A May 2004 trip
to Cairns by rodeime
Quote: Cairns, once a sleepy, distant backwater, is now an international tourist gateway offering instant access to the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. Or, when you've finished, travel further north into the truly remote Cape York Peninsula.
Hotel | "Sofitel Reef Casino"
Opened in 1996 at a cost of $220 million, it boasts a two-level boutique casino, four restaurants, a nightclub and (wait for it) a fully enclosed rainforest dome that houses numerous exotic birds, marsupials, reptiles and a fully grown freshwater crocodile (honest!). See separate entry.
I confess little excitement in blackjack tables and roulette wheels, so I was more interested in what the hotel itself offered.
My room, on the fourth floor, was lavish and spacious, complete with spa bath. I liked the all-around slatted windows that allowed a typically diffuse natural tropical lighting effect without compromising security or privacy. The décor was bright and cheery and the ample bed superb. I slept like the proverbial!
As you would expect, there is a range of dining options available, which I will deal with separately, and the obligatory outdoor pool, gym, sauna etc.
As brief as it was, I enjoyed my stay at the hotel and could not raise any substantial criticisms. If you are used to above-average accommodation and have the where-with-all, then the Sofitel Reef Casino should be on your list.
See the website: www.reefcasino.com.au
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 30, 2004
Pullman Reef Casino
35-41 Wharf Street Queensland
Cairns, Australia 4870
"...in reality, they are far happier than we Europeans; being wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniencies so much sought after in Europe..."
So wrote Lieutenant James Cook in August 1770 in his journal of the New Holland natives after unprecedented interaction with them. Little did he know what impact British settlement would later have on these ancient people.
Les Gibson of the Guugu Yimithirr people has an unusual insight into the historic encounter with the great navigator. When Cook and his crew spent 48 days on the banks of the Wahalumbaal River repairing Endeavour, the Guugu Yimithirr supplied the stranded Englishmen with fresh meat, fish, and other staples.
Les, comfortably ensconced in an old armchair on the verandah, reminds us that the ramshackle encampment, now Cooktown, became the first European settlement on the Australian continent. During this time, his ancestors' language became the first to be written down. The word 'kangaroo' is derived from a Guugu Yimithirr word, 'Gangurru'; whether it translated to 'furry marsupial' or 'what did you say?' is still a matter of some debate.
The aboriginals had little use for the trinkets offered to them by Cook in exchange for supplies; nevertheless, they took them out of respect and curiosity. Les knows where some of these items are stored even today, placed in reverence in a secret cave, along with huge painted murals documenting Cook's stay in the district. A secret Les is determined to keep.
Today the Guugu Yimithirr people refer to themselves as Bama and live at the Hopevale Community, 46 kilometres north of Cooktown. They are a loose amalgam of tribes from the local traditional lands and from as far north as the tip of Cape York, formed when Lutheran missionaries relocated them to be "sheltered" and "educated" in missions.
Their land returned by way of a Deed of Trust in 1986, then validated with a Native Title Determination in 1997, the Bama are a people now at one with their environment, returning via a strange and tragic irony to some approximation of how Cook found them in 1770. Now Les and his family are sharing their heritage and traditions with anyone who wants to come and see for themselves.
The family weekender, poetically dubbed Munbah (muddy creek), is the Hopevale version of a seaside retreat. Okay, so it's a beach shack. Overnight visitors can find a bunk in the communal "dorm" or pitch a tent in the yard. There's an outdoor bush toilet, a freshwater creek that serves as a washhouse, an open-air dining room, a BBQ area, and a location on the most pristine, fine-white sandy beach you can imagine.
During the day, Les lets you call the shots. Choose from spear-fishing, bush-tucker foraging, traditional art classes with Les's wife Marie, excursions to the fabled coloured sands, or a visit to an enormous sandpit that echoes spookily like distant cannon fire when you drop a rock at your feet. Local legend holds that the rocks are imbibed with a special quality, but Les smirks at this fable. Clearly the huge sandy amphitheatre possesses some unknown quality that creates supernatural reverberations deep within.
The trek through the dense bush provides some interesting distractions along the way. Hundreds of spiders the size of jam-tin lids form huge "arachno condos" of densely intertwined webs. I try not to imagine walking into one. And as we brush past the many eucalyptus leaves along the narrow path, hyperactive green ants hitchhike onto our sleeves and forearms. Les takes a look at the little interlopers scurrying inside my cuff and then scours the nearby foliage. He spots what appears to be a swollen clump of bright green leaves and deftly plucks it from the tree. It's literally seething with the little blighters, and in one deliberate, well-practiced movement, Les crushes the whole mass with the palms of his weather-beaten hands. Then, a lot more carefully, he opens his hands to reveal a mangled mass of ants and leaves, a few mortally crippled insects still wriggling in the pulp.
"Getta whiff of this," offers Les, first taking a sample inhalation himself. "This'll clear ya out!"
I take a carelessly large blast through my nose, immediately reeling at the strong vapour permeating my sinuses. Then I take another. Amazing! The acrid fumes have an immediate effect, clearing the passages and stimulating my sense of smell. I'm later told a story of a woman who hadn't smelt anything for years, until she tried the magic ants, and promptly burst into tears as the fragrant aromas of the blossoming bush immediately returned. Boiled, the ants also make a powerfully therapeutic cup of tea. Just imagine!
Later that night, under a bright star-strewn sky, we dine on T-bones cooked on the outdoor "stove", washed down with a delicate red wine reserved for the purpose. We are enjoying this indulgent feast when a Toyota "troopie" noisily pulls up in the dining room.
"Heeey!" exclaim the new arrivals, doors slamming. "How are ya, Uncle Les!"
It's Les's boisterous nephew, Bruce, flanked by two burly cousins, Garry and Robert. Nervous city-slickers might be unnerved by this flamboyant entrance, but introductions are quickly made, Bruce flashing a broad, impeccable grin with each confident handshake. Apart from his outwardly carefree, gregarious nature, Bruce demonstrates a self-assured, determined character, reinforced with the physique of a front-rower. He immediately commands the motley gathering, casually batting quips about the table, despite the unfamiliar faces.
Bruce stands in stark contrast to his shy uncle, who looks on the lad with obvious pride. He, along with Uncle Les, is a trustee for the Injinoo Land Trust and a lucid mover-and-shaker with his sights set on state parliament. He regales us for an hour or so on complex family and tribal history, the persistent legacy of the Lutheran missionaries, and the hopes he has for his people in the relatively recently desegregated north of Queensland. There's no lecturing, anger, or vitriol--just a deliberate acknowledgement of matters as they are, interspersed with both humorous and tragic anecdotes.
"Aboriginal people need to be reminded of where we've come from," says Bruce earnestly. "So many have lost their way because their connection with the land, their heritage, is gone."
Mindful of the bad press urban Aboriginals often get, Bruce dreams of bringing small groups of vulnerable "koorie" youths up to Munbah for some reintroduction in the traditional ways. He looks thoughtful for a moment, pensively studying the imperfections in his enamelled plate, but he's clearly engrossed in his plan of healing his people.
Just as quickly as he arrived, he's on his feet, thanking us for our brief hospitality and declaring to return at dawn if he pulls some Barra out of the nets he's off to set. Les farewells him warmly, leaving a lingering, proud glow in the old man. In Bruce, he sees a future, a hope, for his people--someone with strength and determination enough to restore and secure the ancient traditions of the Guugu Yimithirr, as well as maintain their rightful place in the global village.
Les and Marie Gibson run "Munbah Cultural Tours" from the Hopevale Aboriginal Community, 50km north of Cooktown.
They cater to both day visitors and overnighters, offering insights and hands-on experience into:
For reservations or more information:
Hope Vale QLD 4871
Tel +61 7 40609173
Ranging from a few hours to several days, a cruise along our UNESCO World Heritage Listed coral reef is an experience that will remain with you for a long time.
The premier cruise product for this region would have to be the 7-day, 6-night "Tip of Australia" cruise offered by Cairns-based, Coral Princess Cruises. Choose either a Thursday Island-Cairns itinerary or vice versa aboard their 35m, 50-passenger luxury catamaran. The corresponding leg is by air. Each expedition cruise allows you diving, snorkelling or glass-bottom boat excursions on some of the most beautiful, remote and seldom visited stretches of pristine coral reef imaginable. Passengers are also offered a DVD video record of their journey, including diving and shore excursions.
Thetford Reef, Swinger Reef, Lizard Island, historic Cooktown, Stanley Island, Davey Reef, Forbes Island, Magra Island and Albany Passage are the highlights of "Tip of Australia". Not only are you able visit the riotously colourful underwater reefs and swim alongside such evocatively named creatures as the Clown Fish (think Nemo), Nudibranch, Diagonal Banded Sweetlips and Saddled Butterfly Fish, but there’s a lot to be learned about early European and Aboriginal settlement as well.
On Lizard Island, host to one of the most exclusive island resorts in the country, a heart-wrenching tragedy unfolded in 1881. Left alone while her new husband was fishing for sea-slugs, 21-year old Mary Watson, her infant son and a wounded Chinese servant were forced to flee the island in a hastily improvised metal tank after a violent altercation with the local Aboriginals. The refugees floated forty miles north and washed ashore on island No.5 in the Horwick Group where they quickly died of thirst and exposure. Cruel and savage retribution saw over 100 aboriginals hunted and killed by the vengeful Cooktown residents and police after what they understood to be a kidnap and murder, but what was more likely an ignorant misunderstanding on both sides. Young Mary Watson’s diaries and her "brave pioneering spirit" served as an icon for generations thereafter. The ruins of the Watson cottage are still there on Lizard Island today and Mary's grave can be seen in Cooktown cemetary.
Stop Press: Coral Princess Cruises launch the brand new 63 metre, 76-passenger Oceanic Princess this year (2005). It will also visit Cape York as part of its Top End cruising schedule.
Coral Princess Cruises
Story and photographs
by Roderick Eime
The Australian love
affair with the 4WD is evident everywhere from Cocklebiddy to Coles Car
Park. Great roaring, bull-bar reinforced, spotlight-emblazoned urban assault
vehicles ferry cherubic pre-schoolers and burly scaffolders alike. Most
look like they’ve never seen more danger than the odd pigeon poop,
so can these all-terrain behemoths really hack the rough stuff? We found
Our objective was
to take a showroom-standard 4WD vehicle all the way to the tip of Cape
York and back with a minimum of preparation and damage, whilst still enjoying
a true off-road experience. Our candidate machine: a brand new Volkswagen
Touareg 4WD 3.2 V6. Its big brother, the V8 version, had just won
the prestigious 2003 4WD of the Year Award (Overlander
Magazine), so we knew we weren't dealing with some fragile pretender.
Cape York Peninsula
is a bush-driving destination of considerable repute and on the very short
list of all aspiring off-roaders. The very "blokey" mix of hundreds
of kilometres of dirt road, nights under the stars, true frontier country,
and the odd crocodile provided the ideal formula for our test of mechanised
Our journey began
in Cairns, the gateway to Cape York, after a softening ride aboard Queensland
Rail's luxurious Queenslander.
We kicked back with gourmet cuisine, the occasional glass of merlot, comfy
bunks, and hand-and-foot service that in no way prepared us for the trials
from the train, we proceeded at a doddle toward Cooktown, along the 250km
coastal route via Mossman. Recently sealed, this leg was merely sightseeing
as we twisted and turned along the scenic Coral Sea coast, the road bordered
by lush Daintree forest on one side and vast, white powder beaches on
The warnings and the crocodiles are real
Beyond Cape Tribulation and
its many lodges, resorts, and hostels, we came upon our first sections of
real dirt, and with a light sprinkle of rain, the Touareg was christened
with its inaugural dusting of mud, but as yet, nothing had tested our
At the tiny aboriginal
community of Wujal Wujal, the Walker sisters took visitors on an informative
stroll to Bloomfield Falls, pointing out bush tucker plants and relating
the local myths and legends. Lunch Tip: Croc’n’Barra Café,
Ayton – yes!
Pete ripped the Touareg through a freshwater creek on Elim Beach near
Pulling up for our overnighter
at the legendary, 125-year-old Lions Den Hotel, we parked very conspicuously
amongst the omnipresent Toyota Hiluxes and Landcruisers so dominant in
this neck of the woods. Genuine outback types, complete with ragged blue
singlets and crusty Akubras, as well as over-equipped caravaners, eyed
the lone, muscly Volkswagen with a mix a wonder and suspicion.
We bade a bleary farewell
to the all-too-memorable Lions Den and headed off toward Cooktown, rejoining
the mainly sealed thoroughfare just up the way. Cooktown, now a charming
and authentic frontier town, was named after the famous captain who camped
there for nearly two months in 1770 while repairing Endeavour after her
fateful encounter with the nearby reef that now bears her name. As a consequence,
the proud and eclectic Cooktonians brag about their village being the
site of the first European settlement on mainland Australia.
Numerous creek crossings keep you on your toes - this was a big one.
From Cooktown, a course
was set for Laura, a mere 138kms hence, taking in the lower reaches of
the Lakefield National Park. Beyond the town, famous for its annual rodeo,
is the Peninsula Developmental Road, which links the major roadhouses,
rest stops and towns of Hutt River, Musgrave, Coen, and Archer River, 312kms
from Laura. Each of these layovers provides good food, camping, and most
facilities. Along this stretch, the road is mainly pretty good but is interspersed
with hazards like dust bowls and patches of deep corrugations that can
throw you off your game if unprepared. Stay alert--don’t be lulled
into excessive speed and give yourself LOTS of time to slow down for the
numerous creek crossings. Silly accidents occur when drivers plunge into
the water too fast and find it's full of rocks - or other vehicles!
If time is on your
side and you're up for a bit of left-field adventure, there's the Gibson
family's Munbah Beach Resort, about
30 clicks out of Cooktown. What began as a ramshackle weekender on one
of the most pristine stretches of coastline anywhere on the Cape is now
largely unchanged! Local Guugu Yimithirr tribal elder Les Gibson and his
wife, Marie, entertain city folks at their modest shack on Elim Beach,
just north of Cape Bedford in the Hope Vale reserve. There's spear-fishing,
aboriginal bushcraft, and tucker, plus traditional arts. It's something
you won't find in the Michelin guide! From there, you can continue (if
properly prepared) through Lakefield National Park, rejoining the main
route at Musgrave Roadhouse.
Beyond Archer River Roadhouse,
the Development Road continues on to Weipa and the way north is now along
the fabled Telegraph Track, passing by Moreton (former) Telegraph Station,
now a popular camping spot. At Bramwell Junction, 163km from Archer,
the hardcore 4WDers continue straight on along the Old Telegraph Track,
but those wanting a relatively smooth passage will opt, as we did, for
the new Bamaga Road. It bypasses the notorious Gunshot Creek and other
treacherous crossings for which we were not prepared. If you choose this
route, for heaven’s sake, make sure you’ve got all the gear
like winches, snorkels and bag jacks.
Depending on your
timing, the corrugations on the road can vary from awful to bad or just
plain appalling. Anything loose will fall off; your dentures will vibrate,
and forget about playing a CD. Our brawny Touareg took all this in stride; the sophisticated suspension and computerised traction control
laughing at these petty obstacles. Our only real concern was exceeding
the stated 500mm wading depth, which we did on occasions (shhh), fortunately
without any trouble.
Have your wallet
and your sense of humour handy for the Jardine River ferry
The Jardine River Ferry affords
us some comic relief before we complete the final 220km to Bamaga from
Bramwell. The fee is a whopping $88 return, including GST, cash only,
and don’t ask for a receipt. Lunchtime is strictly observed, and
so are you as the cheerless operator scowls from inside his noisy cabin.
The once-popular river crossing has been dredged, assuring your valued
Pete enjoys a satisfying
view over Punsand Bay
Once at the Cape,
we set base at the comfortable Resort
Bamaga and make our final 34km lunge at the tip in a leisurely all-day
foray that takes in many of the local sights including the fabled Croc
Shop, probably Australia’s most northerly retailer and some of the
still accessible wartime plane wrecks scattered in the bush. The Pajinka
Lodge has fallen into disrepair and is currently abandoned, making the
idyllic Punsand Bay Safari and Fishing Lodge the only accommodation option
within cooee of the tip.
If you're a bit cheeky
and want to really tick the journey off, it's possible to negotiate the
tracks around the old resort and drive out onto the sand flats. This will
take you within about 50m of the very tip of the Cape and earn you maximum
bragging rights. A short stroll will take you to the plaque marking Australia's
most northerly point - and that's it! Now all you need is the T-shirt.
Don't rush back; instead,
do as we did and savour your victory. Linger for a day or two; take in
some fishing and perhaps a ferry over to Thursday
Island before tightening your U-bolts for the return journey.
At the tip of Cape
Story and photographs by Roderick Eime
Just how tiny Thursday Island got its name is still a topic of some debate. Most defer to the much-maligned Captain William Bligh, who sailed through the straits en route to Batavia after the famous mutiny, but Capt Owen Stanley also has some claim after his mapping voyage of 1848.
Surrounded by larger islands with names like Prince of Wales, Horn, Wednesday, and yes, Friday, Thursday Island is the administrative hub of the Torres Strait Group and as such boasts facilities and infrastructure that overshadow that of the frontier settlements of Bamaga and Seisia back on the mainland.
The broad grins and cheery faces of the Torres Strait Islanders are something the first-time visitor always notices. Culturally and ethnically separated from the mainland Aborigines, they nevertheless have a very long history of contact with their southern neighbours, but also the Melanesians to the north.
Numerous maritime industries were attempted by Europeans over the last 150 years, most notably pearling, which brought many Japanese to the island. Their culture, although heavily masked during WWII, remains in the form of an expansive cemetery where hundreds of divers and pearlers are buried.
A day trip to TI is easy. The MV Strait Magic, run by the Peddells family, runs daily shuttles between the mainland port of Seisia and TI township. Peddells can also arrange a wide variety of sight-seeing tours around the island taking in such sites as the Green Hill Fort, Quetta Memorial Cathedral, Cultural Centre and Milman Hill WWII fortifications. An inspirational trip over to Horn Island and the abandoned WWII airbase is also available for those wishing to delve into Australia's wartime history.
Peddells Thursday Island Tours