The Radio Scene at the End of the Highway

Cooktown, Australia

The July (2022) issue of the Australian DX News presents an interesting story about plans for an amateur DXpediton to the Grassy Hill Lighthouse overlooking the small northern town of Cooktown, at the end of the highway in far northern Queensland.  This readable feature article reminds us that there have been three different eras associated with the radio scene in Cooktown, and that is our opening topic in this edition of the weekly DX program, Wavescan.

View of Cooktown from Grassy Hill. By Frances76, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Actually the Cooktown locality featured quite prominently in the very early history of Australia, some 18 years even before the first European settlement at Sydney Harbour in 1788.  It was on June 17, 1770, that the famous Captain James Cook, together with his 86 crew men aboard the damaged ship, the HMS Endeavour, landed and went ashore at what is now Cooktown, the last northern town on the eastern coast of the Australian continent.

The Endeavour was damaged and it sprang a leak while traversing the shallow coral formations in what is now known as the Great Barrier Reef.  The ship was repaired during the 48 days that the English exploration party remained ashore, and that was the first European settlement on the continent of Australia, though it was only temporary in duration.

Endeavour replica sailing into Cooktown’s harbour near the mouth of the Endeavour River where the original Endeavour was beached for 7 weeks in 1770. By John Hill – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Cooktown, so named in honor of Captain Cook’s exploratory visit, lies a hundred miles north of Cairns, and during its gold rush days one and a half centuries ago, it registered a population of 18,000 residents.  These days the population figure in this mostly abandoned old town stands at around 300, though the locals tell us that the number of residents has begun to increase in recent time.

The local historians tell us, they say, that the first mango trees in Australia were planted at Cooktown; and her Majesty Queen Elizabeth made a state visit there in 1970, by ship.  The highway from the south was paved just before the turn of the century, though the roadway north from Cooktown is simply a track that is navigable only by a four wheel drive vehicle.

It was back in the year 1911, that officials from the Royal Navy declared that there was a need for a wireless station at Cooktown, as a communication intermediary between the island of New Guinea and the populated Australian cities further south.  Two years later on June 12, 1913, the planned new wireless station at Cooktown was taken into regular service.

The new wireless station was constructed on the ridge a little below the lighthouse on Grassy Hill.  The station was constructed by the Father Shaw wireless company using the Balsillie wireless system, though it was soon afterwards taken over and absorbed into the AWA Coastal Wireless Network.

A 200 ft tall solid wooden mast was erected, with supporting guy wires holding it in position.  The spark transmitter was rated at 5 kW, and the lone receiver was simply a complicated commercial crystal set.  The appropriate AWA callsign for this longwave wireless relay station was VIC, with the C indicating Cooktown.

RAAF radar on Grassy Hill, 1943. By Beverley, Ken R – http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/P03413.002, Public Domain.

By the time World War 1 began in August 1914, there were 19 AWA coastal stations on the air in Australia and neighboring Pacific Islands, though 5 of these stations were ranged along the Pacific coast of Queensland.  Soon after the end of the war, there were 27 of these AWA coastal stations in Australia and the Pacific in regular communication usage (1922).

During World War 2, the Royal Australian Air Force installed a radar station on Grassy Hill, and it was protected against possible Japanese overflights by a disguise that gave it the appearance of a regular family residence.  The radar facility was closed in 1945, after the end of the war, and coastal station VIC was closed four years later again in 1949; it was no longer needed as an intermediary relay station for wireless communication between New Guinea and the Australian mainland.  The wooden mast was subsequently destroyed by fire, and the two solid buildings now form part of the residence for a local family.

Annual re-enactment of James Cook’s visit. Cooktown, Queensland. By John Hill – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Beginning in 1959, the local residents began what has since become an annual event; a traditional festival for locals and visitors alike, honoring in Cooktown the visit of Captain Cook some two centuries earlier.  The local Aborigines, descendant of those who met the English visitors so long ago, also participate each mid year in the commemorative events.

That brings us to the second radio era in Cooktown.  Soon after the annual Cooktown Fair was inaugurated, station 4CA in Cairns constructed a small 10 watt mediumwave broadcasting transmitter for use in Cooktown.  The transmitter was installed in a local store in Cooktown, and the antenna was a simple 60 ft longwire that ran up a nearby electrical pole.

This special event, and we might add informal venture, was on the air each year for the Anniversary Festival, with current announcements and information for the general public.  During the events of one particular year, the local school children were invited to operate the small and temporary mediumwave broadcasting station.

In more recent years, there is now a third radio era for the Cooktown area if you please, with several downlink AM and FM stations.  The available information tells us that there have been two mediumwave downlink stations, 4AY at Ayr on 1611 kHz, and also 4CA at Cairns at one stage.  A total of six FM downlink stations have been shown, with the ABC on 105.7 MHz (Far North programming) and 107.3 MHz (Radio National programming), and four commercial network stations.  On each occasion, the downlink slave transmitters have all been quite low powered, in the range of approximately 50 watts each.

Radio Stations in Cooktown

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Cooktown

StationFrequencyCallsignFormat
4TAB103.3 MHzRacing narrowcast
ABC Far North105.7 MHz4QCCABC local
KIK FM & 4AY1611 kHz4AYCountry music narrowcast
Radio National107.3 MHz4ABCRNABC national
Vision Christian Radio88.0 MHzChristian narrowcast

Current listings for Cooktown from the Radio Heritage Foundation’s Australian Radio Guide

And to this day, there is still no paved highway running up further north from Cooktown.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of September 4, 2022

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