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Wild frontier

Queensland’s far north is home to Jurassic rainforests, coral-fringed coastlines, hardy outback living and expanses of raw nature; once feared by explorers, this monumental land is now welcoming and accessible
The remote headland of Cape Tribulation in northwest Queensland was named by explorer Captain James Cook. A frilled dragon lizard shows off his camouflage skills
A statue in Cooktown commemorates Captain James Cook, whose ship ran aground here in 1770

ON 17 JUNE 1770, CAPTAIN JAMES COOK and his bedraggled crew appeared at the mouth of the Waalumbaal River, desperate for sanctuary. After finding the fabled southern continent of Australia and mapping much of its eastern coast, Cook collided with a razor-sharp reef, part of a bewildering maze of coral shoals he would name the Great Barrier Reef. His ship, the HMS Endeavour, was now listing, its hull shredded on one side and filling with water, kept afloat only by staunching the leak with wool and dung.

Ahead was a wild horizon of swamps and mangroves, salt marshes and eucalypt forests. The river itself was patrolled by deadly saltwater crocodiles. But for Cook, this was a place of blessed refuge after days of terrifying adversity on the sea.

Almost 250 years later, Alberta Hornsby stands on the crest of a high knoll known as Grassy Top and traces the distant curve of the river with an outstretched finger. ‘They brought their ship along here,’ she says, her hair whipping in the breeze, ‘and stopped by the harbour to do repairs.’

Alberta is a historian whose ancestors lived in the Bulgunwarra tribelands west of here, sheltered by the steep-sided rocky plateaux of the Dickson and Henderson Ranges. ‘This is Guugu Yimithirr country,’ she says. ‘It was a special meeting place for 32 clans, where people would come to give birth, to arrange marriages, to settle disputes. It was a neutral zone, where no blood could be spilled intentionally.’

It was here, she explains, that ‘first meaningful contact’ between the Europeans and Australia’s Indigenous people occurred. ‘The Aboriginal men asked them to take off their clothing so they could examine the white men all over. They were fascinated by the animals on board, the pigs and chickens, which they’d never seen before.’ Cook’s crew were curious in turn, about local plants and all the strange burrowing, hopping animals – ‘kangaroo’ is a Guugu Yimithirr word. Yet, when Cook’s ship finally set sail again 48 days after its arrival, the locals set fire to the hills all around in a cleansing ceremony meant to drive the bad spirits away.

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