I’ve been up the mountain three times in all, and each time left me with a lingering physical reminder that I am an all too breakable human. It’s still one of my favourite places.
Let me start by saying what an amazing walk this is – long and arduous with testing conditions, as well as a 900 metre ascent over 7.5km, and the subsequent same day descent, and all that through thick bush. But that’s not the amazing bit. The Western Ascent, not to be confused with the well-worn Eastern Ascent, is an isolated rough track. It’s a true bush track, and can still give that sense of wilderness that can be so hard to come by. That’s what makes it amazing.
25 April, 2010
The morning started with a longer than anticipated drive to the trail head on Gourka Road, outside of Malanda. It was dark and raining, and we had assessed the situation by agreeing we would see how the day progressed and would turn around if we felt it was not safe. We set out enthusiastically, and somewhat naively, hoping to make up for lost time.
The first part of the trail was a mud bath, resulting in some laughter as we sloshed and slipped, while clambering over the occasional tree fallen across the track. The mud eventually subsided as the gradient increased, and it was sometime around here that we noticed the hordes of leeches cartwheeling up our legs, and dropping from the trees in air-raid attacks. After we finished freaking out, and then laughed at ourselves, more Bushman was applied and we continued on.
From here, the ascent commenced in earnest. The steep trail consisted of tangled tree roots that formed natural staircases up the mountainside. Hard work, but kind of helpful really. In the middle of one of these climbs, we heard loud snapping and crashing, and stood motionless while a tree fell around 20 metres away from us. The noise of cracking wood echoed through the rainforest, before the final thump of impact. We were lucky to witness it, especially from a safe distance. If a tree falls in the forest indeed.
The higher we climbed, the more boulder-strewn the trail became, and the more unusual the bush was, becoming lower and tougher, almost alpine in appearance. By this point, ‘trail’ was a loose description. Markers were present to keep us going the right way, but it was up to us to find the best path between one marker and the next. This trail did not suffer from having too many people on it. I love this kind of bushwalk. It makes the level of exertion worthwhile, to see things that few other people bother to.
The boulders required some thought as often the only way was over, which this made for a good change after the steep tree root stairs. Eventually we came to the North West Peak, an open patch where in theory you should have views of the tablelands and the coast – not for us though. By this point, the vegetation is much different to what you see at sea level, and with cloud rolling through, pushed by chilly winds, we could have been anywhere in the world other than tropical North Queensland. On we went.
From here, there were more steep ascents and descents, and more rock hopping with some climbing required. More boulders, more near vertical sections, more thickly grassed trail sections, and finally, we reached the summit. The top of Bartle Frere is somewhat understated, being a small clearing in the forest with any view being from the top of a rock just beside the clearing. Again, there was no view through the cloud, but we had the satisfaction of having made it.
A few minutes later we were chatting to a couple who had come up the Eastern Ascent at the same time. We quietly inspected them and all had the same thoughts: how come they are so clean? We looked like we had been dragged up the mountain; wet, muddy, scratched and leech-bitten… how was it possible? Hmph. The next minute, the man reached down to scratch his ankle, then hesitated before shrieking in horror as five or more leeches squirmed in his sock, releasing some gooey blood in the process. We giggled like naughty school kids at this evening of the score and settled back to our Nutella and muesli bar snacks. Leeches? We were all over that. After a bite to eat and a chat we started back down the way we had come, a new spring in our steps.
The way home was a race against the clock to make sure we made it back in sunlight. The downhill, though faster, saw us falling over a lot more as the tree root staircases became treacherously slippery and not at all as helpful as they had been on the way up. The constant pounding of the steep descent tired my legs more than I thought possible. We were no longer the confident conquerors of the mountain, merely tired, bloodied whingers in desperate need of a sit down. We were all ecstatic to finally reach the car.
Though this track is shorter in length and ascent than the Eastern side, it is still a very tough route, especially given the often unformed trail. This is definitely not a track for the unprepared as the physically demanding rough trail has plenty of hazards on it, and is often not a trail at all. Packing light may seem tempting for such a long day, but leaving out emergency and safety equipment is not really sensible. People have gone missing here.
This lack of formed trail is just what makes it so special though, and because the other side of the mountain is easier to get to, and a big draw card for fitness enthusiasts who want to tick off the tougher climb, you probably won’t have to share your bush time with many others. It’s solitude makes it special, and it’s landscapes make it spectacular.
When the trail guides talk about rock scrambling, take that to mean you will need to climb up and over boulders using tree roots to haul yourself up sometimes near vertical sections. There are also places where you will have to tunnel your way through thick cutting native grasses, which is a test of your nerves as well as your sense of direction. As you near the top this is the norm.
Time is a big factor to consider; we took six hours to go up, and another four to come down, which is about average pace. You do want to allow time to appreciate where you are. The mountain is so beautiful; make sure you stop to notice. Taking into account that sunlight is limited in the rainforest, head torches are a sensible addition to your pack, just in case.
Then of course, there are the leeches. By the hundreds, they will stalk you and clamber up your legs like the marauding blood suckers they are. Take Bushman, and plenty of it!
So those are some cautions, but the reward is seeing pristine rainforest just the way nature intended it, weed free and in perfect harmony, with orchids, crows nest ferns and ancient trees in abundance. The boulders, though treacherous, are incredible in their size and presence, and you will be lucky to see another person on the track. And of course, you will have made it to the summit of Queensland’s highest peak, which is a great achievement in anyone’s books.
My whole body ached for a week after this walk. It’s a good thing the memory of the forest lingered along with it.