Racing up Cape York and ready for a change of pace and scenery (and a little less dust)? Why not take a detour off the main road and explore the beaches, islands and jungle of the world-renowned Iron Range region?
The Iron Range is on the peninsula’s east coast, opposite Weipa. The district was originally the home of the Kuuku Ya’u Aboriginal people, and although many were moved to missions in the 1920s their descendants (many now residing at the nearby Lockhart River Community), retain strong cultural links to the area.
Much of the region, containing the largest tract of undisturbed lowland rainforest remaining in Australia, is now protected by the 36,600 hectare Iron Range National Park and a number of the district’s plant and animal species are considered rare or endangered. The birdlife is incredible – there are over 200 species including the eclectus parrot, palm cockatoo, red-bellied pitta, fawn-breasted bowerbird, cassowary, the Papuan frogmouth and magnificent riflebird, all drawing avid birdwatchers from around the globe. Iron Range’s proximity to Papua New Guinea means it also shares some varieties of flora and fauna with our closest northern neighbour. This region is the only place in Australia where you can observe the grey cuscus, spotted cuscus, spiny-haired bandicoot or green python in their natural habitat.
The first Europeans to explore this rugged terrain were those of Edmund Kennedy’s ill-fated Cape York expedition of 1848. The party of 13 had landed near present-day South Mission Beach in May. After an incredibly gruelling journey they eventually reached the Iron Range region in late October, way behind schedule. Most of the party were starving and seriously ill and had become too weak to continue, so Kennedy was forced to leave eight of them encamped south of the Pascoe River mouth and strike out for Cape York accompanied by the three healthiest men and their Aboriginal guide, Jackey Jackey.
Kennedy never made it – he was speared to death by hostile Aborigines almost within sight of his goal, but Jackey Jackey escaped and a fortnight later reached the rescue ship Ariel. The ship quickly sailed south to rescue any survivors but no one could be found at Shelburne Bay, and by the time the Ariel arrived at the Pascoe River only two of the group were still alive: botanist William Carron and labourer William Goddard. The impossible expedition had claimed 10 lives.
Today a number of prominent landmarks in the area honour those hardy explorers: Kennedy Hill, Jacky Jacky Range, Carron Hill and Goddard Hills. The group’s Weymouth Bay campsite is about 9km to the west of Portland Roads.
In the 1890s and again in the 1930s, gold was mined at the Batavia field (near the Wenlock River crossing) and there is still mining plant and machinery lying around. In 1942-43 during World War II, Iron Range was an important air-force base for US bomber squadrons defending Australia against the Japanese invasion, and you can still see the remains of some of the airstrips, bridges, sealed roads and the jetty they built. In the 1960s a simulated nuclear bomb was tested in the Iron Range jungle to determine the destructive capabilities of the weapon in a tropical environment. The scar remains.
Just off the coast, near the palm-fringed and usually very windy Chili Beach, Restoration Island has an important place in maritime history; it was William Bligh’s first landfall after the Bounty mutiny in 1789. After more than a month at sea in an open longboat, Bligh and seventeen of his loyal crew came ashore to restore themselves after their epic 4000 kilometre voyage from Tahiti; surely one of the most amazing voyages in the history of exploration. The mutineers had given them just 60 gallons (137 litres) of water, some pork and 68 kilograms of bread; a miniscule daily ration by anyone’s standard. Its easy to imagine the excitement when they reached the island; each one eagerly gulping down their fill of fresh water and gorging themselves on oysters and wild berries. The following day, loaded up with ample food and fresh water, they set sail for the nearest civilization, Kupang in Timor, over 2000km away. Today, the Iron Range region still has an air of adventure about it.
1) Coconut palms line the beautiful (but always windy) Chili Beach.
2) At the end of the Iron Range road lies the idyllic settlement of Portland Roads.
3) Camping below the coconut palms at Chili Beach can be hazardous!
4) Restoration Island, offshore from Chili Beach, played a role in the aftermath of The Bounty mutiny.
5) The view across Weymouth Bay to Kennedy Hill from an island just off Portland Roads.
6) Tinnies at anchor at Portland Roads.Reads: 1863