WITH A NEARLY DESPERATE SENSE OF ISOLATION AND A GROWING SUSPICION THAT I LIVED IN AN ALIEN LAND, I TOOK TO THE ROAD IN SEARCH OF PLACES WHERE CHANGE DID NOT MEAN RUIN AND WHERE TIME AND MEN AND DEEDS CONNECTED.
– WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON, BLUE HIGHWAYS
In a land as variegated as Australia, where red cliffs bleed into green tropical forest, which blend, in turn, into wheat belts and cityscapes, the places that catch my eye are always worlds unto themselves.
Accustomed as we are to a land of endless vicissitudes with changing latitudes, it’s nice to slow down and take in a place that seems, at first, to offer only the most immediate of human needs: beer, food, tackle – to peel back the onion layers of a remote settlement like Cooktown and peer into its core, which is nothing more than the people who come here searching.
Sometimes it isn’t what you find in a place, though, but what you lose that defines the place, and ultimately, you.
You aren’t a local in Cooktown after a dozen years, but by 20 years you’re part of the structure, the psychic backbone of this northern outpost.
Cooktown is a gateway, a true satellite at the edge of the beyond. Somewhere between your 12th and 20th years, the moss of Cooktown settles, and the real locals finally accept you as one of them.
Or maybe it isn’t moss settling… it is when the last tendrils of the moss you turned up with finally fall away. Life here is about letting go of whatever life you had.
For the whitefellas, it’s about learning to live with the strange seasons of the Cape.
For the blackfellas, it’s still about learning to live with whitefellas.
Time changes in Cooktown. Everyone here calls it ‘Cooktown time’.
Try to do anything to a schedule, and it falls apart fairly quickly, yet everything happens, as it should, in the end.
Eddy Krop is a fixture in town, being the proprietor of the Cooktown Hotel, or the Top Pub.
Outback pubs run double duty as town halls, and the Top Pub is where you’ll meet pretty much everyone in town if you hang out for a couple of days, as I found myself recently.
Ed runs a tight ship – this is the Wild West, after all. He doesn’t start any fights, but he finishes every single one that breaks out within earshot of his pub.
The benches of the Top Pub are populated by a unique blend of wind-worn locals who turn up at noon and slowly drink until the sun goes down, and the ever-changing faces of the just-passing-throughs.
The street outside the big windows of the pub are a moving picture of well-equipped 4WDs with all of the ephemera of the great dream, conquering the Cape, screwed, bolted and cable-tied on.
I always stay upstairs at the pub, where the rooms still have the aura of a turn of the century hotel, but with comfortable beds and bunks.
The wide verandah with views out over the main street is, in my mind, the only place worth being when the sun goes down and Cooktown changes its clothes from a low-key tourism outpost to a wild party.
Bands play the Top Pub most weeks, and a few Aboriginal boys are out on the small stage playing funk covers to a crowd of locals. The lead singer is wearing white patent-leather boots and plucking a cherry-red guitar.
As the end of the night looms, they’ve already played three encores and run out of new songs, but the crowd is still hungry for more, so they start again at the beginning of their set list and just keep playing.
The chef at the Top Pub is not what you’d expect. After running several top-rated restaurants in Darwin, he ended up at the pub here half-retired, still making the same beautiful food, but for a random selection of visitors.
He still drives his Porsche 911 around town, a token from his high-flying city-living days, and one of the only non-4WD vehicles you’ll ever see up here.
Walking down the footpath in downtown Cooktown, and we find ourselves in a conversation with three Aboriginal rangers. They look after Archer Point, just south of here, and ask if we would like to go out and see what they do, check out the land they are here to protect.
So we load up the vehicles with our gear and head out to Archer Point. I was hoping for a fish, and they do catch them here when the wind relents. It wasn’t relenting, today.
At one point my cameraman and I were leaning 30 degrees into the wind howling over these maritime hills. The wind was howling, not us.
One of the biggest problems facing local rangers here is the dwindling opportunity for sea turtles to nest unmolested by wild pigs. The pigs are being culled in large numbers from one end of the peninsula to the other, and while it’s making a small dent in the problem, they come back after every wet season seemingly stronger than before in the more remote areas.
They also spend time putting out fires, looking after other wildlife and generally doing what park rangers might do if they weren’t so busy collecting camping fees.
The way the local bylaws are written, you’re not supposed to camp out at Archer Point (but the rangers tell me that they want people out here).
It is their land, but they want to see it being enjoyed by the public, responsibly. I like that they have taken such an enlightened stance on things.
We explore a few of the beaches around here, but it’s hard to relax when your shirt is whipping you violently from every angle in the wind, so we eventually head back to Cooktown to the pub, where the beer is cold, the conversation never boring and we feel at home.
CAMPING AT ARCHER POINT
ARCHER POINT CONSERVATION PARK is one of the most popular coastal fishing and camping spots between Cairns and the Tip.
ARCHER POINT is a conical headland capped by an automatic lighthouse, with a long sand and gravel beach fronted by a small coral reef. The area is crisscrossed with fantastic 4WD tracks.
CAMPING: Archer Point is well known for its wind, so take the time to stake out a protected spot. The area just back from the beach on the southern end of the park is a good option.
FISHING: Small boats can be launched off the beach at the southern end of the park – be aware that the shallow beach dries at low tide. The best shore fishing is off the beach or rocks at high tide.
WARNINGS: There may be crocodiles about, as well as wild dingoes. Beware when snorkelling and keep your dog close by at all times.
BYO: Bring everything – toilet, water and food, as well as a rubbish bin to take away your rubbish.