My wife Julie and I made our first trip "down under" so I could present my Alaska fossil research at the International Quaternary Association conference in Cairns. I also wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef because I teach the only oceanography course at my university, and I especially wanted to observe marsupials and monotremes in the wild because I teach about fossil history and biogeography. We also wanted to explore the rainforest and any and all interesting sites in the area. We remained busy with our adventures, driving all around the area in our rental car for several days, staying mostly on tourist-oriented roads and trails.
Early portion of trail
We learned from a note in our Fodors guidebook that the highest summit in Queensland was within easy driving distance of Cairns, so we began asking around and searching for information about what it would take to climb it. People had heard that there was a trail but could offer little guidance. This was well outside the normal requests of tourists. But we gathered enough information to feel semi-confident that there was a trail starting near Josephine Falls west of Babinda, so we began watching the weather reports for the most ideal day.
First big stream crossing
We left our motel so early on August 3rd that the fruit bats were still flying toward their roosts, and we made the hour-long drive south through Cairns and Gordonvale to Babinda, then turned west on a small road toward the town of Bartle Frere which was little more than some homes and farms. We were relieved to find a sign to Josephine Falls then arrive at a trailhead with signs and a restroom. We found that two trails went in different directions from the parking area: a short trail east to Josephine Falls and the trail northwest up Mount Bartle Frere. There was a box with permit forms that were required only for camping, but we filled one out to make our identity and intentions known.
Vines on tree Epiphyte on tree
The trail left the small clearing at the trailhead and plunged immediately into the deep dark forest. At first it looked well maintained with gravel and well-placed rocks for crossing little streams, but these improvements quickly ended. Nevertheless the trail was a well-cut path through the forest and easy to follow. There were just a lot of roots and streams and other obstacles to step over. Large logs had been cut with a chainsaw. Before long we came to the first of several large streams we had to cross, and this required some serious rock hopping.
The trees and other plants in the forest were beautiful and interesting. Some trees had triangular blades projecting to the ground near the base to give structural support. Some had vines braided up them, while others were adorned with epiphytes in search of sunlight. We were hoping to see more wildlife such as marsupials (we had seen a few elsewhere), but about all we saw were birds. Actually we heard them more than we saw them as their calls echoed through the forest. A pair of sulphur-crested cockatoo made a racket in the trees far above our heads and were easy to spot.
After a couple miles of gradual climbing we crossed several large streams merging together, and there was an open area that was obviously used as a campsite. Up one of the tributaries we could hear (and partially see through the forest) some large waterfalls. From that point the trail became steeper and steeper while remaining in the dense forest. Roots were the only things holding the steep trail together, as the soil was composed mostly of erodible silt and organic debris. Lots of small trees served as handholds for climbing upward.
Leach on pants
As we were hiking through the forest we kept finding these cute little inch-worms on our clothing, inching their way along by alternately stretching out and folding up. Thinking they had landed on us by accident we would kindly deposit them on a nearby tree to go on their way. They seemed perfectly harmless.
We were both wearing Keen sandals which were pretty marginal for the kind of rugged hiking we were doing, but they were all we brought along. Julie was wearing socks with hers and I was not. I kept feeling some funny itching in my feet but assumed it was just from forest litter creeping in. But then I looked down and my foot was bleeding, in fact both of them were! I pulled off my sandals to find several "harmless" little inch-worms sucking my blood. They were leaches!
Suddenly we were in a panic searching our bodies for leaches. They were also getting to Julie in spite of her socks. The bleeding didn't stop quickly when the leaches were removed, meaning they were secreting some anti-coagulant. We cleaned up as best we could and started hiking faster and more carefully, avoiding touching anything. But the leaches were aggressive and we had to stop frequently to remove more of them. My feet were their prime target. Julie happened to have two insect repellant wipes along, so we wiped our feet with them, and that went a long way toward discouraging their attacks.
Push for the Summit
Trail over rocks
After a long, steep climb through dense forest, clinging to trees and roots, the trail began to flatten off and the forest to open a bit. But a new obstacle appeared: large rocks. These slowed down by short-legged wife but weren't too bad. As the canopy lowered the leach problem diminished, so it was worth it.
Before long we were surprised to actually have a view! We could see valleys of fields far below and cloud-draped ridges running in several directions. The rocky trail led up a ridge to a flat segment when we came upon a helipad elevated above the ground and a tiny hut with a few odd supplies in it. There were also flat camping spots nearby. It was more windy out of the forest with large clouds hear and there, but we took advantage of the platform and some sunlight to dry clothes, have a snack, and do another thorough check for leaches.
Heliport and rocky section of trail Boulders
The trail continued up the ridge and led to more fields of boulders, and some of them were gigantic! There were paint markers to indicate the route, but they were hard to follow in a few spots. Since some of the boulders required considerable climbing skill to cross, handles had been bolted into some of the rocks made of metal and rubber. They were helpful, but some were placed where they weren't needed while some difficult spots didn't have any. They were a bit comical, actually. Sometimes we were on top of the boulders and sometimes down between them, but we slowly worked our through the piles and kept climbing. In the rocks we passed a young man on his way down--the only other person we saw on the entire hike.
Eventually the ridge began to flatten and was tree-covered once again, and in a clearing we came to a sign indicating that we were at the top! It was obvious that people had camped there, but otherwise there wasn't much special. The trail continued on the other side of the clearing to the western route. It was hard to get much of a view through the trees. We didn't feel like we on top since the trees stood well over our heads. But there was an especially tall, dead tree by a boulder at the edge of the clearing and I climbed up it for a better view and to reach for the "real summit"! We were concerned about getting down before dark so we ate a quick lunch and were on our way back down the trail.
Ferns near heliport
The return trip was no harder than the way up except that downclimbing the boulders and steep sections of the trail was more challenging. We encountered the leaches again when we entered the dense forest, but they diminished toward the trailhead as conditions became dryer. It helped that we were able to hike faster along the less steep sections. We took more pictures on the way down than on the way up--having a better perspective of the interesting features of the mountain and where the best examples were. Trying to photograph birds in the forest was frustrating because it was so dark and they were so fast and obscured by vegetation. But the plants and fungus were happy to pose for us. :-)
Fungus on log
It was funny to reach the improvements on the lower part of the trail because they merely indicated that the trailhead was very close. We wondered what the purpose of these improvements was and doubted that they could ever be applied to the rugged parts of the trail.
We had begun our hike at 7:45 a.m. and arrived back at the trailhead at 5:30 p.m., comfortably before dark. We hurriedly took the short hike on a paved trail to Josephine Falls, where we encountered several groups of people overlooking segments of the falls from wooden overlook platforms. Then we drove back to Cairns in the dark and made a final check for leaches before going to bed. The weather had been good to us, and the hike was a highlight of our trip "down under".