Nature, culture and history
The area that is now Wooroonooran National Park has undergone a complex history of land tenure. Originally 31,970ha 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 113,727ha in 2005.
Wooroonooran National Park is in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area (WTWHA). Proclaimed in 1988 the WTWHA covers nearly 900,000ha 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 4 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.
Some plants and animals on Bartle Frere developed in isolation, cut off from other high-altitude populations. This allowed a number of unique endemic species to evolve, including the Bartle Frere cool-skink and Wilkie’s leatherwood.
The Bartle Frere trail covers altitudes from 100m to 1,611m, 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 decades.
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 1400m 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. The Bartle Frere cool-skink Techmarscincus jigurru was first discovered in 1981. It is found only above 1,400m 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.
Wilkie’s leatherwood Eucryphia wilkiei is a shrub with a dense rounded crown about 3-4m tall. Its only known population grows in the microphyll vine thickets amongst large granite boulders above 1200m. Like the Bartle Frere cool-skink, it is a temperate rainforest relic, with its closest relatives being in Tasmania and Chile.
The mountain silkwood Flindersia oppositifolia is one of the taller tree species to be found towards the Bartle Frere summit. It flowers in October to November with long reddish panicles that are followed by woody capsules, studded with rough points, that release winged seeds. The mountain silkwood is endemic to the Bellenden Ker Range.
The critically endangered 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. While you may hear its buzzing call, it’s unlikely you’ll see this small frog as it hides under forest leaf litter. Intriguingly, the Bellenden Ker nursery frog’s tadpoles never swim in water, instead its eggs are laid under leaves or rocks, where they fully develop and hatch as little frogs.
Bartle Frere forms part of the traditional lands of the Noongyanbudda Ngadjon people. Known to the Noongyanbudda Ngadjon 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 moved seasonally around the mountainside. They hunted in certain areas, but rarely approached the summit. However, several Noongyanbudda Ngadjon men guided 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.