The bubbling, chortling song of the yellow-throated honeyeater drifted down from the stringybark gums as I stood at a special spot beneath Mount Wellington, trying to envision a similar sunny, hot day on February 11, 1836.
I often stand at the location at the top end of the Waterworks Reserve when I retrace the steps of another nature lover 177 years previously.
It’s no secret that Charles Darwin visited Hobart during the epic voyage of the Beagle, the nearly five-year journey that fuelled his ideas about evolution, but I tend to reveal the significance of this location only at the end of the bird walks I occasionally lead in the reserve. The information on Darwin for those who don’t already know it is a handy bit of knowledge to impart if the birds have been in short supply, or I have run out of birding anecdotes.
I have a few stories about Darwin of my own, particularly a gem on how he dumped many of the rocks and fossils he collected after his climb up the mountain because they were too heavy to carry. Along what used to be the Huon packhorse trail is a treasure trove of rocks that once belonged to Darwin, which cries out to be found.
In the past I have mainly stood on the spot alone to contemplate the sights and sounds Darwin would have experienced. Certainly the birdsong would have been the same – including the songs of the yellowthroats and yellow wattlebirds which are unique sounds to Tasmania although Darwin might not have known this at the time. The mountain itself would not have changed in all those years, except for the concrete communications tower and visitor viewing centre at its summit. The “noble forest” that Darwin described in his journal would no doubt have looked as it does today, although most of the meandering trail through the lower WaterworksValley leading to the mountain has been lost under the glass and concrete of suburbia.
I always try to stand on the remnants of the Huon packhorse trail on or around the anniversary of Darwin’s visit and this summer I discovered that the Hobart City Council had erected an information panel to mark the spot.
As the display reveals, Darwin described Mount Wellington as “the most conspicuous feature in this neighbourhood”.
Darwin had as great an interest in geology as biology and of the rocks he studied in the Waterworks Valley, he commented “there is such a confusion of strata”.
Darwin was confused because the area lies within the central portion of a huge fault zone where the rocks are much disrupted
Darwin sampled fossils (mostly snails and shellfish) along the Sandy Bay Rivulet beneath Turnip Fields in a rock series Permian in age (about 280 million years old) but its fragmented structure would have been difficult to read to the Victorian geologist’s eye. He would have also seen the quarries in the area which comprise Triassic sandstone (about 240 million years), a stone used in local buildings and later to build the infrastructure of the Waterworks.
The age of the rocks unpinning the Hobart area put the mere 177 years since Darwin’s visit into a different sort of perspective. If Darwin could return to Hobartin the 21st century he would see that man’s capacity to change the landscape is a lot faster than the slow hand of nature.
The fledgling city of Hobart and its immediate environment below the mountain that Darwin saw might have been transformed largely beyond recognition but we still have the wildlife that he observed. Today he would still recognise the call of the yellowthroat, the wattlebird and, further up the mountain, the trumpeting of the Tasmanian currawong.