27. Australian Road Trip: The Cooktown Monsoon

Where the heck is Cooktown?

Looking into the Cape

Curtains of rain moving across a deserted landscape
Curtains of rain moving across a deserted landscape
The road follows the ridges, then disappears into the wilderness
The road follows the ridges, then disappears into the wilderness

An Odd Geometry

The countryside around Mareeba is dry and dusty while just a few dozen kilometres to the east, Cairns and its coastal hinterland stew in steamy, wet heat. Mareeba lies in a flat basin atop the Atherton Tablelands. To the west - the Outback. To the north - Cooktown and the rugged Cape York Peninsula - and a new, exciting phase of our road trip.

From Mareeba it is 260 kilometres through wild, sparsely populated bush country to Cooktown along a road that was, literally, until today, gravel all the way and inaccessible for a vehicle like ours. Beyond Cooktown, only a 4x4 will take you further north into the heart of the Cape York Peninsula.

Out of Mareeba, the road barely falters from the dead straight. In fact, the entire landscape conforms to a sort of odd natural geometry – the straight, intersecting line of road vanishing into a flat, heat-blurred horizon; stick thin, arrow-straight trees with tufts of leaves on top cover the immediate foreground while in the distance hazy, pyramid-shaped mountains, appear to float above the land, defying the laws of physics and nature.

There may be few people out here but the animals… with fields unfenced, cattle graze the verges and wander, oblivious to danger, across the road. Wallabies too graze on the verges as the bloated carcasses and greasy, flattened remains of the slow and innattentive ones testify. Flock of assorted birds spook from the long grass as we roll past and one dies under our van in a crash of feathers. Our first road kill on the entire trip, so far.

Three enormous Wedgetail eagles suddenly rise up like wraiths from the road ahead, interrupted in their feast by our rumbling approach. I swerve to avoid a small snake as it sidewinds its way to the safety of the grassy verge. A flock of parrots the colour of neon scream from the roadside.

We stop for petrol and a snack at a desolate truck stop in a hot, dry village called Mount Carbine, once the site of a Tungsten mine. Further along, the road climbs a steep hillside and offers a grand view over the outback. For many miles after that we follow a ridge on an undulating road offering interesting landscapes. At one lookout we stop and are awestruck by the view of the highway ahead, winding its way into the distance, a realisation that we are confronting wilderness on a scale we have yet to encounter on this Australian odyssey. There are thick black cloud banks moving about in the distance and we can see sheets of rain, like grey curtains draped across the distant mountain spine. “I hope it doesn’t rain Sheila,” I say, “I hope it doesn’t bloody rain.”

At the community of Lakeland, 180 kilometres north of Mareeba, there is a junction. Left leads to Laura, Weipa and the rest of Cape York. Right is our safe road to Cooktown, just over 80 odd clicks away.

It's a funny lookin' mountain...

A 1000 foot high pile of bungalow-sized pebbles
A 1000 foot high pile of bungalow-sized pebbles

Black Mountain Mythology

The sign is quite spooky, out here, in the lonely bush.
The sign is quite spooky, out here, in the lonely bush.

Black Mountain Rock

A mountain in the distance becomes more distinct as we approach it. At first it appears blackened and fire ravaged, then, as we get closer, we see its true nature. It is Black Mountain (Kalkajaka), a 1000ft pile of black boulders. For no apparent reason it looms up from the flatlands beyond. It is thought of by both aboriginals and whites as a haunted, dark place, a place that kills; a sacred and taboo place. There are labyrinthine caves inside it formed by the lay of the enormous boulders. It is home to snakes, bats and lung fungus. People have died trying to climb it. It interferes with pilots’ radios as they fly over it. The aboriginal people won’t go near it.

We stop in the lay-by to have a closer look at the geological phenomenon and we both agree that there is something sinister about place. Coupled with the fact that we are the only people here and this bloody huge mountain’s worth of bus-sized black boulders is just piled up in front of us. Maybe I am hungry or perhaps I’ve been on the road too long but the Black Mountain really is beginning to cast a spell over me. It is the sort of place a bloke could be drawn to explore. It asks to be climbed. The dark spaces between boulders beg to be looked into. I have a sudden desire to be away from this place so I promptly get us back in the van and off we go. I keep catching sight of the mountain in the side mirrors as we head away from it. It is many miles before it passes from view.

Cooktown - Elegant but wet

Grand old buildings signify a once important town.
Grand old buildings signify a once important town.
Mountain views across the bay
Mountain views across the bay
Commanding monuments
Commanding monuments
The Top Pub
The Top Pub
Captain Cook I presume
Captain Cook I presume
kangaroo pastures
kangaroo pastures
A creek near the Botanical Gardens
A creek near the Botanical Gardens

In the late afternoon we at last arrive in Cooktown. It’s a fabled place in my mind; a remote historical town on the shores of the Coral Sea. Captain Cook lived here for a short while in 1770 while he repaired the Endeavour. His lot were the first white men to set up camp on the Australian mainland (on the East coast at least). Cooktown has witnessed a gold rush, boom times and up until recently, isolated anonymity. And there are crocodiles in it’s rivers and swamps too. Its streets are wide and long with old colonial buildings dotted along the main street. At the harbour there are yachts and fishing boats and a croc warning sign by the boat ramp.

There are jungle-clad hills over looking the town and across the bay, but these sights are mostly obsured by low clouds that have moved in with the lengthening of the shadows. We find a campground on the edge of town and take a pitch for the night. Tomorrow we will get into exploring the place.

At night hundreds of Pretty-Faced Wallabies graze in the field where we are parked; a large owl sits on a post near our camp, staring curiously at us for what seems like hours. Beyond the fringe of paperbarks come the sounds of a huge swamp. The chorus is composed of frogs, toads, crickets and cicadas while nightbirds sing a bush melody to the swampy blues sound. I sit outside in the dark closeting heat of the night and with my eyes shut the swamp begins to sound like real music. I can even count a 4/4 beat amongst the croaking, squeaking, clicking and buzzing. I keep the mozzies at bay with our greatest discovery – long thick citronella incense sticks. These babies really do work and with a circle of them burning around our slab and the warm glow through Winnie’s window I am seduced by the deep tropical night. Then it rains and I am forced inside. It keeps raining throughout the night, and in the morning it is still raining. By mid-morning there is no sign of it abating and the campground is starting to get waterlogged. I think we better get out of here now and try and find a spot on higher ground, preferably closer to town.

Road Tripping in Cooktown

There is a rock band out of Cooktown called the Roadtrippers. Their songs deal with some of the details of life in this part of the world. We discover the Roadtrippers album, ‘100 smokes to Kunnunnara’ while sheltering from the rain at the Cooktown Botanical Gardens Visitors Centre where we have come during our morning exploration of the town. The Visitors centre is an architect designed building with more than just rainforest exhibits. There is also a bookshop, art gallery and a very helpful lady who suggests we might enjoy the music of the Roadtrippers, being road trippers ourselves. She wasn’t wrong as the songs are all about where we are at the moment – the far north of Australia, in the heat and the wet of the steaming Aussie tropics.

earlier this morning we found the “Orchid Caravan Park” just off the main street near the Top Pub Hotel – a perfect location. However, this rain is a bit disappointing. We were so pleased with ourselves at having made it up here to this isolated place, it would have been great to be able to enjoy it in the sunshine. Of course, you should never take nature for granted in Australia. This rain could herald the monsoon that looked like it was never going to arrive this year, according to a local in one of the souvenir shops on the main street. It looks like we brought the monsoon with us! Bugger!

We spend the afternoon cocooned inside Winnie as the ground outside becomes a large puddle, verging on a pond. I dig a trench to try and channel the water but our “pondle” is refilled at a steady rate by what is now a cascade flowing down from the higher levels of the campground. As night draws in the wind and rain continue. A branch clacks and rattles across our roof and we cast nervous glances at each other when that happens. Lightening flashes, a car alarm sounds in the distance and a frog chorus plays in the bushes outside. It is a disturbing night with the rainstorms bashing a demonic tattoo upon our aluminium roof.

Sounds like a Monsoon

...and the rain came down.

Main drag monsoon
Main drag monsoon
Low tide
Low tide
These locals are NOT friendly
These locals are NOT friendly
Palms, Frangipani and rusty iron roof - Cooktown Tropical idyll (during a lull in the monsoon)
Palms, Frangipani and rusty iron roof - Cooktown Tropical idyll (during a lull in the monsoon)

Wet, wet, wet

In the morning we wake to the most ferocious of storms, with thunder and lightning as an added ingredient. It finally abates about 10am and I step outside into six inches of water. My new Crocs have even floated away and are lodged in the fence at the bottom of the campground. The caretaker eventually comes along holding a brolly and urges us to move to a drier site on higher ground, which we do.

It’s late afternoon and the Roadtrippers have played themselves out again, unlike the monsoon, which is once again tearing across the heavy grey sky. We have no choice other than to sit it out in the dry comfort of our winnebago. We have beer, food and things to occupy us so we’re not exactly uncomfortable. The air is pleasantly cool during the downpours; hot and humid during the lulls. A pair of shorts is the dress of the day and if we start feeling a bit trapped then the Top Pub is only just across the street.

During a lull I wander up to the shops and discover that we are cut of from the rest of the world by the raging Annan River which has blocked the road into town. The Endeavour River has also flooded, cutting us off from the town’s airport so we can’t even buy a newspaper. Despite being cut-off in the middle of nowhere there is no sense of doom or disaster, people walk about town, wet but unperturbed, though even amongst these hardened locals the monsoon is a topic of conversation. Most are grateful for the wet and love it. This is a hot dry place in the winter months so the six inches of rain that has fallen in the last few hours are lapped up.

Day Three of the Cooktown Monsoon, March 13

240mm of rain fell yesterday

Still the rain comes down. It beats the roof of the Winnebago, it splatters into the drowned lawn around us and showers from the flapping fabric sunshades that are suspended above the camping sites. Beyond the relative shelter of the caravans and nearby hedges, tall palm trees thrash about in the stiff gusts of monsoon wind. Beyond them the red tin roof of the pub stands defiant to all but the strongest of cyclones.

We are awoken in the early hours to the sound of the rain drumming incessantly on our roof. It just gets louder and louder and louder till you think the bloody drops are going to pierce the aluminium skin which is just two feet above our reclining bodies. It is so loud it is scary, but Winnie is stupendously watertight and as it gets even louder I can’t help laughing. After breakfast we take advantage of a break in the deluge to take some much-needed exercise. When the rain stops the sky actually lightens, and a few slender rays of sunshine filter through the clouds, raising the temperature and our hopes of a sunny day, but it is teasing us. As the air heats up it quickly becomes stickier and stickier and our bodies become saturated in sweat. Then, just as you think you are going to expire from acute humidity, another dark grey front swirls over the mountains and drops its wet load for the next two or three hours. We are caught out down near the harbour. But being wet is just a state of mind if it is warm so we carry on, have a coffee in a dockside café, and work our way back up Charlotte Street, sheltering under shop awnings along the way.

We stop in at the art gallery which is really an exhibition of local paintings by local amateur artists in the village hall. The Lady at the desk is surprised to receive visitors as no one can get into Cooktown at all. It appears we are two of only six tourists in town. I don’t know if that’s true or not but earlier I counted six other campers at the Orchid Caravan Park. It a weird feeling, being one of a half dozen outsiders in a town cut off from the rest of the world. Lucky the locals are friendly.

There’s something surreal about the whole situation. Later we sit in the Winnebago and stare in awe at the deluge outside. It is then that we realise we are truly trapped here for an unknown period of time. Every local we talk to tells us that not only is the causeway at the Little Annan River flooded but the McCloud river bridge, a hundred kilometres further south, will be underwater too. Then there are all the parts of that long highway that have flood warning signs on them – they will submerged too. For us to leave here it will have to stop raining for several hours and with a receding tide the local rivers should drop enough for vehicles to cross in about five hours. Provided it doesn’t rain. So the truth of it is – we can’t go anywhere. The rain is so heavy and relentlessly that it is becoming difficult to even walk about outside.

Once again we are thankful that Winnie is dry and comfortable, that we like each, that the town is Cool, and the air is warm.

During a gap in the biggest cloudburst so far I run up to the bottle shop for another six pack. The deep stone gutters are like small mountain streams in flood and the break in the rain has brought a few people and trucks onto the street. There are a couple of old Aboriginal men sitting on a bench by the Pharmacy and the newsagent is busy despite the lack of newspapers for the second day running. I ask myself, have they just ducked out during a lull like me, or has the main street been this busy all through the monsoon? It’s a philosophical question that soon answers itself as somebody upstairs pulls the great big chain in the sky and I suddenly find myself totally alone and very, very wet. The streets have cleared in seconds and I glimpse the end of someone’s foot disappear through a doorway as the driving, blinding rain scours the footpaths, and even flushes under the wide awnings over the footpath.

Red sky in the morning

Actual colour of the sky - no photoshopping, I swear.
Actual colour of the sky - no photoshopping, I swear.

Day Four of the Cooktown Monsoon, March 14

Another day - more rain - it must be Cooktown. I looked out the window this morning and the sky was blood red. The palm trees were thrashing about and in a moment the sky disappeared completely and was replaced by a vertical curtain of water. When we eventually make it outside during a lull, a few patches of blue appear in the sky - “not enough to patch a sailor’s trousers” - remarks Sheila. Nevertheless, sunshine is sunshine and when those rays touch my face I nearly melt with pleasure. Then it gets very hot, maybe 38°C or more, and within 10 minutes we are running through another deluge to find some shelter before our loaf of fresh bread we have just bought becomes totally waterlogged.

Spend the rest of the day much like we have spent the others during this event: Reading, writing, playing guitar, staring out the window, drinking beer, eating, thinking.

The long road back to Cairns

Annan River causeway, clear for now
Annan River causeway, clear for now
Typical warning sign
Typical warning sign
Pondering the sign
Pondering the sign
The McCloud River causeway under a foot of water
The McCloud River causeway under a foot of water
Chugging across
Chugging across

Escape

On the morning of the fifth day we awake to the sound of silence. It hasn’t rained for several hours. The sky is a pale grey and the temperature is a comfortable 28°C rather than the 35°C+ that it has hovered around during the monsoon, it is the steaming heat that builds the humidity to breaking point. This is a good sign. Maybe we can get out of Cooktown. It would be nice to stay and see the place in the sun. I imagine it is quite the beautiful with its jungle clad mountains and white sand beaches fringing the turquoise waters of the Coral Sea; the Great Barrier Reef just a few miles offshore. But we must consider the prospect that this hiatus in the monsoon will be short lived. We have to escape back to Cairns this morning or perhaps not at all for an unknown period of time.

The journey back is relatively uneventful after the excitement of the last four days. The Annan River is indeed very high, flowing just half a metre or so below the road bridge. Up in the hills, beyond Black Mountain, the Little Annan River shows evidence of its fury with uprooted tree trunks lodged in the jagged rocks that jut from the fast flowing torrent. The causeway is dry but it would only take an hour’s worth of rain to make it impossible, and deadly, to cross.

Big relief. We can relax and just drive. It becomes pretty dry once we are over the coastal range. We cruise through Mt. Carbine and are on the last leg of the wilderness drive when we reach the McCloud River causeway. It is under-bloody-water. There is a humorous road sign with a picture of a car being swept off the bridge and the words Dangerous Current When Flooded, I don’t find it funny at all. We park at the water’s edge and I take a little stroll onto the causeway to measure the depth. The current has considerable force despite it only being about a foot deep in the middle. A truck drives up on the opposite end, stops momentarily then drives across, pushing a large wave in front of it.

Well, we can’t stay here that’s for sure, so I mount up and we slip slowly onto the causeway and drive deliberately across the hundred metre long expanse. The brown water seems to ooze over the causeway and tumble down into a mass of foam and broken branches, but we cross it easily. Big grins of excitement mask our unspoken thoughts of what could happen if the current was too strong. Never mind, we have made it. Once again, Cairns here we come!

Things to do in Historic Cooktown

  • Visit the Botanical Gardens
  • Go diving off the Great barrier Reef
  • Take a trip to Lizard island
  • Visit the Botanical Gardens
  • Go Croc spotting
  • Go fishing
  • Enjoys the colonial architecture
  • Drink a coldie in one of the funky old pubs
  • Try and catch a gig with local band "The Roadtrippers"
  • Explore Black Mountain
  • Go Troppo

Check out this quintessential Aussie rock band

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