower.

Sand sculpture by Dennis Massoud

We watched the street parade which was very entertaining. It was far from glamorous, but the people involved obviously enjoyed themselves. Unfortunately, we missed the street parade in the 1170 Festival.

We went to the Sovereign Hotel for lunch. There was no local brew, and Ian found the 150 Lashes was yuck—what is it that pubs do to make a good beer taste off? He had a glass of not bad chardonnay with a barramundi burger. while Katie had avocado quiche and salad. This was the bottom pub, and they had put on some local entertainers. The top pub featured more prominently in the festival program, but a clear sign out front indicated that dogs were not welcome at all. A sign at the Sovereign Hotel indicated that dogs were not allowed on the premises past it, but this left two tables in front of the sign, so that’s where we sat while Dexter slept under the table and nobody said a thing.

After lunch, we caught the shuttle bus back to the RV Rest Area where all three of us crashed for the rest of the afternoon. We have no recollection of what we did for dinner—we were probably too pooped to care! We settled in for our third and last night at the RV Rest Area, and again, to our surprise, there were fewer RVs than the previous night despite being in the middle of the festival.

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