Who knows how the future of Australia could've turned out if Captain James Cook had made one small decision differently? After making his famous landfall at Botany Bay in 1770, he continued his journey up the east coast of the country in his ship, The Endeavour. But on June 11, it ran aground near what is now Cooktown, Queensland, and needed urgent repairs.
Cook sailed into the Endeavour River (then known as Waalumbaal Birri) and decided to land on the southern shore. What he didn't realise was this side of the river, called Waymburr, had been designated as a neutral zone by the Indigenous Guugu Yimithirr people. It was a place for mediation, with a law that no blood could be deliberately spilled.
Captain James Cook had unwittingly landed on the exact spot where the Indigenous people were compelled by their own rules not to harm him and his crew, at a moment when they would've had no way to escape.
Next year, Australia will commemorate the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook's arrival in Australia, and the largest event will be held here in the city that bears his name. Cooktown is hosting a three-week expo in July and August, with a series of events focused on the region's culture and the shared heritage of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
In some ways, it's a tricky balancing act to celebrate an honourable British explorer whose feats changed the Indigenous way of life forever. But that's not just a challenge for the Cooktown Expo 2020. Finding the harmony between the different heritages of the region is what makes visiting this part of Queensland so interesting.
Cooktown itself is relatively small, with a population of less than 3000 people, and is the kind of place where I feel you would know everyone's name at the local pub if you stayed a couple of days. The highlight is the James Cook Museum, housed in a 19th-century convent, which has an original anchor and cannon from The Endeavour.
But drive a couple of hours inland from Cooktown and you'll reach the small township of Laura, the gateway to one of the most significant Indigenous sites in the country. Beyond here, in land mostly inaccessible, is Quinkan Country, a collection of up to 10,000 rock art sites.
Painted on the sandstone canvas are artworks from thousands (or even tens of thousands) of years ago. They show the lives of the people of the time and the animals of the region - kangaroos, goannas, crocodiles, fish. But the most striking images are those of the good and evil Quinkan spirits, who the Kuku-Yalanji people believed also inhabited the land. The way they're painted makes them seem to levitate off the sandstone, as if they've been caught in a transition between dream and reality.
I've been brought out to this rock art by Johnny Murison, who has recently started Jarramali Rock Art Tours. It takes about 90 minutes in his 4WD truck to drive from the highway to the camp that he's set up at the top of the escarpment here. After seeing the rock art, we stay the night with the bush (and possibly the Quinkan spirits) all around us, with Johnny's stories of the land and his ancestors bringing them to life.
Johnny is one of many new tour operators who have recently created Indigenous experiences in Tropical North Queensland to give visitors an insight into the heritage of the land. About an hour from Cooktown, you can visit Normanby Station and take a rock art tour with one of the Harrigan brothers, who are Balnggarrawarra traditional owners (and, incidentally, make up a popular local five-piece band called Black Image).
Normanby Station is one of the destinations offered with tours by Culture Connect Australia, which covers the region between Cairns and Cape York. I travel with them for a day in the Daintree, the thick rainforest stretching out in every direction, seemingly endless except where I can sometimes see it hitting the coast. Between Cape Tribulation and Wujal Wujal, we bump along the Bloomfield Track, the four-wheel-drive road that has a reputation larger than you might expect for just 30 kilometres of dirt track.
At Wujal Wujal, an Indigenous community of about 550 people, a brother and sister take me to the Wujal Wujal Falls (also known as the Bloomfield Falls), a site which has a spiritual place in their family's heritage. There are many stories of people seeing ancient warrior spirits here - and there's even an iconic photo where you can clearly see the faces of two old men in the cascading water.
The connection to the Indigenous history is fascinating, but it would be a stunning waterfall anyway. And that's one of the things I come to realise during my short visit to Tropical North Queensland.
Whether it's the stories of Australia since the arrival of the Europeans, or the heritage from tens of thousands of years before that, it's the natural landscapes of this part of Australia that are the constant and most impressive parts of the land.
The rock escarpments and waterfalls inland, the dense Daintree Rainforest and the large river that runs through it, and the beautiful coastline that offers access to the Great Barrier Reef. This is where you find the harmony of the region.
- Michael Turtle is a journalist who has been travelling the world full-time for eight years. Follow his travel adventures at timetravelturtle.com