I am in Cooktown, the furthest it is possible to reach before the roads drift off into the Never Never of far north Queensland, or FNQ as the locals call it. Here, in June 1770, Captain James Cook beached his barque, the Endeavour, after it struck coral on the Great Barrier Reef. And here on the same spot, every year since 1960, the locals re-enact Cook's landing in meticulous detail.
There is something quintessentially Australian about Cooktown and the Endeavour Festival, as it is known. It is not the Australia of the big cities to the south, labouring under the late 20th century blights of pollution, crime, unemployment and breakneck change. It is an Australia of the not-so-distant past, a place where time had largely stood still but which is now being encroached upon by, and coming to grips with, the outside world.
When Cook and his party landed on the Endeavour River, where Cooktown now stands, they had spent six weeks discovering and charting the east coast of Australia. They spent another six weeks on the river's shores, from June to August 1770, repairing the Endeavour, making contact with the Aborigines and venturing inland to take plant samples. Theirs was the first known white settlement in Australia, pre-dating the arrival of British convicts at Botany Bay by eight years.
"Whatever Australians do about getting rid of the monarchy, they must not get rid of the Union Jack in the corner of their flag," a visiting British woman told me in Cooktown. "Because all those pioneers who forged through the rainforests, built the railways and explored the Outback did it under the British flag." I did not want to disillusion her, but I suspect that they did it from two basic motives: survival and greed.
It was greed that built Cooktown in the first place. The town was established in 1873 as a base for the rush that erupted after gold was found on the nearby Palmer River. The gold rush was the beginning of the end for the local Aborigines, who unsuccessfully tried to fight what they saw as an invasion of their traditional lands. In its gold rush heyday, Cooktown had 63 pubs, 40 brothels and 30,000 people.
Today the population has dwindled to 1,450. Greed of a different kind made the Queensland state government bulldoze a coastal road through the World Heritage-listed Cape Tribulation rainforest during the 1980s to make Cooktown more accessible to tourists. The road is an environmental disaster. But, in the interests of seeing what made the little town the flashpoint for Australia's green protest movement, I set out for the four-hour trip.
I paused on the way at the Lions Den Hotel, whose timber beams, corrugated iron walls and its clientele appeared unchanged since it was built in 1878. "There'll be a lot of drinking in Cooktown this weekend," an old-timer told me. "Look out for the drunks on the road."
Cooktown is a place where the Wild West meets the tropics. The town's charming old buildings nestle under rainforest which falls down to a shore undisturbed since Cook landed 226 years ago. Revellers packed the pub and streets well into Saturday night.
By Sunday morning, there was not a drunk or a XXXX can in sight. Visitors gathered soberly on the foreshore for the Cook re-enactment, culminating in the unfurling of the Union Jack. The 18th century costumes, lovingly researched, looked very other-worldly in this setting. The local Aborigines stayed away.
"Can you blame them?" asked Vince O'Flaherty, the festival's organiser. "I've tried to get them more involved. Until two years ago, it was called the Discovery Festival. They weren't happy about that. They were here for 40,000 years." What would Cook have thought of it all? Cooktown honoured him with an elegant stone column in 1887, a Captain Cook Museum opened in 1970 and a bronze statue erected in 1988. So why, when Australia is seriously debating republicanism and trying to right past wrongs to Aborigines, does this pocket of Cook "overkill" flourish?
In Australia's endless search for that elusive concept, national identity, I suspect it is because something about Cook has become rooted in the national psyche: his courage, individualism, resilience and humanitarianism. And that is why we shall probably go on seeing the Union Jack raised once a year at Cooktown, long after Australia becomes a republic.