Cooktown

I had been in Australia for a couple of weeks already before I reached Cooktown, a small town named for the great Captain James Cook, whose ship the H.M.S. Endeavour ran into the coral off the coast here, and limped into the mouth of what would soon be named the Endeavour River for repairs. Once a prosperous gold-mining town, it is now a small, isolated community surrounded by bush. This book excerpt is from my first day in Cooktown.

Cooktown was founded in 1873, during the Palmer River gold rush. By 1874, the population exceeded 30,000, and the town boasted 94 hotels. But after only 10 years (and $10 million in gold), the rush was over. Today, Cooktown is a small, quiet, rugged country town. There is a vibrancy and adventurousness behind that quiet, however, no doubt born of remoteness and a colorful past.

Here, prefab butts ghost town, elegantly columned arcade overlooks corrugated roof, gold rush excess stands beside rustic practicality, all softened by palm trees and cascades of bougainvillea. There are three hotels, a few stores, some offices, and clusters of tidy homes. Everything has a veranda. The grocery store was a bank during the gold rush days and, with its high, arched entryways, is one of the town’s more impressive buildings. The office of a Public Accountant is an iron-roofed, gum-slab shanty the size of a tool shed on an otherwise deserted dirt track. Rutted, red roads disappear into the green of the surrounding bush. Barefoot Aborigines wander the dusty streets or sit in the shade talking and watching their children play

Nearby, the sky-blue, mangrove-bordered river sparkles in the bright light. Low, green hills rise at the town’s edge and roll, unevenly, into the distance. The town’s odd, seemingly contradictory combination of rustic and exotic appeals to me immensely. The warmth of the equatorial sun seems to permeate everything, including the friendly people I met as I strolled around town.

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