The Sunshine Coast’s spectacular Glass House Mountains is a hub for walkers, twitchers and bikers. But it’s the inexplicable things that draw you here, writes Steve Madgwick.
“Stop looking out to sea! Turn around, for just once in your life,” they whisper at a frequency few decipher. Outdoorsy types get it; as do escapees from the franchised existence, the hippies and ferals; and eccentric Europeans on Grand Tours – Germans mainly, inexplicably.
Mercifully, the Sunshine Coast’s voracious developers have largely missed the signals so far.
For all their intriguing and uncommon exquisiteness, the precipitous peaks of the Glass House Mountains and the slumbering settlements in their shadow may as well be made of glass.
This hinterland collective is the most under-appreciated mountain range within ‘cooee’ of civilised Australia; especially to flop-and-drop holidaymakers, hypnotised by perpetual beaches 30-odd kilometres away at Caloundra.
Like Sherpas in the Himalayan mountain climbing community, they are forced to drift around the edges, where in fact they are the community’s heart.
The name Glass House itself radiates enigma, but the reality of the nomenclature is utterly incongruent, an anathema to these no-added-preservative eye candies. The first white fella to spot them, and therefore (re)name them, was that little-known explorer Captain Cook.
“They are very remarkable on account of their singular form of elevation, which very much resemble glass houses,” he observed from the Endeavour’s bridge in 1770. Not the tomato-growing variety, mind you, but the conical, smog-spitting industrial glass kilns of his native Yorkshire. Better than Power Station Mountains, I guess.
Prolific explorer Matthew Flinders traversed the mountains decades later, meeting with the locals in less than jocular circumstances, but he saw no need to rebrand them – those in glass houses don’t change names, apparently.
The explorers were only doing what explorers did back then – categorise, conquer, move on – but their fundamental gaffe was to group the mountains as a single static entity. So 18th century.
Wander or drive among them now, introduce yourself, and they feel fluid, like the lava that formed them once was; alive almost.
They also come across as a wee bit odd; like a dysfunctional family hiding a sinister secret. Which is exactly what they are, according to indigenous lore (from the Gubbi Gubbi people). Never ever has an aboriginal story so matched the physical reality of its landscape…
Seeing a cataclysmic squall on its way, dad (Mt Tibrogargan) asks his son (Mt Coonowrin) to help mum (Mt Beerwah) and the family to safety. Coonowrin disobeys. Fuming, Tibrogargan deals a nasty blow to his son’s neck, shattering it (hence Coonowrin’s nickname: Crooked Neck).
Tibrogargan forlornly gazes out to the Pacific forever, never again into the eyes of his son. Matriarch Beerwah (the tallest at 556 metres) still binds the family together regardless. The surrounding creeks trickle with the parents’ shame-rich tears.
As you drive along Steve Irwin Way (he’s a religion up this way) and back roads around Beerwah, Glass House and Beerburrum towns, you sense the family from infinite perspectives; sometimes alone, sometimes huddled, moods shifting with the light and weather.
For the Gubbi Gubbi, the mountains are sacred (they won’t walk on Beerwah), with some of the family members not even spoken of; men’s and women’s business.
Nevertheless, a Great Migration is underway, led by rosy-cheeked quasi-spiritual movements: the active-wearers and trail-runners; Brisbanites and Sunshine Coasters in search of respite from the coastal commerce conduit.
On any given weekend, you’ll see them on the steep, switch-backing trail up to Mt Ngungun (the twins), through a doona of Middle Earthy ferns.
Babies gurgle and giggle in pricey new-fangled harnesses, while parents scramble ever upward. Half-way up Ngungun Caves, a sacred birthing area, reminds you of The Ancients.
Are those faces in the rock? Ngungun’s rise from the valley is so sheer that you’re sure it must have been a vexatious volcano, but it is simply a lava plug, a higher range having eroded above them. So say the geologists.
From the peak, the family comes into focus. Around their ankles: pineapple and macadamia farms, and pine plantations. The molars of micro-town development take incremental but tangible bites out of the lush bush.
Far away, Pumicestone Passage glimmers mercurially in between the mainland and Bribie Island, and then out to sea.
On the exposed summit, abseilers face-off with 40 vertical metres of cliff-face; the “easy way down”, according to bewitched bystanders.
“When I started eight years ago there was a quarter of the people up here on weekends,” says laid-back abseil instructor Quentin Morley from Pinnacle Sports.
“Then group training mushroomed. Now, some mornings, there are cars lined up at the little carpark.”
With hard-earned local knowledge, the Glass House is a monumental set of monkey bars writ large for abseilers, and climbers too. But for the unprepared and complacent, areas with names like Acid Ravine are as treacherous as a rabbit trap.
“The wind often picks up on the big abseils, just as you lean over,” says Quentin. “I’ll bet my life that it does today, too.”
On cue, Mt Ngungun exhales.
“That still makes me feel uneasy this high up on the edge; even with the ropes,” says Quentin. The steeper trails on the larger peaks are often closed because of erosion, rain or misadventure.
“A few times a year you still see helicopters taking some poor person down,” he says sombrely.
But the bulk of Glass House greenhorns adopt a look-up rather than stand-on-top philosophy anyway, getting their fill bush walking and trail riding in the valleys. The likes of the six-kilometre Trachyte Circuit treads lightly in the benevolent shade of Tibrogargan.
Wildlife abounds, but like the mountains, only reveals itself on a need-to-know basis. With a conductor’s ear, twitcher-by-proxy Steve Grainger, from Tropical Treks, unpicks the birdsong. His eyes ever peeled for “Joe Blakes” (snakes).
“That sharp whistle is an Eastern whipbird,” says Steve, crouching. “It’ll shut up when we get close.” It does.
Yellow-tailed black cockatoos beeline from the horizon and peregrine falcons nest high on Tibrogargan’s shoulders. Scribbly gums, casuarinas and bloodwoods gather in dense, salubrious tracts, but this ecosystem has faced and faces shape-shifting intruders, from failed gold miners and loggers to wildlife-smuggling bikies and snarling off-road motorcycles.
Judiciously, much of the region was declared a National Landscape in the ’90s and given heritage-list protection in 2006. Consequently, the bush retains the same aura that convinced early timber-cutters that the Gubbi Gubbi’s mystical yowie (a three-metre tall hairy creature) moved around them.
Many of the idiosyncratic locals stand out about as much as the yowie did back then, but they’re actually just freedom seekers who prefer to do things their own special way; the kind irresistibly drawn to mountain ranges. There’s no real ‘standard’ room at Glass House Mountains Ecolodge, for instance, but you can lay your trilby in a remodelled church or a Victorian train carriage.
In the presence of Tibrogargan, the wind soughs, creeks bubble, frogs pop almost spiritually, and phone reception barely penetrates the lodge’s force field.
Owner Keith Murray is an agricultural alchemist. He grows his own coffee and insists guests pluck fresh chives and lemongrass from the communal Garden of Eaten. And why go with convention, when you can whip up your wine and jams from Brazilian jabuticaba fruit?
Recycled art throughout the grounds, and comprehensive solar power and rainwater harvesting try to ensure that ‘Trespassers Will Be Impressed’, as the sign says.
Unpredictably, nearby town shops are not full of dream-catchers and their residents don’t trot down lanes on rainbow-gilded unicorns either. And don’t expect the cottage-industry quaintness of nearby Maleny or Beerwah, which are like country suburbs; well serviced without the hype.
However, many of the Glass House’s primary producers, often Big City refugees, don’t drink too often from the unrelenting mainstream.
Cliff Wilson covets life at a snail’s pace. He came out of his retirement shell “for the challenge” of perfecting the oldest animal husbandry known to humankind: snail farming.
He calculatingly replicated the techniques of ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, penning his snails (50,000 per year) instead of collecting them free-range, but he insists they prefer it that way. Cliff is one of Australia’s pre-eminent cliché-squashing snail whisperers.
“They have character and snails are not dumb,” he says. “They’re very clean too – unlike bloody filthy chickens – and not slow, either. Expect a mass escape if you leave the pen lid up after rain.”
Cliff noticed something seriously spooky during his foundational harvest.
“At first the snails were hanging around on the pen’s rim,” he says. “They would have been crushed when I closed the lid. All at once, they stopped hanging around there. They communicated to each other that it was dangerous.”
And he swears that you don’t need to use a lot of garlic to eat his fresh snails. “They use that on the canned ones because they smell – mine don’t.”
The Glass House is a nascent industry nursery, from edible flower producers to camel milk farmers, with makers tuned in to their environment and their charges.
“We called her Mary, but she didn’t like the name,” says Lauren Brisbane from QCamel dairy. “She made this very clear with her attitude. So we changed it to Marilyn.” Marilyn was fine after that.
In an exceedingly niche, low-yield industry such as camel milk, where your product sells for around $25 per litre (as a lactose-free dairy substitute, good for gut health), you need to keep your stock smiling. No surprise that Glass House camels buck all the clichés too: don’t spit, don’t pong, demand cuddles.
And so, I eat a rich, camel-milk vanilla bean gelato, while the Glass House family enigmatically, approvingly, looks on from across the dusky paddock.
It’s funny, they always see you before you see them. Always.
I wonder, next time you’re up on the Sunshine Coast, whether you’ll be one of the chosen few who return their gaze?
The details: Glass House Mountains, Sunshine Coast
Getting there: Jetstar and Virgin Australia fly regularly to Sunshine Coast Airport. It’s a 40-minute drive from the airport to Glass House Mountains Ecolodge.
For the hikers: Tropical Treks offers bespoke guided bush walks.
For the mountain bikers: Eleven Hills Adventures takes you around uncrowded trails from pure doddle to adrenaline-pumping. Bikes supplied.
For the adventurous: Live It Tours arranges visits to producers including QCamel and Cliff Wilson’s snail farm.
For the climbers: Pinnacle Sports caters for those wishing to learn or move up a climbing or abseiling level.
For fast-paced views: Caloundra Jetski Safaris runs tours along Pumicestone Passage, with views of Bribie Island.
Staying there: Glass House Mountains Ecolodge – Quirky and relaxing eco-friendly accommodation options in a peaceful rainforest setting, from $125 a night.