The road to Cooktown

The distance from Mareeba to Cooktown via the best route is 264 km and Google Maps thinks the travel time is just under three hours. Having just done it – both ways, in fact – I’m not going to disagree but will suggest a few stops which may make it more interesting and enjoyable.

The good road is the Mulligan Highway through Mount Molloy and Lakeland, and it really is a good road: two-lane bitumen all the way.

The alternative is the coast road via Mossman, Cape Trib and Bloomfield; it’s more scenic but a big chunk of it is 4WD-only and another big section is narrow, winding (and therefore slow) bitumen. I haven’t done it but here’s the warning sign at the Cape Trib end of the 4WD section.

bloomfield track warning sign

The Mulligan swings inland just beyond Mt Molloy to run through dry tropical savannah before turning NE over the hills to Cooktown. The highway skirts the western face of the Great Dividing Range most of the way so the road and the horizons are not as endlessly horizontal as they would be further west.

We travelled it in mid October, well into the Dry season, so the country was nearly as dry as it ever gets. The best time to visit is winter, when it’s still green and not so hot. Most people say the worst is the Wet season, when heat and humidity make it very uncomfortable and torrential rain and flash floods can make travel impossible. It could be fun, though, and I would love to see the Wet at its peak, so sometime perhaps…

Mareeba park lake
The lake in Mareeba’s Rotary Park

Mareeba, on the northern edge of the Atherton Tablelands, is the natural gateway to Cape York and the Gulf for anyone coming from Cairns, Townsville or anywhere south of them. It’s a substantial country town, with a population around 11 000 making it by far the biggest place between itself and the tip of Cape York, heading north, and beyond the NT border heading west. If you need to stock up on anything fancier than fuel, beer and basic food, Mareeba is where to do it.

Rifle Creek
Rifle Creek camping ground

We discovered a free camping ground beside the highway where it crosses Rifle Creek just outside Mt Molloy. Facilities are basic (picnic tables, toilets and cold showers) and there’s a fair bit of passing traffic but the location is otherwise excellent. There’s even a choice of more-than-adequate eateries in town.

Bob’s Lookout
view from lookout
The view south and east from Bob’s Lookout

Bob’s lookout offers good views back towards Mt Carbine (and that, I’m afraid, is the nicest thing I can say about Mt Carbine). The lookout itself is just a widening of the road and is best entered while heading south to avoid crossing the road with limited visibility in both directions.

Palmer River Roadhouse
Palmer River bridge
The dry-season form of the mighty Palmer River, well below the roadhouse

The Palmer was the centre of a big gold-rush in the 1870s and I guess there has been some sort of roadhouse at this crossing ever since. The present establishment reminded me of Belyando Crossing, which is not a bad thing, but endeared itself to me forever by having great collection of classic sixties and seventies SF in its book exchange. That’s me, though; most folk will value it for the beer, food, gardens, etc.

Byerstown Range lookout
View from the lookout
View from the lookout

This bigger lookout (access road, carpark, tourist signs and even a toilet) looks north to Lakeland.

lakeland visitor centre
The new visitor centre

Lakeland is the hub of an unexpected irrigation area. The township itself is screened from the highway but the visitor centre (so new it was still being developed when we saw it), roadhouse and pub are easy to find.

The irrigation area is small but well established, about 70 years old, and there is a proposal to extend it significantly through the construction of a dam on the Palmer River. Projects like this (Ord River, Hell’s Gate) have a very mixed success rate so we can only wait and see.

Lion’s Den Hotel

Just off the Mulligan Highway, a few kilometres down the Bloomfield road, the Lion’s Den is another gold-rush period watering hole. Its determinedly ramshackle construction and quirky humour may be a bit over the top but its equally quirky, ramshackle ‘museum’ contains unexpected treasures and a culture shock or two.

Lions Den museum
One wall of the two-room museum


A better look at the hedge trimmer. Yes, the blade is a sawfish bill.
Trinity Times newspaper, 1906
A reminder of the radical politics of early Queensland (1906)
…and we’re nearly there

Black Mountain and Keating’s Lagoon are on the Mulligan, too, but they are so close to Cooktown that I will leave them for another post.

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