This year will be a big one for Cooktown in Tropical North Queensland. The popular town, located en route to Cape York and the tip of Australia, will mark the 250th anniversary of the landing of Captain James Cook and the first known act of reconciliation between Cook's crew and the local Aboriginal people.

Cook sailed in on HMS Endeavour in 1770 and spent a total of 48 days in harbour making repairs to his ship after hitting the reef. On a trip inland, Cook and his men were approached by an elder from the Guugu Yimithirr tribe carrying a broken-tipped spear. Cook recognised this as a peaceful gesture.

For the Aborigines, this was a sacred space to meet, where the local clans had agreed no blood would be spilt.

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Visitors can still see the rocks where Cook and the Aboriginal tribe met, known as Reconciliation Point, on the outskirts of the town alongside mangroves.

Each year the Cooktown Re-enactment Association puts on a performance by the waterfront to remember Cook's visit. This year it will have a very special prop when a replica of the Endeavour sails into port.

The history of Cooktown

Cooktown has an interesting history. In the late 1800s, its population peaked at 35,000 as prospectors rushed to the area with the promise of gold. Many of the buildings from that period still line the main street, along with the stone gutters that were set down when the town was first settled.

It's easy to get your bearings in Cooktown. The main street features most of the hotels, restaurants and shops, and leads out to the foreshore redevelopment, which is a popular spot to fish and have barbeques.

The town is popular with grey nomads travelling Australia. There is a thriving art scene in Hope Vale and nearby Wujal Wujal. Visitors can also see outstanding Aboriginal rock art galleries at Normanby Station and the nearby town of Laura.

For history buffs, there are lots of sites to visit. The James Cook Museum is housed in a former convent and among the impressive displays is one of the Endeavour's bower anchors.

Finch Bay, Cooktown, North Queensland. Photo / Tourism Tropical North Queensland
Finch Bay, Cooktown, North Queensland. Photo / Tourism Tropical North Queensland

There are plenty of great options for food in town. At the RSL Club, just sign the guest book to enjoy a lively atmosphere and lots of seafood staples such as mussels and fish and chips, and a range of pizzas. Drinks are generous pours for just $5 for a glass of wine. Best of all, it's open until late when many places stop serving dinner at 8pm.

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For something a little different check out the popular Annan Stonegrill, which uses hot stones to cook a variety of meat and vegetables accompanied by delicious sauces. It's advisable to book: the place was buzzing on a Monday night when I dined. Some may be slightly bemused by the concept of paying to cook your own food.

The Botanical Gardens is home to many of the species first identified by the Cook expedition, including the Cooktown palm and Cooktown orchid. This is where you will also find Nature's PowerHouse cafe and gallery, and the main tourist information hub.

Exploring Cooktown

Around town is a network of walking tracks, including an easy walk to Finch Bay, which begins from the Botanic Gardens and takes 20 minutes.

A slightly more challenging hike is the trail that winds up Mount Cook. It is a three-hour return walk to the top with plenty of stunning views on the way.

Next year, the 25-kilometre Dreaming Track will reopen, with some stunning views across to the Great Barrier Reef.

A few minutes out of Cooktown are some impressive beaches, including Elim Beach with its coloured sand and magical sunsets, Quarantine Bay and Walker Bay. Most of the time you will have these beaches to yourself, with just the odd dog walker for company.

The coloured sands of Elim Beach, North Queensland. Photo / Tourism Tropical North Queensland
The coloured sands of Elim Beach, North Queensland. Photo / Tourism Tropical North Queensland

It's not safe to swim on any of these beaches due to the lurking presence of saltwater crocodiles.

The safest way to get up close to the local wildlife is aboard a riverboat at sunset.
The cruise takes in the foreshore development and sails up the Endeavour River. The trip includes shared platters and operates a BYO drinks policy.

After taking in the sunset, the boat moored among the mangroves. Just as everyone had given up hope of seeing a crocodile, there swimming between the boat and the shore was a majestic saltwater croc, gliding through the waters.

He stayed there for a good few minutes before the barrage of lights from mobile phones got too much and he sank gracefully below the surface.

Cooktown remains one of those remote, hidden gems that even many Australians are not aware of, but all that may change next year when it holds three weeks of events showcasing its shared culture and everything it has to offer.

Sunsets in Tropical North Queensland are always a site to behold. Photo: Tracey Bond
Sunsets in Tropical North Queensland are always a site to behold. Photo: Tracey Bond

Checklist

The Cooktown Expo 2020 is due to take place between July 17 and August 4.

cooktown2020.com

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