In the Glass House Mountains

 Tibrogargan from Lookout 589 image001

I first saw Queensland’s Glass House Mountains from a coach, while traveling between Brisbane and Frazer Island. Though not high, with only the tallest of them, Beerwah, rising above 400 metres, their spiky outlines completely dominate the flat farmlands and forests that run west from the beaches of the Sunshine Coast.  They were named by Captain James Cook in 1770 as he sailed north towards the Great Barrier Reef. Their aspect and the manner in which the sun glinted from their crags reminded him of the glass-manufacturing furnaces in his native Yorkshire. They consist of rhyolite plugs, created by vo1canic activity some 26 million years ago. The surrounding, softer rocks subsequently eroded, leaving the prominent pillars, eleven in all, standing proud of the plains.

The Aboriginal people have a much more colourful story In the dreamtime legend, nine of the peaks are the children of the other two. During a tsunami, the biggest of the children, Coonowrin, showed cowardice by a reluctance to help his pregnant mother, Beerwah, escape. His furious father, Tibrogargan, struck him, breaking his neck, with the result that Coonowrin is sometimes referred to as Crookneck.

My second view of the mountains came five years later, while I was returning to Brisbane from the Sunshine Coast. This more leisurely survey, from the Wild Horse Mountain lookout, to the east of the Bruce Highway, merely added to my resolve that, should I ever come here again, then I would need to make an effort to climb some of them.

The opportunity arrived in January 2010. While travelling to Noosa, I detoured to a closer vantage point named simply Lookout 589, which was surrounded on three sides by the Glass House Mountains. Craggy Coonowrin, the second highest, looked quite formidable. Unfortunately, for the past decade, climbing it had been forbidden because of its instability. For the past couple of years, Beerwah had also been out-of-bounds, as a result of a rock fall. Anyone caught climbing these would be subject to a fine. I did, however, later meet a couple of Australians who had dodged the cordon and climbed Beerwah. It was thus the third highest, 364-metre-tall Tibrogargan, that drew my attention, and from this proximity it was indeed impressive. Very steep on all sides, its forest covering was cut by a jagged, white gash, which looked nearly vertical, but offered the only route of ascent.

While I was anticipating the climb, a television van pulled up, and a cameraman began filming a news presenter describing the dangers of climbing these hills. The previous three days had seen two rescues of injured climbers from Ngungun, one of the smaller of the Glass House Mountains.

The following day, which the nation was to celebrate as Australia Day, I left Noosa at 4:30am. I was expecting, correctly as it turned out, a day as stiflingly hot as its predecessor. At around 6:00am, shortly after dawn, I arrived at the car park at the foot of Tibrogargan. A young German, Robin Schultz, was just leaving his car, so we agreed to continue together. Robin was on a round-the-world trip, which he was partly financing by working for a few weeks at a nearby farm.

image002 Climbing Tibrogargan

The track wound its way through woodland, then zig-zagged steadily uphill. Already the mosquitoes were beginning to bite. Then the forest opened out to reveal the lowest pitch of that white gash I had seen the previous day. At a first glance, this did not look easy. Then three others descended it, with a rapidity that suggested it might not be as difficult as it appeared. Indeed, they had climbed the peak at 3:00am, and had remained on the summit to watch the sunrise. On closer acquaintance, the route turned into an enjoyable scramble, steep, a little exposed in places, but not of a difficulty that would qualify it as a rock climb. Sometimes it went up stepped corners, sometimes up more open slabs, but the holds were always there, and by moving to the sides, a way could usually be found to avoid any real problems. Each section ran upward for around twenty or thirty metres, with rubble strewn breaks linking them. On either side grew shrubbery. Though dense, this was sufficiently open not to obscure the view, which rapidly extended across the flatlands toward Beerwah and Coonowrin, and served to emphasise the steepness of the ascent.

After a couple of hundred metres, the gradient eased and the track narrowed, picking its way through a series of taller shrubs, from which hung numerous spiders’ webs. The vegetation on the summit grew deep and hid the view, but the track continued down for a short distance and out onto a belvedere at the top of a crag.

Belvedere on Tibrogargan Summit image003

Despite its low stature, Tibrogargan was steep enough to feel big, and the view from here spread out past the peaks to the south, and east to Moreton Island and the resorts of the Sunshine Coast. I looked at my watch. It was still only 7:00am. After a short time on the summit, devoted largely to re-hydration, we retraced our steps, passing an increasing number of others, who were climbing Tibrogargan to celebrate the national holiday. A few of these were clearly not happy with the scramble or its exposure. Some retreated, others continued, drawing encouragement from their companions. On arrival at the car park, we agreed that it was early enough to climb something else before it became too hot. Robin would not be starting work until the afternoon.

A few minutes’ drive brought us to the foot of Mount Ngungun. At 253 metres, this is one of the lower and less precipitous of the Glass House Mountains. The track, quite rough and steep in parts, though with no scrambling, led past two crags, on both of which were small parties of rock climbers. Though the day’s heat was making itself felt, the ascent was relatively short, and the summit soon beckoned through the trees. A final rocky slab led up to a narrow ridge and a sudden, and unexpected, view of Beerwah and Coonowrin, directly in line with each other and Ngungun. The ridge led, with only a minimal gradient, to the summit.

image004 Mount Ngungun summit

From here, the view was finer altogether than that from Tibrogargan. No vegetation obscured it, and it ran in a full circle around the entire Glass House region. Hundreds of butterflies, though perhaps only of two or three different varieties, flew back and forth across the ridge, accompanied by as many colourful dragonflies. It seems that this ritual is a common sight on Mt Ngungun during the summer.

We arrived back at the foot of Ngungun just after l0 am. The heat was now becoming oppressive, and would preclude any pleasure on further ascents. As I bid Robin farewell, I did not envy his having to work in the afternoon. I, in contrast, would be returning to Noosa, to spend the afternoon on the beach.

image005

With Beerwah and Coonowrin being, for the near future at least, out-of-bounds, Tibrogargan and Ngungun are certainly the best of the Glass House Mountains to climb. Beerburrum has a good, broad track to its summit. The rest of the peaks do not have designated tracks, though there are ways through the bush on most of them. And there are numerous walks around their bases. While they are not high and can be climbed in a short time, the Glass House Mountains are nevertheless unique and of such striking appearance as to be irresistibly attractive to any mountaineer.

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