Cooktown, North Queensland: Stranded: The unexpected town where Captain Cook got stranded

A short stroll along Cooktown's riverfront esplanade reminds you what a hugely significant role this town of fewer than 3000 people, 350 kilometres north of Cairns at the base of Cape York, has played in Australian history.

Just metres from the wharf, you'll find the Queen's Steps, built for Elizabeth II's visit in 1970 when she opened one of the country's best regional museums. Here, too, stands the determined figure of "Mick the Miner", pickaxe in hand, striding determinedly inland to try his luck in the 1872 Palmer River gold rush.

Chinese miners flocked in their thousands,  from Hong Kong or Canton via the ships suddenly dispatched to this northern outpost. The Chinese monument celebrates the contribution Chinese miners and market gardeners made to Cooktown although they were often ostracised by the townspeople.

Of course, the Aborigines were here 50,000 years before. Their story is told in the Milbi Wall, with panels by different Indigenous artists. Next you'll come to the James Cook statue and the memorial marking the spot where he beached the stricken Endeavour on June 1, 1770, after it had been holed in a midnight collision with a part of the Great Barrier Reef he named after his ship.

Cook also named the river that salvaged his entire voyage of discovery after Endeavour,  the only river he named during his voyage up Australia's east coast.

The 86 men aboard, who had had feared death, were unloaded onto this very riverbank, with their sheep, pigs, dogs, ducks and a single goat. Tents were pitched, fires lit and the crew set to work repairing the ship. It was seaworthy within the first 10 days, but winds and tides were unfavourable.

So Cook and his crew remained on this river bank for 48 days. It was the longest time Cook ever spent on Australian soil (the Endeavour was only in Botany Bay for eight days).

For Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, the botanists aboard, it was an unexpected opportunity. In just seven weeks at Endeavour River they collected 325 species of plants, most of which were previously unknown and represents more than half the botanic species that exist in the region today. Their achievement is honoured in the town's superb botanic gardens. 

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Be sure, too, to spend time in the garden's Vera Scarth-Johnson Gallery with its superb collection of botanic illustrations by the late artist, a local.

Cook named 133 landmarks in Australia but none after himself – certainly not Mount Cook, which towers over the town that bears his name. Cook never climbed that 431 metre-high peak but he did climb Grassy Hill, which offers a superb 360-degree view of the Coral Sea and the Endeavour River. What Cook saw didn't impress him because he could see no way out past the reefs to the open sea.

Drive or walk up to the lookout and the old lighthouse named after Cook at the top of Grassy Hill. Excellent interpretive signs, with diary extracts from Cook and Banks, explain what they witnessed.

It was at the Endeavour River, for example, that Europeans first saw, sketched, shot and ate the strange hopping creature they named "kangaroo". The name was first recorded as "kanguru" on July 12, 1770, in an entry in the diary of Banks. Here too they first saw a crocodile, flying fox, dingo and possum.

But the most significant thing they experienced during their seven-week sojourn was first contact with the local clans of the  Guugu Yimithirr and Kuki Yalanji nations.

To appreciate how lucky Cook was in his landing place you should visit the museum named after him in Furneaux Street (which the Queen opened in 1970). The entrance is guarded by one of the six cannons that Cook ordered to be thrown overboard to lighten his ship to free it from the reef. They were recovered in 1969 by an American dive team (the other five are in national museums in Canberra, Philadelphia, Wellington, London and at Botany Bay).

But here in Cooktown, you'll also see Endeavour's lost anchor recovered in 1972 by an Australian dive team.

By chance, the Endeavour beached at a sacred spot where disputes between bordering clans were sorted out without resorting to bloodshed. Had that not been so, it's unlikely the crew would have survived and Cook's name might be a historical footnote.

First contact with the Aborigines was initiated on July 10, 1770. Banks noted "four Indians were on the opposite shore. Two of them paddled toward the ship and stopped at the distance of a musket shot. They were talking and shouting, often holding up their lances to show they had weapons should ill will be shown to them."

The "Indians" showed no interest in the "gifts of cloth, nails, paper and beads", Banks recorded, but when "a small fish was accidentally thrown to them ... they showed the greatest joy imaginable".

However things turned decidedly nasty on July 17 when some of the "Indians" were invited aboard the Endeavour. The visitors saw fresh turtle meat but turtles and dugongs were only allowed to be speared and eaten for special ceremonies, with permission of tribal elders.

Yet the European sailors were  feasting on the delicacy, fished from Guugu Yimithirr waters.

Cook's diary records "10 or 11" of the "quite naked" natives seemed fixated on the turtles, taking "the liberty to haul two to the gangway to put over the side".

Later that day, when Cook and Banks were ashore with a handful of crew, the "natives" set fire to what remained of the Endeavour bush camp. Eventually, Cook was "oblig'd to fire a musquet loaded with shot at one of the ringleaders". It hit the ringleader, though Cook wrote "he could not be much hurt as he was at great distance when I fired".

Cook, Banks and and a small party followed the Indigenous warriors inland despite the "darts" thrown at them. After 750 metres, the locals rested on a rock outcrop. The stand-off could have continued to calamity. However, according to Banks, "the little old man now came forward to us carrying a lance without a point. He halted several times as he stood (and) employed himself collecting moisture from under his armpit with his finger."

Cook and "the little old man" negotiated a peace. Food was shared, and Cook and his Endeavour crew were allowed to continue their journey back to the other side of the globe.

That rocky outcrop in Cooktown is now known as Reconciliation Rocks, and local historians claim it was the first recorded reconciliation between Indigenous Australians and Europeans.

At this time, we should remember Sydney Parkinson, a Quaker, who was one of two artists aboard Endeavour and who died of dysentery on the return voyage.

He was 28 when the Endeavour was stranded in what is now Cooktown and, despite the 900 drawings and 250 watercolours he produced on the Endeavour voyage, he's an unsung hero. Parkinson was the first European to record words from Indigenous languages. There are 132 words and phrases from the Guugu Yimithirr and Kuki Yalanji languages in his journal. And if he got some of them wrong – "kangaroo", for example – at least he tried.

TRIP NOTES

Steve Meacham travelled at his own expense.

MORE

traveller.com.au/queensland

tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au 

DRIVE

Reach Cooktown via State Highway 81. The coastal Bloomfield Track (4WD only via the Daintree River ferry and Cape Tribulation) is more interesting but can become impassable without notice.

STAY

Sovereign Resort Cooktown has comfortable rooms, a restaurant and a pool. See sovereignresort.com.au.

VISIT

James Cook Museum, see nationaltrust.org.au/places/james-cook-museum

Cooktown Botanic Gardens, see cooktownandcapeyork.com

See also: Australia's 10 most underrated tourist destinations

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