Doing a wharfie

There are many great and special places to be found throughout Australia and, with a bit of luck, you may even come across a unique place like Cooktown. A place where the clocks go different, where life is taken less seriously, where people live and let live, where on a calm day most of the town is out at the reef, having a ball catching fish after fish. And where everyone is doing a wharfie at least once a day.

Doing a wharfie: Driving down the main road to the wharf, where all the action is and where the road ends in a loop, taking you back into town.

Cooktown, the East coast’s equivalent to Broom in the West, is a place you just have to love. And madly fall in love with the small town we did indeed. It was just before Christmas 2011 when we arrived in Cooktown for the first time on this trip. We had been there on previous visits to Australia, but just for a couple of weeks. This time, we intended to stay at least four weeks and ended up staying for more than seven months!

The most important meeting point in Cooktown is the iconic Cooktown wharf, a place where one will always find company and where the fishing can be red hot. Because we arrived in the wet season, when most of the tourists stay away, we did get noticed and after a very short time we got to know many of the locals. Nicko’s seafood truck quickly became a familiar sight and every now and then on his daily visits to the caravan park, we enjoyed having a chat and a cuppa with Nicko.

Apart from him, one of the first locals we met was Roly, who had moved to Australia from Switzerland as a young man forty years ago. Roly is a keen fisherman and we shared many early mornings trying to catch one of the many species that regularly show up at the wharf. Roly is also a very talented artist and sells his wood carvings on Saturday’s weekly market. We loved our Saturday routine, which meant to be at the wharf at sparrows fart (reasonably early) for a couple of hours of fishing and then to go to the market for the rest of the morning and be around Roly’s stall, chatting away, watching the crowd pass by and getting the latest gossip. Nicko would have his seafood truck parked close by and there was always something going on. Around noon, we usually helped Roly to pack up and quite often later in the afternoon, we went over to his and his lovely wife Ricky’s place for a beer and good company.

Cooktown, despite the fact that it is situated a mere 340km north of Cairns, which isn’t much of a distance for Australia at all, has a feel of remoteness to it. With the main road from the south having been sealed all the way for several years now, the township has moved somewhat closer to its southern neighbours, but has retained its character.

The Cook Shire is rich in Aboriginal and European history and has seen exciting times indeed. Cooktown owes its existence to the fact that early prospectors found rich gold fields in the surrounding area in the 19th century. Within a short time the township was founded and named after Captain Cook, who landed with his crew at the very same spot in 1770. Cooktown became one of the busiest ports in Queensland and over several decades the lure of gold drew thousands of men and women to the Far North of Queensland. A few made a fortune, but many struggled and even found an untimely death. During our stay in Cooktown, we read a lot of books about the local history and they tell stories of unbelievable hardship and bravery. The climate and the rugged country are very demanding even in modern times and made receiving and transporting supplies in those early days extremely difficult. And the relationship between the native inhabitants and the alien intruders was often one of misunderstanding and hatred, causing many violent clashes and the death toll on both sides was terrible.

These days though, Cooktown is a very peaceful place and we enjoyed our time in paradise very much. The Cook Shire is 2.5 times the size of Switzerland and consists of very different types of landscapes and vegetation. Mountain ranges and dry plains, large river systems and estuaries, flood plains and hundreds of kilometers of sandy beaches all provide habitat for a diverse plant life and many animal species. From lush green, dense rain forest to dry eucalypt forest and open grassland, from billabongs full of water lilies to extensive mangrove forest, there is so much to see and explore.

The rivers around Cooktown are full of saltwater crocodiles, some of them over 5m long. We loved to head up the rivers and watch these giant reptiles sunning on the banks. Crocodiles are more often seen during the dry season though, when the water is cooler and they like to take a sun bath.

During our stay, the annual Cooktown Discovery Festival took place, celebrating Captain Cook’s arrival so many years ago. Over three days, the town was bustling with visitors and we were blown away by the creativity and the quality of the many attractions, all put up by a small community. There were speeches, singing and dancing, plays and stalls with yummy food of course and everyone had a jolly good time.

One of the reasons we stayed in Cooktown for so long was the fact, that we’ve found many new friends. Carol & Larry, Geoffrey, George, Ian & Jake, Ivan, Mark, Mina & Mario, Monique & Russell, Nicko, Richard, Ricky & Roly, Sandra with Angus & Juergen, Toosa & Russell, they all made us feel at home and shared their lifes with us. They took us fishing and beachcombing and treated us to homemade delicacies such as Carol’s famous fruitcake and Ricky’s legendary spring rolls. Many thanks to all of you, we miss you dearly!

Enough writing for now! It’s time to do a wharfie and then walk up Grassy Hill to watch the sun set. The perfect finish for another day in paradise!

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