A Cape York Mystery

Colin Kerr — 5 March 2020
Black Mountain is a little known spot on the Cape York Peninsula dull of superstition and legend

Far north Queensland can rightly lay claim to some of the country’s most spectacular rainforests, picturesque coastlines, beautiful coral reefs and romantic holiday islands. But almost swept under the carpet and appearing in few of the hundreds of tourist brochures is one of its more dubious attractions — and one of the nation’s most mysterious and notorious landmarks — Black Mountain.

AN EERIE HISTORY

Located around 25km south of Cooktown on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, local Indigenous people believe this huge pile of black granite rocks is haunted by an unfriendly phantom.



It’s rumoured to be alive with devils and ghosts, snakes, poisonous plants, dangerous boulders and foul gaseous smells. Some people have lost their lives here over the years, and even some search parties have been reluctant to go there.

Police records show that at least four people have mysteriously disappeared on Black Mountain. Some say the correct figure is nine, but there are many who claim the number is much higher.

Its first recorded victim was farmer Charles Graynor, who vanished with his horse while searching for stray bullocks. Ten years later — on the exact anniversary of Graynor’s disappearance — bushmen Jacob Owens and Thomas Hawkins went missing on the mountain while searching for runaway horses. Another ten years on, a gold prospector, Jim Wren, also vanished on the mountain. Despite massive searches by police and Indigenous trackers, no trace of the men was ever found.

Dating back over 100 years, there are reports of a string of explorers, prospectors, cattlemen and even Indigenous trackers going missing. Presumably all became hopelessly lost in the inky maze of caverns and deep holes within this honeycombed boulder mountain. There is even a story of a whole Aboriginal tribe and a mob of cattle disappearing into the labyrinth of rocks, while there are reports of several search parties going into the mountain, never to be seen again. But, their fate is no real mystery to Kuku Yalanji elders, who warn visitors to stay clear of this ‘evil place’ if they value their lives. They say it is the lair of an evil spirit out for no good.

Climbers who have returned to tell the tale explain that within the mountain it is totally black, with tunnels and shafts leading off in all directions. It has been compared to climbing around in a giant bowl of rice in pitch blackness. 

Inside, foul smells and gasses fill the air, and throughout the outer rock forms there are a huge number of ghost bats, lizards and rock pythons — some measuring over 20 feet long — and there have been numerous reported sightings of the ‘Queensland tiger’, described as a large striped cat (closely resembling the extinct marsupial lion), which has been blamed for killing and mauling cattle in the Cooktown area — all of which do nothing to improve the appeal of this eerie place.

To add to this mystique, the area around the mountain is home to a poisonous fig tree and the frightening stinging tree (Dendrocnide moroides), where just one brush against it can inflict excruciating pain which can still be felt months later. The leaves, stems and fruit of this plant are covered with tiny silica hairs that inject neurotoxins.

KALKAJAKA NATIONAL PARK

This mysterious 465m mountain is set within the Kalkajaka National Park, which comprises some 780 hectares and includes several other huge piles of black rocks in the surrounding area.

On a wider scale, it is all part of the Black Trevethan Range which is made up of huge heaps of loose granite boulders that look like pieces of black coal. Some of the precariously balancing rocks across the range are as big as houses and the gaps formed between them go deep into the mountain and lead to thousands of chasms, tunnels and caves throughout this massive structure.

These holes in the mountain, as well as being home to snakes, bats and the like, also provide shelter for the timid Godman’s rock wallaby.

Travellers through this part of the world are intrigued with these weird, forbidding formations as they suddenly appear before them on the skyline. One could imagine a giant from the past having emptied his bags of coal in piles on the ground. 

There are also stories from locals of explosive noises coming from the mountain. Apparently in summer when the rocks are extremely hot, a sudden downpour can cause the boulders to suddenly contract and, on occasion, literally explode. Airline pilots report turbulence (thermal currents) over Black Mountain and closer up, mournful wailing cries and deep hissing can be heard — this is thought to be wind and water moving deep underground. 

It may not be surprising that Black Mountain is reported to have a good amount of UFO activity and reports of strange lights — all good reasons for visitors to be wary in and around this quite unusual place.

THE MOUNTAIN OF DEATH

Aboriginal legends about this mountain abound, include one about its origins:

A LEGEND OF KALKAJAKA

In the time when this land was young and when Dreamtime was only hundreds of moons ago and not, as now, when the Dreamtime is only something which lurks in the farthest corners of the minds of the old men, there were two brothers, Ka-Iruji and Taja-Iruji. Their mother was a woman of the Kuku tribe and their father a chief of the Iruji. They were of the Wallaby Totem, the small rock-hopping wallabies of the boulders. 

When they had come to manhood, bearing proudly the scars and cicatrices of initiation, they were mighty hunters and inseparable companions. The country in their hunting grounds was flat, covered with shiny black boulders like some giant’s discarded marbles. One day when hunting on the farthest edges of their land, they saw a girl at her yams, digging. 

It was plain to see that she was of the Rock Python Totem and a fit mate for either of the brothers. The Rock Python Totem is, as everyone knows, the most suitable totem for the men of the Rock Wallaby Totem. In that instant the brothers were friendly no longer, for each wanted her as their wife. 

They fell into dispute as to how they would fight the matter out, for they knew full well that the laws of the Iruji say that their hunting weapons must not be used in anger, one against the other. All around were the black boulders, huge and shining in the sun. Ka-Iruji and Taja-Iruji strained each to the boulders piling them high until one was higher than the other so that he could cast a mighty boulder down upon his rival.

Day by day the brothers toiled while the piles rose higher. First one and then the other would be just a little taller, but not enough to cast the final smashing boulder. The toiling two were so busy that they did not see the first wisps of clouds that Kahahinka, the cyclone, flew as a warning to all that he was near. Even the woman, who was watching the brothers, did not hear the whinings of the Kahahinka’s winds. Then the cyclone fell upon them, tearing, rending, shrieking and then pulping and drowning, and so they died, the brothers each on their heaps of stone and the girl in the roaring torrents between the masses. 

Now, even to this day when the Dreamtime is so long ago, the heaps still remain, and if you listen carefully in the deep caves you can hear the crying of the girl of the Rock Python totem while, forever waiting, are the hopping Rock Wallabies.

Adding to the ongoing mystique of the mountain is the wide range of scientifically based theories on the formation of this huge black mass. These range from the view that around 260 million years ago, these boulders were in a hot molten state (magma) several kilometres underground. They were then exposed when the softer land surfaces above the solidified magma eroded away to be left as we see this eerie sight today. Other theories revolve around the mountain having volcanic origins and the boulders are the outcome of a colossal explosion, while yet another version says the mountain developed as the result of glacial action. Other assessments virtually combine all of these to say the original grey granite boulders were blackened by a film of microscopic algae growing on exposed surfaces, giving the boulders a sinister, forbidding appearance. Whatever the background, it is certain that the mystique and legends of this weird mountain will live long into the future.


FAST FACTS

  • Living within Black Mountain are a number of rare and endangered animals including the Black Mountain skink and amethystine pythons which are big enough to devour one of the Godman’s rock wallaby that also call Black Mountain home. The Black Mountain boulder frog and Black Mountain gecko are found nowhere else in the world.
  • At the Black Mountain car park (accessible to all vehicles via a sealed road from Cooktown) there are a number of information signs giving visitors an insight into this eerie place.
  • ‘Kalkajaka’, the Aboriginal name for the mountain, means ‘place of the spear’, or more loosely ‘mountains of death’.
  • Ghost bats (Macroderma gigas) roosting in the dark interior of the mountain are the only truly carnivorous bat species in Australia, feeding on frogs, lizards, birds, small mammals (including other bats) and large insects. 
  • For safety reasons, access to visitors beyond the car park and viewing area is not permitted without National Park and traditional owners’ authority. There are no walking tracks or facilities for picnics here and camping is not permitted.
  • Around the mountain there are a number of religious and mythological sites of significance to the local traditional Aboriginal owners where access is also not permitted.
  • For additional information/enquiries contact Queensland parks and Wildlife Service, phone 137 468 (13 QGOV)


VISITING

Black Mountain is on the Cooktown Development Road approximately 25km south of Cooktown. There are no facilities, camping or otherwise, here. For obvious reasons, unless you are a serious rock climber or brave and well prepared caver with all the necessary gear (special authorisation required) this is not an ideal spot to spend much time, but do stop awhile and ‘take in’ a little of this Black Mountain mystique, before calling in to the nearby Lions Den Hotel where you can settle any nerves that may still be on edge!

Tags

Destinations Cape York Black Mountain Mystery Legend Superstition

Photographer

Colin Kerr and Queensland Tourism