History & Surroundings
The Halfway House
European exploration commenced when George Dalrymple explored the coastline north of Cairns for a suitable port to service the Palmer goldfields. Hartley’s Creek was named after Robert Hartley, the Sub-Collector of Customs, in 1882 by the legendary, and infamous, explorer Christie Palmerston, who found it while searching for a route to the Herberton tin mines from the coast. Tin Creek, which forms the southern boundary of the park, is an echo of the tin mining which occurred sporadically in the area from 1907 until 1984.
In December 1933 the Cook Highway connecting Cairns and Mossman was officially opened at Hartley’s Creek. One of the workers, Herb (Pop) Evans and his wife Mabel opened a wayside teahouse which was "a delight to travellers between Cairns and Mossman". They called it the Halfway House, which eventually became the Hartley’s Creek Zoo, the Hartley’s Creek Crocodile Farm and, finally, after relocation, Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.
The road became popular with visitors undertaking day trips from Cairns. It was also a magnet for parties and social events.
"Pop" and Mabel struggled on through the depression and World War 2. Tourism increased after the war but the work was becoming too difficult. The kiosk was sold in 1954 to the Blaneys, who were the first of four owners over the next six years.
Hartley’s Creek Zoo was sold in 1961 to Gary Zillfleisch and family of Mossman. They had a long association with the business. Gary learned all he could about crocs from old hunters and travelled all over Cape York catching them. He found crocodiles hard to locate after years of shooting and become committed to their conservation. He decided to turn Hartley’s Creek into a "crocodile stud" and farm them.
Hartley’s was the first place in Australia to breed crocs in captivity. Work on crocodile conservation and management attracted worldwide interest. Television companies and film makers produced documentaries at Hartley’s that helped arouse public interest and sympathy. Calls for government intervention became too loud to ignore and in 1974 crocodiles were protected.
By now the zoo had established a venerable pedigree as one of north Queensland’s oldest attractions. In 1986 it attracted the interest of, and was acquired by, the Freeman family, already involved in wildlife tourism with Wild World at Palm Cove.
Renovated in 1987, the zoo remained at its original site until 2002, when the brand new Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures opened 500m south of Hartley’s Creek. Its design was partly based on extensive surveys of visitor expectations and preferences undertaken at the old zoo, now old and out of touch with world’s best practice.
The original site is now a private residence and has no relationship with the owners of Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.
The traditional owners of the coastal country between Cairns and Port Douglas are the Yirrganydji Aboriginal people. They were great fishers and traders and were noted for their distinctive canoes with pointed bows. The abundant resources in the sea and the coastal forests provided them with a rich and healthy diet.
A major trading pathway follows the same route as the current highway. Artefacts, wells and other signs of occupation have been found at several places near the sea, including stone axes and grinding stones at the mouth of Hartley’s Creek. It is highly likely that Aboriginal people hunted and foraged on the site of Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.
Today many of the Yirrganydji still live in the territory of their ancestors. They continue to care for and speak about their traditional homeland.
Natural Landscape and Values
McAlister Range & Hartley's Creek
The landscape surrounding the park is dominated by the imposing MacAlister Range to the west and the Coral Sea to the east. The spectacular scenery around Hartley’s Creek gives rise to climatic conditions that are unusual within the Wet Tropics. Our park receives about one third of the rainfall of Cairns or Port Douglas.
This open savannah woodland is typical of much of inland northern Australia and its intrusion into the rainforests of the Wet Tropics is both unusual and welcome as it adds another layer of diversity to an already biologically rich region.
The presence of a dryland ecosystem in the Hartley’s Creek area means that many animals here are usually only found further west. Food resources are often widely scattered and not always available.
Animals that live here must cope with lean times, or quickly take advantage of favourable conditions. There is little scope for specialization in so harsh and seasonal an environment.
McAlister Range & Coastline
Near Hartley’s Creek the Great Dividing Range lies close to the coast, its foothills plunging dramatically into the sea. How was this scenic coastline created? The entire Cairns region sits on base rock known as the Hodgkinson Formation, composed of ancient sediments which have been altered through heat and pressure.
Intruding through this are granite outcrops which form the main range encircling the park. Eroded alluvial deposits from the surrounding ranges form the narrow coastal plain.
About 20 million years ago a large block on the eastern side of the present range sheared off and subsided, creating the steep seaward slopes of the range and the shallow seas offshore from Hartley’s Creek. This in turn allowed the Great Barrier Reef to develop.
The continual development of the Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures product is an ongoing labour of love and dedication for the Freeman family. Since opening in 2002 there have been further extensions and enhancements including the Cassowary Garden, MacAlister Education Centre and, most recently, Gondwana Gateway, which increases the total size of the park by approximately 30 percent.
Further expansion and improvement is again under way for a new ‘Rainforest Restoration Area’ extending from the Cassowary Garden into a preservation zone where tree planting opportunities will be available for groups by prior arrangement.