In Mountains: Over Australia's Blue Horizon, Alasdair McGregor traces the rise and fall of the Australian continent, from mountains of ice and fire to those of iron and those with their heads in the clouds. An expansive contemplation of natural, geological and social history, McGregor’s account defies Australia’s reputation as the flattest continent on earth, illuminating the landscape in all its breathtaking height and glory.
Join us for a discussion between Alasdair McGregor and Greg Mortimer OAM as they share why Australia’s beautiful and diverse mountains can teach us so much about our natural, geological and social history. Knowledge gathered from a lifetime of exploring this precious and surprising country.
*Speakers: Greg Mortimer (G), Alasdair McGregor (A)
G: Hello, everyone. My name is Greg Mortimer, I’m a geologist and mountaineer and farmer and very importantly a – obviously colleague and good friend of Alasdair McGregor’s.
Before we go any further and importantly, I acknowledge Australia’s first nations people as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respects to the elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
So, we’re here in this weird and wonderful Zoomland with Alasdair to talk about his book, his 11th book, I believe, Mountains, Over Australia’s Blue Horizon. Curiously enough my home is nestled under the western escarpment of the blue horizon for all you east coast dwellers. We’re sitting on the western side of the Blue Mountains on a beautiful day.
Now Alasdair and I have had intertwined lives for several decades, kind of like a widely spaced vine if you like and I was very chuffed to be asked by him to write a foreword to Mountains. Now central to our connectedness is both of us having roamed wild parts of Mother Earth really as the central driving force of our lives and with that our paths have crisscrossed.
Now in introducing Alasdair I promised not to make him squirm too much when I had a go at his CV but it’s a beautiful opportunity to make him squirm a little and very interestingly seeing his CV in print rather than knowing him individually as a friend I was even more staggered and what I didn’t know about him was glaring. He’s an architect, he’s a great traveller, of course, and a writer of note, a historian, an artist of note, in amongst that an art gallery co-owner but above all else what struck me in looking at his CV was how he had fitted it all in, basically and how he had overlapped career as an architect, art gallery co-owner, book-writer, great traveller.
The interesting thing to me – now this is the squirmy bit, Alasdair - to me you are a delightfully modern renaissance man because what you’ve managed to do is combine all those aspects of your life but then produce something from them and I’m very much in awe of that. In particular, to have such rich experiences then to put them onto paper, to write them and to paint them and to me that’s extraordinary.
Now when thinking about writing the foreword to the book the thing that came to my mind immediately was how do you go about writing a book about mountains on the flattest continent on earth? Why mountains and what inspired that? Let’s delve into that now when we talk with Alasdair and that’s my first question, really. What in the hell inspired this, Alasdair?
A: Well good morning, Greg, and thank you for making me squirm just a little but no, I'm blessed with your beautiful introduction, thank you so much and just a couple of comments on what you’ve said. I think there’s a certain amount of serendipity in life. I think when you get to have some opportunities that literally fall into your lap and the great one, and you’ll appreciate this with your great history in Antarctica, is going to Heard Island when I was in my late 20s. This as I said landed in my lap – we don’t have time to go into the details of that but what an experience that was. This is an Australian mountain that’s – yes, it’s far distant from the Australian continent but it’s sovereign Australian territory so it’s the last place I dwell on in the book but what a full-stop in the whole story of Australian mountains. So that’s the last but I’ll just get back to answering your question about how it came about, what inspired this.
Well again it was one of those things that lands in your lap. My books before Mountains were - I do a lot of work for Australian Geographic on historical subjects and so on but projects I initiate myself have been historical biographies of the photographer, Frank Hurley. You can certainly call him a mountain man but architects, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin and the colonial architect, Francis Greenway. So, way aside from anything to do with natural landscapes or natural history but I suppose I’d gained a certain reputation as a writer one day and the email dropped into my inbox from Susan Hall at the National Library asking me whether I’d be interested in taking on this subject. I didn’t have to think about it for too long and the rest is history as they say.
G: Look, I tend to think it was really brave of you –
A: Or mad.
G: Well, it’s not a net result but yeah and again because we have such a particular geography but what I can just see now, I hadn’t realised before is all of your travels and explorations have been so much centred around mountains, really, wild places in mountains.
A: To be a bit sort of negative in the sense of say the national park system in Australia, a lot of mountains are in national parks because the terrain is such that the vegetation hasn’t been knocked over, they are relatively left intact. So as a keen bushwalker through my student days and after and then as a painter, mountains are dramatic places as a landscape painter, they give you a sense of perspective, all the usual emotions. They don’t have to be large and Himalayan proportions but it’s the fact that they are, there’s relief in the landscape from Australia’s flatness. I mean Australia’s flatness, the deserts are incredible inspiring places too, this is an extraordinary continent, an extraordinary country which sadly I think we don’t give enough respect to but that’s perhaps another story.
But when I started to look into the sort of places that I would cover in the book there was no way you could be comprehensive, and people would say oh you’re going to include such-and-such a mountain and this one and that one. Well, that’s not the point, what I tried to do was show a diversity of environments, their geological history, of course, and their interactions with humans and how we’ve treated them. So the first chapter is this sort of foundation story of crossing the mountains, getting to Greg’s farm, basically and how that has been mythologised in Australian history and how Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth weren’t actually the first Europeans even to cross the Blue Mountains.
The history of these things is absolutely fascinating and intriguing and then the typical European approach of disregarding the fact that people who’d lived in that environment for thousands of years and they were going backwards and forwards across the mountains. There were people living on the other side of the mountains, well how did they get there? So that was an obvious first chapter and as I said at the end of the book this grateful stop with this wonderful glaciated active volcano down there in the Southern Ocean 4,000km south of Fremantle, absolutely extraordinary place.
G: Yeah, I really envy you that. That trip to Heard Island, Big Ben, I must say, and the ocean that goes in between it.
A: Yes, you’ve been there, though, haven’t you?
G: No, I haven’t.
A: Oh well, one up.
G: On the list. I take your point about man’s giving a sense of scale and the thing about the Himalayas being biggest and boldest but in Australia we have that sense of scale, don’t we? Because what it gives us is a sense of humility, our place in earth and that’s what mountains give the most and that’s very much alive in Australia.
A: Yes, exactly. I found that it all started to fall into place quite – well I wouldn’t say easily but the choices to me were obvious and some of it came from my own background. I’ll go into the next chapter which was the Snowy Mountains or the Australian alps more generally. You would obviously include them because we have to deal with the fact that you can walk to the summit of Australia’s highest mountains so even in the prologue I have a bit of a dig at the fact that Australians are a bit embarrassed about the height of their mountains and of course that focuses in on Kosciuszko but what an extraordinary alpine environment, absolutely amazing. That was very much part of my early days as an artist, I used to roam across the main range sketching and photographing and ski-touring in winter and walking from Kiandra to Kosciuszko and have always loved the Snowy Mountains, very important place to me as an artist and what a thrill to then be able to write about it.
Then in my architectural days when I was a student I lived in Hobart for a year and early on in the process of the book I was thinking how am I going to write about Tasmania’s mountains? It’s the most mountainous state where well for instance Sir Edmund Hillary said Australia’s only mountain, Federation Peak, this great big brutish-looking spire of quartzite and it certainly is a forbidding thing. There are many, many mountains in Tasmania like that so I can’t be general there but then of course to me the obvious thing was well I lived in Hobart for a year and I lived up the back of the town and each morning in the winter when I’d head off to work - I was able to walk to work - I’d come out the door and over my shoulder there was this amazing snow-covered mountain.
Then feeding into the book it’s obvious that Hobart is the only Australian city with a mountain in its backyard and not only the physical constraints about where development can happen but that mountain is this sort of brooding, beautiful presence behind the city at all times. It has influenced the character of the place, the psyche of Hobart as a city. It was wonderful to delve into the history of the way people react, Europeans reacted to it. For instance, when Charles Darwin visited Hobart he wasn’t impressed. He didn’t seem to have a particularly bright and rosy view of Australia which absolutely astounds me. For instance, he had a similar feeling about the Blue Mountains and all the dreary eucalypts and so on. Anyway, Darwin struggled to the summit but it appears a young teenage girl with her Aboriginal friend had climbed the mountain some time before with ease and so on. Yet Darwin even couldn’t really respond to these changing environments, going from the cool temperate, the big forests of Mt Nash and then right up into the alpine environment within just a few kilometres of the town of Hobart which is extraordinary. I talk about his meeting with Alexander von Humboldt, the great explorer, the early days of ecology and von Humboldt’s ideas of ecology and how environments are dictated by things like altitude. Yet Darwin really didn’t see that in any sense, he was more interested in the particular about new species and so on in the Australian context so that was all very interesting. Where am I going here, Greg?
G: I don’t want to circumvent a beautiful line of thought and it may be a bit mechanistic but I’m kind of curious how you take all that that’s inside you and all your combined experiences and your exposure to mountains and then turn it into a book. How do you sit down and start writing something like that?
A: Well whether it be writing the biographies I worked on or this it really isn’t any different. I think you go to the places you feel most comfortable with first, things you have some feeling that you know something about. Not necessarily authority because I’m not an expert on any of this and sometimes I feel I’m being totally presumptuous that who am I? I’m not a geologist, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a botanist, I’m a generalist. But one thing I am is particular, I try as hard as I can obviously to get it right, to get my facts right. Sometimes obviously I won’t but fortunately in the case of this book I have some terrific friends, one of them – I’d been with her on Heard Island so we’ve been friends all that time and we – Pauline English was her name, she vetted the manuscript along with her geologist husband, David Champion, and that was fantastic.
So coming back to how I start so I’ll have this idea of the things that I feel most confident about and so it’s like working on a mosaic, little tile by little tile or a jigsaw or something like that and then you’ll go to another area that you feel confident about. These little kernels of knowledge or ideas, they are then pieced together in this mosaic but we’re working on one area and then another area and then another area and gradually they’ll all sort of fuse into one. That’s why I say the historical side of it, the things like Charles Darwin, not necessarily about the science but attitudes of people. I’m a historian and I always try and work up ideas, putting myself into the context at the time, well how did people think then? What was their motivation? Writing about photographers like Frank Hurley you had to think like an early 20th century person, not a century later and that’s one of the real challenges. But in the case of this book it became more finding out fascinating things and then just linking them altogether, I suppose.
G: Can you tell us a little bit about Gulaga?
A: Yes, I very arrogantly called Gulaga my mountain. To explain to people who are watching this Gulaga or it used to be known as Mt Dromedary is just over 800m high mountain on the New South Wales south coast. I’m very, very lucky to divide my time between Sydney where I am at the moment and a little well patch of paradise 25, 30 Ks I suppose north of Gulaga on the New South Wales south coast. So I look down towards this beautiful mountain and it’s an extraordinary thing just sitting at my place and looking south and thinking about this mountain which is 60 million years old, I suppose, so not all that old in geological terms. But it used to be over twice that height, nearly three times perhaps and you think of the erosion that’s gone on during that time and it was an active volcano. So you get this great sense of time and it’s just absolutely marvellous.
G: Look, on the geological side, speaking as a geologist, having suffered the ravages of being taught in standard form geology and to most people rocks just sit around and don’t do much. I can say you are an expert now in geology because what you’ve done is put romance into geology, you made the rocks sing to me and I doff my lid to you with that.
A: Well thanks, Greg, because if there’s any branch of science that’s hard to achieve that in I would say geology must be up there perhaps with quantum physics or something, I don’t know but you look at these great forces like the way the earth has bent and twisted and pushed up and in the case of this volcano on the Australian coast. Well it wasn’t on the Australian coast. Sixty million years ago it was 500km inland from the coast and it gives you this great sense of perspective of the way things change. They’re changing now, there’s erosion going on, there’s uplift. I think we’re always a bit surprised when there’s a terrible earthquake somewhere. Oh why is this happening? That the earth should be a stable place, or there’s a volcano like the recent one in the Canary Islands, was it? But the earth has always been like this, more so at times, certainly. But the other thing about Gulaga, and I just mentioned in passing its name of Mt Dromedary, was that it was the first mountain in Australia or on the Australian continent to receive a European name.
For good or ill that was James Cook sailed past there in April 1770 on his way north and saw what he considered to be a camel back, I suppose, that’s the obvious thing. It’s a bit hard to certainly see a camel’s back from where I sit and looks out towards it and Cook’s voyage, he proceeded north as I said. Pretty soon after that there was Pigeon House Mountain and it reminded him of a dovecote. Then the obvious ones further north, Mt Warning where they – well they didn’t nearly bang into Mt Warning but they got into some trouble avoiding sandbars and reefs and so on around there and so this great big finger of a mountain up in the ranges, what is now northern New South Wales acted as just that but known more appropriately by its Aboriginal name of Wollumbin. But Mt Warning for instance, I mean who amongst Australians – well as many people do, I suppose, but when you consider that that was the most extraordinary remnant of this massive volcano, the Tweed Volcano had inner flanks something like 1,000m high, 100km wide. The caldera was 100km wide and it ejected over 3,000 cubic kilometres of material when it erupted.
G: Las Palmas eat your heart out.
A: Yes, exactly, exactly. Then Cook travelled north, he saw the Glass House Mountains in south-eastern Queensland and they reminded him of these kilns in the part of Yorkshire that he came from so I love all these little historical notes to these places but I also like the fact that now we’re going back to the names that the people who were first here gave them. That’s why we always call Mt Dromedary Gulega, it just flows off the tongue so easily but it’s far more appropriate.
G: Look, I can tell you there’s one really fascinating thing about the study of geology and in so doing you flick a switch in your head about the fourth dimension, time. You get a wonderful understanding of time in the study of geology. Now I think you’ve captured that in your book and perhaps above all else Australian mountains give a sense of time and our puny place in it if you like.
A: Yes, exactly. I can think of several instances in the book where that is so strikingly apparent. The fact that central Australia at one stage was blessed with a mountain range as high as the Himalayas and several thousand kilometres long. That’s all gone and eroded over millions of years into these great – what do you call them? Basins at their feet, basically. The Amadeus Basin is a well known one, for instance. All these minerals that eroded away and flow into these basins and settle there and then, they became the basic constituents of life, life on earth. It’s all gone now. These mountains have basically just eroded into these wonderful old hills. There’s been some uplift but they’re old, they’re so old and I think we should glory in not so much the height of Australian mountains but the age of them and that’s what makes them so special.
G: You’ve gifted that to us in a book so I really thank you for that and I congratulate you, really.
A: Thanks, Greg.
G: We could keep talking about it for a long time, there’s so many stories there, yarns to swap and we’ll do that over wine some time, we’re on a ship somewhere or some time. But thanks for giving so generously now of your thoughts and time and your work, combining it as you’ve done in the beautiful book -
A: Thanks for gracing it with your wonderful foreword, it just hit the mark perfectly and of course for this talk today.
G: Okay well we’ll leave that as saying we’ve given each other a pat on the back, an indulgence and for anybody who’s watching this, please, I really recommend you treat yourself to this book. It’s a beautiful piece of work, it’s a piece of art and thank you, Alasdair.
A: Thanks Greg, much appreciated.
G: Okay, mate.