Between Mossman and Cairns, Cape Tribulation and Cooktown spans a rainforest that is 100 million years old (compared with the 10 million years of the Amazon). There is a theory that all tropical forests on earth began to form around Melbourne’s location today, about 120 million years ago when Australia was a part of the great continent Gondwana. Once with the separation of Oceania, 50 million years ago, drier earth has replaced the tropical conditions. Rainforests once covering Australia were reduced to less than 1% of the continent area, and after the arrival of European settlers cutting of trees reduced this percentage to 0.3%.
The North Queensland rainforest – currently being a World Heritage protected area – has the highest diversity of endemic local species in the world. A fifth of Australia’s bird species, a quarter of reptiles, a third of the marsupials, a third of frogs and two-fifths of the plants are here, in a thousandth of Australia’s land area.
In the 1980s, conservatives have fought against the timber industry and the Queensland Government. In short terms, the environmentalists won against bulldozers, and today most of the inhabitants of north Queensland’s accept the importance of wetlands.
As about the mixture of vines and ferns, it has always been a protection against intruders. First of all, there is Taipan snake, whose bite is 300 times more toxic than the cobra. There are few snakes almost as dangerous. However, cases of death caused by snake bites are less common than those caused by lightning strike.
The local python almost doesn’t worth mentioning, although is the largest bushes python, is found in the Tully area and can measure up to 8.5 meters long. Saltwater crocodiles grow up to only 6 meters long in this region – but enough to catch an imprudent foot, to immobilize and eventually to kill the victims. If you see a tree Goanna – a huge mottled lizard with huge claws – do not scare it: you might be mistaken for a tree, it could climb on your foot and rend it. A blow from a scared cassowary – a 2 meters tall bird with a crown bone, which does not fly – can tear your chest. If you encounter one in an Australian bush, do not feed it and keep the distance.
The spider that barks and eats birds has a distance of 15 cm between the tips of the legs. It can be found at the edge of tropical forest and can cause a very nasty bite.
There are even a few plants “armed” and dangerous. Gympie heart-shaped vine, for example, can pierce with its silica thorns any type of skin which has enough misfortune to touch it and is described as “a hot iron that is applied on your skin”. Another plant, more common, is the Lawyer Cane, a climbing palm, thin and strong, with many hooks that cling to your clothes and skin, stopping from your way – so called “wait-a-while”. Hooks, however, are not poisonous.
It is an inappropriate name for one of the most serene corners of Australia, but at that time, Captain Cook was in a bad mood when one of its three ships, Endeavour, hit a reef in 1770.
Misfortunes came back in the 1980s, when the Queensland Government decided to build a road through the rainforest, in order to improve the access for tourists and for distant Aboriginal communities. Hundreds of environmentalists came down to Cape Trib, to throw themselves in front of bulldozers. Ironically, this fact has attracted so much attention on this area, that Cape Tribe became a common name in Australia, and currently is on the tourist map of the country. Finally, the road was completed, but in the meantime, public protests led to list Daintree area in the World Heritage of the United Nations. Currently this is a national park – so everyone wins.
Today, isolated atmosphere of Cape Trib, which appears to be from another world, has changed very little on the surface. There is a community dotted with a few food stores, except for a few hours during the day, when the buses arrive from Cairns, usually are less than twelve people on the beach. On the hills covered with tropical forests are some high quality green homes. Although few people come here, but more than in Port Douglas, there are coral reefs close to shore, which is a very rare phenomenon. A catamaran leaves daily from Mackay Cay.
Coastal road that leads to Cooktown and that environmentalists opposed it is now real. You need a land vehicle to break through tunnels of virgin forests, to cross small rivers and to climb surfaces inclined at 45°. But the views and feeling of isolation worth the effort. The road is open all year round with an extremely great care – but you can watch the flow of the Bloomfield river, unless you want to contribute to the diet of crocodile in the river. With a conventional vehicle, you can make the trip from Cairns, following the internal road Cape York Development Road, which still has a stretch of 70 km which is not closed. Stop the Lion’s Den tavern in Helenvale – is one of the oldest in Queensland’s north, with original wooden bar, a piano and a variety of pickled snakes.
At the end of the line is Cooktown (approx. 2000 inhabitants), a place that always had a reputation as the Wild West, being a tropical refuge in isolation, where you can withdraw when you have nowhere to go. It is located in the estuary with mangroves, where Captain Cook spent seven weeks repairing his ship Endeavour. Gugu-Yalangi locals were friendly and this was the most important contact between Aboriginal and European at that time. Sir Joseph Banks was allowed to make more detailed studies about local wildlife than he did in Botany Bay.
When an Irish prospector found gold in Palmer River in 1873, Cooktown was transformed in one of the busiest ports in Australia, with 94 taverns (slightly less than the barracks) and 35,000 miners who worked at the gold fields. In the Middle Pub is a mural that describes those days: miners spent gold dust that worth thousands of pounds in one night, running after women like the legendary Kate Palmer, getting drunk with whiskey, and then waking up penniless in swamps.
Cooktown still has many memories and has retained a certain apathetic charm. Among the palm trees on the main street can be seen several buildings from the end of the nineteenth century, including three places that have survived over the years (to avoid any confusion, taverns are known as Top, Middle and Bottom). Museum of History James Cook on the street Helen is one of the best in Australia, hosting exhibits and the anchor of ship Endeavour recovered from the barrier. Cooktown cemetery has its own stories of old pioneers.
The Final Frontier
Cape York Peninsula stretches beyond Cooktown, being a popular destination for off-road expeditions in the dry season. Road covered with red dust leads from a lonely tavern to another, passing over anthills of ants, forests full of screaming cockatoos birds and large sandstone cliffs, rich in aboriginal rock art. The most accessible is Quinkan Reserve, created by Australian artist and writer Percy Trezise. In Jowalbinna is a camp where you can stay overnight.
Laura village (100 inhabitants) lies in the southern end of Lakefield National Park, a land of marshy places, lagoons, swamps, mangroves and rainforests with a high diversity of flora and fauna.
From Cooktown takes three or four days, even in the dry season, to reach the northernmost point of Australia, top of the Cape York. You will pass near the town of Weipa with bauxit mines and you cross the Jardine River. At the end of the line, in Torres Strait, are places to camp, and simple but comfortable Pajinka Wilderness Lodge. There are ships that sail between Red Island Point (Bamaga) and Thursday Island, the administrative center of the Torres Strait islands, many of them receiving their name from captain Bligh, who stopped there with a large ship, after the uprising Bounty. Between June and September, the ferry operates from Pajinka and Punsand Bay. Thursday Island (3500 inhabitants) was one of the largest pearls fishing stations in the world. Somerset Maugham came here out of pure curiosity in the early 20s – wanted to visit the “end of the line” – the same impulse bringing people here today.