Monday 26 June 2023

The Glasshouses

Renowned Australian authors Vance Palmer (1885-1959) and Nettie Palmer (1885-1964) lived economically "by their pens" at Caloundra from 1925-1929. The following article entitled The Glasshouses was written by Vance Palmer in 1927 - almost one hundred years ago.  These distinctive geological landforms still have a wonderous presence today and as Vance wrote below "have the same power of steeping the mind in mystery and casting a spell over the imagination".

The Glasshouses
by Vance Palmer

On entering Moreton Bay by daylight one is struck by the fantastic shapes of a group of bare mountains that rise from the low, scrubby shores of the mainland. In the morning light, with the sun on them, they look as if they were made of crystal; at dusk they might be cut out of cardboard, so sharp and definite are their lines, and so flatly do they arrange themselves along the horizon. 

The wonderous view of the Glass Houses at sunset.
Photo: Queensland Government
Glass House Mountains National Park webpage

At any time their aspect is surprising. The highest of them, Beerwah, is the exact replica of one of the Pyramids, and the others, each in its own way, suggest monuments of ancient Egypt. What intrigues the imagination is that they rise, independent and separate, out of flat, almost marshy, country, and are not conected with any range of mountains. This gives one the queer feeling that they have some human significance; that they are the relics of an old civilisation, and not merely natural features of the landscape.

Captain Cook noted them on the skyline when he sailed along this coast nearly a century and a half ago [now nearly two and a half centuries ago], and named them the Glasshouses. From the low decks of his little ship, or even from the rigging, he could only have seen the tops of them, with Moreton Island lying between, but he seems to have been struck by their strangeness. Flinders, some years later, got a clearer view of them. While his ship was lying at the southern end of Bribie Island he set out with a few men in a boat with the object of climbing the highest of them. Making his way up the passage he landed, and penetrating the dense tea-tree scrub he reached the base of one of them, but after gazing at the rocky escarpments above him he returned unsuccessful. His opinion was that they were inaccessible. Since some of them are easily scaled, even by ordinary climbers, it must have been one of the three chief mountains — Beerwah, Coonowrin, or Tibrogargan — that thwarted Flinders. It is a pity, for from the top of any of these three he would have gained a sight of the main object of his search — a river flowing into Moreton Bay.

None of these extraordinary peaks is quite inaccessible, as later explorers have proved. The highest of them, Beerwah ("up in the clouds" it meant in the native tongue), was climbed by Andrew Petrie in the 'forties. There is a pathetic story told in connection with this feat. A good deal of the folklore of the neighbouring native people was naturally connected with these striking Glasshouses, and they firmly believed that an evil spirit presided over Beerwah — a spirit that would turn anyone blind who attempted to invade its fastness. Since Andrew Petrie was their friend and protector they did their best to dissuade him from the attempt, but the sturdy old Scot laughed at them and found a path to the summit. His son records that when he actually did go blind later on, an acute tragedy to him in his vigorous middle-age, the native people took the fatality for granted. He was only paying the penalty, as they had foretold! 

But other people have climbed Beerwah since then without evil results. Although the highest of the Glasshouses, it is not the steepest. At the base there is a dense, twisted scrub that thins out higher up into shrubs and grasstrees, and, except for a couple of hundred feet of sheer rock rising almost perpendicularly, a scattered fringe of vegetation runs to the very top. Nor would the height (1,760ft.) seem formidable to New Zealand climbers. Like the others, its uniqueness lies in its shape, and in the way it rises suddenly from a swampy plain that was once a sea bed. From the top one gets an uninterrupted view over the dazzling panorama of Moreton Bay, with its grey-green islands, its sandy foreshores, and its wide expanse of blue water. It is a pity that the intrepid Flinders did not persist in making the ascent.

Of the other two major mountains, Tibrogargan (shaped like a helmet) has been climbed fairly often, but Coonowrin is a different proposition. In form it is a pyramid, with a great pillar of rock, several hundred feet high, rising perpendicularly from the summit. The approach up the sides of the pyramid is fairly easy, but when one reaches that massive pillar, smooth as the sides of a bottle, there seems no possibility of making the ascent. Until near the end of last century it was given up as impossible. Then a young artillery man, named Harry Mikalsen, who had been brought up near its base, succeeded in reaching the summit. He had formed the ambition of doing so when a boy, and had studied it from all angles and in all lights, tracing footholds and fissures in the rock till at last he found a path. A path, did I say? Even the chamois deer would hardly regard it as that, for at one point the only possible means of progress was up a thin, tall sapling that happened to grow in a line parallel to the face of the cliff. A few other people have since made the ascent, with Mikalsen to guide them, but there is never likely to be a beaten track to the summit.

What is the origin of these strange mountains? Geologists say they are volcanic eruptions of incredible age, probably from an ancient seabed. Through succeeding aeons they have passed through many changes. Once, when they were extinct and their sides were covered with crumbling lava, a thick vegetation began to clothe them. The wind and weather of centuries eventually wore off the crumbling surface at their crests, and most of the vegetation with it, leaving the basic rock exposed. The smooth pillar, for instance, which makes the climbing of Coonowrin so difficult, is formed of the molten stone that once plugged the crater of the extinct volcano. In practically all the Glasshouses hints of these plugs of molten stone can be seen; but in Coonowrin the outside shell has been more deeply worn away, so that the plug is left naked to every eye. It is like looking at the bones of an ancient dinosaur. That indefinable atmosphere of an earlier world hangs about it, and almost oppresses the imagination. Even the vegetation that clings about its base now — spiky shrubs, grasstrees with pointed spears and blackened trunks, and writhing teatrees — seem to belong to a vanished age — an age when everything was hard and horny, before the softness of the fern-world.

But, seen in the distance, they are strikingly beautiful. From many places along the northern coast of Moreton Bay one gets glimpses of them, and they seem to arrange themselves along the skyline, like a set of quaint hieroglyphics. The farther one gets away from them the more fragile they appear, and the more do their domes and pillars take on the semblance of crystal. There is a magic about them that makes them impossible to forget. I do not know any mountains that have the same power of steeping the mind in mystery and casting a spell over the imagination.


The Glasshouses by Vance Palmer
The Australasian 4.6.1927 p. 70 [viewable via National Library of Australia's Trove online resourc ]

Glass House Mountains National Park, Sunshine Coast. PHOTO

Biography of Edward Vivian (Vance) Palmer (1885-1959)
by Geoffrey Serle, 1988, Australian Dictionary of Biography v. 11.

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