Cape York History

Cape York history is likely the longest in Australia.

That's when you think of human, as opposed to geological history.

All humans, whether the early European explorers, Asian pearlers, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, first approached Australia from the north, and Cape York (possibly along with Arnhemland), was the first place in Australia ever settled by humans.

Cape York was also the place for one of the biggest early gold rushes in the Palmer River Goldfields.

And as some other places in northern Australia, it was one of the main military areas during the Second World War.

Indigenous History

aboriginal history

Aboriginal History
There are different theories but to keep it all simple, it is believed that Aboriginal people came to Australia some time between 30,000 and 120,000 years ago. They are thought to have come via the land bridges that existed between Papua New Guinea and the tip of Cape York.

aboriginal food

Aboriginal Food and Culture

They are far from the same people, with hundreds of different languages across Australia. In Cape York, there are about 50 different clans, all with their own language and culture. Their food differed depending on whether they lived on the coast, in rainforests or in the dry inland.

aboriginal art history

Aboriginal Art
There are many places in Cape York where to see the traces of their past, in form of shell middens around Weipa, sacred places such as Split Rock, and some great Aboriginal art examples. Some of the best and most famous ones are in different "rock galleries" around Laura.

torres strait islander history

Torres Strait Islander People
Torres Strait Islander people arrived much later, maybe as late as about 1000 years ago. They mostly live in the northernmost townships in the mainland Cape York, and on Torres Strait Islands. Their culture is different from the Aboriginal people, and they only have five different languages.

pearling history

Pearling was a big industry in northern Australia, and some of the most famous places where it flourished were Torres Strait Islands off the tip of Cape York. It brought many different nationalities to the area, but started with indigenous people.

European History of Cape York

european history

While pearling attracted many Asians, in the rest of Cape York there is a lot of European history. There are the old gold fields, the old railway lines and ports of gold rushes, as well as old pioneer homesteads, the relics of the Second World War and the Old Telegraph Line.

james cook endeavour

Sea Explorers
European explorers started circulating in the waters of northern Australia in the early 1600s. Captain James Cook arrived in the late 1700s, sailed up along the coast of eastern Australia and claimed the eastern Australia to England before sailing back to Europe.

edmund kennedy expedition

Land Explorers
Once Australia had grown into a sizeable British colony, the land exploring started. The first expedition to come to Cape York was that of Ludwig Leichhardt, but they never got north of Burke Developmental Road. The next one, of Edmund Kennedy, reached the tip of Australia even though it was a disaster. 

cape york pioneers

Early Settlers
Some of the earliest settlers up north were the
the Jardine Family in Somerset and the Holland Family in Lockerbie. You can still visit what's left of their homesteads. Further south there were more settlers, and cattle people once the Brahman cattle arrived.

gold rushes

Gold Rushes
Although there is no opal found in Cape York, there were a few big gold rushes. They brought many immigrants to the area and created some of Queensland's largest settlements at the time. You can still visit the Hodgkinson, Alice River, Batavia and Palmer River Goldfields

old telegraph line

Old Telegraph Line
In the 1800s, the telegraph line was built from the south to the tip of Cape York. It was the only means of communication at the time in this remote part of Australia. You can still see the old posts along the Old Telegraph Track and learn about its history in the Old Heritage House in Coen.

ww ii relics

Second World War
Being in northern Australia, and particularly in the north-east, Cape York was a very strategical place in the Second World War. Places like Cooktown, Iron Range, Bamaga and Horn Island were turned into military bases. You can see the relics, including some airplane wrecks.

The Old Telegraph Line

The Old Telegraph Line is an important part of history in Cape York.

It is not hard to work out that it gave the name to the Old Telegraph Track that follows the line. 

telegraph line

telegraph linesmens shelter

cape york telegraph station

telegraph line coen

moreton telegraph station

telegraph linesmans grave

mein telegraph station

telegraph line junction box

moreton telegraph station

musgrave telegraph station

paterson telegraph station

telegraph line track
But what is a telegraph line and what was its history in Australia...

A telegraph is an old means of communication where messages were recieved and forwarded over long distances.

Words were converted to electrical impulses that were transmitted via wires to a different location.

I remember visiting the old dad of my partner's at the time, when I got a text message that beeped ···--···. The old man said, what? SMS? What does that mean?

He knew Morse Code but he didn't know about text messages :-)

I never knew that the classic Nokia beep when you get a text message actually means "SMS" in Morse Code!

The code was used in the old telegraph communication and the job of the operators who were sitting in the old telegraph stations was to convert the code to a message.

In fact, Cape York is far from the most famous place for the line, and many were built before the one on Cape York peninsula.

As everything else, it started in the south eastern corner of Australia, where the lines were built in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, to be followed by New South Wales, southern Queensland and finally southern Western Australia.

The first ones were generally short in distance, the longest ones were the one that connected Perth to eastern Australia, and the one that became the most famous - the Overland Telegrph Line and that connected Northern TerritoryDarwin to South Australia.

You can still see the poles and stations in places along Stuart Highway, named after the explorer who first crossed the continent that way.

Cape York, being one of the last frontiers in Australia, was naturally one of the last places to get the line, but it finally happened in the 1880s.

The building of it was a rough job in harsh conditions that you can today witness on the Old Telegraph Track, which follows the line, and of course, was built for the line workers.

You can see the history of the line everywhere. There are poles still along the Old Telegraph Track, and in many other places.

There are some historical telegraph stations like Musgrave (now the roadhouse), Moreton (that is called the Moreton Telegraph Station however the building was rebuilt after a fire), and in Coen, where the Old Heritage House in fact is the old Mein Telegraph Station that was moved here from its original location north of Archer River Roadhouse. It now houses an interesting museum.

In other places you can see only ruins, such as near the tip of the peninsula are the ruins of the Paterson and Cape York Telegraph Stations, the latter is the northernmost one.

And in Cable Bay, also near the trip of the peninsula is the nothern end of the old telegraph line, marked by an old junction box.

You can also see many linesmen's shelters - one at Sailor Creek along the Old Telegraph Track, and at least one on the northern bank of Jardine River.

And you can see a few graves, one north of Gunshot Creek crossing on the Old Telegraph Track, and one at the Moreton Telegraph Station.

Cape York's Telegraph Line was in use for about 100 years. It was closed in the 1980s when modern telecommunications finally moved in.

While the Old Telegraph Track was built for the Old Telegraph linesmen, the Bypass Roads were built for Telstra workers and not originally meant to be an easy way around the rough track for travellers.

Pearling in Australia

Yes, you can learn about pearling on your Cape York trip.

It is still happening in northern Australia, and while in Cape York, you can see it first hand if you visit Torres Strait Islands.

Most Torres Strait Islands used to have the industry, but nowadays it has decreased and only some of the islands - including Friday, Roko and Turtle Head Island - still practice farming pearls.


pearling cape york

pearl diving

pearling history

pearling australia

pearling industry

pearling friday island

roko island

pearling torres strait

You can visit the farms and learn about it all, and even buy a local pearl right from the farm.

It makes a great souvenir to bring back home.

Pearl Diving History

Historically, it was a horrible job.

It meant diving down to the bottom of the ocean and collecting a lot of shells.

World wide it was often done by slaves because of the risks from sharks as well as
the very basic gear that was used, and blackout due to depths and little knowledge about risks of diving.

In Australia, Aboriginal people collected them,  however they didn't dive.

They tended to harvest them from shallow waters.

When Europeans started settling in northern and western Australia, they started diving for pearls.

It first started in Shark Bay in Western Australia, and spread north where Broome still is famous for this industry and its history.

In Queensland, the place was north of Cape York, in the Torres Strait.

Since it was a risky job, European boat owners often hired Japanese divers, who worked for nothing, because they paid off their debts for their own transportation to Australia.

Not many managed to ever pay off their debts before they were killed by sharks or died in diving accidents.

You can learn about all that history at the museum on Horn Island.

The cemetery on Thursday Island has a monument and a lot of Japanese graves from these old days.

In the 1900s, the industry flourished until took a big drop caused by manufacturing of plastic pearls.

Today's Pearling Industry

Today, some pearl farms still exist, but the story is different. 

It's still a lot of work that can be destroyed by a tropical cyclone or other hazards that make this business risky, but it doesn't involve diving.

These jewel gems are now cultured in farms.

First the oysters are either bred or collected, then nucleated, and then looked after for a few years that it takes for the gems to grow.

Once they have developed and grown inside the oyster shells, they are harvested and sold.

Brahman Cattle

There is a lot of Brahman Cattle in Cape York and northern Australia.

While in the southern parts of Australia you see a lot of black and white milk cattle, up in the north we have beef cattle, called Brahman.

It is very different from the southern cattle - with large humps on necks and shoulders, large, hanging ears and a large flap of skin hanging under the neck.

They are mostly creamy or greyish white in colour, but can also be red. They have dark pigmentation on the nose and on the tips of tails and ears.

You see them often along the roadsides as you drive around in northern Australia, where cattle stations are huge and not always well fenced.

AND take care, watch out for them particularly if there are cattle signs, because they do step out to the road!

    Young Brahman
on a Cape York farm.

The southern milk cattle is from Europe, the northern Brahman cattle comes from America (where it had previously been introduced from India).

The first Brahman cattle was imported to Australia about the year 1900, but it took until the 1930s before larger numbers started being imported.

They first started being bred in Queensland, north of Rockhampton, which is still known as the "Beef Capital of Australia".

The breed is now widely used in the northern parts of Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia.

They are also popular in many other countries including Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.
They can also be cross bred, and are used for both meat and milk production in some countries.
   brahman cattle
    Brahman cattle on a Cape York farm.

The reason why they are particularly suitable for our tropical climate in northern Australia is that they tolerate more heat (more sweat glands, lighter colouring), and they are more resistant to insects and parasites, including cattle ticks (thicker and oilier skin), which tend to be nastier in the tropics than in the temperate latitudes.

The breed is also resistant to drought (look at the grass on the photo below, and that's all they have during the Dry season), and is a good breeding cattle, as it lives longer than many other breeds and still produces calves at the age of 15.
   brahman bull
   A Brahman bull on a Cape York roadside.

In fact it has been very successful in Australia, particularly during the past 30 years, when huge areas of remote, dry, previously unused land has been turned into productive beef businesses thanks to the resistance and toughness of Brahman cattle.

Australian Opal

Australian opal is actually not found in Cape York.

But I made this page anyway, because more than 90% of the world's opal comes from Australia.

Also, opal is found in Queensland, and you can buy it in Cairns, in case you are from overseas and interested in buying Australian opal on your trip, you can buy them in far north Queensland.

My mum did on her visit, and she ended up with a beautiful opal for a very good price - a very nice piece of Australian national gemstone to take back home.

But there are a few basic things that are good to know before you start looking.

Types of Opals

There are a few different types of opals to choose from.

black opal

Black Opal
Black opal is dark in colour, no matter what the colours are. The darkness, caused by traces of iron and carbon oxides, makes the colours stand out better, and vibrate better, than in lighter opals. Black opal is the most valuable type of opal, and is found in New South Wales.

white opal

White Opal
White opal, as the name says, is light in colour. It does have the play of colours, but due to its paleness the colours are not quite as visible as in the black opal above. White opal is much more common, less valuable, and is found in South Australia.

crystal opal

Crystal Opal
Crystal opal can be any type of black or white (but not boulder) opal that is more or less transparent. They can have any colours, it's the transparency that matters. The transparency adds to the vibrancy of colours and they are therefore more valuable than opaque opals.

boulder opal

Boulder Opal

Boulder opals look completely different and are very easy to distinguish from the other three types of opals above. They form in ironstone boulders, in very thin layers, and for that reason they are cut so that the ironstone is left in the back. The dark layer of ironstone makes the colours stand out better. This distinctive kind of Australian opal is found in Queensland.

Queensland opal fields are mainly in central and south west, around Winton and Quilpie areas - not in Cape York or far north Queensland. However you can buy Australian opal here.

Types of Opal Cuttings

triplet opal

australian opal

solid opal

australian opals

doublet opals

The black, white and crystal opals also have different ways to be cut, which also affects their value (the boulder opal is cut solid - it already has a dark layer in the back so there is no need to make it any more complicated).

The best opal to buy is a solid opal, but they are also (by far) the most expensive.

A solid opal is cut as it is, there is no glue job in the back and no risk for any damage later.

But cutting them as doubles and triplets artificially improves their appearance.

White opals are generally cheaper than black and boulder opals, because naturally they have nothing dark in the back to bring out the colours.

That can be changed by cementing a dark back to a thinly cut gem, making it a doublet.

Personally I would prefer that dark back being a common opal or "potch", instead of some synthetic silica material, but in any case - the fact that it is glued together leaves it with some risk for future water damage.

Triplets have the same backing as doublets, but on top of that they also have an extra layer on the front side - leaving the actual gem in the middle.

That front layer is either glass or transparent quartz, and it is made in a way to magnify the gem which improves its colours.

In other words, doublets and triplets are cheap ways to try to give the gem the qualities of black opal.

But that said, they are not uncommon, or considered cheating, and if you are looking for an Australian opal in up to a few hundred dollar range, they are most likely the only choice you have got, except some boulder opals that have a fair bit of ironstone in them.

Where to Buy Australian Opal near Cape York

opal shop cairns

So if you are up here and want to buy Australian opal, where should you look?

There are mainly four locations: Cairns, Kuranda, Port Douglas and Cairns Northern Beaches.

In Cairns, pretty much all the opal shops are in the block where the Orchid Plaza is - between Shield, Abbott, Spence and Lake Streets.
opal shop kuranda

There is also at least one on the Esplanade (expensive), and there are always the markets (if you trust them unless they are more permanent shops).

In Kuranda, there are a few opal shops along Coondoo Street, and there are also permanent opal shops at both the Original and the Heritage Markets.

The Emu Ridge Gallery shop has some good boulder opals.

In Port Douglas, they are in Macrossan Street.

In Cairns Northern Beaches, there is the Outback Opal Mine in Clifton Beach.

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