I was the man on the mountain, standing on a rocky outcrop as the snows of a blizzard swirled around me. Seduced as I often am by the mountain’s beauty, I had driven to the Springs for a walk to Sphinx Rock. The sun had shone strong and hard on the Organ Pipes when I set out and, as so often happens, the weather changed during the 20-minute drive from Hobart to the Springs.
First cloud, then freezing rain and within minutes a raging blizzard. By this time I had reached Sphinx Rock, without a rain or snow-poof coat but I wasn’t complaining.
I just stood there – not too close to the precipice because the wind was at my back – and watched the snow rolling in waves before me, blotting out the distant city and casting the nearer eucalypts in dark outlines. The dead ones, killed during Black Tuesday bushfires of 1967, stood stark and tall, like sinister stickmen.
I was the man on the mountain for an hour or so, defying the snow, as I so often defy the mist and rain. If I see cloud sitting on the pinnacle, foaming down the sides of the peak like a poorly-poured Cascade pale ale flows down the sides of a glass, I go anyway, and take my chances.
The stark dead trees – ghosts lingering from the fires – might appear malevolent but they don’t speak for the mountain. The mountain is generally friendly and benign, its harshest voice the notes spoken by black currawongs.
I love this place and have found myself, after giving up full employment, drawn to it on virtually a daily basis. I was drawn to it, too, before I retired but I then had to resist the urge to drop everything and go and explore its gullies and trails. The job and my mortgage came first.
I was the man on the mountain, in a blizzard that painted out the city far down below. To my left the bulk of the mountain resting atop the Organ Pipes was traced in a charcoal outline. The cold eventually drove me to my car, and drove me home, but in my warm study the mountain loomed again. When I logged into my computer and called up the Tasmaniantimes website, there was a picture of me, or a mountain man who resembled me, standing atop a rocky outcrop, looking to the far horizon. Only the season was different, the sky coloured in soothing pastel shades – yellow, ochre and purple – of a summer evening after the sun has set. The picture, in the travel poster style of the 1930s, announced a campaign to re-affirm the natural values of Mount Wellington, called “Respect the mountain”.
I love the mountain, it’s become a friend and I have tried to give it a name of my own. Anthropomorphism holds its dangers for those who write of nature, and indeed mountains, but I find it irresistible. I see birds and animals, even fish, as people and I feel their emotions as my own. I’ve dubbed a raven “Roger” and a heron “Henry. The official name of Mount Wellington always seems so formal for such a stately, imposing hulk of beauty, and the Aboriginal names given for it, Unghbanyahletta, Poorawetter or more recently Kawanya, somehow lack poetry to ears that seek the languages of ancient Europe, although perhaps in the long-lost, obliterated Tasmanian Aboriginal tongue these names call to even deeper roots.
We talk of “mother nature” and so perhaps we should refer to “mother mountain”. It is she who lays a protective cloak over Hobart, or should I say puts up a protective barrier that shields the city from the worst of the rain – and snow-laden storms – blowing in from the Southern Ocean and the south-western highlands.
The towering, 1,271-metre mountain calls to me and I answer. I can’t resist her beauty and since the day I first visited Hobart, 16 years ago now, she has held me in her spell. At first I stayed with my mother-in-law on the Eastern Shore and I would go out onto her deck at night and watch the cars climbing and descending the Pinnacle Road in the far distance, their lights cutting the night sky with flickering shafts of yellow light.
When I came to live permanently in Hobart with my family, we lived closer to the mountain, on the mountain-side of the Derwent and I could see her silent beauty in more detail. I say silent because in those days, before I actually visited the mountain, she lay brooding in the distance. Close-up I discovered she came alive with all her components, the mountain was not a single entity but a living form, as vibrant and vital and complex as a coral reef.
She has a voice that is carried not only by the winds that blow through the gums and wattles clothing the lower part of her body, or across her bare breast of rounded dolerite near her summit, but by the chattering songs of the birds that attend her, like ladies in waiting.
That voice, in fact, extends to all those that draw sustenance from her, in material or spiritual forms. We all speak for the mountain, or those at least who love her.
Returning from Sphinx Rock, and seeing “me” in that poster, the man on the mountain, I was heartened that others had banded together to speak for her.
There are other voices out there, however; conflicting voices. There are not only those who want to retain and preserve the mountain’s natural beauty, but those who want developments of various kinds on her slopes, some with the noble aim of making her beauty more accessible, others with profit in mind.
Unlike the majority of cities across the globe, Hobart comprises two worlds, those of man and those of nature.
These worlds collide not just at the city’s suburban fringe, at South and West Hobart, or at LenahValley further north, but virtually on every street within the city and without.
We cannot turn our heads without seeing the mountain standing over us, and our eyes are drawn to it irresistibly. It not only tells us there is a wild, untamed world out there beyond the safety and security of the city, our cocoon of glass, brick and concrete, but the peak is also used to determine what the weather will be on any given day.
Cloud and mist signals rain, snow signals that Hobart’s citizens will need an extra jumper, or to put on a winter coat when they venture outside, even at the start of summer.
“There’s snow on the mountain,” is a Hobart mantra, and when yellow-tailed black cockatoos are seen in the city we look to see what Mount Wellington holds because every Hobartian will tell you that the sight of black cockies in town means bad weather to come. It’s Hobart’s take on the farmer’s saying inEurope, “red at dawn, shepherds warn”.
I so longed to be the man on the mountain when I worked in journalism full-time, as a refuge from all the strain and pressures that went with the job. On my way to work I’d look up at the peak from Macquarie Street in South Hobart and want to be up there, in rain or snow.
Now retired, I can go when I want to and on many a day I have looked down on the city morning and afternoon and seen all the strain and pressure from afar, manifesting itself in the busy traffic on the distant streets, the neon signs that I can read through my binoculars and the blinking of traffic lights. From my eyrie on Sphinx Rock, I see green Metro buses directly below me, winding along Strickland Avenue and the Huon Road, slowly towards town, as though reluctant to go there.
I’ve become so moved by the mountain that I have started to compile a diary, to record not so much what happens to her but happens to me in her embrace. Part bar-room philosophy, part nature notes, the diary has forced me to look closely at myself and my place in a new-found environment, a habitat removed from my usual one in the suburbs. I’m part of a greater whole, I now have a connection with Hobart that’s bigger than the city itself and the people who live there. My diary records sharing a track with a dusky antechinus and the banks of a montain stream with a duck-billed platypus. I’ve whistled the tune of the Tasmanian thornbill, the pink robin and the scrubtit.
“Because it’s there,” were the famous words spoken by legendary mountaineer George Mallory in 1924 when he was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, and I often think of them when I sit on Sphinx Rock and look down on the busy city.
The words have a resonance today in a slightly different context. I ask “Why don’t we leave Mount Wellington as it is, simply because it’s there in its largely natural state”.
The mountain in the raw provides a contrast to the city, and this is one of the qualities that makes Hobart so different from other cities.
Strangely, Mount Wellington stands apart but at the same time is linked to Hobart, is part of its vital fabric.
Development, especially of a cable car, would somehow create a bridge in more than a metaphorical sense between mountain and city and they would somehow become one. The notion of wildness would be lost. A cable car and possibly other developments like a five-star hotel at the summit would somehow serve to tame the mountain and take away its wildness. The existing radio tower is enough to remind us of the hand of man, and the hand of “progress”.
Beware the dangers of anthropomorphism, as I have said, and the dangers of giving the mountain a human character, a Christian name, a gender and voice. The man on the mountain falls into the trap and, worse, makes conversation with the peak on gusty mornings, shouting above the wind. He asks the mountain what does she think, does she really want a cable car climbing across her face? The man on the mountain has done this before in another context, talking to strong-billed honeyeaters and asking them if they mind their forests being cleared and pulped, has anyone asked them for their opinions or wanted to hear their voice?
And now the man on the mountain asks “mother mountain” whether she wants development, whether she is open for the human notion of business, and the wind moaning through the scree and eucalypt canopy answers “No”.