One of Australia’s last frontiers, Cape York Peninsula is increasingly accessible and firmly on the wish-list of many road-trippers.
Heading north from Cairns, there are two ways to get there: on the sealed Mulligan Highway to Cooktown, named for the explorer James Venture Mulligan, who discovered the Palmer River goldfields in 1870, or on the 4WD-only Bloomfield Track.
While the intrepid may continue for another 700km to the tip of Cape York, Cooktown is the centre of the Cape’s tourism industry. Rock art sites are among the main drawcards, but only a few of the hundreds of painted rock shelters throughout the region are open to visitors.
Laura is home to the fascinating Quinkan Cultural Centre , which outlines the history of indigenous rock painting as well as the Aboriginal and European history of Cape York.
Free entry: www.quinkancc.com.au.
The most accessible rock art site is Split Rock, 12km south of Laura, known for the distinctive figures of the Quinkans, supernatural spirits which live in the sandstone and rise from crevices at night to stalk the land. It is listed by UNESCO as among the top 10 rock art sites in the world.
Accommodation is available at the Quinkan Hotel, which has budget cabins and camping facilities.
The historical township of Cooktown has several attractions relating to its namesake, Captain James Cook. His ship Endeavour was grounded here in 1770, and Cook and his men spent months repairing it. The James Cook Museum has Endeavour’s anchor, and a rich collection relating to Aboriginal and gold rush history.
Aboriginal elder Willie Gordon’s Guurrbi Tours explore his ancestral land, including rock art sites, a birthing cave and the “reconciliation cave”. As he introduces guests to his land, Willie tells the Dreamtime stories of the Nugal-warra people and their customs.
Cooktown’s best accommodation is at the colonial-style Sovereign Resort Hotel, which has hotel rooms and two-bedroom apartments set around a lagoon pool.
Set in the World Heritage rainforest at the entrance to Cape York, just south of Cooktown, Mungumby Lodge is a boutique safari lodge. Accommodation is in 10 wooden bungalows, each with its own ensuite bathroom and small verandah. This is a back-to-nature experience, with no telephones or televisions.
Facilities include a restaurant, bar and swimming pool, and there are Aboriginal guided walks (by appointment) to rock pools and waterfalls in the surrounding wilderness park. Guests have included naturalist David Attenborough, and the lodge is a favourite with bird-watchers.
Travellers should be aware that restrictions apply either banning or limiting the amount and type of alcohol you can take into some Aboriginal communities on Cape York.
For more information: www.datsima.qld.gov.au.