Thursday, 8 February 2018

Cooktown; a tropical delight

I've not actually featured a town as a blog post topic before, and indeed hadn't intended to do so today. My original intent was to feature the lovely restored botanical garden - and indeed that will be the focus of what follows - but I realised that it would be a pity not to share some of Cooktown's other delights too. People have lived here, doubtless very well too, for tens of thousands of years, but its written history began in June 1770 when Captain James Cook's Endeavour struck an uncharted submerged reef and the crew spent a forced seven weeks ashore carrying out repairs. Cook climbed the hill now known as Grassy Hill Lookout to try to map out an escape route through the shoals - it is still the best introduction to Cooktown.
Late afternoon from Grassy Hill, looking inland up the Endeavour River, surrounded by mangroves, with
the town to the left. Cook named the river for his ship.

Looking out to sea from the same spot; was this the reef that forced Cook ashore?
While they were there, botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander (who doubtless were glad of the involuntary stay) were busy collecting over 200 plant species new to science and Sydney Parkinson made the first life sketches by a British artist of Aboriginal people. Among their scientific specimens was the first Eastern Grey Kangaroo Macropus giganteus known to European science.
So much of history seems to be driven by chance. Cook learnt the word 'kangaroo' (which he rendered
as Kanguru or Kangooroo) from the local Guugu Yimidhirr people. Had the Endeavour sailed past instead
of landing, as they had intended, the next opportunity for English-speakers to learn a local name for the animal
would presumably have been that of the settlers at Sydney eight years later - and we would probably be now
using the word 'patagarang', or something similar.
(This Eastern Grey Kangaroo - or rather two - is not from Cooktown, but Canberra!)
 In case you're not familiar with Cooktown - and I don't expect my overseas readers to be - it is located in far north Queensland, on the Pacific coast, on the east coast of Cape York Peninsula.
Location of Cooktown - well north of the Tropic of Capricorn - at the end of the red arrow in far
north-eastern Australia.
Cooktown has had a tumultuous European history, which began more than a hundred years after Cook's visit, when a settlement known as Cook's Town was established at the mouth of the Endeavour River in 1873 to service the Palmer River goldfields, 120km to the south-west. (The contraction to 'Cooktown' was made official shortly afterwards.) There was soon a substantial Chinese community, some prospecting but many more growing fruit, vegetables and rice and supplying the town and the gold fields; others ran shops. By 1880 Cooktown was home to 4,000 people, with as many more in the surrounding districts. By now the gold fields had been worked out, and the passing trade dropped off, but there were still 27 licensed pubs in town, supplemented by a goodly number of illegal grog shops and several brothels serving alcohol. There were also bakeries, a brewery and a soft drinks factory, dressmakers and milliners, a brickworks, a cabinetmaker, and two newspapers. 

A beautiful 60 hectare botanic gardens was opened in 1878 - more on that anon.

Cooktown begin to shrink as Cairns and Port Douglas to the the south took some of their port trade, but it still survived on the back of more minor gold finds, pearls and the growing cattle industry. By the end of the nineteenth century there were probably only 2000 people living there. A major cyclone in 1907 and a big fire in 1919 caused widespread destruction. Most of the remaining population was evacuated during the Second World War. The indigenous population was forcibly removed, many of the older people being sent to the infamous Palm Island; it was a bad time and place, and many of them didn’t survive the experience. 20,000 Australian and US troops were stationed in town.

After the war people started to return, then in 1949 another cyclone mostly destroyed the town. When the inland rail link to Laura closed in 1961 and the Peninsula Development Road from the south opened up, bypassing Cooktown, the population dropped to just a few hundred. It still refused to die though, and as tourism increased in importance in the 1960s, so the population climbed again. The cyclones stayed away until April 2014, when Ita crossed just north of town, bringing massive flooding, but not too much damage. The permanent population is now around 2,500, massively boosted in winter by tourists. One of the things I like about Cooktown is that it doesn't seem to have compromised its nature too much while catering for visitors; I can only hope that balance is maintained.

I am especially fond of the waterfront, which inevitably features a tribute to the man for whom the town is named.

Other residents of the Esplanade are rather more lively.
Little Red Fruit Bats Pteropus scapulatus, found widely across the Australian near-coastal tropics and
sub-tropics. There was a colony of thousands on the waterfront when I was last there; I assume there still is.
This is the smallest of the 'flying foxes' in mainland Australia.
They are always active and curious, and seemingly very intelligent.
(I have the impression there's a youngster clinging to this one, but I can't quite make it out.)
Lastly, before I get to the main focus of this post, I must mention one lovely little reserve just off the Mulligan Highway, only five kilometres south of Cooktown.
Keating's Lagoon, above and below.
Covering just 47 hectares, the reserve protects lovely wetlands in the Annan River catchment.
Which brings us to the botanic gardens, 60 beautiful hectares set just south of Grassy Hill, between the town and Finch's Bay. 
The Queensland Government provided £200 a year to assist in the gardens’ development in the 1880s –
this was policy at the time! – and a botanist was employed to develop a nursery.

There were two gardeners employed in 1890.
It was called Queens Park and was very formal and British with stone paths, pools and footbridges.
Here is some of the original stonework, restored. Wells were sunk – these are still used now
In the 20th century however it fell into disrepair and became overgrown. In the 1970s it was realised that some 20 plant species survived from the original plantings and in 1984 reconstruction of the gardens began, supported by Commonwealth funding. Today it is magnificent again. One focus is on the plants collected by Banks and Solander nearly 248 years ago (as I write).
Some of the Banks and Solander garden, which is still establishing.
Here are some other features of the gardens.
Part of the cycad garden.

Orchid house - not much flowering when I was last there.

Vanilla Orchid Vanilla sp. with pods.
The cafe deck is not to be missed either....
...likewise the excellently informative visitors' centre, above and below.

One of the highlights for me is the magnificent 6.5 metre long python, carved from the very dense and heavy Cooktown Ironwood Erythrophleum chlorostachys, which I am told is very hard to work with.
The head stands a good metre off the ground.

Cooktown Ironwood, the wood of which was used to carve the botanic gardens python; despite the name
the tree is found across northern Australia. This one was near Georgetown, well to the west of Cooktown.
At a more natural level, a key part of any visit to the Cooktown gardens is the delightful short walk through monsoon forest to Finch Bay.

Views of the lovely track to Finch's Bay through monsoon forest.
Vine forest, or monsoon forest, is a type of rainforest growing in a tropical area with a strong wet season
followed by a long dry season. 'True' rainforest, taller and denser, needs rain all year round,
though at least one season is usually significantly wetter.
Finch Bay, north end above, south below.
Unfortunately I can't determine who Finch was (I'm assuming it's not named for a bird!);
as ever, any help gratefully received.
So, Cooktown. If you've not been there I hope it's on your list - and of course the drive there and the country around are also magnificent. I'd love to think I've encouraged just one more person to go somewhere superb.
Sunset over the Endeavour River, Cooktown.
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Flabmeister said...

Growing up in England the urban legend was that "Kangaroo" meant something like "I don't understand you." Is that in fact correct? If so is that also the translation of 'patagarang' or is that the locals name for the marsupials of Sydney?

Flabmeister said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Fraser said...

That one's been around for a long time, but as far as I can tell it is an urban myth. Guugu Yimidhirr is a living language, and I think the record would have been corrected by now if that isn't their name for the animal. Aust National Dictionary and Aust Oxford certainly think it's genuine, but ultimately I can't say for sure.
Re patagarang, that's even harder to be specific about, since the language has gone. However we accept other animal names from that and other indigenous languages, so no real reason to doubt this one specifically. Moreover I think the similarity of the first part of the name with that of 'pademelon', from the same language, is probably significant.