By Shane Boocock
“Watch out for Snapping Handbags,” shouted Finley, our tour guide, into the microphone, as I looked down at the slow moving tidal river. It’s the locals’ way of letting you know there are freshwater crocodiles down in the brackish water below the riverbanks!
In this part of tropical North Queensland, I certainly found my fair share of adventure and, along the way, learned some of the “local lingo” that, in part, derives from the Aussies’ sense of humour and their natural ability to tell stories, just as the Aborigines had for thousands of years before the colonialists arrived.
Aboriginal culture is more than just a part of Australia, it’s woven into the fabric of the country. It encompasses thousands of years’ existence living in tribal communities in one of the remotest, hottest and driest continents on the planet.
Adventure trips started with navigators such as Abel Tasman who, in 1642, accidentally came across Tasmania, and later Capt. James Cook who charted the whole eastern seaboard of Australia, forever engraving much of Northern Queensland with his ability to name just about everything. Cook’s Islands, Black Mountain, Endeavor Falls, Cape Tribulation, Sorrow and Hope Islands and Weary Bay, aptly named by the crew of the barque “Endeavour” after it had struck the reef north-east of the Bloomfield River. By the 1800s, inland explorers like Major Mitchell and Edward John Eyre managed to survive their rugged journeys, travelling lightly, with a good knowledge of the bush and bushcraft, often accompanied by Aboriginal trackers. Others, like Burke and Wills, who refused to trade or deal with the local Aborigines of the Darling River, did so at their own peril.
To learn more of the history of Northern Queensland, I booked some tours with Adventure North Australia and chose to combine their 1-day Daintree Daydreaming Tour with a 2-day Cooktown Explorer journey covering Cairns to Cooktown and back – a 700km round trip.
Finley, our tour guide, was a bloke with more knowledge about Australian history and nature than a Google search engine. “Question’s are free, answers are two dollars,” he jokingly stated. I hoisted myself into his behemoth of a vehicle – a Mitsubishi cab and truck chassis with a 16-seater air-conditioned coach interior strapped to it – a combination of Jeep and Safari truck all rolled into one … ‘a real beaut, mate’.
On the outskirts of Cairns, I stared in awe at deserted stretches of palm fringed beaches, the sort promised in tourist brochures. The James Cook Highway as it’s known, is the main route north, winding its way along coastal headlands, over mountain ranges and through the world Heritage Daintree Rainforest National Park – “the largest hardware, chemist and supermarket in the world,” was how Finley described it.
At this time of year, the equatorial-like conditions are known as a ‘soft, soporific climate.’ Flame trees the colour of sliced tamarillos were in full bloom, ripe mangos drooped from roadside trees, and bananas plantations were stockpiled. Hedgerows of bougainvillea are used as fence lines as its spiky needles deter wandering Brahman cattle, ‘droughtmasters’ as they are referred to hereabouts.
A day earlier I had walked barefooted into the squelchy mangrove swamps with the Kubirriwarra brothers, where I learned to throw spears, the sharpened tips made from umbrella spikes or from rods out of the boot of old Commodores. I learned where to find fresh water on the driest day, and hunted for mud crabs and periwinkles, with one of the brothers, Brendon, pointing to new finds, and always starting his sentence with “Now these fellas here…”
I spotted the odd crocodile as we cruised on the Daintree River for a few hours. In the heat of the day, I hiked in the shade of a rainforest canopy along the edge of a glistening stream where strange and primitive plants survive and flourish. It was here that I swam in the pristine fresh waters below the 600m high Niau Falls, or Tranquility Falls, as someone liked to call it. In the clear waters below, freshwater yabbies went about their business, unaware they would one day be served up for dinner.
Once we were on the Bloomfield Track, the tar road disappeared and the unsealed highway began. This is one of the most rugged, challenging and beautiful roads. It bends and dips and twists, with finely granulated bull dust your only means of traction. It is only passable in the dry season and is one of the best known 4-wheel drive routes in Queensland. The trip from Cape Tribulation to Cooktown is about 120km, with some of the steepest hill climbs I’ve ever seen, an area retaining much of its frontier character. Road signs warn of crocodiles lying in wait and of cassowary crossings or monitor lizards.
We stopped in a lush valley on the banks of the Little Annan River for lunch and a beer at the quintessential outback pub, the Lions Den Hotel. Having enjoyed a rich history since 1875, this landmark hotel with a wood and iron construction is famous for its quirky ceiling decorations and walls adorned with visitors’ signatures.
It was mid-afternoon by the time the truck pulled into Cooktown, a place all but deserted in the scorching 33 degrees heat of the day. It was here that Capt. Cook beached the “Endeavour” in 1770 in order to repair the hole in the keel when he ran aground on the Barrier Reef. This is a beautiful and tranquil place. Eucalyptus and tropical plants cover the surrounding hills as the estuary of the Endeavour River winds its way in from the sea. The town’s main street is wide, and empty except for the odd cruising car. The width of the streets, I was told, was in order for teams of bullocks from the goldfields to turn in a full circle. In 1874, Cooktown housed 50 hotels, today there are just three remaining – the West Coast Hotel, the Top End Hotel and the Sovereign Hotel – after one cyclone hit town and blew much of the structure away, locals soon referred to the latter as the Half Sovereign!
“Be careful where you sit,” said Willie, “those holes in the ground are where Huntsman spiders rest-up, then there are death adders, scorpions and biting ants.”
With those words ringing in my ears, I followed Willie on a thirty-minute bush walk to see his ancestral rock art sites, set high in the hills above Hope Vale, outside Cooktown. Willie Gordon is an Aboriginal, traditional story-teller and operates Guurrbi Tours.
“Guurrbi has many different meanings,” mused Willie. “It’s a time, a place, a space, a personal sanctuary or dwelling place which was made sacred by the Yirmbal the Rainbow Serpent. It’s also a place for refection.”
His powers of observation are sharp. On the trail he showed me where a snaked had slithered across the sandy path. He pointed out a plant called a cockyapple, Aboriginals call it Gunawr. Crunched up and thrown in a fishing hole, it takes oxygen out of the water and fish simply float to the top! Eucalyptus leaves broken up in the palm of your hand with a little water will lather-up into oil, then soap, and also act as an antiseptic on cuts. His ability to find bush tucker and bush medicines is a sight to witness first hand.
Willie’s tour took me through a dramatic landscape to six rock art sites where he showed and explained how the paintings speak of the essence of life and the lores of his people. It was an amazing insight into his Aboriginal society.
As Willie said: “We all have a spiritual place, wherever we come from.” Exploring Tropical North Queensland is more than an adventure; it’s the way to discover a new world, to discover yourself, and to witness some of Australia’s unsurpassed natural wonders.