Cape York Peninsula

At just two percent of the area of Australia (about half the size of Victoria), the Far North's Cape York Peninsula is the very epitome of Dorothea Mackellar's classic romantic ode to wild Australia.
Home to two distinct seasons marked by drought and flooding rains, the rugged mountain ranges and sweeping fertile plains that make up the peninsula are as glorious in their beauty as they are remote from the realities of city life.

The region has, in fact, been dubbed 'a country within a country' in response to the strange exotic purity of its unfathomable wilderness, which occasionally seems out of place in the driest country on Earth. The experiences, the environment and the expressive cultures of Far North Queensland also set the region aside as a distinctly different destination.  With a population of only 18,000 people, 60% of whom are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, Cape York Peninsula is not only culturally important, but also ecologically, economically and strategically.

Home to a geography that appears to be stretching out to the world, it is little surprise that the indigenous culture of Cape York presents a blend of regional cultures, infused with international elements. The area is home to a diverse collection of Aboriginal communities, ranging from the most traditional to the multicultural people of Thursday Island, where the presence of colonial-inspired architecture and reggae rhythms played through the picturesque island's radio station seem more Caribbean in nature than Australian.

The Northern Peninsula Area, or the NPA as it is known locally, the southern shores of the Torres Strait, has the same distinct personality. It is here that a colloquial language, Cape York Creole, is spoken and where the name 'Jardine' provokes hostile and bitter memories of an unsuccessful and tumultuous initial contact with representatives of the British Raj, the Jardines.

Between the emerald green walls of the tropical jungle, known as the Lockerby Scrub, and the turquoise waters of Albany Passage and the Great Barrier Reef, lays the remnants of the initial colonial occupation at the old town site of Somerset.  This is one of the cornerstones of modern Cape York history.  It has an almost unbelievable history of convict pirates, an imperial garrison, Spanish treasure, cattle drives, gold rushes, pearling fleets and a fort to repel the Russian invasion.  As the geographic gateway to Australia's fertile and prosperous east coast, this region has served as an intermediary through which innumerable people have travelled south throughout the ages. The endurance of its pristine environment, then, is testament to the unforgiving conditions of the far north.

While the names of several towns and settlements still remain on maps of the region, many of these exist now as little more than ghost towns, some converted to tourist attractions that are the legacy of the boom and bust of the gold rush days of last century.  It was in this environment that the Palmer River gold fever was cultured.  As a direct result of this fever, Cooktown almost miraculously became an instant international metropolis on the edge of the British Empire where every nation of substance established an embassy.

Unlike most cities born of wealthy gold strikes, Cooktown was not exclusively built of demountable buildings and removable material.  Consequently, contemporary Cooktown has a legacy of a great many charming structures from the last century that would likely prove economically prohibitive to duplicate today.  These fringe the legendary site at which Captain James Cook repaired his vessel during his voyage of discovery that introduced Australia to the Western world more than two hundred years ago.

Outside of the south-east corner of The Cape, too, roads are rare.  Bitumen tracks end a few hundred kilometres from Cairns, giving way to dusty bush trails. The road from Cairns to Cape York presents visitors with the opportunity to move through one of the longest unbroken stretches of wilderness in Australia. The narrow track, some 1030 kilometres in length, offers the exploratory 4WD motorist continuous adventure as it exposes rainforests, winding mountain roads, narrow river crossings, swampy environments rich in wildlife and lake-dotted plains existing far from human habitation. This is an adventurer’s getaway in every sense of the word.

Beyond the tip of Cape York, the Torres Strait Islands number more than 100 and most are surrounded by fringing coral platforms, satellite reefs and picturesque sand cays.  Seventeen of these islands are populated, but the origins of their ancestors remains a mystery.  Some archeological studies reveal early settlement that dates back to at least 4,000 years. Torres Strait 'Creole' is the common language, containing Aboriginal structures with Melanesian & Papua New Guinea elements. Most islanders have kept the language of their ancestors alive.  Thursday Island is the centre of administration of the Torres Strait Islands, and each year many visitors arrive by daily ferry or by airtake to explore the culture and history.

Whether you choose to travel there by air or by sea, a visit to the Torres Strait Islands is a unique Australian adventure.



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