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Nature, culture and history
About 300 million years ago Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL) and surrounds was the scene of violent volcanic activity. Explosions of red-hot pumice, dust and gases filled the skies while lava spewed out across the landscape. As layers of ash and pumice covered the land, they welded together to form welded tuffs—a very hard volcanic rock.
Many years later a large body of molten magma rose from great depths, penetrating through the existing volcanic rocks. The magma slowly solidified beneath the surface to form granite.
Today, the volcanoes have gone and millions of years of weathering have carved the landscape to its present form. An obvious remaining landmark is Mount Tozer, standing 543 m above sea level and made of remnant volcanic rocks and granite. Bands of penetrating granite among older welded tuffs can still be seen on this mountain.
Granite and welded tuffs erode to very poor soils that support only the stunted heath country dominating this area. Lush rainforests, found on the low country to the east below the escarpment, are the result of richer soils produced by older, more easily eroded metamorphic rocks.
White quartz sand is found at Chilli Beach, which stretches between Cape Griffith and Cape Weymouth. This sand is derived from the coarse-grained granite of the ancient coastal hills, approximately 285 million years old. The northern end of Chilli Beach is strewn with flotsam and jetsam. The ocean currents deposit debris and rubbish from as far away as Vanuatu and the Philippines.
A unique collection of mammals, frogs, lizards and snakes are found only at Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL). Mammals such as the shy common spotted cuscus Spilocuscus maculatus and the southern common cuscus Phalanger intercastellanus inhabit the high branches of the rainforest, while on the rainforest floor lives the rufous spiny bandicoot Echymipera rufescens. Most mammals in the park are nocturnal. The bare-backed fruit bats Dobsonia moluccensis and the much smaller fawn leaf-nosed bat Hipposideros cervinus frequent the night sky throughout the park. The bare-backed fruit bats make a distinctive flapping noise as they hover in mid-air. Instead of fur, their backs are covered by the wing membrane that joins in the middle of the back rather than the sides of the body. Melomys, a small native mouse-like rodent, may be seen or heard rustling around camp sites at night.
Green pythons Morelia viridis also occur in the rainforest, their colour blending into the surrounding vegetation. In Australia, juvenile green pythons are bright yellow, changing to a lovely emerald green as they grow. The amethystine python Morelia kinghorni, a non-venomous snake that can grow greater than 5 m in length, inhabits the coastal vine forests of Chilli Beach. Many species of frogs live in the rainforest creeks and paperbark swamps. The distinctive reedy, quacking call of the Australian woodfrog Hylarana daemeli can often be heard around Chilli Beach camping area. Smaller, more elusive animals such as the cinnamon antechinus Antechinus leo and the Cape York nursery frog Cophixalus peninsularis also live in this area.
The park is a refuge and stronghold for many animals including some species with restricted distribution within Australia and that are also found in New Guinea, including the eclectus parrot Eclectus roratus macgillivrayi, red-cheeked parrot Geoffroyus geoffroyi and Marshall’s fig-parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma marshalli. Palm cockatoos Probosciger aterrimus, found only on Cape York Peninsula, can be seen around the Chilli Beach camping area, although they are more common in woodland areas. During the warmer months, large numbers of metallic starlings Aplornis metallica flock on the small island off Chilli Beach at dusk.
The park is also among the most diverse habitats in Australia for butterflies, ants, ferns, orchids and palms. The degree of orchid diversity of the McIlwraith Range and Iron Range areas is particularly significant. The McIlwraith Range is also a major location for butterfly diversity for the Cape York Peninsula. Sixty per cent of Australia’s butterfly species are found in Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL). Several species such as the green-banded jewel Hypochrysops theon and the Cape York pearl-white Elodina claudia are endemic.
Offshore, different species of marine turtles can sometimes be seen feeding in the shallow seagrass meadows. Look for schools of small baitfish sheltering near rocks in the shallows or darting through the water, chased by large pelagic fish such as queenfish and trevally. Estuarine crocodiles Crocodylus porosus may occasionally be seen cruising along the coast as they inhabit most rivers and creeks on the Cape.
The rainforest habitats of Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL) contain many significant species of plants and animals, some of which are shared with nearby New Guinea.
Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL) contains one of the largest remaining areas of lowland rainforest to be found in Australia. This forest type is an ideal habitat for such plants as the blue quandong Elaeocarpus augustifolius. Along with other fruits and seeds, the blue quandong is a favourite food of the southern cassowary Casuarius casuarius. The lowland forest of Iron Range is an extremely important habitat for the southern cassowary and many of the plant species within the forest rely directly upon the cassowary for seed distribution.
Around the Tozer Range, shrublands carpet the hill slopes while heathlands are featured on the foothills and plains. Heathland plants can grow much taller in areas where the soil is deep and fertile, but around the Mount Tozer region their growth is impeded by the infertile shallow soils derived from the granite volcanics of the Tozer Range.
About 200 different types of plants grow in the heathlands at Iron Range. Some of the plants are very unusual and have a distinctive form, which makes them easy to identify. One of the most unusual is the low-lying pitcher plant Nepenthes mirabilis found in the wetter areas around Tozers Gap.
The most obvious heathland plants are: she-oaks, including Allocasuarina littoralis, with their needle-like modified stems; grevilleas such as Grevillea pteridifolia, that have long, wispy leaves and orange flowers; banksias with their two-toned, coarse, papery leaves and woody seed capsules; and the purple-pink flowering shrub Jacksonia thesioides. Growing close to the ground are orchids and other plants, the most common being a sedge Schoenus sparteus.
Chilli Beach has an extensive dune system that rises up to 40 m above sea level and is cloaked with evergreen notophyll vine forests. In places, this vine forest replaces a grassy eucalypt forest that was maintained by Aboriginal fire management until about 60 years ago.
Coconut palms, relatively recent introductions in this landscape, fringe the foreshore at Chilli Beach. They possibly resulted from the increased European activity in the area and the corresponding halt in fire management. The dunes at the southern end of Chilli Beach are stabilised only by low-growing groundcover plants such as goat's foot Ipomoea pes-caprae. They are vulnerable to damage from vehicles and people.
Coastal plants along the foreshore include: the sea almond Terminalia sp, with its distinctive red seed pods containing husky almond-like seeds; beach calophyllum Calophyllum inophyllum with its twisted, gnarled trunk and low, horizontal branches; and the beautiful river lily Crinum pedunculatum. Twenty-seven species of mangrove have also been recorded along the coast.
Kuuku Ya’u Aboriginal Corporation, Registered Native Title Body Corporate—Vision Statement
“By 2024, we the Kuuku Ya’u people (Kungkay and Kanthanampu) will be proud and healthy, managing our own Ngaachi land according to our strong customs and traditions.
Families will be living on Ngaachi land and sit by the crystal clear rivers. The children are calling the plants, trees and animals by their language names and know the stories about their totems. Our Puuya art will be filled with joy and our people will collect and eat plenty of fresh bush tucker. We can always come back anytime and there will be plenty of bush foods. We will fish and hunt in harmony within our Ngaachi land guided by our seasonal knowledge.
Our rangers are fully equipped, qualified and employed to manage our sea, our land and our sacred and story places. We are the rightful protectors for our Ngaachi land and our environment.
We will drive our vehicle with our outside friends as passengers. We have respect for everything in our Ngaachi land – the sea, the animals, culture, each other and our neighbours.”
Written by the Kuuku Ya’u people representing Kungkay and Kanthanampu groups during the Healthy Country Planning workshop (May, 2013).
Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL) is of major Aboriginal cultural significance with story places and ceremonial sites located across the landscape. The Traditional Owners of Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL) are the Kuuku Ya'u people (including the Kungkay people and Kanthanampu people).
In 2011, the land in this park was transferred as Aboriginal freehold land to the Northern Kuuku Ya’u Kanthanampu Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC Land Trust. The national park (CYPAL) was then dedicated over the land. The Land Trust manages the park jointly with the Queensland Government in accordance with an Indigenous Management Agreement.
The Kuuku Ya'u culture is closely linked to the coastal environment. Their country extends beyond Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL) and includes the sea and islands adjacent to the coast. People travelled only short distances to hunt or gather food and resources—the richness of their coastal and marine environment met their needs for most of the year.
Chilli Beach is the site of the tukulu (turtle) story and the lunthitha/pa’ukura (stingray) story from the Dreamtime. These language names describe the hunting seasons when turtle and stingray come into the Chilli Beach area and can be easily hunted. This is usually during the summer months when the wind dies down and the water becomes clear.
The arrival of European explorers William Bligh and Edmund Kennedy, and the establishment of the Lockhart River Mission in 1924, impacted greatly upon the lives of the Kuuku Ya'u people. They were displaced and removed from their traditional lands. In 1942, when Australia was threatened by Japanese invasion during World War II, a large airbase was constructed at Iron Range and the road from the airstrip to Portland Roads, just north of Chilli Beach, was sealed. Patches of bitumen can still be seen today. During this time, local Indigenous people were dispersed to bush camps for six months, many reluctant to return to mission life.
From the 1840s, collecting of beche-de-mer and pearl shell began. Many Aboriginal people were used unscrupulously as labour in these industries. In the late 1800s a sandalwood industry was established at Orchid Point in Lloyd Bay. Aboriginal workers cut sandalwood by hand and packed it onto horses for transport to the beach where it was loaded onto boats. The sandalwood was then exported to Asia where it was highly prized for its fragrant oil and use in making carved chests.
Aboriginal people left the mission during the war but were encouraged to return after fears of invasion faded. The mission was moved to its present location in 1969. Today, most Kuuku Ya'u people live at the Lockhart community along with others from different clans. They now manage their own lives and maintain a strong cultural association with their traditional country. Kuuku Ya’u people continue their traditional hunting, gathering and fishing practices along the coast. As in the past, children learn from their parents and grandparents about the creation of all things, how to spear fish and stingrays, where to collect mussels and find other food, and their relationship with sea country. Cultural knowledge is also passed on to younger generations through art, songs, dances and stories.
European explorers arrived in Kuuku Ya'u country as early as 1789, the first being Captain William Bligh after the mutiny on the Bounty. Bligh and 18 loyal crew, victims of the mutiny on the Bounty, sailed in an open boat across the Pacific Ocean. They landed on a small offshore island, which he named Restoration Island. He also named Pudding Pan Hill and The Paps on the mainland. This ragged band of men then sailed on to Timor to alert authorities and the Pandora was sent in search of the mutineers.
This was later followed by the disastrous Cape York land expedition, led by Edmund Kennedy, in 1848. On his attempt to travel overland from Rockingham Bay to Cape York, Edmund Kennedy left a small party of men in Weymouth Bay, just south of the Pascoe River mouth. Kennedy and four others pushed north, all but a young Aboriginal man, Jacky Jacky, perishing along the way. Of the men left in Weymouth Bay, only two survived.
Exploration of both land and sea resources then commenced with the establishment of beche-de-mer, pearl and sandalwood industries, as well as tin and gold mining in the mid-1900s.
Mining ceased during World War II and the area became a staging post for at least 50,000 American and Australian troops. In 1942, a large airbase was constructed as a launching pad for American aerial bombing raids in the Pacific and the road from the Lockhart River airstrip to Portland Roads jetty (now removed) was sealed.
When the American 90th Bomb Group, known as the Jolly Rogers, arrived at Iron Range, they found two airstrips, named Claudie and Gordon, unfinished and unsealed. They described it as the worst airfield they were ever posted at during the war.
American Coast Artillery Regiments were deployed around the airstrips. W. Rollins, of the 197th Coast Artillery (AA) Regiment, described the conditions in his diary. 'The strips were a disaster. Muddy and flooded most of the time. I witnessed planes land without landing gear down, motors that didn't run, sometimes in a foot of water.'
They manned anti-aircraft gun positions in the area until mid-1943. 'Japanese planes have been sighted near the jetty but never an air raid. We experience at least two alerts every day—it seems the Japanese keep watch over this area.' W. Rollins.
Difficult conditions were made worse during the monsoonal rains and possibly contributed to some of the several military aircraft crashes in the area. One of the worst disasters took place on 16 November 1942, when B-24 Liberators of the 90th Bomb Group took off on their first bombing raid of Rabaul. Dust that was blown up during take-off obscured the dim airfield lights, causing the eleventh aircraft in line to veer off the runway and crash into three stationary aircraft, killing 11 men.
Today, small patches of bitumen and remains of old bridges, bunkers, gun emplacements, defensive pits, machinery parts, concrete footings and fuel drum dumps can still be seen in the area. These are slowly being obscured by rainforest. A memorial has been erected at the Iron Range Airport in recognition of the lives lost during the war.
- Cape York camping and easing of travel restrictions 3–24 July 2020