Sunday, August 2, 2009

Soaking in the view

Sometime last year my friend Joe asked me a profound question. "When you see a beautiful scene," he asked, "how long do you spend sitting and looking at it?" He said he's often wondered how long others sit and look at a landscape before they grow bored, or sated, or just restless.

Like all good questions it was one that I couldn't answer right away, but have come back to again and again since being asked it. I've started watching people to see how long they sit and soak up a view before grabbing a photo and moving on, and I've started to judge the quality of landscapes by their ability to hold my attention. Judged on that standard, Australia's mountains rank pretty high.

While we were in Tassie I was completely entranced atop Mt. Wellington. It was a gorgeous winter day, temps around zero or just below, and we were a few hundred metres above Hobart. The view to the east over the town was stunning, but what got me mesmerized was the vista to the west. Looking across the top of Wellington, we could see dozens of other, snow-capped peaks -- the real mountains of Tasmania. Isaiah, Charlotte and I trekked out across the snowfields for a couple of hundred metres, just far enough to leave behind the tour buses and the crowds, and enter the silence. And, while the children pretended to cook a gourmet meal with the snow (we were still in the grip of MasterChef fever), I just sat and stared. And stared. It was nearly an hour later before I finally tore my eyes away from the sight and wandered back to the car. So, Joe, there's one answer for you.

This past week I've been enjoying mountains of a very different kind. I'd been commissioned by an Australian magazine to write about three or four peaks on the Sunshine Coast, so I've been going crazy trying to learn all I can about Mounts Tinbeerwah, Cooroorah and Coolum. Naturally, that means climbing all three.

When I say climbing, of course, I mean hiking up. Although there are rock faces on all three, I'm no climber and had no intention of becoming one for the sake of this article. Tinbeerwah, in fact, is just about the easiest mountain climb there is, with a road that reaches almost to the peak. Coolum is a bit more challenging, a hike that took Isaiah, Charlotte and I about 45 minutes going up. Both offer great views, though, and can keep you happily sitting in the sunshine for an hour.

The last one I needed to climb was Cooroorah. It looms over the village of Pomona, and is 430 metres of steep, jagged rock. There's a trail going up -- going pretty much straight up, in fact. It's a gorgeous mountain, and a challenging hike, but what makes it really astonishing is the King of the Mountain Race. Every year, up to a hundred lunatics gather in Pomona to run up the mountain and back down again. It started with a bet in a pub many years ago, and has now become an event that draws thousands of spectators.

They say you need legs of steel to go up and nerves of steel on the way back down, because that mountain is STEEP. Add in a 1.3 km run from the village to the foot of the mountain, and you've got a very challenging race.

We went to see the race last weekend and watched four-time champion Neil Labinsky set a new record of 22.4 minutes. That seemed awfully fast to me, so the next day I decided to go to Pomona and climb the mountain for myself. Since it was my first time up the mountain I decided to cheat by starting at the foot of the mountain rather than in the village. Even so, after 20 minutes I had only reached the first rest stop, winded and ready to sit for a while. And I hadn't even started the hard part of the climb. Including my rests, it took me nearly 50 minutes to reach the top.

When I got there, I found a shady seat, leaned my back against a rock, and sat. The view was magnificent -- a good hour's worth of sitting to be had from that view -- but I think the first half hour was really all about recovering.. Add in some more time to brace my legs for the descent, and Cooroorah may just have the best view in all of Queensland.

I don't suppose Neil Labinsky spent much time absorbing the view while he was up top. I like to think I got a better use out of the mountain, but I know that he can pop up there and take in that view any time he's got ten minutes to spare.

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