When, in August 1770, Lieutenant James Cook arrived at the little island towards the northern section of what we nowadays call the Great Barrier Reef, he and his men on board the HMS Endeavour found it almost uninhabited. Almost. His log reads: "The only land animals we saw here were lizards … which occasioned my naming the island Lizard Island."
Not overly imaginative but poor old Cook had been traipsing up the east coast of Terra Australis for quite some time, christening stuff willy-nilly, and was obviously coming to the end of his naming tether. We're just lucky he didn't come across a couple of goats in heat.
Today Rutting Goat Island, sorry, Lizard Island, is a whole different ballgame. It's still pretty much uninhabited except for the low-key, 40-villa hotel complex inserted quietly into the landscape on the north-western side. The only resort in the 1013-hectare Lizard Island National Park, it offers luxury and seclusion as well as what it calls "challenging hikes to the top of Cook's Look".
You see, Cook wasn't here for the benefit of his health or for the lizards. He and his ship had become misplaced among the labyrinthine low-lying reefs and he was "altogether at a loss which way to steer".
So they dropped anchor off one of the island's bright white beaches and climbed to the top of the granite outcrop in the middle to look for a way out of their predicament. Today, in wonderful understatement, the summit of that hill is known affectionately as Cook's Look.
Our visit to the island is part of a Coral Expeditions Barrier Reef cruise out of Cairns on the Coral Expeditions II, a small-sized ship named with almost Cook-like forthrightness. We arrive on Anzac Day, having spent the early morning at the dawn service in Cooktown, which is named after a local short-order cook who … nah, just joshing, it was named after the good lieutenant.
The weather is perfect and we swim around the reefs offshore from Watsons Beach, while occasionally one or two of the well-heeled denizens from the plush resort in the next bay around swing by to check us out. Here, we play two-up on a big blue tarp with one of the crew before dying light forces us back to the boat.
It's not difficult to imagine, as the sun sets and Coral Expeditions II turns to shadow in the twilight, what it must have been like for Cook and his crew as they explored this strange new land. We gather for a barbecue dinner on the back deck (cooked by our captain, no less) and then, much as I like to think Cook did, retire early before tackling Cook's Look at the crack of sparrow's fart.
When we set out in the dinghy taking us ashore next morning at 5.30am the heavens are a bluey-grey and Cook's Look a black behemoth against them. Very quickly, though, faded pink hues spread like fingers from the east to reveal a sapphire sky beset with a few insubstantial clouds that soon dissipate.
There are only five of us on the hike, including two members of the crew. Perhaps the others have been put off by the note in our daily newspaper, the Coral Sea News, that participants should have a "very high fitness level" and that it is a "challenging three-hour hike with steep rocky terrain".
The first part of the hike is easy enough as a well-worn path leads up through the scrub just off the end of the beach. From there it gets a little spongier in parts and finally the path disappears to be replaced with steep, smooth rock. The direction is marked and the climb a little arduous for sure – and it's certainly not something you'd want to do in the wet.
Eventually we put the rocks behind us, regain the path and begin the long walk to the summit through empty grasslands and truncated forest splashed with tiny but colourful wildflowers. The sun is fully out, the Coral Expedition II is a child's bath toy in the distance and we still have a way to go to the summit. God knows how Cook, Joseph Banks et al managed in those tight fitted breeches, stockings and buckled shoes.
At the top there are astonishingly beautiful 360-degree views of the ocean and the growing suspicion that James Cook must have been part-eagle if he spied a safe passage through that little tangle of reefs.
Today there is a plaque about Cook at the base of a medium-sized cairn and those stunted, windblown bushes that look as if they're being permanently blown sideways by a force 10 gale. In a weatherproof box there is a blue visitors' book in which, among others, Rosie and Leigh Beckett of Stewartby, England, describe the climb as the "perfect honeymoon adventure".
We step back on the sand at the bottom of the climb, parched, sweaty and a little atremble in the legs, pretty much three hours after we started and head straight for the cool, clear water. By gum, it feels good and I find myself hoping Cook loosened that British stiff upper lip a little and at least dipped a stockinged toe in.
PS. Not one lizard did we spot.
See also: Australia's most astonishing island
Three, four and seven-night cruises depart from Cairns year-round, with a seven-night cruise starting at $3395, including meals, welcome drinks, presentations by marine biologists, access to islands and marine parks, excursions, snorkelling equipment, flotation vests and wetsuits. Stinger suits are available for an extra charge. See coralexpeditions.com
Keith Austin was a guest of Coral Expeditions.