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Nature, culture and history

Natural environment

Most scientists believe the rocks around Cooktown originated on the sea floor about 420 million years ago but were eventually lifted above sea level to form mountains. Today, evidence of these ancient rocks can be found in the orange soils around Cooktown. Granites, such as those seen at Black Mountain and Mount Cook, formed about 260 million years ago deep below the ground and have slowly been exposed by erosion. Much younger rocks, such as these sediments and basalts in the Endeavour River valley, form good agricultural soils.

Endeavour River National Park protects the lower reaches of the Endeavour River. The mangroves along the river provide a nursery area for many species of fish and crustaceans. Among the mangroves you may see buttresses, stilt or knee roots, used to maintain stability in the soft mud. ‘Snorkel’ roots assist the mangroves to breathe. Away from the river, the park protects striking tropical woodlands, seasonal melaleucas swamps and heathlands.

Culture and history

European history

Cooktown’s Endeavour River is the site where Lieutenant James Cook repaired his ship, Endeavour, after damaging it on the reefs off Cape Tribulation in 1770. During their stay, botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander collected and named many new plant species from the area. The landscape today is very similar to that seen by them in 1770. They also recorded their first European sighting of a kangaroo, and named it after the local Guugu Yimithirr language word for kangaroo—Gangurru.

Lieutenant Phillip Parker King named Mount Cook in June 1819 during his circumnavigation voyage. King moored his vessel opposite the site where James Cook repaired the Endeavour back in 1770 after damaging it on the reefs off Cape Tribulation. Unbeknown to King, in two of the coastal profiles produced during the Endeavour’s voyage, Cook had already identified the mountain as Gores Mount after Lieutenant John Gore, his third Lieutenant. It was the name Mount Cook that took root, and sadly for John Gore, the title Gores Mount was forgotten.

Between 1872 and 1873 William Hann and James Mulligan found rich alluvial goldfields on the Palmer River inland of Cooktown. Cooktown’s population boomed in the 1870s-80s as prospectors came from all over the world to the goldfields. Thousands of people, including many Chinese, rushed to the newly created port of Cooktown in search of their fortune.

During World War II, virtually all the civilian population of Cooktown was evacuated and the town became an important military base. The Cooktown airfield was built in 1942 to support the military operations in New Guinea and the Coral Sea. Several protected areas and buildings around Cooktown conserve the significant scenic, natural, historical and cultural values of the area.

Last reviewed
22 October 2019
Last updated
22 March 2017