Edit Blog Post
Published: July 18th 2021
River in the Rainforest
Mulgrave River Top Causeway
After spending an uneventful weekend in Townsville following my Whitsundays sailing trip - during which most of my time was spent catching up on all the action I had missed from the Euro 2020 football championships - I took a coach five hours north to the (pre-covid) backpacker mecca of Cairns, where two of the best years of my life were spent in days gone by. My timing couldn't have been better, as the very next day Townsville was sent into lockdown; while Cairns was being inundated by families taking advantage of Australian school holidays.
Unfortunately my arrival also coincided with some unseasonal wet weather (dry season, my arse) so my first few days in town were spent in a sort of suspended animation, wishing I could get out and explore the surrounding area but instead spending most of my time at the hostel - with the exception of my nightly forays to the Night Markets for some cheap but tasty Asian food. Eventually a change in the weather allowed me to get out and do a couple of half-day hikes to get some fitness back in my legs, and with a couple of rest days at Euro 2020 coming
Highest Mountain in Queensland
Mount Bartle Frere, seen from just outside Babinda
up I decided it was time to take my backpack and get back out into the wilderness, with the nearby Wooroonooran NP (home to the highest mountains in Queensland, and covered in dense tropical rainforest) being my destination of choice.
So after getting up at 5am on Sunday (4th July) to watch England (unfortunately) thrash Ukraine 4-0 in the last of the Euro 2020 quarter-finals, I took a coach one hour south to the tiny town of Babinda, from where I intended to tackle the climb to the top of Mount Bartle Frere (known as Chooreechillum in the local Noongyanbudda Ngadjon language) which, at 1622 metres, is not only the highest mountain in Queensland, but also the highest in the country outside of the Australian Alps. And like it's neighbour Mount Bellenden Ker just to the north, what these mountains lack in height compared to some of Australia's more southerly peaks, they make up for both with their dense coverage of lush tropical vegetation and in the fact that they rise straight up from the flat coastal plain, with a climb of 1500 metres required to reach either summit - an elevation gain that is offered by very few
Avoiding the Highway
Following the railway tracks from Babinda to Mirriwinni
of their southern counterparts.
The only problem with this - apart from the tropical heat and humidity that has to be overcome, of course - is that this happens to be the wettest region in Australia, with an annual rainfall of between 5 and 8 metres at the base of the mountain, and closer to 12 metres at the summit, which is blanketed in clouds for eight days out of every ten! Not the best news if you're the sort of person who climbs mountains for the spectacular views from the top; but on the other hand it guarantees a year-round supply of rainwater for the abundant waterfalls in the area - the most famous of which, Josephine Falls, sits at the base of Mount Bartle Frere, right near the trailhead for the climb to the top of the mountain.
With a healthy layer of cloud cover and a gentle breeze to keep me relatively cool, the 17km walk from Babinda to Josephine Falls turned out to be far more enjoyable than I had anticipated, as I was able to follow the train line instead of having to march along the shoulder of the highway for the first
Josephine Falls, at the base of Mount Bartle Frere
ten kilometres. And all the while Mount Bartle Frere's imposing bulk took centre stage, it's profile slowly changing as I made my way south, passing the mountain's eastern face as I went. Turning away from the highway in Mirriwinni, the endless fields of sugar cane that had bordered the railway line were eventually replaced by plantations of bananas, and I was reminded of my first ever trip up to this part of Queensland back in 2006, when every single banana tree in the vicinity of Innisfail had been snapped in half by the force of Cyclone Larry's winds. At least this year's harvest would have no such problems.
Arriving at Josephine Falls I resisted the temptation to tackle the natural waterslide of the lower falls, contenting myself instead with a leisurely lunch prepared on a giant boulder perched right beside the river. According to the warning signs no less than fourteen people have died over the years at this very spot, which has led the Parks & Wildlife Service to install a flood gauge in the swimming hole at the base of the waterfall, in the hope that people will refrain from swimming at times of peak flow. According
The upper falls at Josephine Falls
to the gauge the level of the river was marginally below that which is considered unsafe, but in any case I decided it would make a more fitting reward on the last day of my hike, AFTER I had made it to the top of the mountain and back. Of course by then Josephine Creek could be in full flood, but that was a problem for another day...
After a leisurely lunch break I took my leave from the falls and started out on the trail up Mount Bartle Frere, which despite being only 7.5km long rises a full 1500 metres in height. But having decided to devote three full days to achieving my goal - a necessity given the long walk in and out - I had the luxury of only having to walk 3.3km (with 330m of election gain) to reach my overnight stop at the Big Rock campsite on the lower slopes of the mountain, where I would set up camp before tackling the remainder of the climb to the summit as a day-walk the following day. All of which meant that I could take my time on the first part of the climb, revelling in
Stopping for a rest break on the lower slopes of the mountain
the opportunity to wander through the lush rainforest, with little creeks flowing across my path every few minutes. One larger stream I found particularly beautiful, with water cascading down from both sides of a gigantic boulder placed incongruously in the middle of the forest.
Eventually I arrived at the small clearing of Big Rock campsite, which despite offering no facilities whatsoever is redeemed by the thundering stream that flows past only metres away, and which marks a junction of tracks - with one leading across the river towards the summit of Mount Bartle Frere, while another stays on the true right side of the river and climbs steeply up to a subsidiary peak on the mountain known rather comically as Broken Nose. Unfortunately the dampness of the location meant that leeches were a constant presence, though they were only tiny and easily flicked off. Soon after I had arrived at the campsite a group of three older hikers crossed the river on their way back from the summit, and it was quite clear that they were reaching the point of exhaustion, yet had little choice but to push on in an effort to reach the car park before dark.
Big Rock campsite beside Majura Creek
I could only hope I would fare better the following day...
Unfortunately when my alarm went off at 6am the next day there was a light rain falling, and the prospect of a gruelling hike in soaring humidity AND rain was simply too much for me to bare, so I decided to go back to sleep for another hour and see if the weather was any better at 7am. It was, but only marginally, and after eating breakfast inside my tent in an attempt to stay dry, I was still tossing up whether or not to go ahead with the climb when voices suddenly approached. Hopping out of my tent I was greeted by an enthusiastic group of seven younger hikers, who had started out from the bottom at 6:30am and were tackling the climb to help one of the girls in the group celebrate her birthday! It didn't take long for their energy to rub off on me, and as they picked their way painstakingly across the stream in a sort of disjointed conga line, I hurriedly filled my water bottles and stuffed all six litres' worth - along with plenty of snacks and a change of clothes
Tree Root Ladder
Climbing through the rainforest on Mount Bartle Frere
- into my little daypack before setting out after them.
In no time at all I had sweat pouring off me, as the trail climbed relentlessly up a ridgeline at a constant gradient of about 3:1. The only time I had tackled a similar climb of this length was in Malaysia, where the trail to the Pinnacles rose 1250m in only 2.5km, at a truly gut-busting gradient of 2:1! And I could vividly recall having drunk all five litres of water that I had taken on that climb and wished that I'd had a couple of litres more... hence the six litres I had brought with me this time! With the trail mostly consisting of tree roots covered in leaf litter, there wasn't a great deal of mud to worry about; but care had to be taken not to slip on the rain-polished roots as I inched my way up the side of the mountain. Within an hour I had caught up to the slowest members of the group, and it was around this time that I started to find the going slightly easier - though whether this was because the trail had actually eased off ever so slightly,
Lush tropical vegetation on the way to the top
or because I had been unconsciously pushing myself harder up until this point to try to catch up to the group, I couldn't quite be sure.
But in any case it wasn't long before I had caught up to the rest of the group, and I soon led the way as my long legs and greater reach allowed me to scale the frequent 'tree root ladders' more speedily than my less vertically-gifted companions - though one particular girl (who would have stood no more than 1.55m high) did an admirable job of proving the old adage that 'good things come in small packages'! As the rainforest was slowly enveloped in mist, we pressed on towards our unseen goal, before finally emerging at the sturdy evacuation hut and helipad (which doubles as a camping platform at night) of the Western summit camp. By this point I had climbed a vertical kilometre in just two-and-a-half hours, but according to the one member of the group who had previously tackled this trail, the hardest part was still to come - in the form of a boulder field with occasional steel supports embedded in the rock to facilitate walkers' progress.
Looking back over the western summit from the way up to the boulder field
stopping for an extended rest break to allow for the slowest members of the group to catch up, we jettisoned any unnecessary weight from our packs and started up through the boulder field, which despite the warnings would turn out to be the highlight of the climb for many of us! And despite the low ceiling of cloud cover that stubbornly refused to allow any sunlight through - not to mention the wisps of cloud that were constantly blowing up from below and chasing us across the mountain - we finally had some views to enjoy from our elevated perch.
But just when we thought that the boulder field had provided us with the perfect climax to our climb, we realized we had been deceived - for no sooner had we re-entered the cloud forest and scaled what we thought was the final rise to the summit, than the clouds ahead of us suddenly lifted just enough to reveal yet another steep slope stretching up into the mists. For one couple this proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back, but with the birthday girl alongside me there was no way we were going to be denied,
Scaling the boulder field just below the summit of Bartle Frere
and fifteen minutes later we emerged into a small clearing in the forest, where we were surprised to find a trail sign declaring that we had reached the summit of Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland's highest mountain, at 1622m above sea level. Mission accomplished!
After the obligatory summit photos had been taken and much needed sustenance had been devoured, act two began: the equally-grueling descent back the way we had come. For three-and-a-half hours my calf and quad muscles had borne the brunt of the workload, but for the subsequent three hours it would be my knees' turn to take the punishment, as the old refrain that 'what goes up must come down' was hammered home like a sledgehammer. Rarely have I been so happy to see my trusty blue tent appear in my field of vision as I was upon my return to the campsite at Big Rock that afternoon, and after indulging in a refreshing dip in those cool, clear waters to wash away a day's worth of sweat, dirt and leeches I was more than ready to stretch out on my sleeping mat and let the tiredness wash over me. But there was still one unexpected highlight
Standing on the Roof of Queensland
At the summit of Mount Bartle Frere, after climbing 1500 metres from Josephine Falls
to come, when just as I emerged from my tent to cook dinner shortly after dusk that evening, dozens of fireflies suddenly appeared around the campsite, their flashing lights creating a truly mesmerising spectacle.
I woke to the sound of rain again on Tuesday morning, so again I went back to sleep in the hope that it would stop... but alas, this time it wasn't to be. And though I managed to successfully pack my backpack inside the tent - and wisely chose to delay breakfast until I arrived back at Josephine Falls - there was no avoiding the task that I despise more than anything else while camping: packing up my tent in the rain. It's not so much the fact that I get wet during this process that bothers me, as the fact that I have to fold up and pack away my tent while it is sopping wet, knowing that it's likely to stay that way until I set it up again the next time... whenever that may be. The resident leeches didn't seem to mind though. If there was a bright side to the rain and gloom, it was that I had to put up
Strangler fig in action beside the trail
with these conditions on my pack-up day, rather than on my summit day. This was kindly pointed out to me by a passing solo hiker who was on his way up the mountain in the rain, with the likelihood that he would see none of the views that had provided reward for my efforts the previous day. This did lift my spirits somewhat.
A little over an hour after leaving the campsite behind, I arrived back at the picnic area at Josephine Falls to find that all but one of the picnic shelters were being repainted... yep, some bright spark had decided that the best time to repaint the roofs would be right in the middle of the school holidays! Thankfully the one remaining shelter - tucked away in the forest - was free, so with time on my side I set about hanging all of my wet clothes out to dry; and even went so far as to re-erect my tent in the hope that I could get it at least partially dry before having to pack it away again. Indian rice with mashed potato and countless cups of coffee provided some solace, and when I did finally
Every Shade of Green
Crossing Josephine Creek on the road to the mountain
get going again a couple of hours later I was satisfied that the tent was at least dry enough to not go mouldy while it remained cooped up in my backpack for the next three days.
In the meantime the rain had eased off to almost nothing, which allowed me to tackle the 17km walk back to the highway and then onto Babinda in relative comfort... though I was extremely grateful to a passing local couple who called out to offer me a ride about five kilometres short of Babinda, even though I was twenty metres off the road and wandering along in my own little world at the time! Having been saved an hour of boring road walking, I figured the best way to fill in my newfound free time whilst awaiting my coach back to Cairns would be to stop in at the cute little cafe I had read about online before my trip. The Kool Spot Cafe did not disappoint! Imagine walking 45km over three days, all of it either a) on or beside roads b) steeply uphill, or c) in the rain, and then suddenly and unexpectedly finding yourself tucking into freshly cooked waffles served
Enjoying the fruits of my labour at the Kool Spot Cafe in Babinda
with banana, strawberries, ice cream and chocolate sauce (with a side-serve of bacon) and all washed down with an iced coffee, and you can probably understand the feeling of immense satisfaction I had at that point - it was definitely one of those experiences when the end well and truly justifies the means!
After arriving back in Cairns and checking back into my old haunt at Dreamtime Travellers Rest on Tuesday evening, it was only nine hours later that my alarm started going off - just in time to catch the first semi-final of Euro 2020 between Spain and Italy. High-tailing it down to the Cairns Marina during the half-time break, I was able to catch the second half before boarding the Rum Runner for my overnight sailing & scuba diving trip to the outer Great Barrier Reef. With introductions and safety announcements out of the way - and rain falling from leaden skies once again - I retreated back to the comfort of my phone screen and headphones, and as the bars of phone signal started to dwindle extra-time drew to an almost-inevitable conclusion: a penalty shootout. Ultimately it would be Italy who came out on top, but
Another Week, Another Sailing Boat
Boarding the Rum Runner at Cairns Marina
by the time the final came around in five days time I would be far away to the south.
With my focus finally turning to the task at hand, we arrived at Thetford Reef for our first scuba dive, and though the boat was almost full - with 12 guests and 6 crew onboard - I was one of only two certified divers, with the other ten guests being made up of two family groups who stuck to snorkelling. All of which meant that I was guaranteed an intimate small-group experience for each dive, which was much appreciated given that I had not actually been diving in four-and-a-half years, since visiting the Poor Knights Islands off the coast of New Zealand.
My first dive got off to an inauspicious start: firstly my tank hadn't been filled (thankfully this was discovered BEFORE I went in the water!), then my dive buddy Max needed more weight for her weight belt before she could descend effectively, and then our dive guide Bear had trouble equalising on his way down! Needless to say this wasn't the best dive of the trip, though to be fair given my rustiness (which naturally produces a
Hoisting the Sails
Heading out to the Great Barrier Reef onboard Rum Runner
certain amount of anxiety) this was always bound to be the case. Our second dive - at a site named Mystery - was a vast improvement, and featured some extensive swim-throughs that were far narrower than anything I had negotiated previously; and it was a memorable experience indeed to have walls of coral rising up to ten metres above me within touching distance on either side.
With both my fellow diver Max and our guide Bear sitting out the third dive (at a mooring called 360s) I was paired up with a diminutive Japanese dive guide, Risa. By this stage I was starting to become more accustomed to the underwater world again, and was better able to control my use of oxygen - which is always a battle for someone of my size. But all four of us were back in the water after dinner for our night dive, where we found a large parrotfish sleeping in it's cocoon of mucus (not as gross as it sounds), a large coral cod, and even a crown of thorns starfish - which in sections of reef with a high amount of agricultural runoff have reached plague proportions (the last thing the
Scuba gear ready to go on the deck of the Rum Runner
Great Barrier Reef needs, when it is already facing the dual threats of rising sea temperatures and the annual cyclone season).
With a different divemaster named Caitlin taking Max and I for our first dive the following morning (there can be few nicer ways to wake up than by immersing yourself in the underwater world on a liveaboard dive boat) we had a final chance to explore the reef wall and adjacent bommies of 360s, before we shifted to another mooring known as Lagoons (also on Thetford Reef) for what would be my sixth and final dive of the trip. With the sun finally emerging for the first time in five days the colours underwater were much more vivid, and with just Risa for company it soon became apparent that we had saved the best for last, as what would turn out to be my longest ever dive (just short of one hour) started on a high with a sighting of a white tip reef shark, then ended with a farewell from a passing green sea turtle - the first of either animal that we had seen during the two days! After that it was back onboard to soak
up some much needed sunshine, before returning to Cairns where it immediately started raining once again!
Rising early yet again on Friday, I took a local bus twenty kilometres south to Gordonvale, from where I planned to walk 25km through to the Goldsborough Valley camping area back in Wooroonooran NP. From there I hoped to follow a historic track (the 20km-long Goldfields Trail) across a low saddle between Queensland's two highest mountains (Bartle Frere and Bellenden Ker), finishing up at a free campground beside the lovely waterhole of Babinda Boulders, about 6km west from the town of Babinda. Unfortunately those first 25km would be following roads all the way, and though only a short section of the Gillies Highway - which leads up the side of the Gillies Range towards the Atherton Tablelands - could not be avoided, that section proved to be a doozy! Narrow and winding, the road weaved it's way through the lowland rainforest, carrying just enough weekday traffic to make life difficult for anyone on foot. The hour that I spent following that road was as mentally exhausting as it was physically tiring, as I constantly had to scurry from one side of the road
Mountain in the Mist
Walsh's Pyramid cloaked in clouds
to the other to find a shoulder wide enough to walk on. By the time I reached the turnoff to the Goldsborough Valley at Peet's Bridge I was in need of a good rest break, though I made sure to check the banks of the Mulgrave River for saltwater crocodiles before I sat myself down overlooking the water!
Climbing briefly past the scattered settlement of Goldsborough, the first patches of blue sky started to infiltrate the blanket of grey that had enveloped the mountains all morning - and, but for a brief interlude, the five preceeding days - and as I proceeded further and further up the valley the weather slowly came to resemble the typical dry season weather that I remembered so fondly from my previous experiences in North Queensland - sunny, warm and humid. Every hour or so I would reach another low bridge across the beautiful Mulgrave River, which would be the cue for me to drop my pack, splash some water on my face, dig out an energy bar and have a swig of water to rehydrate for the next section of road. With the sun shining overhead and dense tropical vegetation lining both sides
Low Level Crossing
Standing astride the Mulgrave River's Bottom Causeway
of the road, I was quite content just ambling along up the valley - so much so that I declined the offer of a lift for the final 5km to the campground whilst crossing the last bridge... then questioned the wisdom of my decision when the road started to climb steeply up the side of the valley immediately after crossing the river! Before long I was sweating proverbial bullets and wondering just how much liquid I could lose in sweat without dissolving into some sort of powder, much like the dehydrated camp meals I have become so familiar with.
But eventually I did make it to the end of the road, where the Goldsborough Valley camping area hugged the true right bank of the Mulgrave River, offering numerous access points to facilitate a cooling dip in the delightfully cool, clear water - all of which would seem to be crocodile-free, given the lack of any warnings on the national park information signs. Thanks to the shallow water and excellent visibility I could see for myself that there were no crocs in my immediate vicinity, and having worked up a sweat that a lightweight jockey in the sauna would be
Gorgeous Swimming Spot
Waterhole in the upper Mulgrave River, directly opposite my tent site in the Goldsborough Valley
proud of, that was all the invitation I needed to plunge in for a delightfully refreshing swim.
A further benefit of my particular campsite was it's solitude, hidden away past the other eleven sites at the campground with an earthen bank about fifty metres long covered in dense vegetation offering both privacy and soundproofing. This was no accident, as I had taken a close look at the campground map before booking my site online. But never could I have guessed how important this would prove to be, until a group of at least twenty young adults (mostly young men with that most annoying of traits that so many of their kind possess: an obsession with over-revving their car engines) started setting up a tent-and-tarp city across a number of adjoining campsites, after which they proceeded to party long into the night with their stereo system cranked up as loud as it would go. How anyone else in the campground could have gotten any sleep I have no idea - even I had to resort to ear plugs in the end - and I have no doubt that the police would have been called, if only there had been phone
Oasis of Calm
Tent site 12 in the Goldsborough Valley - blissfully isolated from the rest of the campsite
reception with which to call them! Seriously, you go to a national park to camp out under the stars beside a beautiful river in a World Heritage-listed rainforest, and you end up in the midst of a house party populated by bogans and revheads! What the f_ck?!?
Sunday promised to be a long and sweaty day, as I tackled the historic Goldfields Trail. Starting out as a dirt road through the rainforest - crossing numerous tributaries of the Mulgrave River along the way - it only took a couple of hours to reach the walk-in campsite beside the top causeway, where the broad river was flowing ankle-high across the causeway before plunging through a series of dramatic cascades. The sight and sound of the river crashing over the rocks was absolutely mesmerising, and I had no hesitation in calling an early halt for lunch. It also provided the perfect opportunity for me to don my shandals and make my way out to the centre of the river to revel in the spectacle of this most magical of places.
After crossing the Mulgrave River the track soon narrowed to the width of a walking trail, and the climb began
Rapids on the upper Mulgrave River
in earnest. Wisely I had chosen to leave my shandals on by this point, as I ended up crossing dozens of small streams all rushing down from the saddle between Bellenden Ker and Bartle Frere - though this also allowed the resident leeches easy access to my feet! Upwards, downwards and ever onwards the trail continued, with any benefit derived from the relative shade and coolness of the forest being undone by the soaring humidity. And to top it off there were countless palm trees with razor sharp barbs and what-a-while vines lined with tiny hooks crowding the trail, so that at any moment I could suddenly find myself, my pack or my towel (hanging down from the top of my pack to dry) snagged by nature's equivalent of velcro - there certainly was a sinister feeling to that stretch of rainforest!
But even worse was to come when, after eventually crossing the crest of the range and beginning my undulating descent towards Babinda, the trail started to become increasingly blocked by fallen trees. And while I had passed both a group of four and a father with his young son heading in the opposite direction - reassuring me
Reaching for the Sky
Lush rainforest on the Goldfields Trail
that the trail was most definitely passable - it was clear from the small size of their packs that all of them were tackling the trail as a simple day-walk, meaning they hadn't had to negotiate the treefall with heavy packs strapped to their backs. Unfortunately I wasn't so lucky, and as the blockages started coming thick and fast so my blood pressure began to rise! On more than one occasion I was fortunate to avoid falling and hurting myself, as I had to lift myself up onto a fallen trunk, swivel myself around while trying desperately to retain my balance, and then lower myself onto uneven and muddy ground - and all with a twenty kilogram pack on, as I was loaded up not only with supplies for my current two-day mission but also a further week's worth of food for my following week's adventures.
Eventually the treefall started to subside and the walking became easier, and then just a few kilometres before the end of the trail I rounded a bend to find a cassowary (a large, flightless bird - smaller than an emu, ostrich or rhea, but much better looking) making it's own way down the
Slicing through the Forest
Babinda Gorge, downstream from the Boulders
path. And though I wasn't able to get a clear photo of it (the cassowary having taken cover in the tangled foliage as I approached) and the moment was only fleeting, it was still a thrilling experience to lay eyes on my first ever wild cassowary, and yet another addition to the long list of memorable encounters with wildlife that I have enjoyed on this extended trip. About 45 minutes later I reached the eastern end of the Goldfields Trail, where I was able to indulge in a much needed swim in the cool, clear waters of Babinda Creek, just upstream from the impressive gorge at the well-known tourist attraction of Babinda Boulders.
And if I was disappointed (if not surprised) to find the nearby council-run free campsite filled to the brim - meaning I had to walk a further 7km to reach another free campsite just outside the town of Babinda - this had two clear benefits: firstly that I wouldn't have to walk those 7km at dawn the following morning (to make it to the bus stop in Babinda in time for my coach to Cardwell at 8:25am), and secondly that I could enjoy another delicious meal
A rare clear view of Mount Bartle Frere, from the road to Babinda
at the Kool Spot Cafe, the same place I had ended up after my climb up Mount Bartle Frere only five days earlier! I had emerged from the bush somewhat bloodied and battered, but was otherwise none the worse for wear; and undoubtedly better for the experience.
Tot: 0.113s; Tpl: 0.028s; cc: 18; qc: 76; dbt: 0.0196s; 1; m:saturn w:www (220.127.116.11); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.6mb