Cooktown is best described as “a small place with a big history” – this is where Captain James Cook ran aground the Endeavour, and the crew spent 48 days here attempting to repair the ship, officially making it the first non-indigenous settlement. Naturally, then, we paid a visit to Grassy Hill lookout, which Cook himself climbed in 1770 in search of a good view of the reefs with the aim of navigating the ship away safely. Although the lookout is commonly associated with Captain Cook today, it was once (of course) solely an aboriginal space, so its history goes back a lot further than him. There is little recorded history about the significance of Grassy Hill before Cook’s arrival in 1770, except that the aboriginals deliberately burnt the forest on the hill in the hope of encouraging regrowth of vegetation and drawing animals to the area for hunting.
Despite Cooktown being the first non-indigenous settlement, Cape York Peninsula still has a very strong Aboriginal culture today (over 70% of the population are Aboriginal). The region once consisted of 43 tribal nations, each with its own language and tradition. Today, many of these languages have been lost over the years, but there are still an estimated 10 languages and potentially hundreds of dialects spoken today. If you’re interested in exploring the Cape’s rich aboriginal history, Cooktown offers a number of guided Aboriginal Tours to various rock art sites in the surrounding area. Alternatively, you can visit Spit Rock on a self-guided tour.
After a quick stop in Cooktown, we were looking forward to starting the Bloomfield Track to Cape Tribulation. Although this is strictly 4WD only, the condition of the track has vastly improved over recent years: the steepest uphill section is now concreted, and many of the creek crossings have bridges (but the crossings that do remain are too deep for 2WD). We loved the drive through the rainforest from Cooktown and we barely passed any other vehicles on this side, but once you pass Emmagen Creek (the deepest), it starts getting quite busy on the Cape Trib side. This is a great picnic spot, and supposedly there’s a nice swimming hole in the creek, but I would still approach with caution because there really are a LOT of crocs around here…
My one piece of advice for this drive from Cooktown is do your research and book your accommodation before you arrive in Cape Tribulation because there is absolutely no phone reception nearby, and even the phone boxes don’t accept coins (only pre-paid Telstra cards). There are lots of caravan parks to choose from (we ended up staying in one) but there’s a lovely National Park spot called Noah’s ($6pp) which you need to book online or on the phone before arriving! We spent one night at Lync-Haven ($14 pp) which I would also highly recommend as it had some fantastic rainforest walks, which felt really quite wild in comparison to the various rainforest boardwalks dotted around Cape Tribulation. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any cassowaries during our stay, but there is a high chance you could see one! Once you’ve explored the tropical walks, why not explore the tropical ice-cream flavours at Daintree Ice-Cream Company? The flavours change daily, but you can always try 4 scoops for $6! We had mango, soursop (tastes like lemonade), wattleseed (mocha flavour) and jackfruit (not our favourite…) You can also wonder around their beautiful 22 acre orchard, which contains over 15 species of rare and exotic fruit trees for you to marvel over.
We were (surprisingly) disappointed that we hadn’t spotted a crocodile in the wild during our time in the Daintree Rainforest, so we decided to pay to go on an official “crocodile cruise” ($28 pp) which, in hindsight, is a much safer option than wondering around the empty creeks by ourselves! We chose to go crocodile cruising with “Solar Whisper” (there are several companies to choose from) and I would highly recommend them! Their name refers to the eco-friendly electric boat that they use on the river which emits very little sound and relies on solar power. All of the croc cruises leave from the other side of the river, and you have to pay $14 one way to take your car over (but you’re going in this direction anyway!) We had a really warm welcome from Martin, who shared heaps of knowledge with us about crocodiles and wildlife in the Daintree River while we drank tea/coffee before setting off for our 1 hour cruise. It’s actually quite a chilling sight when you first spot a crocodile in the wild: it lies completely still – often with its jaw wide open – until it suddenly and stealthily decides to launch itself into the water or even attack another croc. At which point, we felt extremely glad to be sitting in the safety of a boat with the option to move away when necessary! Overall, we saw 5 crocodiles in total (including a baby croc) and it was a really exciting and informative experience!
We said goodbye to Cape Tribulation and headed towards what became one of our favourite campsites in the whole of Australia! If you’re travelling in this area, you have to pay a visit to the wonderful Feathers ‘N’ Friends – only $6 pp for a little piece of paradise. Owners Fred and Jeanette have opened up their own tropical haven to travellers who are looking for basic camping facilities in a serene rainforest setting. We were the only people there when we visited, and I just wish we could have stayed longer because it was so idyllic! There’s an abundance of wildlife on site (bird lovers can book out their own cottage for optimum birdwatching) and some stunning tropical flowers. Fred and Jeanette grow a vast array of fruit – mangoes, soursop, jackfruit, coconuts… and were kind enough to give us a few ladyfinger bananas as they were nice and ripe – hands down the best bananas we have ever tasted 🙂 I guess there’s a reason why they are more expensive in the supermarket after all!
From Rainforest to Reef
It’s only about an hour’s drive away from the tropical paradise of Daintree Rainforest to the upmarket coastal town of Port Douglas. It’s full of nice cafes and restaurants here but we were going here one reason and one reason only: to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef! I can’t recommend a visit to the reef highly enough – people always complain about how “it’s not what it used to be” which, of course, may be the case due to a huge number of environmental factors. BUT, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still the most breathtakingly beautiful experience that you might ever have! Even though coral bleaching is still a massive threat, there was a lot of healthy coral on the 3 different sites that we visited in Opal Reef with Wavelength, not to mention hundreds of different fish! We spotted a couple of large maori wrasse, a few nemos (clown fish), a stingray, an eel, giant clams, batfish, lots of vivid parrotfish – someone in our group even spotted a reef shark! It was just such an incredible snorkelling trip and the staff on board were all so friendly and helpful when it came to describing the different reefs and identifying all of the species for us. Words don’t do it justice – so check out some pictures from the day (all taken by Wavelength):
After your epic snorkelling drip, enjoy the short but scenic drive down the coast to Cairns, while daydreaming about all of the amazing underwater sites you’ve just seen! For me, Cairns was nothing special, but it was really popular with backpackers and it is a great base for exploring both the reef and rainforest. Although you can’t swim at the beach in Cairns, there was a fantastic park with a large lagoon where the whole town seems to hang out on a sunny day! It is situated right by the ocean, so it at least gives the illusion of being at the beach 🙂 aside from that, we spent one night with a couple of friends at Calypso Hostel (tip: you can stay in your car/van in their carpark!) We took part in a hilarious pub quiz where you can win “Zanzibucks” to spend at their “Zanzibar” – we didn’t win but I would definitely recommend spending the night here as it’s your most affordable option for campsites – plus there’s a nice swimming pool!
Next time you hear from me, we will probably be back in Perth as we are about to drive to Alice Spring followed by the Red Centre Way and the Great Central Road – so you can also expect a guest blog from Phil about our 4WD experience! Wish us luck!