Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, 1st Baronet, GCB, GCSI (Barto to his mates) was a great guy (apart from that whole Zulu war incident). Great enough, in fact, to have a mountain named after him. But not just any mountain. No, no. We’re talking the highest mountain in Queensland, Mount Bartle Frere. Thrusting 1622 metres skyward in Queensland’s tropical north-east, Mt Bartle Frere’s summit is almost always hidden by cloud, hence its local nickname of Isla Nublar.
The high elevation, and consequent isolation, of Bartle Frere and the neighbouring Bellenden Kerr (summit: 1593m ASL) has led to a number of endemic species evolving or remaining there. Having never climbed either mountain, I hadn’t seen the three species of endemic herpetofauna (one frog and two skinks). The good thing about including both reptiles and frogs as targets is that we were able to hedge our weather bets – if it rained, the skinks would be hard to find but the frog might be more active, and vice versa.
A few of us had planned to climb Bartle Frere one weekend, but the plan was cancelled when one intrepid explorer had to pull out. Then, at the last minute (5 o’clock on Friday afternoon), two of us decided to climb it anyway. We threw a few things in the car and arrived at the base of the western approach at around 10:30 PM. Our original thought was to camp at the base overnight and set off bright and early the next morning, but we were wide awake on arrival so we decided to just hit the track. It’s definitely not a walk for the faint-hearted, but it’s only challenging in that it’s steep. The path was well-worn, and not particularly difficult (except for the aforementioned steepness).
We weren’t going out of our way to find animals on the walk up, but stumbled across some anyway, including northern leaf-tailed geckos (Saltuarius cornutus), chameleon geckos (Carphodactylus laevis) and various frogs. We were too low down to start finding the endemic frog, but we carefully examined these frogs anyway. They turned out to be the common-as-mud ornate nursery-frog (Cophixalus ornatus) or also-common-as-mud robust whistling-frog (Austrochaperina robusta).
After two hours of walking, we came to a clearing. While not tired, my auGust companion smartly pointed out that we might not find another clearing suitable for setting up camp for the night. The tent and hammock went up, the leeches came off, and we called it a night.
The next morning we awoke to a dense, green canopy that prevented us from seeing how much cloud cover there was above us. The rain, however, gave us a bit of a clue. We continued our ascent, again not paying much attention to critters until we’d reached our target altitude. The rain wasn’t likely to bring out the two skinks we were hoping to find, but our target frog was loving the conditions. Cophixalus neglectus is found only at altitudes above 1000m ASL on Mt Bartle Frere and Bellenden Ker. We heard a bunch of them calling from off the track before reaching North West Peak, but continued walking to get up to the top as soon as possible. Once we’d arrived at the Peak, we had a poke around for the frog. With so many of them calling in the wet conditions, it wasn’t hard to track some down. We also came across the bower of a golden bowerbird (complete with attendant bowerbird) and, when the sun showed itself, a few skinks (unfortunately, not the endemic skinks we were after).
We were at about 1400m ASL, but still 2km from Bartle Frere’s summit. Given the fairly constant cloud and drizzle, we thought the odds of finding the endemic skinks were very low. As we were trying to decide what to do – continue to the summit or head back down – the heavens opened up and made the decision for us. We sheltered under an overhanging rock for a few minutes while packing up, then hightailed it out of there.
I always find going downhill much more uncomfortable than walking uphill. Normally it’s just muscle pain that causes the uncomfortableness, but on this descent a dozen leeches decided to attach themselves to us every couple of hundred meters. I eventually gave up on trying to keep my ankles leech-free (picking them off was taking too much time), and just let the little darlings slurp away. When we eventually got back to the car, I gave myself a thorough de-leeching.
Bruised, battered, bleeding and soaked to the bone, we left, defeated, knowing that we’d have to do the whole climb again if we ever wanted to see those skinks. We might have been wet and anaemic, but we were leaving so much richer for the experience, having become BFBFFs (Bartle Frere best friends forever). You might have won this battle, Bartle Frere, but the war is only just beginning. Mark my words, I will conquer you. And next time, I’m soaking my socks in salt.