Cooktown was supposed to be a short stay for us, two or three nights, we said at first. It is a place that kept our attention and intrigued us more than most places do. It is a smaller town than what we had imagined it would be but you do have access to all of the essentials and it is not too remote.
The vibe that Cooktown gives off is interesting to say the least. There is a great small community feel. It holds what appears to be a very even mixture of indigenous people, other Aussie’s, working travellers and tourists and seems to balance them all very well. You see the same faces in the shops and streets as you do in the pub and at your accommodation so the place feels familiar and comfortable quickly.
The fishing off the wharf is probably the best pier based fishing we have seen thus far. The locals tell us that it is the quiet season for fishing but they are still catching Spanish Mackeral, Queenfish and big Trevally off the wharf. Ben was up early most mornings, joining the locals on the wharf with a line or two in the water. He caught a 6kg Spanyard and a nice school mackeral and also a queenfish for eating. There was also some smaller fish and some travelly, which he put back.
Cooktown’s main area has The Lure Shop (bait, tackle and hunting store, very helpful staff), IGA, two bottle shops, a butcher, a camping store, a couple of aboriginal art and history places, The Croc Shop (souvenir and gifts) and a budget variety store. There is a couple of pubs there plus the RSL and Bowls Club. The one pub that we visited almost daily was The Top Pub, it was literally across the road from Cooktown Orchid Travellers Park where we were staying. This old hotel is like a heart that beats at the centre of Cooktown, feeding blood and life to the rest of it. You will find that most of the locals spend a little or a lot of time here each week.
If you know Ben and me, then you will know that we both enjoy playing pool. It is, in fact, how we met each other in the first place. The Top Pub in Cooktown allows the locals to showcase and hone their pool skills like no other pub we have seen. The pool table is in great condition and in a perfect location. Tourists are more than welcome to join in and try and beat the locals. Pool competitions are held not once, not twice but three times per week at The Top Pub. Everybody seems to play. There is a mesmerising type of interest and respect for pool in that pub that we have not seen anywhere else. The table brings people together. When there is no competition on, you simply write your name on the chalk board and the winner of each game plays the next person on that list. The system works well, it allows anybody (whether they know the people on the table or not) to try their hand at beating the current game winner and stops people from having to wait too long to get a game. All of the locals have their own cues and some of them even go as far as having pool gloves. It is just $10 to enter the pool competitions and prize money is normally $200 for the winner. So if you love a game of pool and fancy yourself against people who can actually play, add Cooktown to your places to see before you die, you will not be disappointed.
Alby and his 10 year old son, Jackson are two locals that really stood out. Alby taught Jackson to play pool and for a 10 year old he has an incredible amount of focus. He takes shots that most kids would not even see and plays better than a lot of adults who have been potters all of their lives. It is a common site to see his and his dad’s name on the chalk board on competition nights. Harry, the local builder, is also around most of the time, he is a tall man and a good player and is hard to knock off the table on a good day. His current girlfriend, Robyn, is a free spirit and loves a hit on the table. Brian and Stan, two older gentlemen, that are rarely seen apart, often take their seats on the stools beside the table. They will observe quietly for a while but it won’t be long until they too add their names to the chalk board and pick up a cue. The local indigenous people, Les and his sons and friends are seen often and in the pool comps. Vinnie, an ex-commercial fisherman, lives upstairs at the pub, he knows the town well, maintains and cleans the pub and is a keen player. Loud Dan (“Keno”), is somebody who is hard to forget, he is a large guy who loves Keno, hence his nickname and cheers loudly for his numbers. He is a handy pool player and is intense but fun to be around. Michael the current publican, likes to sit around and have a beer with his locals and gives off a welcoming vibe without being too forward. The girls behind the bar are very good at their job, they are helpful and complete The Top Pub nicely. You will get great smiles and good conversation from most of them.
In the couple of weeks we were at Cooktown I ended up doing a few shifts at The Top Pub to try and top up our funds a little before we headed for Cape York. I worked behind the bar for three shifts and then did housekeeping for three shifts. The experience was really good. It let me get a feel for hospitality. The bar work was a sink or swim sort of experience, I was told to just jump in and see how I went and that is what I did. Pouring drinks and learning the till wasn’t too bad but putting through Keno was a little stressful at times. Housekeeping demands attention to detail and is physically challenging but gives your mind a chance to breathe and relax.
Ben took the Prado to Tyrepower in Cooktown to get the wheels aligned and the tyres rotated as we still have the same tyres on the front that the bulbar fell onto while we were in Corryong. After they looked at it they told us that the bearings needed doing, as did the bushes and the ball joints and all of this, with the parts shipped in from Cairns was going to be around $1500. This kind of money was really going to put a dent in the money we had saved to do the Cape. It would have been foolish not to get it done before hitting the rough roads though. Ben chats to people, especially locals, while he is out and about and while he is fishing. This is a very good thing. A local at the pier told him to try a different mechanic, about 10 minutes out of town in Martin called Dion. So, Ben took the car there. He looked at it and told us that everything looked good besides the back brakes, which were squealing because the brake pad was almost gone. He ordered the pad for us and fit it and fixed a shocker for $180 cash, saving us the $1500 that Tyrepower quoted.
We made friends with our neighbours at the park we stayed in. Carol and Wayne, who are in their sixties, they are both lovely, they love to travel, to have a chat and they love a drink… so needless to say we got along well with them. We exchanged some of Ben’s fresh caught fish with them for a couple of loaves of their fresh baked bread. We had some happy hours at the pub with them and some drinks in camp. We could not have asked for better neighbours, thanks guys!
By this time, we had spent around two weeks in Cooktown, we were spending more money than I was making in my few shifts at the pub and the longer we stayed the less money we were going to have to do the Cape. So, finally, we made the decision to leave. We left reluctantly, we could have very happily stayed much longer. Generally, we tend to spend a lot less money while we are moving than when we stop in one place for a while.
Back on the road, headed North again, knowing that we were slowly but surely running out of road that continued North. The road we did have left, lead us toward Cape York. Although the kilometres on the map looked short compared to the distance we had already travelled, the roads are rough and rugged and our travel would be slow and more risky than anywhere else we had been thus far.
It isn’t long after you leave Cooktown that you start to see the redness of the land pass by the car windows and then after that the road turns red as well. The road is exactly what you would expect if you have done your research. They are red, dusty with loose sandy gravel covering patches of corrugation, rocks, dust holes and smooth patches. There are some breaks of bitumen in between the dirt, which are a welcome site, but then sure enough the dirt patches return and the car shakes again. The ant hills seem to get taller as you drive and the trees and dry grasses change all of the time.
It took us three days to drive to Seisia, which is where we currently are. Our first stop was at Musgrave Station. A well set out outback service station that sells food, drinks and alcohol with a large grassy campground to one side of it. At the back of the campground, there is a small, still waterway, which is home to a number of turtles and fresh water crocs.
After Musgrave we drove six hours, through Coen (where we saw wild dogs), making it to Bramwell Junction Roadhouse. This place does not sell alcohol and although it has food available they may stop serving food early when it is quiet. The campground is large, grassy and pleasant, as are the amenities. The ant hills surrounding it are very tall and very red and by the time you reach Bramwell everything else will be red too… your car, your camper, your clothes, your dishes, everything. Even the trees and shrubs that line the road cannot escape a light but obvious covering of red dust.
To get to Seisia from Bramwell Junction you must cross more corrugation, more sand, more red dust and then the Jardine River. It was $130 for ourselves, the car and the camper to go over the Jardine on the ferry. The ride takes just a minute or two on the small open ferry. The $130 covers your return ride on the ferry also and gives you a permit to camp on the grounds above the Jardine. It is an impressive river, wide and clear brown in colour, it is the longest and largest in The Cape.
We were nearly at Bamaga, which meant we were only minutes away from Siesia when a back tyre on the car blew. As Ben lay on the red road jacking up the car, I watched for passing cars and trucks. Most of the main road is quite wide but the part we had to change a tyre on was a little more narrow. The changing of the tyre went fairly well, then as we pulled into Bamaga there was a rubbing noise coming from the front end of our Prado. After a visit to one of the local mechanics up here we learnt that out front bearings had gone on the car.
Seisia is truly beautiful, it is remote but still you can find what you need if you look hard enough. It is around 30km from The Tip of Cape York. Life is simple here. Compact red dirt, mango trees, coconut palms and dry grass make up the caravan park we are staying in and just beyond it the red dirt merges into white sand and then into aqua water. It looks fantastic and you could not blame anybody who did not know any better for running into the water for a refreshing swim. If it were not for all of the crocodile warning signs I may have even been tempted myself. When had only been here a couple of hours when we saw our first croc on the opposite beach. Ben is happy because the pier is basically next door to the park so he can go fishing whenever he likes but at the same time he is tired of waiting to get the car fixed.
The parts for our car need to be shipped or air freighted in and even though we ordered them days ago, they still have not arrived. We cannot wait for the Prado to be fixed so that we can explore more and look for our next work and money source. We will be staying in Seisia at least until Monday, we will go to The Tip and then head to Weipa. The tip of Australia, it is an achievement in itself and is worth the effort to get here.
There are more photos to come of the wild dogs at Coen, Bramwell Roadhouse and Seisia but internet reception is really bad here and so it is not allowing me to upload anymore at the moment.