The mystery of Mount Coree (Pabral) a peak in the Brindabella Range (Warragong)


Due West of Canberra, the capital of Australia, is a dramatic conical volcanic plug that rises 800 meters from the river valley below. Frequently capped by snow, deadly cliffs are exposed on two sides of the mountain. It is unmistakable from a distance and is dramatic close-up. All around are a knot of other mountains. 


Today, it marks an important inflection on the border between the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales. Once, it scored the extreme edge of the settled areas in the early colonial period. On October 14, 1829, the Colonial Secretary reported that Governor Darling had expanded the boundaries of the Colony of New South Wales. The proclamation set out the new boundaries by reference to landmarks including "the remarkable mountain of Pabral,"  described as being conical in form, a northern peak of the mountains of the Warragong, a lofty chain (elsewhere these mountains are called the "Lofty Mountains"). Governor Darling had recently learned of the mountain from Surveyor-General Mitchell, and that colonials were already droving sheep into the region below the range.

Today the names Pabral and Warragong have been erased from modern maps. Pabral has been replaced by Coree, and the Warragong is called the Brindabellas. Herein lies the mystery - why did the names change, and if these, what others? 'Why does it matter?' is a more complex question to answer, and perhaps there is no comprehensive answer. However, truth in names-remembering and reporting is important. A simple example will suffice - a historical reference to Coodradigee might leave the casual reader confused about where this is. Likewise, a reader looking for a history of the Goodradigbee may miss references to Coodradigee. However, the two names refer to the same river: the Coodradigee from earliest times, the Goodradigbee in the past century.

In questioning name changes or substitutions, we must proceed with circumspection and cultural sensitivity. The Colonial Office and Survey practice retained First People names. However, local colonial agitation proved effective in replacing or substituting names. The well-known towns of Katoomba and Leura are good examples of name changes. In both cases, the original First People names for the areas were abandoned by enterprising land speculators who substituted names that had a nice ring to them, sometimes feigning support from local First People. Katoomba is the name of a fern with medicinal properties. Leura is the name of a place in Queensland. (This is not an isolated instance, in the Colo area, less than half of names have established provenance - the others may be of more recent or colonial-era invention.)

The names Pabral and Warragong were passed to Surveyor Robert Dixon in the late 1820s. At the time, he was a trusted member of Surveyor-General Thomas Mitchell's team (they fell out later when, without authority, Dixon created a map from survey results for sale in England - a further scandal with the convict Marcella Brown followed in short measure). Dixon identified the mountain and the range from vantage places on the Tallaganda, together with many other peaks and ridges that retain the First People names he assigned to the survey. His map does not place the mountain with absolute accuracy - but, as I have learned by attempting to repeat his observations from the top of Bald Peak in the Tallaganda with similar equipment to that he used - the placement is tolerably accurate given the distances involved. 

As were all Mitchell’s surveyors, Dixon was instructed to ascertain First People names for features he mapped. His assigned names were based on inquiry with First People guiding his party and those he met. However, most of those names have survived the test of time with little or no change (for example, the Yandyguinula Creek and the distinctive Palarang mountain - which he recorded as Talarang). Yet, while the name Pabral survived about 100 years, Warragong was gone within a decade. 

Different language groups of the First People may have assigned other names to essential landmarks. However, evidence from early colonial times suggests that the naming of mountains was an exception rather than the rule, as First People's interest focused on a myriad of names associated with waterways, paths, and resource areas rather than peaks. In addition, evidence also suggests that different language groups met to feast on moths at some of the key peaks. If so, names may have been given and the same name shared between language groups.

In this case, Pabral/Coree satisfied several naming criteria for both colonials and First People of different language groups - it is dramatically distinct, visible from some distance and different angles, and a rich source of food (moths), timber, and minerals. It served a useful locational purpose for all and might reasonably be expected to have a name.

Warragong as a name disappeared quickly - only appearing in the first maps of the nascent colony by Surveyor Robert Dixon and Sir Thomas Mitchell and a couple of the initial proclamations of the colonial boundaries. It was initially replaced by the musical 'Berindabella', which name was used by colonials living on the Limestone Plains and who traveled over the range in search of summer pastures until 1875 when John Gale, the influential newspaper owner at Queanbeyan started to use the simpler 'Brindabella' (I have included an extract from his remarkable account of a journey into the mountains and Ginini Falls below).

Not everyone followed Gale's lead: those who lived in the remote mountains still pronounce the names with a soft, familiar lilt - familiar but carrying an echo of the past. Pabral and Warragong were not the only names to vanish - thousands have disappeared. Coodradigee became Goodradigbee. Coolalomin was reduced to Cooleman, Duntudth became Tumut.

Pabral, as a name, still has a tenuous existence (as a locality and the name of a trail) although it has been replaced as a mountain descriptor by Coree. In 1875, after visiting local families living under the mountain, John Gale declared (in a fascinating essay on a daring adventure over the ranges to some of the highest peaks - an extract is included below) the imposing mount he saw as he crossed the range to be Mount Coree. Government surveyors ignored Gale for 30 years and continued to refer to Pabral - although in the later years the name was sometimes paired with Coree.

Twenty years after Gale's expedition, we have a fascinating letter-writing challenge between two politicians O'Sullivan and Moyse. 

Labor/protectionist politician O'Sullivan (member for Queanbeyan), a friend of Gale's, popularised the name 'Coree' in an account of his own travel to Brindabella Valley in the 1890s. O'Sullivan's letter was framed as a moving account of the marvels of the mountains, as seen from a buggy crossing dangerous mountain roads. Like Gale, he did not climb Coree - only seeing it some distance during the climb from Blundell's Hill to Bull's Head from a buggy on a wagon track. Interestingly, O'Sullivan formed a strong relationship with Miles Franklin of Brindabella (and his strong testimonials delivered her independence after local rejection until her 'marvelously rebellious' novel My Brilliant Career). During this time, he may have been writing the melodrama "Coo-ee; or, Wild Days in the Bush", which sympathised with and praised the bush-skills of bushrangers.

Shortly afterward, O'Sullivan's account was forcefully challenged with the publication of diary entries and a studied retort from the Clerk in the NSW Legislative Council Stewart Marjoribanks Mowle. Mowle was a protégé of (Sir) Terence Murray of Yarralumla, of the Limestone Plains below Pabral. He managed the property through the great drought of 1837-9. He was husband of the diarist Mary Braidwood Mowle (whose father gave name to the town of Braidwood but who died in 1857). In the challenge, Mowle corrected the name of the mountain back to Pabral. He recalled an ascent of the mountain fifty years earlier by horse and foot together with a local First People guide. Instead of a road, the 1841 expedition followed the blazed tree trails of the First People and the earliest settlers.  In his letter, Mowle took care to correct names and pronunciation of a number of other local names.

Inexplicably, Gale and O'Sullivan's 'new' name prevailed, perhaps by dint of O'Sullivan holding significant office controlling government lands at a time when a number of local name changes or pronunciations (generally simplification) were made. But, perhaps we should pause at this point and re-examine the evidence of the earlier colonials travelling these paths. I include (below) two letters referring to the first colonial ascent of Pabral in 1841 - an expedition from the homestead of an early colonial settler known for his friendship and reliance on the First People.  In these accounts, there is no mention of the modern name 'Coree'.

Some of us hike or climb mountains for fun, some for the challenge of abseiling or rock climbing or waterfalls, and some for the pleasure of regarding the majesty of nature from far below. Throughout our lifetime, we may encounter nature in many different ways. Sometimes, we come into a place without any idea of those who came before us, or why. Sometimes, tragically, we do not leave a mountain. The ACT Coroner Ron Cahill  found that Kripalini Baligadoo, 17 (daughter of the Mauritian High Commissioner) died after  accidentally falling from a cliff on the western face on July 14, 1992. Others leave with injuries. Neil Anderson was rescued by a RAAF helicopter after a fall while climbing with friends on the western face in 1979. Even the experienced come to grief: two surveyors standing on the edge of a precipice using a theodolite when the earth collapsed, and they fell some distance. They were uninjured but became lost in the bush. But it is not just immediate damage - time also takes its toll. In 1994, the hiker and skier Tim Ingram (then 84) recalled adventures in the mountains fifty years earlier - but when invited to revisit Mt Franklin Chalet he said "No, not this time. I'd rather keep my memories as they are." 

For my own part, I find that the joy of meeting a challenge is improved by recollections and histories of a place - without attempting to answer the mysteries that remain outside our reach. As a young lawyer, I was involved in criminal proceedings centered on an area not far from the mountain - and early proceedings concerned whether the site of an alleged crime was within the border and jurisdiction of the ACT Supreme Court. On a view during the criminal proceedings, I was gobsmacked by the beauty and terror of the fractured landscape - and subsequently moved to live close to the dingo-ridden mountains near Wee Jasper (close to Doctors Flat). During this time I became acquainted with the journalist John Gale who, a century before, had helped create the Seat of Government below the mountain and had recorded a splendid adventure into the mountains. During the time I lived on that old sheep station, I spent many years riding into the mountains and exploring the northern flanks of the mountain. My interest sharpened further while advancing Gale's dreams a little further as part of the team charged with establishing the constitution of the Australian Capital Territory, the first 'republic-style' 'state' of Australia for this marks an important boundary point for the new entity. It came into shocking focus for me during the horrors of the 2003 bushfires that started nearby. I was briefly responsible for an area of the fireground near the mountain. More recently, my friend Indya and I have been hiking through this area, revisiting old paths and walking in the footsteps of Johnny-Boy, one of our better known modern trailblazers and explorers - and finding the secrets of the mountain

From the Diary John Macnamara (1841)

(John was a merchant and shipowner leasing Old Queens Wharf, Sydney. He was a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council from 1856 to 1859. This extract from his diary was published in the 1890s)

March 5th 1841— Dr. Macnamara, O'Connell, and I rode to the junction of the Murrumbidgee and Queanbeyan Rivers and back. Mr. Russell, Clerk of the Bench, came to collect the census. On this establishment we mustered 108 persons, of whom 87 were Catholics, 17 Episcopalians, 3 Presbyterians, and one Jew.

7th. — Transacted business and left this with my brother, Dr. Macnamara, and Charles O'Connell for Condore Plain, at the foot of Pabral. (A peak overlooking Berindabella on the Coodradigee) Evening wet.

8th. — We passed a stormy night and suffered some inconvenience from rain, which fell in torrents. The tent was blown down once. We heard a coo-e at about 11 o'clock at night, and to our great surprise S.M.M. [Stewart Marjoribanks Mowle] rode up, having returned from Braidwood immediately after our departure from Yarrowlumla, and had taken a fresh horse and followed us out — his day's journey was about 85 miles.

The morning was so gloomy that we first deemed it useless to attempt the ascent of the peak, which was hidden in clouds. Nevertheless, having gone out to look for kangaroos, we walked so far up one of the mountains, that we were induced to go to the top, which seemed to be at no great distance from us. The day being cool and wet, we did not feel much fatigue, and after a few hours' labor we reached what we supposed to be the summit. . Having been the first there I marked a tree in commemoration of it. Here we sat for some time looking down upon the misty world below us, where the clouds were tossed about in whirling eddies. The view was grand though obscure, particularly through occasional breaks in the mist which gave every now and then a glimpse of the world below.

Having proceeded a little way along the ridge we found, to. our surprise, that we had still to ascend considerably. The range wended away to the north. We continued our laborious course for, perhaps, three-quarters of a mile further, and at length reached the peak which the mist had prevented us from seeing before. It was a perfectly barren rock, of a most singular appearance, which terminated on the northern side in a precipice so deep that its base was obscured by the mist. I went to the very edge and looked over with a strong feeling of pleasure, which was excited by the thoughts suggested by the scene. Then for the first time did the eye of civilized man look upon the spot — then for the first time had his foot penetrated the wilderness around. Dr. Macnamara suggested that we should say a prayer on the occasion, as the place was calculated to inspire holy thoughts. Before, however, we had time to carry this proposal into execution, the black who was with us gave the cry from a thicket that there was game in view, and we all started in pursuit. He had discovered a number of lyre birds which were a short distance from us.

They were singing most beautifully, and we listened to them with surprise and pleasure. I do not think I ever heard any birds that equal them in melody ; they saw us, however, and escaped. We then descended the mountains — a difficult task. On the way down, we saw several more lyre birds, at two of which I had two shots with my rifle. 

We also started two kangaroos. We returned to the tent at 2 o'clock, having been six hours away.

We then mounted our horses and. rode back to Yarrowlumla.

THE MURRUMBIDGEE MOUNTAINS AND THE YARRANGOBILLY CAVES. (Stewart Marjoribanks Mowle - recollections of 1841 expedition)

To the Editor.

Sir, - Attention has lately been drawn by the daily press to the Murrumbidgee Mountains and the Yarrangobilly Caves, and the impression seems to be that the latter are of a comparatively recent discovery. Such is not the case, for in the early part of 1839 they were known to me and to the late Sir Terence Aubrey Murray. At that time no exploration with regard to them was made, for we had other and more important business in hand to engage, our attention. 

In November, 1839, upon a subsequent visit to Yarrangobilly and the caves, Sir Terence wrote, 'In one of them I found many human bones, and I brought away a skull,' which was in his possession for many years. It may have found its way into the museum. There is no necessity for me to recommend the further exploration of these caves, because that has already been taken in hand. 

I would, however, draw the attention of tourists and others to the plains of Coolalomin (improperly called Cooloman) among the Murrumbidgee Mountains. The whole of that country is of limestone formation, and intersected in all directions with streams that suddenly disappear and come up to the surface again in limestone basins. At one place near its sources the Coodradigbee flows through precipitous limestone cliffs, and it is in this vicinity that caves will be found, some of which, at the time of our visit, we entered; but we did not prosecute our searches to any extent. In one I found a fossil shell of the cockle species, which Sir Thomas Mitchell pronounced as something new. Travelers on these plains should procure experienced guides, or they may find themselves and their horses overwhelmed in the peat banks of the streams when crossing them without hope of regaining firm ground. 

It may not be out of place to say how I came to visit this part of the country, and on a holiday trip from school. The years 1837-38 and a part of 1839 were marked as a period of remarkably dry weather, indeed of a disastrous drought.

Water had disappeared inmost places, and the Murrumbidgee and its affluent - the Queanbeyan River - had become a chain of ponds. Grass there was none, and the only green food procurable for our horses was the reeds from the ponds; and butter, milk, fat, and vegetables were unknown luxuries. At Yarrowlumla this severe distress existed, as it did in the whole district, and the settlers were at their wits' ends to know how to find food for their starving stock. 

It being rumored that the late Dr. Gibson, of Taranna, Goulburn, had at one time formed a station in the western portions of Monaroo, known as Nungar, Gurrangranbarra, Coolalomin, and the Long Plain, and had abandoned the same, Sir Terence (then Mr.) Murray was induced to make a trip in that direction to look for grass for his starving stock. With this view, he organised a party consisting of himself, myself an overseer (McNamara), a guide (Black Peter), and two blacks. We had six horses and a pack of hounds, the lastnamed formerly owned by Mr. Mowatt, of Narellan, and spoken of by Mr. Martin in his reminiscences, published in the Camden Times in 1883, and since in pamphlet form. We followed the direction as laid down by Mr. O'Sullivan in his paper of the 20th ultimo to the Sydney Morning Herald on The Mountains of the Murrumbidgee; but this was only then a marked tree line, so marked by the late Mr. Ward, of Paddy's River, Dr. Gibson's overseer. 

We reached the looked for runs without incident, and thought we had found a roost- desirable place upon which to 'squat; but; the sequel proved that in this we were mistaken, for as the winter approached the snow came with it, and we had to move the stock with this greatest expedition to the warmer place from which they had been taken, or to the highlands of the Upper Hume, above Mr. Garland's and Sir John Hay's stations. Dr. Gibson had made Coolalomin and the other plains a cattle station; but it was untenable even for them, for we afterwards learned that the men and cattle had to make a precipitate retreat to the low country to save themselves from being overwhelmed with the snow which was reported to have covered even the huts. I will here describe a night I spent at Coolalomin with Sir Terence Murray in May, 1842.

...Here I am again at Tarrowiumla after having escaped dangers by 'flood and field,' snow and are, and being nearly perished to death in the mountains by the most intensely cold weather I ever felt. We got as far as Coolalomin on our proposed journey to Manas, and there were caught in the snow. We lost our horses for a day, or we should have reached the low country again before it had begun to fall. To arrive at the place to which we intended to go we had to travel up a very long plain. The wind was driving the snow directly in our faces, and you may think under what adverse circumstances our progress was; so we came to the 'right about' and commenced our retreat in a smart canter, rendered harardous however, by the snow accumulating in balls under the horses' feet, and made the best of our way home, which we reached in safety. We spent Monday night at Coolalomin, and a most wretched one it was. We had scarcely made ourselves comfortable (?)  for the night - camping in the usual way — when the snow and rain commenced, therefore we sought the shelter of an empty hut ; but it-did not afford us the desired protection from the weather, as the snow drifted into it through the crevices of the slabs and bark. When I arose in the morning after having passed an almost sleepless night, I found a pool of water at my head, my comforter in which it was enveloped- covered with snow and frozen, and ditto the sides of my blanket. The winter is now too far advanced to pass over the mountains, and to sleep out at night, so we shall not for the present, try this track again, but go to Manas by Yass, €rundagad, Adelong, Nackie Nackie, Billipalap,and Bago. We proceeded on our journey towards the Hume, travelling down the Long Plain by Yarrangobilly to the Tumut (Duntudth]). Here our outward journey came to an end, for the horses were so completely jaded from the mountainous nature of the country that we were compelled to turn our faces towards home. Very little more riding brought our horses to a standstill and we reached the Murrumbidgee, carrying our saddles. The hounds had all disappeared, and neither they, nor some of the horses, were ever again recovered.

In these days when kangaroos are so numerous, it will astonish your readers to learn that in my wanderings through the Murrumbidgee Mountains from Queanbeyan to the Hume, during a period of many years, I never saw half a dozen.

Thus we could not procure food for the hounds, and we concluded they must have perished.

The native dog (Mirrigang) was to be seen at every turn, and he enlivened the otherwise silence of the night, by his melancholy howl. Woe betide the flock of sheep a shepherd may have. Just, for 30 or 40 at least would be bitten by him, and so severely, that few ever recovered from the effects. 

How different was Mr. O'Sullivan's journey in 1891 to mine of 1839, and what a change must have taken place since then. We drove along a well-defined road and found the comforts and conveniences of civilisation wherever he went. I had to face 'howling wilderness' and camp out with the usual luxuries of beef, damper, and tea, a blanket for my covering, a saddle for my pillow, and the canopy of heaven for a roof.

The valley off the Coodradigbee, at the foot of the Berindabella Mountain, was not considered a good run in my lime. It would not fatten sheep and the 'licking' places' were fatal to-cattle. In fact, it was abandoned as being unfit for stock. In appearance it is as lovely a spot as can be imagined - a valley formed by the steepest of mountains, with a river meandering through it abounding ''with fish.' Its waters are the most pearly and pellucid, its sources being the plains of the mountains beyond, and flowing through limestone, sometimes caves and at others precipitous rocks. 

In the early forties Sir Terence Murray's drays found their way from his estate, Yarrowlumla, in the Queanbeyan district, across the Murrumbidgee, the Cotter, over the mountains to the Coodradigbee, up that valley to the Wombat ground, down the Long Plain to Yarrangobilly; thence down through Murray's Gates, as described in Geoffrey Hamblin, into Lobb's Hole at the junction of the Little River with the Tumut; up that formidable mountain on the opposite side to Tumberumba; thence through Manas, and, if my memory does not deceive me, down to Jingelloe, on the Hume. 

This was a feat of difficulty that would deter the bullock drivers of the present day from attempting; and those who know the route may perhaps indulge in a smile of incredulity at my expense at what I have stated; the truth is the same, nevertheless. I believe one man in charge of the teams, Pat Naughton, is alive at 'Klensendorfftes,' near Canberry. 

I do not know Mr. O'Sullivan's Mount Coree by that name. I fancy it must be the peak of Pabral in the old maps, to which ascent is made from Condore Flat. It is to the right of the Berindabella-road. From its top may be seen, in clear weather, Limestone Plains, &c., to the east; and at your feet looking west the beautiful Coodradigbee, and mountain upon mountain as far as the eye can reach. Expeditions to Pabral were at times made from Yarrowlumla. Upon one occasion one of the party - a devout Catholic - was so awed by the grandeur of the scene that presented itself to his astonished gaze when he reached the top of the mountain, that he proposed we should fall down upon our knees and offer up a prayer of thanksgiving. One mountain in particular, with a rocky top, is the home of the boogong moth. It was the resort of the blacks in former times, who went to feast upon them. They were scraped into a sheet of bark, made into cakes and baked. There was a visitation in Sydney from this moth some 24 years ago. They filled the Rev. Mr. Clarke's church at St. Leonards. 

— Yours, &c,


Parliament House, Sydney, March 19, 1891.

( Evening News (Sydney, NSW : Monday 30 March 1891 )

Six Days on the Mountains of Cowley
(John Gale, Journalist, Newspaper Owner and Father of Canberra - Queanbeyan Observer, 1875)

About three years ago, news was brought in from Brindabella, the most westerly station in the high mountainous, country lying between the Upper Murrumbidgee and the watershed of the Tumut, that a stupendous waterfall had been discovered on a tributary of the Cottor by 'two diggers whilst prospecting for gold. 


I had forgotten to state, that some miles on the Urayarra side of Mount Coree, at the foot of one of whose spurs nestled the solitary homestead of the good man just named (John Blundell), we met him and his brother driving a few head of cattle towards the river....


When our party came in sight of Mount Coree and the glen where stands the homely dwelling of the Blundells, the rain had somewhat abated, and although our route lay up a mountain track leaving the Blundells' homestead somewhat to the left Miss McDonald, with true womanly thoughtfulness and sympathy, suggested that we should make a call on Mrs. Blundell, whose only opportunities of intercourse with her own sex were on those rare occasions when a lady chanced to pass that way. Of course wo offered no objection to the generous proposal, especially when we found that such events were as precious and rare as angels' visits. 


Popular Posts