Bus number 448 sits at is starting point in Hobart, purring, awaiting with door open to take passengers on a magical, mystery tour. Slightly battered and worn, it’s green and cream livery showing Metro wear and tear, the bus and the route it takes is an unlikely metaphor for that place where the natural and the human worlds meet.
The bus on route 448 climbs out of Hobart on the hour, winding its way south-west to the base of kunanyi/Mount Wellington. It follows the contours of the mountain’s foothills and at the same time traverses its ecological and climatic zones. The chugging, throbbing of diesel engine, the caw of raven; mankind and nature come together in time and place.
The time is 10.20am and the place is Franklin Square, at the start of the 27-minute journey to Fern Tree, last reach of the human tentacles of suburbia before Mother Nature takes over.
In that short space of time, however, and over a distance covering a mere 13 kilometres all will be revealed. The stark outline of the Metro map, inking the 448 route in red, cannot possibly reveal what is in store for the observant and curious bus passenger. Birds and botany rule on route 448. And geology.
The bus will climb through and across the strata of rock underpinning the city and the mountain.
As soon as the folding doors of the bus snap shut, the passengers prepare for their adventure of both human and natural history. Franklin Square is just across the street from the site of the first basic settlement of Hobart, a sea of army tents on the north side of a dirt track that would become the north-south Macquarie Street. The white and blue gums, the peppermints and silver wattles have long gone – along with swift parrots – but other previous inhabitants remain among the exotic oaks and elms.
In winter, yellow-tailed black cockatoos prise open the fissures in the bark of the European trees in a search for wood-boring insects, and forest ravens and silver gulls look for pickings among the debris and detritus left after office workers have gathered in the park for lunch. And with luck, a peregrine falcon might fly overhead, leaving a roost on a city high-rise building for a hunting ground over the Derwent, or on the mountain.
A mountain-bound peregrine, and for that matter a black cockatoo, will follow the route of the 448, pushing south on the climb along Davey Street before negotiating the southern side of the valley cut by the Hobart Rivulet, past Turnip Fields and squeezing through a gap in the hills framed by Knocklofty to the north.
The remnant blue gums in the grounds of the Anglesea Barracks (which still attract swift parrots in spring) along Davey Street and the exotic vegetation of the gardens of South Hobart retreat as rapidly as the brick and glass of suburbia. And birds that make the suburbs their home like new holland honeyeaters and brush wattlebirds fall silent as the birds of wilder country, and the mountain, take over. Grey currawongs chant as the 448 continues its journey, past the old bus turning circle at the start of the Huon Road which was once the end of a shorter route.
This is country the first Tasmanians, the Mouheneenner people, and first settlers knew. Viewed from the windows of the bus, it has changed little since. The gum species indicate different soils, and difference in temperature and rainfall and the birds do the same to mark out wet and dry sclerophyll, pink robin for wet country, dusky robin for dry.
Rock and soil making up the geologic foundations of the mountain are revealed by the peppermints, three species as obvious as the strata of differing rock.
On the upper side of the Huon Road, just past bus stop 19, black peppermints form a canopy of narrow, finger-like leaves. The black peppermints grow on sandstone, and at the roadside sedimentary rock glows golden. Unlike other eucalypts, the bark is not flaky in colours of yellow and orange, but rough and rutted and dark. It holds the colour and texture of an elephant’s hide. Yellow wattlebirds, endemic to Tasmania, frolic in its branches.
Nature lovers might merely take the 448 to gain access to the mountain and, indeed, it sounds eccentric to view the bus as an end in itself, but my own interest in natural history does not draw lines between the urban, peri-urban and suburban. I watch nature at work wherever and whenever I can find it.
I was heartened to discover when I came to live in Hobart that a group of residents of South Hobart also recognised the value of an environment shaped by suburbia. And a publication they produced, South Hobart’s Bushland Booklet, plugged neatly into my philosophy. It used the bus route as a guide, even giving the specific bus stop, the 19, where a tree of interest could be seen. The booklet, written by the Huon Road and Jubilee Road Bushcare Groups, is the inspiration for my Route 448 Wildlife Tour. The bus trip really is magical, and mystical if the imagination is allowed to penetrate the foliage seen from the roadside and dwell on what lies within if not actually seen from the Scania bus itself.
The foothills feature sedimentary sandstones and mudstones laid down during the Permian Period (230-280 million years ago). Further towards the mountain these are overlaid by sandstones rich in quartz formed during the Triassic (180-230 million years ago). Finally, molten igneous rock from the Jurassic Period 170 million years ago tops the summit, the dolerite Organ Pipes the standout feature all along route 448.
After the black peppermint, the next stop introduces silver peppermint. These eucalypts favour a foundation of mudstone and you can see the fragile rock, crumbling and soft, like an apple crumble desert, at the roadside edge. Yellow-throated honeyeaters, another endemic species, flit through bough and branches holding thin and shiny tin-foil leaves. The yellow bark is heavily streaked in maroon.
Then white peppermints, more restrained than their silver cousins with muted yellow bark and blue-green leaves, where the Huon Road forms a junction with the lane to Chimney Pot Hill. A granite, pillbox bus shelter – dotted with ivory-coloured lichen – marks the stop on the other side of the road.
The white peppermints to the east are a distraction. The 448 route has left dry woodland and an under-storey of golden rosemary and entered clinging forest of wet sclerophyll. The road twists and turns and then the bus turns back on itself on the u-bend where it crosses the upper reaches of the Sandy Bay Rivulet.
Stringybarks arch over the road, and the straggly, untidy leaves of blanket-leaf forms an understorey, laying claim to the thin grass verge.
In spring the blanket-leaf has clusters of pale yellow flowers. As summer arrives, Christmas bush dots the tight green coat of lush vegetation with buttons of white flowers.
And the birds have changed. Although Tasmanian woodland and forest species can generally be found in both wet and dry forest, some do have preferences.
With windows open on the bus, the passenger might just hear the distinctive “wop, wop” at the end of a loud, far-carrying song that distinguishes the endemic Tasmanian thornbill from the brown thornbill, also found on the mainland. The Tasmanian species prefers higher, wetter ground than a cousin more at home in drier country.
Above the Sandy Bay Rivulet bridge, the signature tune of the Tasmanian high country rings out. The trumpet song of the black currawong replaces the “clinking” call of grey currawong of the drier areas closer to Hobart. Not surprisingly the grey currawong is also called the “clinking currawong” in Tasmania. The black currawong sometimes goes by the name of mountain currawong, or black jay.
The wet forest is merely an introduction to the rainforest to be discovered beyond the bus’s destination at Fern Tree.
Although true rainforest is usually associated with Tasmania’s wild west, a not so hard climb will take the passenger liberated from the confines of the bus to high-rainfall species like myrtle and sassafras along the Pipeline Track going south, or to strands of the tallest flowering plant on the planet, swamp gums, along trails leading to the Shoobridge Track going north.
The outward bus journey has offered spectacular views of the mountain, especially if it has been undertaken in morning sunshine when the mountain’s dolerite Organ Pipes are dissected in light and shade by a rising sun. The return journey is equally spectacular, as the bus follows the contours of the mountain’s foothills and glides towards the River Derwent, as if carving its own route in competition with the Sandy Bay and Hobart Rivulets to the north and south of it. The contoured route sticks to higher terrain.
Although migrating birds, and to a degree mammals moving from one location to another, might follow the course of the rivulets, some bird species can be seen from the 448 bus taking the same route.
Twice a year, in spring and then autumn, the crescent honeyeaters and eastern spinebills move between breeding grounds on kunanyi/Mount Wellington’s higher slopes to a winter range nearer the coast.
On the drier slopes in spring spinebills can be seen dashing between the pendulous bell flowers of common heath on the sandy embankments just north of South Hobart. Crescent honeyeaters feed a little higher, in the canopies of the peppermints. In autumn, the direction is reversed, as surely as the return journey of the bus. The spinebills and honeyeaters descend together, their calls in duet. The harsh, staccato of the honeyeaters as they make their “eg-ypt, eg-ypt” contact call melds with the high-paced, descending twitter of the spinebills.
Journey’s end, not at Franklin Square but on Macquarie Street and a welcome from domestic pigeons and starlings. Back to reality, the sharp end of man’s intrusion into the natural world. Mother Nature hangs in and hangs on, however. Just over the road in Franklin Square a green rosella sails forth, and another bus on the 448 route is about to depart.
Tasmanian Field Naturalists Magazine, 2017