There are two roads you can take north from Cairns, and we travelled both. We took the inland road first, and then the coastal road. The McGee family come from Lewisham, Tasmania and for the next 12 months are travelling Australia while remotely managing a construction business and home schooling their year 10 son. They have an off-road 17.5ft Kokoda Digger Xtrail caravan, which they tow with their extensively modifieds 2014 Ford Ranger dual cab with a customised sleeper cab and tinnie on the roof.
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The Inland Road
Mulligan Highway, the inland road named after the explorer and gold prospector James Mulligan, takes you on a cruisy, 329km drive from Mareeba through Mount Malloy, a historic copper mining and timber town established in the 1890s. Mount Molloy plays host to James Mulligan’s grave as well as the remaining plant of Johnstons Sawmill, a relic from the timber sawmilling industry that once dominated the region.
Further on, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Mount Carbine is a stop on the side of the road offering cold beer in the roadhouse and a caravan park out the back – the perfect base to explore the region. Drive on to Black Mountain (nicknamed Mountain of Death), a hulking mass of black granite boulders, where legend has it that many people who ventured into the area – and their search parties – have never been seen again.
Not far from there is the Lions Den Hotel at Helenvale, which has become something of an institution. Built in 1875 and hardly changing since, visitors sign their names on any surface available and leave knick-knacks behind to serve as decorations. They dish up a good meal here and the campground set on the Annan River is large, flat and shady. We stayed here for two nights and thoroughly enjoyed mixing with the local characters who love to sit and have a yarn.
The Coastal Road
The second road, known as the Coastal Road, offers amazing scenery, rainforests and beaches. From Cape Tribulation, the Bloomfield Track is a 30km, challenging drive through the Donovan and Cowie Ranges, only suitable for 4WD vehicles. We drove through steep mountain passes and creek crossings to reach the Aboriginal community of Wajul Wajul and the nearby Bloomfield Falls, which is a 25-minute return walk. We recommend guided tours of the falls by local custodians who explain local history, customs and food sources.
From the Falls, we headed to the northern section of the CREB Track to travel to Roaring Meg Falls, a 4WD-only track for the confident driver through the spectacular McDowall Ranges. No photos are allowed to be taken in the area as it is a culturally significant region. From here we drove through Ayton, Rossville and Helenvale to reach the Mulligan Highway and on to Cooktown.
Cooktown has its history rooted in the arrival of Captain Cook in 1770, where he spent seven weeks repairing HMS Endeavour after it ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. Prior to his arrival, the area was inhabited by the Guugu Yimithirr people. In 1872, gold was discovered in Maytown and soon after, Cooktown was established as a major shipping port.
The best time to visit Cooktown is from April to December as the wet season can bring rains that cut off roads. There is accommodation to cater to any taste: we stayed at the BIG4 Cooktown Holiday Park where we were greeted by managers Bella and Mick, who were extremely helpful and friendly, even going as far as checking updates for road closures for us. The park sits among native tropical gardens with spacious flat sites on lush grass, allowing for easy parking up. It has excellent amenities with showers, toilets, and a camp kitchen overlooking a shaded pool area. The park also offers a courtesy bus to restaurants around town.
Around The City
The highlight of Cooktown for me would have to be the National Trust James Cook Museum, which showcases the town’s history beautifully – it even has the original anchor from The Endeavour. The Grassy Hill Lookout has sweeping vistas of Cooktown, Endeavour River and the Coral Sea. The Botanical Garden is one of the oldest in Australia, featuring living specimens collected by Sir Joseph Banks among exotic fruit trees, palms, orchids and native plants. My only regret is not having enough time to see all that the town unexpectedly offers and hope to one day