Conquering a Mountain: One of Australia’s Tallest, Bartle Frere

You’ll question your own existence, it feels like death! – A Friend.

Don’t let that quote scare you, climbing Mt Bartle Frere is an amazing experience. One I probably should have undertaken sooner than I did, but then we all have those “one days” (I had climbed to Broken Nose lookout prior to this though, more on that later)…
If you’ve ever been to Far North Queensland Australia and did some adventuring south of Cairns, you most likely would have spotted Bartle Frere. As part of the Bellenden Ker Range, it is the tallest mountain in Queensland, and the 4th of the tallest mountains by state (not the 4th tallest in Australia though); a peak that can rarely be seen from the base due to the 360 day cloud cover (informed wild guesstimate).

The Journey Begins

There are two ways to approach the summit, but since we were closer to the coast we started from the Josephine Falls carpark at an elevation of 100m above sea level. We began the trek around 7:30am and the first part, which takes you to the Big Rock Campsite, was pretty easy going, a rise of 400m in just over 3km.
There are plenty of places to refill water bottles along this part of the track, and we even had to undertake a balancing act across a log to get to the other side of a large creek; which was even more interesting on the way back (heavy packs + exhausted muscles + balancing on logs, is not exhilarating).

Big Rock

At the Big Rock campsite the trail splits, and you can choose to climb up to the Broken Nose lookout (which is easy to spot from the Bruce Highway due to it’s unusual shape) at an elevation of 962m, or continue up to the Summit. Since we had planned to camp at the summit overnight, we figured we had time to do both. After a short rest, we unhooked our smaller packs, packed a bit of food and the cameras, and stashed the larger packs behind some rocks. Then we were on our way up the next 400m rise. This time it was over a distance of 2km, meaning that there were some pretty steep parts along the way.

Broken Nose Lookout

This wasn’t the first time I’d been to Broken Nose, I had done so once before when I was just 9 years old. However it was well worth doing again. The view from here is arguably better than any others further up the main summit trail! As you step out onto the main rock you’re greeted by beautiful coastal landscape views of small towns, sugar cane crops, mountain ranges, and even the coral sea and the islands just off the coast.

One part of the lookout has a rock on a slight rise that you can lay across to look straight down over the side; doing so really puts your location into perspective.

The main rock at the lookout is a great place to stop for lunch; you won’t get any better views than from here, so it’s definitely recommended.

After lunch, we began our descent back to the Big Rock campsite. During which, the bottom grip of one of my shoes started to peel off; and part way down it pulled off completely. Luckily for us though, duct tape does indeed fix everything, and we were able to make (multiple) running repairs (over the remainder of the hike).

We arrived back at the Big Rock camp site at around 1-2pm, stopped for another quick snack and to refill the water bottles, picked up our larger packs, and started the next ascent.

Summit Climb

Just as we began the next climb, we ran into a friend coming back down (he had bypassed Broken Nose and gone straight for the Summit at around the same time we did in the morning).

His words of wisdom? “You’ll question your existence, it feels like death”. Great! Onward we go!

It felt like death. We probably should have skipped the Broken Nose side trip and just concentrated on the Summit… There was no turning back though, and even though we were still climbing as the sun was setting (lucky for our LED torches and headlamps!), we made it. On a side note, do not check the altimeter on your camera if you know the altitude you need to reach.

As we approached the Eastern Campsite, we had to do a bit of rock scrambling over large granite boulders, an interesting experience at night with hiking packs on; but when we arrived, the euphoria was indescribable.

The terrain as you get close to the Eastern Campsite is eerily different to anything you experience on the path up. Described as a cloud forest, it contains many rare plants and animals, of which some species in particular are found only here. It really feels like you are somewhere else.

There is a small aluminium shelter, enough to fit about 3 people in comfortably, and an aluminium frame helipad there as well. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived the shelter had been taken, though we only discovered that after we opened the door on the poor guy that was asleep on the ground. It is definitely a good idea to try and use it if you can though; get there early!

The Eastern Campsite isn’t exactly the top, but it is the best place to camp. As the remaining sunlight disappeared and it started to cool down, we set up on the couple of small sites that were suitable for tents. Dinner consisted of average food, tinned soups warmed by a kerosene cooker with bread,  Oreos and Picnics for dessert; and the best atmosphere in the world, an uninterrupted view of the milky way galaxy.

Morning at the Top of the World

Sleep unfortunately, was pretty average. The spot we pitched our tent on was bombarded with wind, and so I was continuously woken by it flapping around. Though it did survive the night at least. It was cold too, but the “0 degree” sleeping bag I had kept me comfortable, not too hot, not too cold.

The sunrise however, was unbelievable. If you don’t have “watch a sunrise from an altitude that you can see the curvature of the Earth” on your bucket list, add it now.

Our morning meals were similar to dinner, tinned and packaged goods; stuff that was easy to carry. Once we were finished we packed up and stashed our heavy gear in the shelter for the final ascent, which is about another hour from the Eastern Camp.

We made it!

The final leg of the trip consisted of more rock scrambling and trail hiking, but making it to the top really is a bit of an anti-climax. Because of the vegetation at the top, you can’t see much of the landscape except from a small rocky outcrop that has a limited viewing angle. It’s a great feeling once you finally make it though, and well worth the effort to get all the way to the top.

We conquered our first mountain!

I won’t go into the details of the descent, but its safe to assume that a combination of stiff, sore, and worn out muscles, heavy hiking packs, and a shortage of duct tape made for an interesting return trip.

Things to Consider

If you decide to hike Mt Bartle Frere, consider doing it during the winter months, just make sure you take some warm clothes. It may be cold at night, but you have more chance of it being cool and dry in North Queensland if you do. Which also means a better chance of having a clear view of the summit, less humidity, and less leeches. I’d also recommend not climbing to the Broken Nose lookout and then to the Summit on the same day, unless you are an experienced hiker. Even then consider it carefully, many experienced hiker’s say that the Bartle Frere hike is one of the hardest they’ve ever done. You can always make the trek a few days and camp at the Big Rock Campsite and then the Eastern Camp.

At a minimum, I recommend bringing this stuff:

  • Plenty of water and electrolyte formula.
  • Decent hiking shoes (something without a fancy multi-layer sole)…
  • First aid kit (band-aids, compression bandage, antiseptic, etc).
  • Bushman Bug Spray, it’s good for leeches and bugs.
  • Easy to carry healthy foods. Tinned tuna, sliced bread, nuts and dried fruits, muesli bars, etc.
  • An LED torch or headlamp.
  • A camera.
If you intend to stay the night, stay at the Eastern Camp, and bring at least this stuff:
  • Plenty of water and electrolyte formula (no that’s not a typo).
  • Sleeping bag and sleeping mat.
  • A spare set of clothes (which can also double as a pillow).
  • Extra food (a simple kerosene cooker and tinned soups, spaghetti, or baked beans are great).
  • A decent hiking pack.

Above all though, be prepared, rest up the night before and start early; preferably at dawn, as this gives you plenty of time if you do end up in an emergency situation.

Oh, and don’t forget the duct tape!


More about Mt Bartle Frere – Wikipedia –
About the Hiking Trail – Queensland National Parks and Recreation –