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Peaks of perfection on the Sunshine Coast

spring 09

MOUNTAINS AREN'T SUPPOSED TO SNEAK up on you. They are supposed to be visible from afar, and remain in sight as you approach them steadily across increasingly rolling hills. The mountains of the Great Dividing Range know this, and behave themselves. But not the mountains of the Sunshine Coast.

These mountains live where mountains aren’t expected, rising dramatically from the coastal flatlands. They are so abrupt, so much in contrast with the surrounding flat landscape, that a reasonably sized gum tree can hide them from view. 

Move to one side of the tree, and suddenly you find there’s a mountain behind it. They are one of the most dramatic features of the coast’s landscape, drawing visitors to them and shaping those who live beside them. 

The Gubi Gubi people named them, the early explorers sometimes climbed them, and the early settlers built their farms and homes around them.

To this day the mountains have a powerful hold. Each has its own character, and appeals to different users. Here are a few of their stories.


There’s a signpost at the centre of Pomona that points the way to all the village’s landmarks: the churches, the kindergarten, the library and so on. And, in case you weren’t sure how to reach the massive stone monolith looming over this community, one arm of the signpost points the way to Mount Cooroorah.

Few villages are as dominated by a mountain as Pomona is by Cooroorah. Unless you are standing immediately beside a building, the 484 metre mountain forms part of the landscape from every part of the village.

Little wonder, then, that Cooroorah became the centre of one of Pomona’s most enduring and endearing events: the King of the Mountain race.

The story – which seems to have several versions, like most good stories do – is that one afternoon in 1958, a group of locals were enjoying a drink in the now defunct Railway Hotel. One of them, local football star Bruce Samuels, said he’d worked off a hangover by running to the top of Cooroorah.

When his fellow drinkers doubted him, he said that not only did he do it, but he did it in less than an hour. Before long, boasting had turned to betting, and the challenge was on. The next week Samuels ran to the top and back in 40 minutes, a feat so impressive it was commemorated on the pub wall. Others soon decided to try and equal the run.

In 1979 the run was revived as a village celebration, which now draws thousands of onlookers and up to a hundred runners to the village each July.

Anyone with a competitive bone in their body looks at their watch before they start to climb Mt Cooroorah. A hike up the mountain is so closely tied to the race up the mountain that it’s nearly impossible to do the hike without comparing yourself to the runners. The best of them do the feat – which includes a 1.2 km run from the village – in less than half an hour. Four time race winner Neil Labinsky set a new record this year of 22:43.

Most hikers will have stopped looking at the clock by the time they reach the first rest stop. Just getting there can take 20 minutes of uphill walking, and the real climb hasn’t yet begun. Far better, then, to pause at the bench and take in the view that is unfolding as you climb higher.

After the rest stop, the hike turns into a real climb. Admittedly there are steps – some chiselled into the rock, some made with cement that some poor soul carried up the mountain, and a few sections of steel steps. At first it feels a bit like cheating to be climbing a mountain on steps while holding on to a chain, but scrambling up a few sections of bare rock is enough to convince most hikers that steps aren’t such a bad thing after all. Even with these aids, though, this is not a climb for the unfit. Every year, beginning hikers make it part way up only to decide that the summit isn’t worth the effort.

For many locals, though, a trek to the top of Cooroorah is a part of their regular routine. Race or not, it’s just something you have to do if you live in the mountain’s shadow.


There are 52 ways to get to the top of Mount Tinbeerwah. One of them is easy. Most of the rest are the handiwork of John O’Brien.

O’Brien is one of the region’s most enthusiastic mountain climbers, a 20-year veteran of the sport and the administrator of, the definitive guide to climbing sites in southern Queensland. He has spent hundreds of hours attaching thousands of bolts to the side of Mt Tinbeerwah over the years, crafting around 50 pitches, or routes for other climbers to enjoy.

O’Brien had climbed “Tinny” several times before moving close to the mountain a decade ago. “My reason for bolting was that I wanted to create a climbing scene where I live,” he explains. “I didn’t want to have to travel far to climb.” These days he tends to spend most of his time climbing the caves at Mt Coolum (“It has the highest concentration of difficult climbs in Queensland. Just awesome climbs.”), but he still loves to climb Tinbeerwah.

Amongst climbers, Tinbeerwah is known as a great beginner to intermediate climb. Some pitches get used a couple of times a weekend, while others have only been repeated a couple of times since they were bolted because they are long, challenging or both. Tinny is also a great place to learn to lead a climb, O’Brien says.

Best of all, it is one of the most accessible climbing spots in Queensland. “Climbers are basically a lazy bunch,” he says. Rather than trekking for miles through the bush to reach a cliff face, Tinbeerwah allows climbers to drive to the mountain.

If they want to, in fact, they can use the easy way up and drive almost to the peak of Tinbeerwah. The road up the side of the mountain weaves back and forth through State Forest, ending in a parking lot a mere 200 metres from the summit. Thanks to that road, Tinbeerwah may be the easiest mountain to climb on the Sunshine Coast.

Even those last 200 metres are a pleasant trek rather than an arduous climb – all but the last 50 metres or so is wheelchair accessible. At the summit a covered viewing platform offers unobstructed 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside, making this a popular spot to see both sunrise and sunset.

It also makes Tinbeerwah one of the few spots where non-climbers can get a close-up view of the sport, whether they want to or not: more than one tourist has been startled at sunset when a climber has suddenly popped up beside them.

The surprises can work the other way too. Climbers are cautioned to wear helmets because “mullet-headed teens and their beer-drinking fathers” have been known to toss rocks, bottles, and even wheelie bins and washing machines over the cliff face. It’s stupidity rather than malice, O’Brien says – if challenged, the dumpers usually say they didn’t realise climbers were on the cliff – but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.


No matter how big and old and tough they are, everyone has suffered indignities of one sort or another. Mount Coolum has certainly seen his share of abuse, and has the scars to show it.

He has holes in his sides – there was a quarry there in the middle of the last century when the mountain was a source of rocks for local road builders. The large caves on the east side are also man-made: one story is that they were blasted by Australian naval gunships, which used parts of the coast for target practice during World War II. Even the track that leads to the summit is a scar of sorts, although it is more a sign that Coolum is loved rather than a symbol of abuse.

Still, that love can put an enormous amount of stress on a mountain. Mount Coolum National Park is only 69 hectares in extent, but it sees more than 110,000 visitors a year. That’s a far cry from the million who visit Noosa National Park each year, but it’s still a lot of people in a park that essentially consists of a single track to the summit.

“In that site, that number of people makes a pretty big impact,” says Nat Smith, of Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Smith is the ranger in charge of the Noosa management unit, which includes Mount Coolum.

Even with all those visitors though, Mount Coolum remains a special place, with vegetation and wildlife that is quite different from the canefields and suburban housing around it. The mountain is home to an endangered species of She-oak, and its cliffs are a nesting site for peregrine falcons. There is a distinct tree-line part way up the mountain, where forest gives way to rolling downs of montane heath, a plant community that thrives on thin, shallow soils where trees cannot get a foothold. “It’s a very harsh environment,” Smith says, adding that the heath is also highly vulnerable to trampling. “The track is evidence of that.”

Those who live around the mountain know it has two moods: wet and dry. Imposing enough when it is dry, in times of heavy rain Mount Coolum becomes black and slick, with waterfalls visible from the flatland below. “You see waterfalls that you wouldn’t even know were there,” Smith says. “Free-flowing water off the mountain.”

At such times Mount Coolum is best viewed from the flatland to the south, where his bulk and imposing face can be fully appreciated.

“A favourite view of mine is the drive past it, from Suncoast Beach Drive,” Smith says. From this vantage point – indeed from nearly any site to the south of the mountain – it’s possible to imagine how Coolum must have seemed to the early inhabitants, a massive bulk of rock rising from the surrounding marshes and plains.

These days that land is home to thousands of inhabitants, with two golf courses and a resort in the mountain’s shadow. But there are still places on Coolum where you can imagine yourself to be surrounded by wilderness.

“When you come out of the trees and start to climb there’s a lateral pipe formation,” Smith says. “There’s a little gully there where you can see the cliffs. That look across there is quite a beautiful view of the mountain.”


Most villages with a mountain share a name between them: Mt Coolum is in Coolum, Mt Tinbeerwah is in Tinbeerwah, and so on. So why is Pomona not called Cooroorah?

Blame it on the post office and the railway. The land in the area was called Caroorah by a Lieutenant Bligh, who took up property there in the 1860s, and the first railway station there was called Cooroorah Siding. But the postal and rail authorities soon agreed it was too confusing to have a village called Cooroorah in between Cooran and Cooroy, so the name was changed to Pinbarren Siding.

In 1906, the local business association got the name changed to the much more lyrical-sounding Pomona, named for the Roman goddess of fruit.


Geologists say the mountains of the hinterland are the result of volcanic activity around 27 million years ago. After volcanoes erupted, plugs of magma were pushed up from deep in the earth, filling the volcanoes’ vents and chambers just beneath the surface. One group of these plugs formed the Glasshouse Mountains; another group stretched from Coolum to Pomona.

Most of them didn’t initially extend beyond the surface of the surrounding land. Rather, they were gradually exposed as erosion wore away the softer rock surrounding them. The shape of each mountain was determined by the shape of the vent or chamber the rock had been pushed into, rather like clay being shaped in a mould. Cooroorah was formed in a tall, thin plug; Coolum was formed in a rounded bulge called a laccolith, resulting in a mountain that seems to have no peak.

The Aboriginal inhabitants of the area, though, had another explanation for Coolum’s shape. Their story tells of a battle between two warriors, Coolum and Ninderry, who both loved a beautiful maid named Maroochy. Ninderry struck Coolum with his club, hitting him so hard he knocked off Coolum’s head. The spirit god was angry with Ninderry, and turned him into stone. Maroochy fled to the Blackall Range and cried a river of tears. Coolum, too, became a mountain, and his head became Mudjimba Island, a few kilometres to the south.

Coolum is believed to mean blunt or headless in the Gubi Gubi language.

words andrew wagner-chazalon