Mountains by Alasdair McGregor

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Some say – and not just Kiwis – that this wide brown land has no mountains. It requires some lateral thinking to overcome the problem of perceived flatness.  The first solution to a stunted land is typical Aussie ingenuity – just call any mound a mountain.  Residents living near Mount Whycheproof in Victoria are apparently very proud of the world’s smallest mountain at a dizzying 43m above the plain.

An even better solution is to recognise that what we have is actually pretty impressive – including the world’s “third longest terrestrial mountain chain” [p5], “the longest volcanic chain in the world” [p92] and a highest peak that is a permanently glaciated, active volcano.

Alasdair MacGregor has written a book that celebrates the mountains of Australia, with due acknowledgement of their shortcomings, but with a good deal of humour and with thoughtfully curated dossiers on his many subjects.

Each of the eight chapters is devoted to a region or class of mountains. The usual suspects – the Blue Mountains and the Australian Alps – are joined by lesser-known mainland areas: tropical Queensland, central Australia, and the Pilbara in the north west. The Tasmanian chapter is focussed on Hobart’s Mt Wellington, with just a few references to the rest of the state. Subantarctic Heard Island’s active volcano is the tallest peak on Australian sovereign lands and its chapter is a lesson in remote geography and exploration. Finally, Australia’s widespread volcanoes are given a chapter that includes Lord Howe Island and the 2000-kilometre-long Cosgrove “hotspot track” from Queensland to Victoria.

An interesting mix that blends the familiar with the exotic and few readers would fail to find something novel.  Some of our most iconic mountains are noted but do not make the cut. The much-traversed Grampians of Victoria, the spectacular ranges of the Kimberley and the many rugged crags of Tasmania are notable omissions. But that in no way detracts from this sublime book and perhaps we may look forward to a second volume.

The choice of these subjects and the accompanying text and photographs means that instead of being a coffee table picture book, it is a genuine cornucopia of cultural, geological and biological information.  Yes there are plenty of gorgeous landscape images, but some of the historic and geological drawings, paintings and maps are just as fascinating and educative.

The selection of materials is a delight, with some of the 1950s photographs from Frank Hurley showing familiar landscapes in a totally unexpected light – literally. The familiar panoramas of the Snowy main range and Queensland’s Glasshouse Mountains are nothing short of extraordinary.

The author is quick to acknowledge the indigenous heritage of the continent – people who, unlike Europeans, have witnessed erupting volcanoes “For the local Djerrinallum gundidj people, Mount Elephant [Djerrinallum ]……would have repeatedly demonstrated the pyrotechnic power of the earth over 40,000 years” [p94].

Sometimes even the astute MacGregor can appear to lose perspective, describing the Mount Warning/Tweed volcano as  “soaring to a height of nearly two kilometres” [p97] while elsewhere Mt Kosciuszko is dismissed as a “topographical minnow” [p2], despite being comfortably taller. It’s all relative of course.

The selection of the mountain regions allows McGregor to highlight different cultural and natural themes. The volcanoes chapter has a substantial chunk of geology, the north Queensland mountains has a native plant and animals focus, the Blue mountains has a large section on early colonial history and the Australian Alps describes indigenous occupation and their seasonal food festivals.  Aboriginal place names are duly acknowledged, and the inclusion of many which are not yet in common use may assist with their adoption.

For a relatively small book, McGregor and his editors have managed to densely pack the information, without becoming esoteric or tedious. Even geology can sound exciting in his hands. Kimberley zircon crystals “are the oldest known geological materials on the planet. They are only 150 million years younger than the earth itself….” [p202].

The chapter on Western Australia encapsulates the qualities of this book. A state that conjures up images of flat, dry and hot landscapes. Yet the rarity of mountains is what makes them so special to those immense and ancient landscapes.  Anyone who visits the Pilbara and the Kimberley cannot fail to be in awe of vistas that are brimming with raw and untamed crests. “The architecture of this region of semi-arid Western Australia is as distinctive as its vibrant rust-red soils, straw coloured spinifex hummocks and white trunked Pilbara ghost gums….” [p202].

The epilogue might have been the usual (and necessary) warnings about human interference with nature. But instead, it is an homage to indigenous occupation and the landscape through the eyes of artists and poets: “The entire landscape is explained by the actions of Ancestral Beings. Every mountain has a reason for being; every mountain has its Dreaming story” [p240]. Like the rest of the book, a sometimes unforeseen and always thoughtful journey through time and space.  Bring on Volume 2.

Alasdair McGregor is a writer, painter and lecturer based in Sydney. His books include Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin (winner of the 2011 National Biography Award); A Forger’s Progress: The Life of Francis Greenway; and Frank Hurley: A Photographer’s Life.

Mountains: Over Australia’s Blue Horizon

(November 2021)

by Alasdair McGregor

National Library of Australia

ISBN: 9780642279644

$49.99 [hardback]; 280pp


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