Bartle Frere trail. Photo: Barry Schmith, NPSR.
The area that is now Wooroonooran National Park has undergone a complex history of land tenure. Originally 31 970 hectares were gazetted as national park in 1921. Since then various sections have been added—most recently the large Palmerston Forest Reserve, which brought the total area of the national park to 113 727 hectares in 2005.
Wooroonooran National Park is in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area (WTWHA). Proclaimed in 1988 the WTWHA covers nearly 900 000 hectares and extends for about 450km between Cooktown and Townsville. Vegetation is primarily tropical rainforest, but includes open eucalypt forest, wetlands and mangrove forests. The WTWHA meets all four natural criteria for World Heritage listing. These criteria recognise the area's exceptional natural beauty and the importance of its biological diversity and evolutionary history, including habitats for numerous threatened species. The WTWHA also has cultural significance for Aboriginal people who have traditional links with the area and its surrounds.
Find out more about the Wet Tropics Management Authority.
Plants and animals on Bartle Frere developed in isolation, cut off from other high altitude populations. This allowed a number of endemic species to evolve, including the Bartle Frere skink and a native rhododendron.
The Bartle Frere trail covers altitudes from 100m to 1611m, passing through different kinds of rainforest. The foothills support tall, large-leafed lowland rainforest. On the lower slopes, patches of cyclone-damaged scrub occur. High winds, particularly those associated with cyclones, break up the rainforest canopy. This enables more light to penetrate, encouraging prolific vine growth. Widespread damage from cyclone Larry in March 2006 may be evident for several years.
With increasing altitude, the rainforest gradually changes. As well as differences in tree species, changes include a reduction in leaf size and a lower, more even canopy. On the peaks above 1500 metres the forest has a low, dense canopy as a result of frequent high winds.
Several plant and animal species are found only on Bellenden Ker Range. A characteristic and unusual tree species, found only above 1100 metres, is the tea tree Leptospermum wooroonooran, which forms much of the upper canopy. A sturdy tree, it sometimes grows with its trunk almost parallel to the ground where winds are strong. Some individual trees are thought to be at least a thousand years old. In summer they are covered with white flowers.
Australia's only species of rhododendron, Rhododendron lochiae, grows at elevations around 1500 metres on Bartle Frere. It is extremely tough and thrives in exposed positions where dense mist is common and rainfall exceeds 4000 millimetres a year. This scraggly shrub can be seen as you head to the summit. It will be scrambling over rocks or living on the limbs of trees as an epiphyte. Its thick leaves are arranged in whorls. Bright red, bell-shaped flowers in spring and summer make it hard to miss.
The Bartle Frere skink (Techmarscincus jigurru) was first discovered in 1981. It is found only above 1400 metres among exposed granite boulders on the cloud-draped summit of Bartle Frere. This animal is considered a temperate rainforest relict, as its closest relatives are in temperate zones such as Tasmania, southern Australia and New Zealand. Energetic and agile, the skink is generally seen during the day when its rainbow sheen catches the light. At night it retreats into cracks in the exposed granite boulders.
The Bellenden Ker nursery frog (Cophixalus neglectus), a mere 25mm long, is found only in rainforest areas above 900m. It has a brown or orange-brown back and a smooth, pale belly that sometimes has brown flecks. By its buzzing call you may find it hiding under forest leaf litter.
Golden bowerbirds (Prionodura newtoniana) occur only at elevations above 900m and may be seen between November and January. The golden-yellow males build double-towered bowers up to three metres tall.
Bartle Frere forms part of the traditional lands of the Noongyanbudda Ngadjon people. Known to the Noongyanbudda Ngadjon-Jii as Chooreechillum, Bartle Frere is their spiritual home. They have lived in this area, and maintained a close spiritual connection with it, for thousands of years. It is here they believe their spirits return when they die, to be reborn to walk the land once more, to watch over the Noongyandbudda Ngadjon people.
Traditionally, the Noongyanbudda Ngadjon-Jii moved seasonally around the mountainside. They hunted in certain areas, but rarely approached the summit. However, several Noongyanbudda Ngadjon men guided locally-renowned explorer and prospector Christie Palmerston to the summit in October 1886. After two days of climbing, Palmerston became the first European to reach the summit of Bartle Frere.
The eastern approach from Josephine Falls follows a rough track used in the 1890s by tin miners who worked a mining claim near the summit. Parts of the trail from the Atherton Tableland follow traditional Aboriginal walking tracks.