More like this

A long-range photograph of Mt Coonowrin, a large, thin jutting rock, with Mt Beerwah, a taller triangular mountain, behind it, in the early evening.

Mount Coonowrin (foreground) and Mount Beerwah. Image: Dualiti Photos, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Hard rock rises from soft earth. Like an iceberg, Mount Beerwah surges upwards from the relatively flat hinterland of the Sunshine Coast. I am standing at its base, at the point of departure for thousands of people who climb to the mountain’s summit every year. From the top their gaze can turn north and south and west, and east towards the Pacific Ocean, taking in the other, smaller protrusions that make up the cluster known as the Glass House Mountains.

These mountains were once part of much larger ranges. Many of them, including Mount Beerwah, are volcanic plugs—formed when molten rock was forced into the vent of an active volcano and then rapidly cooled, creating a hard obstruction. Twenty million years of explosions and erosions stripped away the softer rock around them, smoothed out the land, allowed trees to grow, brought humans to stare up at the mountains’ heights. Sandstone litters the path behind me—debris from an interminable process of revelation.

I sit and look down at the tops of gum trees, and wonder if I’ve already gone too far.

At this point of departure a sign warns ‘danger’ in big white letters on a red background. Rocks fall here, it says, deaths may occur here. The sign tells me I have now entered the ‘no waiting zone’, and that if I am not a climber I should turn back now. But I am a climber. Or at least, I rock climb—I have done so, on and off, for years.

Above me, on the first rock face—a steep, featureless slope offering an immediate rebuttal to would-be ascenders—three young men have begun the journey to the summit. They certainly don’t look like climbers, I think. They are moving slowly, tentatively. I catch one of their voices, clattering downwards like dislodged scree: ‘You’d think they’d have made it easier.’ Thirty or so metres down, five hundred or so to go.

High above them loom the so-called Organ Pipes, a spectacular overhanging rock face made up of what look like huge columns of stone wedged together. This exposed mass pulls at me, drawing me upwards with the promise of an encounter. Something beyond myself. But I head left from the sign, away from the summit route, following a less-obvious path. Ducking under some bushes reveals a short section of rock which I quickly scramble up, finding myself on a small ledge maybe twenty metres above the ground. I sit and look down at the tops of gum trees, and wonder if I’ve already gone too far.


In the carpark for Mount Beerwah—as with all of the Glass House Mountains that are accessible to recreational visitors—there is a Queensland Government information board. The first two paragraphs read:

Jinibara people and Kabi Kabi people welcome you to the Glass House Mountains National Park. Areas within this park are of traditional and contemporary cultural significance for both of our groups who have an active role in looking after the values for future generations.

We hope you will enjoy your visit. Please respect our culture and these sacred places and refrain from climbing Mount Beerwah.

The rest of the sign is made up of information on the summit route, and recommendations and warnings to potential climbers. This information is marked in yellow and black and red—far more visually prominent than the muted grey-blue of the short paragraphs above. The visual hierarchy of this sign clearly says: there is a risk to your person here (for which the government will not take responsibility), but you can climb this mountain—but also, just so you know, the local Aboriginal people would prefer you didn’t.

The visual hierarchy of this sign says: there’s a risk to your person here, but you can climb this mountain—but also, just so you know, the local Aboriginal people would prefer you didn’t.

Further along the approach, in a grassy day area complete with drop toilets, is another sign:

Beerwah is sacred

‘Aboriginal people do not climb these mountains out of spiritual respect to Jinibara. We ask that visitors consider not climbing the mountain.’

—Ken Murphy (Elder and spokesperson for the Jinibara people)

It is large, and when you’re looking at it you wonder how anyone could miss it—though I had indeed missed it, along with similar signs in other locations, for years. It doesn’t have blocks of colour, no recognisable hazard indicators or government logos that might suggest the presence of risk-mitigating advice. It is full of text and black-and-white images, seemingly historical, anthropological, and of no consequence to one’s immediate concern—the half a day it took to make the trip here, the limited hours in a day, the views that need taking in.

There are many signs like this one, placed at sites across the country by Traditional Owners to welcome non-Indigenous Australians and ask them to respect their customs and the rules of their homes. The message from Jinibara elder Ken Murphy is remarkably similar to the one given by the Aangu at Uluru:

Uluru is sacred in our culture. It is a place of great knowledge. Under our traditional law climbing is not permitted…

Please don’t climb

We invite you to walk around the base and discover a deeper understanding of this place.

For years this sign was ignored by a steady stream of tourists eager to scale the red heart of the continent, to take in its boundless plains with a sweep of their gaze. In 2019, that stream became a torrent as closure to the public loomed and people seemed to panic at the perceived opportunity lost. In the final days of access, photos and videos of long queues for the ascent circulated on social media, inflaming sentiments for and against the closure. But on 26 October 2019, climbing Uluru was officially prohibited—two years to the day after the Turnbull government’s rejection of the Voice to Parliament proposed by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and thirty-four years to the day after the Hawke government transferred custodianship of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park back to the Aangu people.

Visitors to Uluru now have access to its base, and the lands surrounding it. Perhaps, also, to a deeper understanding of that place (though this requires a different kind of work to the straight up and down of climbing). And to photos at a distance rather than from the top, attempting to capture Uluru in its entirety, its great bulk glowing a deep rust colour in the afternoon light, holding the frame in place, being held in place by everything in frame: sky, plains, grass, people.


From the ledge at Beerwah’s base, I can still see quite some distance to the north. Bushland hugs the protected area surrounding the mountain. Beyond it, rows of macadamia trees signal the start of agricultural land; these give way to clearings, and again to bush—a pattern that repeats in an uneven patchwork.​ ​

To the east the pillar of Mount Coonowrin rises from its tree-covered base like a column from some ancient, massive temple—a gargantuan Parthenon that would have filled the sky. It is one of the most striking of the Glass House Mountains for this sense of ruin, for appearing less like a feature than a remnant.

What right do I have to describe these mountains at all? This question weighs on me, as does the intuition that it isn’t the question I should be asking.

How quickly I reach for European imagery. Though perhaps this is not so surprising: what else do I have to reach for? Can I talk about how, in the tradition of the Jinibara and Kabi Kabi people, Coonowrin is the eldest son of Mount Tibrogargan (the father) and Mount Beerwah (the pregnant mother)? Perhaps—their story is recounted on the sign at Mount Beerwah—though I am not from this area, and I am not Aboriginal. I do not know enough to know whether talking about this in any depth is respectful or its opposite, whether I would be helping raise awareness or appropriating a lore that is not mine to employ.

I can talk about Coonowrin in geological terms, about how the rock is comendite, how it formed in the Oligocene epoch. But I have already tried this, if less technically, with Beerwah at the start of this essay—it is an interesting device, perhaps, but it seems to do little for the imagination, little to connect me to this place. They are distant, these terms, abstracted from where I’m standing and what it feels like to stand here.

Leaves flutter as a northerly breeze drags its feet across the tops of the trees below, twisting between muted green top and silver-tinted underside. The soft sound reaches me before I feel air moving across my skin. A black-velvet butterfly drifts across the surface of the glossy native shrub in front of me, tracing a pattern between the small white flowers that is as indiscernible to my eyes as the vector of its wings. A large fly hurtles past my ear, a shock of ​noise in the calm.

What right do I have to describe these mountains, this predicament, at all? This question weighs on me, as does the intuition that it isn’t the question I should be asking. Perhaps I still don’t understand what is driving me to ask, what I hope to achieve with a definitive answer.

In the foreword to their edited collection The Racial Imaginary, Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda suggest that, when it comes to considering right of expression on issues of race and identity, it might be a writer’s job to ‘examine the interior landscape that wishes to speak of rights, that wishes to move freely and unbounded across time, space, and lines of power’, rather than to assume a position.

What is the desire to climb a mountain other than a wish to move, unbounded, through space? What is it to ignore the requests of Traditional Owners other than a wish to move, unbounded, across lines of power?

Maybe this is the job of anyone wishing to inhabit a contested space. What is the desire to climb a mountain other than a wish to move, unbounded, through space? What is it to ignore the requests of Traditional Owners other than a wish to move, unbounded, across lines of power?


The sun is strong on Mount Beerwah’s exposed rock, and heat rises from it. Sweat runs in beads into my eyebrows. I begin to scramble back down the way I came, taking care to test holds, to place my sneakered feet precisely. It feels good to move my body in this way, to extend, hold, flex, breathe. There is an undeniable grace to rock climbing—a forced slowness, a necessary economy of movement whose shifts and flows, when learned and practiced properly, are immensely pleasurable. This may be a small part of the explanation for rock climbing’s exponential increase in popularity over recent years: bodies worked in a way that feels more natural than the everyday.

Another part of the explanation can be found here, where the soft earth tracks hard stone, where trees cast shade in the midday heat and a gigantic scribbly gum catches my eye. The thick, silvery-white trunk has grown at an angle, chasing the afternoon sun, each day making imperceptible gains that over decades have reached fifteen or so diagonal metres into the sky. Collections of thin brown lines decorate its bark: runes drawn by moth grubs that tunnelled between new and old bark until the old gave way to the new. Green ferns gather around the tree’s base, swaying in the delicate breeze. The air is noticeably cooler here, and quiet.

Past the scribbly gum, a worn path follows the rock line down to a crag (climber speak for an area with climbing routes) known as Short Cool Ones. It is predominantly made up of single-pitch climbs (climbs that can be done in one go, rather than in multiple sections) that are trad style (which involves climbers placing safety gear in and on the features of the rock face, and removing it as they ascend). Walking along the wall, I note few signs of passage, apart from footprints in the dirt. Perhaps recent rain has washed away marks left by chalked hands, or perhaps this crag hasn’t had many visits of late.

There is an undeniable grace to rock climbing. This may be a small part of rock climbing’s exponential increase in popularity: bodies worked in a way that feels more natural than the everyday.

A dull, silvery gleam reveals the presence of a bolt on the wall ahead of me—U-shaped and fixed to the rock. I see another below it, and more above. Small, discreet, no more than four or five, and topped with an anchor (two short chains also bolted into the wall). Together they form a sport-climbing route, a line for climbers to follow and somewhere to place protective equipment as they do so.

When I think about it, bolting is a strange activity. There is a sense of entitlement in going to a crag, without permission from custodians or owners of any sort, with the express intention of drilling holes in the rock in order to then cement pieces of metal into it. ‘Opening up new routes’, as it’s often referred to, as if the pioneering efforts of bolters were bringing light to dark places. Perhaps what it opens up is a sense that the climber is doing something unique, or at least more exclusive—something more than simply following a path that has been trod by innumerable feet, over generations.

The first non-Indigenous people to climb the summit of Mount Beerwah were Andrew Petrie and his eldest son, John, in 1848. Jinibara elders requested Petrie not to—I can only assume for the same reasons given on the sign that stands at the beginning of the track today. Ostensibly this ascent was made for mapping purposes: at the summit, Andrew Petrie is said to have taken ‘bearings for the assistance of the surveyors who were then commencing a trigonometrical survey’.

Why Petrie allegedly also left a note in a bottle at the summit seems to have a less practical explanation. Given the context, it reads like the planting of a flag, the staking of a claim to virtue that no other human could touch. Such virtue was constitutive of a man like Petrie: a pioneer employing what climber and academic Peter L. Bayers identifies as ‘rugged, resourceful masculine individualism’ in an ongoing effort at expansion, at transcendence—especially over an increasingly urbanised existence that threatened established masculine norms of ‘bodily virility, rationality, leadership, self-sacrifice’.

These are familiar tropes, and it is perhaps not surprising that this is still what drives many climbers, however implicitly. A recent edited collection called Climbing—Philosophy for Everyone dedicates a substantial number of words to extolling the virtues of climbing, which in its pages range from Aristotelean moral virtues to Kantian encounters with the sublime to accounts of personal transcendence through direct presence. The authors overwhelmingly refer to personal experience, to an encounter between an individual and their higher self made possible through the practice of climbing. The book’s tagline, Because It’s There, is presented as the reason an individual might choose a mountain for this encounter: they are the words that English mountaineer George Mallory allegedly said when asked why he wanted to climb Chomolungma/Mount Everest. The introduction claims that ‘one can discover in Mallory’s answer a call to expand the limits of human possibility and greatness’, that these simple words inspire us ‘to act on our dreams and ascend to great heights…and it reminds us that there may be no other reason for our quest than the challenge, adventure, and fun of climbing’.

An individual’s transcendence is not, by default, free of context. Assuming it is denies collective responsibility.

The apparent benignity of this motivation is, of course, a conceit. This is not to say such activities are not worthwhile, but an individual’s transcendence is not, by default, free of context. Assuming it is denies collective responsibility. Assuming that the present cuts a line between past and future is an act of erasure. We follow in the footsteps of George Mallory and Andrew Petrie and all those like them—virtuous and admirable, maybe, but bearers of a complex and often dark history. The past runs ahead of us, as well as behind us.


A long-range photograph of Mount Barney, a large rocky mountain emerging from flat grassland.

Bujurungu/Mount Barney. Image: Christina Jeannin, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In September 2020, a few months before I walked the base of Mount Beerwah, a friend and I drove down to the Scenic Rim, on the New South Wales–Queensland border. We wanted to spend the night camping in the bush, and then climb Mount Barney the following day, something I had never done. We arrived in the afternoon, turning off the sealed road onto a well-travelled dirt track. A few kilometres in we passed a large, weathered house. An Aboriginal flag had been painted across the entire side of the tin roof facing the road—a welcome to the lands of the Yugambeh people.

We reached the gate that leads to the Skull Camp ‘camping area’, a remote section of bush where the trees are marginally thinner than the surroundings, marked with two pink plastic ribbons tied to trees about fifty metres apart. After a forty-minute walk we arrived and pitched our tents. We had a few hours before it got dark and decided to go wandering, following a mostly dry stretch of Mount Barney Creek, which in times of more abundant rain flows across smooth slabs of rock over a cliff-edge. From the top of the empty waterfall we looked out over a valley. The setting sun draped pale gold over the trees; in the distance some cockatoos lifted into the air and took flight, heading east.

We slept well that night and woke late, taking our time with breakfast and packing. We returned to the car and drove to the trailhead for the Mount Barney summit routes. The twin peaks of Barney are an impressive sight, made all the starker by the stretches of dry grazing land you pass to the north on the drive in. My friend and I—both experienced hikers and rock climbers—wanted to push ourselves a little by taking Logan’s Ridge, a relatively unmarked and at times difficult trail that requires a level of skill (or at least confidence) in scrambling up exposed sections of rock.

I realised I knew nothing of Mount Barney’s significance to the local Aboriginal peoples, hadn’t considered whether my presence here was welcome.

It was just after 1pm when we reached the eastern summit. There is a wonderful remoteness at the top of Mount Barney, the kind of feeling I generally associate with places other than Australia, and especially Queensland—places with real mountains and colder weather. It is a feeling that comes with height and distance, where the broad expanse of bush or forest below blends into itself, and the lines of the earth can be seen beneath.

We stayed there for almost an hour, chatting or sitting quietly. At some point I thought of the painted roof, worn by the sun but still bold in its black and red and yellow. The thoughts that led me to write these words had started to take shape well before that moment—and yet, sitting there, I realised I knew nothing of Mount Barney’s significance to the local Aboriginal peoples, hadn’t considered whether my presence here was welcome. I could not recall seeing a sign at the trailhead detailing the enduring connection of Traditional Owners or requesting climbers to please keep off the mountain—though I hadn’t thought to look.

As the day shifted into afternoon my friend and I left the peak. After a few false starts we found the South-East Ridge and began to make our descent. The passage of the 2019–20 bushfires was very evident: new growth struggled up from singed, parched ground; trees lay in charcoaled heaps across bare slopes or stood solemnly, stripped of branch and leaf, like obelisks—monuments to the accomplishments of ignorance.

While we walked, my friend told me about a photo he’d seen, taken when the fires were working their way up Mount Barney—known to the Yugambeh peoples, I now know, as Bujurungu. The photo shows a line of flame following the dip of a valley, as a hiker might, working its way towards the peak, consuming everything in its path. I kept my eyes down as my friend talked, watching my steps on the steep path that was slippery with fine, loose dirt, until we reached a rocky outcrop. As we skirted around it I noticed, tucked up against one of the boulders, a bush of small purple flowers with succulent green leaves, bright against the ashen ground.

An earlier version of this essay was longlisted for the Nature Writing Prize.