Your friendly guide to hiking Queensland’s highest mountain, Mount Bartle Frere. Aka, that beast hill.
Far North Queensland is no stranger to hardcore hills that make you question your sanity when climbing one, so it came as any surprise when I caught whiff that the state’s highest peak is in the Atherton Tablelands.
At 1622 metres, Mount Bartle Frere is just a pocket-rocket compared to Kilimanjaro, K2 or Everest, however many experienced bushwalkers who’ve reviewed this track say it’s one of the hardest hikes they’ve done in Australia. No kidding, this mountain is a beast.
Set within Wooroonooran National Park on the Great Dividing Range, Frere is a spiritual site for the region’s traditional owners. The Noongyanbudda Ngadjon people believe their spirits return to Chooreechillim when they die, to then be reborn and walk the Earth once again. Rarely venturing to the summit, for thousands of years they moved around the mountainside according to the seasons, hunting and gathering in certain areas.
Now it’s a popular walking track for adventurers who choose to conquer the 17k return trail in two days. I was surprised to see that most of the mountain’s bush-camping sites were almost at capacity on a Saturday in October (there’s only 12 spots), and a few energetic walkers did it in a day.
We chose to do it on a quiet Friday and didn’t see anyone else until we reached camp. Luckily we got in just before the wet season kicked in- you really don’t want to consider this hike for about half of the year.
The start of Mount Bartle Frere from the Eastern Trailhead was a pleasure. It was deceivingly flat and the scrub was thick, verdant and mossy. Numerous bush foods were evident and the vibrant call from birds only found in the most remote rainforest permeated.
The majority of folk who traverse this part are only interested in cooling off in the falls that are about 1.8k in but we wisely chose to visit on the return journey, if we had the energy. As soon as the orange trail marker points to reveal the detour to Bobbin Bobbin Falls, the main path begins to unapologetically steepen as if created in haste.
It would take us another 7-hours until we reached the Western Summit Camp.
Are We There Yet?
I was prepared for a relentless uphill slog and thought this would be the biggest pressure point, but I’ve never hiked with a heavy backpack before and soon felt the force of every unnecessary kilo of weight.
Climbing up the state’s tallest mountain and almost carrying a 5-year old child on your back in weight is a different kettle of fish entirely, especially when your bag wasn’t designed for hiking! The poor Sailor had about 30kg and drank three litres of water on the way up without needing to pee once as it all came out in sweat.
It became a thing for us on the way down to check out everyones backpack as they climbed up to predict how hard they were going to find the hike. Needless to say, the two couples that had a small bag and did the hike in a day seemed to find it the easiest and were like whippets flying up and down.
Before long, with the steepness of the trail, each kilometre felt double the length of the last and I started to wonder if it’s not accidentally been measured in miles. Apparently rangers used string to measure the path and I had the suspicion that it broke in half along the way.
This is the part where I found a new found respect and appreciation for Sherpas- the calves, quads, hips & butt burnt like hell and I had to keep my head down to avoid seeing the pain to come.
Tree roots on the path were thick and kept stubbing our toes or caused us to buckle and there was little respite. Each time I stopped to check my hiking book in hope that we were nearly there and to alleviate pain from my bruised shoulders, leeches wriggled on us and began to attach. Then it was about to get worse from all the large boulders on the track and with no disrespect, I soon and wanted to rename the mountain to Mount Bastard Frere.
Unlike The Devil’s Thumb which we climbed last year- and somehow I deluded myself into thinking it’d be harder, the number of rocks along this trail made it much more gruelling. I actually enjoyed climbing the rocks closer to the summit but only after we dropped off our backpack at camp.
With it on, when we were required to scale large and sometimes scary boulders, which I soon realised is all about balancing weight. It was easy to want to fall backwards or lose balance and when you’re legs are wiped the risk is higher, so we often removed it to prevent having an accident.
By the time we reached Western Camp it was already 4:30pm and the summit was still a 45 minute rock hop away. Our plan was to sleep on the other side at Eastern Camp which is supposed to have amazing views overlooking the ranges, but that’s a further 40 minutes over a daunting Boulder Field. Feeling physically battered, neither of us were in the mood! Knowing your limits up here is more important than a sunset.
Until recently, I never really understood the lure of mountaineers and hikers who willingly choose to put themselves through pain and obvious torture to summit higher, more daring peaks. When I used to watch those gutsy North Face videos on YouTube who dangerously scale mountains, I often flicked the channel because I couldn’t relate to the lure and satisfaction.
It wasn’t until we climbed The Thumb a year ago which required new levels of grit to reach the end that I began to taste the attraction. Most of the climb up is serious mind over matter (despite some cursing on my part), but once the pain subsides the euphoria kicks in, and that feeling that came with pushing our limits is strangely addictive. They’ve made me realise that with the right attitude we can achieve more than what we think.
Of course, the view from the top of Mount Bartle Frere is pretty saucy too and it was cool to say “I’m the highest Sheila in Queensland!“.
There are many highs and lows along the trail and experiencing all this with the Sailor was another huge highlight. I was so proud of the way he embraced the challenge (despite being kind of roped into the hike!) and it was hugely gratifying to see how much he got out of the journey too. Even though we’ve been together for 12 years, we’ve never done anything like this before!
While we’re not planning on heading back here anytime soon, we have been binging on North Face videos ever since. 😉
If I haven’t put you off entirely, here’s all you need to know about the Mount Bartle Frere hike ✣
The Mount Bartle Frere Hike
Mount Bartle Frere is a part of the tradition lands of the Noongyanbudda Ngadjon people. I pay respect to the Traditional Owners and Elders past & present.
Conquering Frere can be taken in three forms:
- A return journey from the eastern trailhead near Babinda.
- A return journey from the western trailhead on the Atherton Tablelands, or :
- Walking the entire track from east to west or vice versa.
East Vs West
A perk to conquering Frere eastside is that it’s said to be more scenic. Panoramic views from Broken Nose, the Boulder Field & Eastern Summit camp look stunning if the mountain is not shrouded in cloud, which it often is.
The smaller eastern camping pad fits about 2 small tents, plus there’s a heli-pad and an evacuation hut which I’ve read some people sleep in for extra protection from the elements…although QLD parks ask that it’s only used in an emergency.
However this route is said to be much harder as it’s steeper and you’ll have to face the Boulder Field in between the Eastern Camp and the summit, which some say is pretty scary. If choosing this trail, I’d suggest leaving your backpack next to the camping pad before making the 1-hour slog to the summit as it’ll be way easier.
My hiking bible- Best Walks around Cairns & the Tablelands, gave trail details for the western approach and I researched that this was marginally easier, so happily signed up for that one. Judging from all the people I saw on this trail, I think it’s the most popular.
Another perk to doing it westside is that there’s a permanent stream next to the western summit camp which is good if you’re low on water, which you probably will be.
We could also leave our big backpack at camp before taking the 40-minute rock hop to the summit, which I couldn’t imagine doing with it on. Not only were we lighter but it’s really tight in places and the bag is a hassle. I felt like an agile ninja without it.
This camp can hold about 3-4 small tents.
The Western Trailhead - At a Glance
🏃🏻♀️ Distance: 17km return – but feels like double that.
⏲ Time: 2 days (usually between 10-15 hours on foot)
📈 Ascent/descent: 850m (you’ll start at 750m)
To access the Western Trailhead, follow GPS directions to Junction Camp or open up the map above ☝🏼. If like us you’re not coming in a 4×4 then the journey will take about an extra 20 minutes as the last stretch is a gravel/clay track. There’s ample space to park up at the start of the trail beside the camp.
The beginning was, by a mile, the easiest part of the track and deceivingly flat-ish.
“See, it won’t be that bad”, I said to the Sailor. Oh how premature.
The start is particularly well signed in orange triangular markers as after about 1.8k you reach Bobbin Bobbin Falls, which most day-trippers come here for.
It only requires a 10 minute detour but we bypassed it to ensure we reached camp before dark. I’m glad we did.
As soon as you leave the falls, the path quickly steepens which is a taste of things to come. It was about this point that the Sailor and I began to seriously regret taking so much stuff that wasn’t critical.
On the trees are distance markers in kms however we missed 1-3 on the way up as they’ve been nailed to the back of the trees.
Leeches are a pain from this point so douse your shoes, socks and legs in Bushman’s 80% deet repellent and try not to stop too often to prevent them from latching.
After what feels like a long slog but has only been 1.5k since the falls, the Granite Overhang is the first set of boulders you’ll need to climb over. They look a bit daunting to begin with but they’re pretty easy. Try to use your hands and arms to pull you up as much as possible to save on leg strength, and on the way back you can do a bit of bum-sliding.
There’s a second set of rocks to climb over soon after the Granite Overhang 👇🏼. Then progressively, the path narrows even further and the orange markers dwindle a little. If you’re not sure on the correct route, look out for the pink/orange ribbon and a more worn trail.
You’ll notice the track gets rockier and after a sweat-dripping 2.5kms, you’ll cross a series of boulders called Lunchtime Rocks (which thankfully you don’t need to climb over).
My hiking book said this is a good place to stop and have lunch as, allegedly, there’s “a spot where you can clamber up a tree root to flat rocks (1500m in altitude) with fantastic views to the coast, Mulgrave Valley & Bellenden Kerr.” I didn’t see it but maybe you’ll have better luck.
Otherwise stop anywhere you can if you’re peckish.
This was probably the hardest part of the hike for me as the trail seemed to go on forever and we were wiped. It’s also pretty rocky around which requires regular big steps upwards- hard on your already tired leg muscles but creates buns of steel.
Tip: Utilise your hands as much as possible to help pull yourself up using the trees.
Thankfully the leeches ease off from here as it’s too cool for them. The path will eventually wind around a few patches of long, wavy grass (watch out for paralysis ticks & apply repellent- I got one on me) and won’t be as steep.
After nothing but dense rainforest all the way up, you’ll now begin to see a glimmer of hope beyond the foliage at the panoramic views waiting for you.
Eventually you’ll begin to spur downwards, which feels annoying because you’ve spent so much energy getting up. Then just before the Western Summit camp you’ll reach a set of rocks that you’ll need to hop over. It’s not hard, but you’ll be knackered.
It took us about 7 and a half hours in total to reach the camp but if you’re above average fitness, it should take about 4-5.
Now you’ll need to decide if you have the energy to tackle the summit today as there’s climbing involved (we did it in the morning). Either way, if you’re staying here then dump your bags before heading up.
It’s not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves.
– Sir Edmund Hillary
Once you cross the permanent freshwater stream just in front of camp, you’ll start climbing up over a series of boulders and bracken fern to the summit, passing the 8km mark as you go.
This was actually my favourite part as I enjoyed the challenge of climbing over the rocks. Plus a night’s kip and without a bag made it sweeter, otherwise I’d probably be cursing.
You may find the rocks a bit daunting on sight, but as you work your way through you’ll realise it’s not that bad. Try using your hands and arms as much as possible and bum slide if needed.
About halfway up, there’ll be one gorgeous view of the Tablelands.
Then after 500 metres of camp you’ll reach the summit where a sign tells you you’re at the highest peak in Queensland baby. Congratulations! 🤟🏼
If you look to your right there’s a rock there which you can step out on for sweeping views towards the coastline.
Mount Bartle Frere trail: History Sidenote
Interestingly, the British Colonial administrator that Frere was named after- Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, never set foot on the mountain. To my knowledge, nor did he even visit Australia. The Scottish colonist and explorer that did name it in 1873- George Elphinstone Dalrymple, also didn’t climb it.
The first European to scale the mountain was locally-renowned explorer, prospector and from what I’ve researched, a prolific racist called Christie Palmerston, who reached the top in 1886 after being guided by several Noongyanbudda Ngadjon men.
From Josephine Falls along the Eastern trail to the summit, tin miners also blazed a rough track and mined a claim close to the peak.
If you’re sleeping at Eastern Camp tonight then your final hurdle is braving the Boulder Field.
Just next to the rocky fireplace at the summit is a steep trail that you’ll need to follow downhill for about 15 minutes before reaching the boulders.
Then it’s 45-minutes of rock hopping with metal hand and foot grips. Below it you’ll see the Eastern Camp & Emergency Hut.
Phew! You’re heading back down. I’m pretty sure you’ll be wishing you can take that chopper now. 😉
Although the return journey will still be really hard on the legs and knees, it’s so much easier than going up and will take less time. It took us about 4.5 hours from the Western Camp.
When hiking Frere, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. The trail is remote, isolated and very challenging. I cannot stress preparation enough!
Over the years there have been many rescue missions for bushwalkers who couldn’t manage the return trip, got caught out with bad weather or didn’t bring the right gear. A man was rescued there just this week, and sometimes the results can be fatal.
I wouldn’t even consider Frere if this is your first long hike. Try the Devil’s Thumb as a primer instead to see if you’re up for it.
Here’s all you need to know. 🤟🏼
1. Go at the right time.
The dry season (May – October) is by far the recommended time to do this hike and the only months I’d consider it. Not only is it cooler but it’s far less wet & slippery with fewer leeches. Some parts near the summit also look like it turns into a stream in the rainy months so accessibility may be prevented.
As the weather on the mountain is changeable, always check the forecast before heading out.
Otherwise, set out early. We started at 9:00am but wished we got out at 7:00 (it took us 2h30 to drive from Port Douglas). If we were to do it again we would have stayed somewhere on the Atherton Tablelands the night before.
2. Bring the right gear!
If staying overnight, remember every kilo counts!
We needed some new bits so bagged a few good deals on BlackWolf camping gear at Escape 2 in DFO Cairns (Direct Factory Outlet) which I’d highly recommend. Their hiking gear was really great quality and much more affordable than bigger brands like North Face or Kathmandu.
For smaller essentials we went to Anaconda & BCF, but if we had more time to shop around then I’d probably buy more online to nab better deals.
✣ Lightweight tent. The tent ended up being one of our heaviest items. Ideally you’ll have a lightweight tent that’s designed for hiking trips such as this.
✣ Lightweight sleeping bags. In October it was hovering around the 12°C mark near the peak. We bought the BlackWolf Backpacker 50 which was light & compact to carry, and came with lifetime warranty.
✣ Lightweight self-inflating mattress or mat. Our BlackWolf ones were awesome too- it was so easy to inflate, pack up and surprisingly comfy. It also came with lifetime warranty (and I’m not being sponsored by them, lol!)
✣ Small gas canister & hiking stove attachment. You’ll probably need to treat water, and a hot coffee & soup in the morning is priceless. We bought a simple stove top to attach to our small gas canister.
✣ Saucepan. Pop-up ones are ideal (though pricier) as they’re lightweight, foldable and fit snug in your bag.
✣ Cooking equipment. The less the better. Eat straight from the saucepan if you can to avoid taking bowls. Ideally you’d just need a spoon each and a cup.
Clothes & Hiking Gear
✣ A bloody good hiking bag. I squeezed and added stuff onto a North Face computer bag & dry bag which killed my shoulders! We bought a new backpack from BlackWolf which the Sailor carried (and upsized to 75L to use on bigger trips too) but should’ve bought another smaller one like this. Having a good hiking bag that has a padded back and waist strap for extra support is essential.
✣ Awesome hiking shoes. Ones that are comfy and have a good grip are ideal as you’ll be climbing over rocks.
✣ A waterproof jacket. Weather is changeable on the mountain and mornings are nippy.
✣ Long hiking trousers/gym leggings & socks. To protect against the leeches.
✣ A change of clothes. Your gear from day one may still be wet after all that sweating! It can be used as a pillow too.
✣ Trousers & jumper/shirt for wearing at night. Keeps you snug from the midnight chills.
✣ Torch or headlamp.
Food & Water
✣ Lightweight meals. Make sure you grab a good breakfast roll before setting out as you’ll need fuel from the start. We packed sandwiches for lunch but ended up having them for dinner too (Me: 2/Sailor: 3). We ate tinned soup in the morning but regretted the weight and should have taken a pot noodle. Baked beans or tinned tuna is also a good option.
✣ Lightweight healthy snacks. Muesli/protein bars, fresh or dried fruit & nuts work well. We consumed two protein bars each, fruit (an apple & tangerine) and a bag of Macey’s pretzels.
✣ Water and electrolyte water. This will be the heaviest thing you take. Count for about 3-4 litres p/p on the way up and around 2 p/p on the way down – plus extra for a morning tea or coffee. A reusable flask and collapsable water container are ideal for storing.
Water from the stream next to Eastern Camp is crystal clear and smells better than the tap water at home, but you should probably treat it just in case- you really don’t want want an issue on this remote mountain!
Treat your water by either:
- Boiling for 1 minute.
- Using purification tablets or liquid. They contain silver ions and chlorine to kill any harmful bacteria. Just add it to the stream water and it’s good to go (wish I bought these!). Katadyn Micropur is one of the most trusted brands and doesn’t require stirring.
- Purification sticks or bottle. Just pop it in the water and it filters the water as you drink. The Life Straw is a well-known and trusted brand.
✣ Biodegradable wet wipes, toilet paper & hand sanitiser. For when you need to go. The wipes are also good for giving your body a wipe-down/clean in the morning.
✣ String & duct tape. Always handy for something.
✣ First aid kit. Or at least plasters, antiseptic & compression bandages just in case.
✣ Biodegradable rubbish bags. All trash needs to be taken back with you.
✣ Deet insect repellent. Ideally Bushman’s 80% deet repellent. Spray it on your arms, shoes, socks and trousers before you set out to prevent leeches attaching. Salt can be handy for when they do.
3. Book a campsite.
A camping permit needs to be pre-booked in advance. There are four bush-camping sites in total along the trail although you don’t book a particular one- you can sleep at any, or anywhere on the mountain if required.
Head to the Queensland park’s website to book, and write ‘Bartle Frere Trail camping’ in the location field. There are 12 permits available in total and costs $6.75 p/p- more booking deets can be found here.
4. Be ship shape.
If you’re above average fitness then you can probably skip this part!
I’d say I’m of good fitness but about halfway up I regretted not physically preparing more for Mount Bartle Frere. A lady I spoke to at Escape 2 also said the same.
Normally I run twice a week, do yoga 4 times a week and hike once a fortnight (usually up a steep hill). But if possible, as well as cardio and yoga (for flexibility) I’d recommend:
- Calf exercises.
- A load of squats, with weights (for the butt and hips).
- Leg exercises. They’ll need to be strong!
- Going on a long-ish (but not necessarily hard) overnight hike. This will give you a good idea of things you don’t need to take with you, or anything you’re missing and will get you used to walking with a big backpack and balancing weight.
Yup, I’m going there!
If you’re an experienced bush-camper like most Far North Queenslanders seem to be, then you may be used to doing your business out in the open. This was my second time camping in the wild without a toilet or facilities so I’m definitely not well seasoned to pooping in the bush! It was an experience.
When watching an episode of Jack Whitehall’s ‘Travels with My father’ on Netflix, expert Aussie bushman Cockatoo Paul suggests digging two holes: one to drop a nugget as a decoy poo for the flies, and the other for the main drop. 😆
There’s a few flies around here but not as much as the outback so you shouldn’t need to do that. Apparently the heli-pad at the Eastern camp is a popular place where hikers ‘go’, so someone renamed it the ‘pooping pad’. To ensure that doesn’t become a problem and to minimise human impact on Frere, here’s what to do.
Search for your poop spot away from campsites, the main trail or any stream. Then try to find a good tree or rock to hold onto as you get into a squat position. Dig a hole at least 15cm deep, do your business and then cover it before you leave. Happy days.
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