Cape York & Cooktown
The rugged beauty of the isolated Cape York region
Where the rainforest meets the sea, Cape York is one of the most pristine natural areas in the Cairns region with white sandy beaches, strong Aboriginal heritage and lush rainforest backed by distinctive Australian red landscapes.
Stunning: The unique marshlands of the region are home to numerous birds and other wildlife and graced by beautiful sunsets. Image supplied by Tourism Queensland
Historic: The museum at Cooktown is a classic Australian building showing its English heritage and surrounded by unique flora. The museum has a fabulous collection of Aboriginal artefacts and memories of Captain Cook.
Culture: The Laura Dance Festival in Cape York is a bi-annual affair featuring the dances, songs and arts of Aboriginal people from around Australia and the Torres Straits Islands.
Cape York is a relatively undeveloped area of pristine sandy beaches, lush rainforest and the odd fishing resort in out of the way, hard to get to, places.
The majority of the population live in a few scattered townships and the regional Aboriginal communities – about 60 per cent of the population are from Aboriginal or Torres Straits Islander groups.
The Daintree Ferry takes you across the river into the heart of the Wet Tropics rainforest. Not far from the ferry is a spectacular lookout on Alexandra Range where you can see the Daintree River spilling out through the rainforest into the Coral Sea.
The Cape Tribulation Road winds its way along the coast, through the rainforest to the Cape Tribulation township, which is near the Daintree National Park.
If you’ve got yourself a 4WD you can continue to travel north along the Bloomfield Track, but not during the wet season as it is usually closed due to bad weather.
About two and half hours drive north of Cairns is where the rainforest meets the sea. Cape Tribulation is the starting point for adventures further north into Cape York.
Cape Tribulation is a national park and doesn’t really have a ‘town’ as such. Rather after driving through the Daintree area visitors will come across a number of resorts and camping areas scattered across the region.
However there are a few home comforts at Cape Trib, as it is commonly known, including a general store and a chemist (pharmacy) but all major purchases, particularly food, should be bought before leaving the Cairns, Port Douglas or Mossman areas.
Accommodation ranges from backpacker style camping and camper van venues to luxurious eco resorts. There are a number of excellent tours available including walks and hikes in to the less-travelled rainforest areas.
At certain times of the year – the wet season runs from November to May – 4WDs are the only way people can get into and out of areas on Cape York and Cape Tribulation. However recent improvements, the Peninsula Developmental Road heading up to Cooktown for example, mean it is easier now to reach many isolated areas.
Parts of the national parks and world-heritage listed areas are off-limits to visitors, but the 4WD tours will have correct permits and permissions for their various Cape Tribulation tours.
Most tours include either camping and/or hiking so can be difficult for those with mobility issues and small children. However, private charter groups are able to organise specialised tours for people with a particular interest.
Some Cape Tribulation tours are designed specifically with fishing in mind and combine 4WDs, camping, hiking and great fishing on empty beaches.
4WDs are the best way to get out into the area and experience nature up close and personally.
Cooktown is famous for being home to Captain Cook on his first journey of discovery up the north eastern coast of Australia after he managed to hole his ship the HM Bark Endeavour in 1770.
Still a small town, Cooktown has been growing rapidly over the last few years making it one the region’s growth areas. As the first non-indigenous settlements, Cooktown came into its own from 1873-1883 during the Palmer River gold rush.
Since then the township has waxed and waned with fishing and cattle being the two major industries in the area. Now, however, Cooktown is becoming a hub town for the eco-tourism and growing natural tourism on Cape York.
With a population of about 2000, Cooktown is relatively small but also acts as a service centre for the surrounding Aboriginal communities of Hopevale and Wujal Wujal.
Visitors can fly direct from Cairns Airport or hire a car and drive on either the Bloomfield Track if they have 4WD or on the inland Peninsula Developmental Road.
There are a number of tour companies who can transport visitors to isolated national parks and great Cooktown fishing spots. Lizard Island, with its luxury resort, is off the coast of Cooktown. There is relatively little Cooktown accommodation which ranges from camp sites and caravan parks to four star resorts like Sovereign Resort Hotel, so it’s advisable to book in advance.
Grassy Hill Lookout in the town offers a fantastic 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape and a great walk from the summit to the nearby beach of Cherry Tree Bay. For lovers of the historical Cooktown celebrates Captain Cook’s landing every year in June with the Cooktown Endeavour Festival with a hilarious re-enactment of Cook’s landing. There six monuments to Captain Cook in the town, a lighthouse that was built in England and shipped to the town in 1885, a sun-dial and a cannon on Grassy Hill that all testify to the town’s history and worth checking out.
Nature’s PowerHouse is an Environment Interpretive centre located in the historic Cooktown Botanic Gardens and is worth a visit for the great botanical drawings collections, the gardens and great café.
Cooktown is also home to a number of excellent beaches that offer pristine wilderness without the crowds. Finch Bay is just down from the Botanical Gardens; Quarantine Bay is a great swimming spot; North Shore Bay can only be accessed by boat; Cherry Tree Bay is only accessible by foot and Walker Bay is just down from the Golf Club.
If these aren’t enough, north of Cooktown is Hope Vale and Elim Beach with its spectacular coloured cliffs and the famous Coloured Sands.
On the way to Elim Beach is the Endeavour Falls Tourist Park with a general store; where you will need to stop to ask for permission to enter. The park has camping and caravan site as well as a store.
In the same area are the Isabella Falls and more waterfalls are to the south of Cooktown, including the Bloomfield Falls at the Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Community.
Cooktown fishing is also great with charter boats available for reef fishing and good local catches coming from the town’s public wharf.
However visitors should remember that this region is also home to the estuarine or saltwater crocodile and as a conservation area it is recommended that people not swim in the lagoons or lakes of Lakefield National Park.
In order to get the best out of the Cape York and Cooktown area it is worth hiring a 4WD. There are a great many spots to visit and other than a basic bus service and Cooktown tours, it is hard to get around the region.
The majority of the population of Cape York Peninsula are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders and their culture is distinct and still strong.
Cooktown is the northernmost town in the Cairns region but as visitors travel further north and west settlements become much smaller and quite isolated. Visitors should take this into account when planning self-drive tours to the area.
The best time of the year to visit is between April and October before the hard temperatures of summer arrive. From December to April is the wet season when many roads end up under water and settlements get cut off from the outside world for days or weeks at a time.
Some of the bigger settlements include Laura which offers a pub, a general store, service stations, a police station and a health clinic. The area around Laura is home to some of the world’s largest prehistoric rock painting galleries and there are a number of Cape York tours available with the local indigenous owners.
The population of the town more than doubles during the Laura Dance Festival which is a bi-annual Aboriginal cultural festival bringing indigenous people from around Australia for the event. For more information on dates visit the Aboriginal Tourism website.
About 250kms northwest of Laura is Coen, a major supply stop for visitors heading to Weipa and further north. Bigger than Laura there are a couple of stores, a hospital, post office, police station and tourist accommodation. There is also an airstrip and a scheduled service to Cairns airport four times a week.
Weipa is home to about 3000 people and is a prosperous mining area, mainly for bauxite, and was built largely by the mining company now called Rio Tinto. The town is home to stores, health providers and pubs with some accommodation. The miners generally fly in and out on a weekly basis and few families remain for long.
Right at the tip of Cape York are the small towns of Bamaga and Seisia. Seisia is home to only about 100 people but a number of quality Cape York fishing tour companies have begun using the area as their base. Visitors can also visit the Torres Straits Islands from Seisia.
Bamaga is larger and home to a thriving Islander population. During the wet season however both settlements can be completely cut off from the rest of the country. Bamaga is mainly a tourist town during the dry season and offers a general store, post office, service station, pub and bakery.