Mak­ing tracks

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - JOSEPHINE ROWE

To live in Ho­bart is to live in def­er­ence to The Moun­tain, as it’s known col­lo­qui­ally in both English and the palawa kani com­pos­ite lan­guage of In­dige­nous Tas­ma­ni­ans. An iconic Jon Kudelka car­toon an­i­mises ku­nanyi/Mt Welling­ton as watch­ful mon­ster, the do­lerite col­umns known as the Or­gan Pipes re­sem­bling a bare-toothed grin, which might ap­pear as men­ac­ing or benev­o­lent, de­pend­ing on the ever capri­cious weather.

The Or­gan Pipes Track tra­verses the un­der­lip of this toothy es­carp­ment. Con­structed in 1931 as a De­pres­sion-era re­lief scheme, it drew 400 men from the ranks of the un­em­ployed: “skilled bush­men and navvies, ar­ti­sans, clerks and drap­ers’ as­sis­tants” but “only men with fam­i­lies”, re­ported the Mer­cury at the time. At present, a much smaller com­ple­ment of di­versely ex­pe­ri­enced track builders is en­gaged in restor­ing it to prime walk­a­bil­ity.

“All ge­ol­ogy’s in liq­uid form.” Track management su­per­vi­sor Jeram Cow­ley in­di­cates where boul­ders have mi­grated in their course down the moun­tain­side over the past nine decades, oblit­er­at­ing sec­tions of the her­itage track. It’s a slow-mov­ing beast, agrees Ho­bart City Coun­cil’s open space group man­ager Rob Mather. The more prob­lem­atic stretches of track evince the 1930s predilec­tion for dy­na­mit­ing the way forth, when ad­e­quate pub­lic risk mit­i­ga­tion was to place a warn­ing in the lo­cal pa­per: “No ob­jec­tion will be taken to [vis­i­tors’] pres­ence along the track, pro­vided they do not get too close to the work­men en­gaged in blast­ing op­er­a­tions.”

Modern restora­tion ef­forts favour a lighter touch. For the bet­ter part of this morn­ing a he­li­copter air­lifts spec­i­fied gravel and rock to points along the track, the nearto-tonne loads swing­ing pen­du­lously from the end of the cargo hook. Each load saves dozens of runs with a power bar­row, as well as the wear caused by the bar­row’s cater­pil­lar tracks.

The he­li­copter’s right-side doors have been re­moved so as to in­crease vis­i­bil­ity dur­ing the lifts, and the rush of early-morn­ing winds through the ex­posed cock­pit makes for brac­ing pas­sage. Not that pi­lot Paul Sut­ton, who spends part of each year fer­ry­ing sci­en­tists around Antarc­tica, seems much fazed.

Later, walk­ing the track, Mather and Cow­ley ad­mire the pre­ci­sion of Sut­ton’s drops: huge white bags of stuff de­posited along the nar­row path with hardly a branch knocked from the trees over­head.

“Not a bad view from the tea­room, is it?” Mather asks, com­ing upon a task force of track builders on morn­ing break – brief respite from the seem­ingly Sisyphean task of shift­ing 2- to 3-tonne boul­ders in steep scree. It has turned into a stag­ger­ingly tem­per­ate day for early April, and in the rich mid­day light the view ex­tends to the Tas­man Sea. Mather and bush­land as­sets of­fi­cer Alis­ter Clark take the op­por­tu­nity to ap­praise the ef­forts of the Tas­ma­nia Fire Ser­vice and the Bush­land and Re­serves Unit, as smoke from con­cur­rent planned burns rises from far be­low in Glenorchy and Le­nah Val­ley. “That one’s smok­ing re­ally well.”

Col­lec­tively, the crew’s ex­pe­ri­ence ranges from the Over­land and Three Capes tracks in their home state to the moun­tain trails of Cyprus. The tools to hand are sur­pris­ingly low-tech. Work­ers are armed with lit­tle more than steel ca­bles, hand winches and iron bars, and a kind of fire rake, which looks as though it might serve a side pur­pose in fab­ri­cat­ing bun­yip foot­prints. “You can tell it was de­vel­oped by bike-trail builders,” Cow­ley points out. “It has a built-in bot­tle opener.”

Across the boul­der fields, the chal­lenge is to es­tab­lish a solid path over what Clark deems to be a series of voids: in­nocu­ous-look­ing crevices that turn out to be un­fath­omable chasms, swal­low­ing what­ever ma­te­rial is poured in. “You can keep spilling gravel in, try­ing to get to a solid base, but it doesn’t ex­ist. There’re gaps that just go down and go down and go down.”

Se­ri­ous pains are taken to be as non-in­va­sive as pos­si­ble, the work re­al­is­ing the care and pre­cau­tion out­lined in the sev­eral dozen pages of the restora­tion pro­posal: his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences and news clip­pings; hand-drawn scale maps and di­a­grams; satel­lite im­ages; break­downs of ideal gravel com­po­si­tions and suit­able sources; cross-sec­tions of stone work and cours­ing, col­lapsed and hy­po­thet­i­cally re­con­structed; paving and pitch­ing di­a­grams show­ing how grade might be won with­out use of prom­i­nent steps; a brief­ing on what is ir­re­sistibly ti­tled ‘Pod­zols and Peats’; pro­posed trans­plant­ing of mosses (“Lichen en­crusted boul­ders to re­main in situ”); and sym­pa­thetic de­sign con­straints for­bid­ding syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als or those for­eign to the im­me­di­ate area, such as con­crete, treated pine, plas­tic, alu­minium and im­ported gravel.

Among the ranks is for­mer for­est block­ader turned track builder Dave Bretz, who re­cently co-founded the com­pany Track Work So­lu­tions. “I wanted to go with ‘Trail Blaz­ers’, but some peo­ple reck­oned it sounded a bit wacky. Plus, y’know, the association with bush­fires. We thought we should present as nor­mal, at least to start with. We’re al­ways off bush, so it’s good to do some ur­ban stuff.”

Clark and Mather lose it laugh­ing at the term “ur­ban” – the track lies nearly 1300 me­tres above sea level. Bretz ges­tures to­wards the sprawl of Ho­bart, tucked around the moun­tain’s feet. “Come on, you can smell the lat­tes from here.”

Mather of­fers to put him on the other, wilder, side of the moun­tain, where the view is sim­ply of more moun­tains and one might be­lieve them­selves any­where in Tas­ma­nia.

Bretz elab­o­rates. “I’m think­ing more like a chop­per ride to work and then see you in nine days.”

The no­tion of “wild” is of course highly sub­jec­tive. To bring wild within easy col­lec­tive reach is to un-wild it, mak­ing it some­thing of a touris­tic co­nun­drum: wild­ness wears away through heavy vis­i­ta­tion. It’s a del­i­cate mat­ter of com­pro­mise.

The name Mick Hawkins crops up anec­do­tally through­out the morn­ing. Even in ab­sen­tia – or per­haps ow­ing to it – he seems a some­what fa­bled fig­ure, this re­tired school-teacher and avid walker who has been clam­ber­ing about the moun­tain since the 1950s. In June 2015, Hawkins in­vited a con­tin­gent that in­cluded the Tas­ma­nian gov­er­nor, the di­rec­tor of parks, Ho­bart’s lord mayor and sev­eral of her al­der­men for a walk along the her­itage track to ar­gue the case for its restora­tion.

“Shorts and a blue T-shirt,” Hawkins texts from out­side a West Ho­bart cafe the fol­low­ing af­ter­noon, though his de­meanour – legs stretched out, hands be­hind head, face turned to sky – makes the ID note un­nec­es­sary.

Hawkins has traipsed across ev­ery con­ti­nent, with the ex­cep­tion of Antarc­tica. “Noth­ing beats that,” he says of the Or­gan Pipes. “Tucked in under there, you’re shel­tered, you’re im­mersed, and the view is just un­sur­passed.

“In fact, when the restora­tion’s fin­ished, I think it should be branded as the great­est short walk in the world. For most peo­ple, the only walk they think about is to go from the bot­tom to the top.”

For the past cen­tury or so, there has been peren­nial noise about a pro­posed ca­ble car that would ex­pe­dite that jour­ney from bot­tom to top: from the Cas­cade Brew­ery – or in some pro­pos­als, all the way from the wharf, direct from cruise ships – to the pin­na­cle. De­bates as to en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as well as com­mer­cial vi­a­bil­ity have in­creased in vol­ume in re­cent weeks, fol­low­ing the state gov­ern­ment’s an­nounce­ment of the forcible ac­qui­si­tion of coun­cil land for the pro­posed ca­ble­way.

The land re­lease seems dra­mat­i­cally out of step with the metic­u­lous sym­pa­thetic mea­sures taken in the Or­gan Pipes track restora­tion: the at­ten­tion to de­tail in scat­ter­ing hand­fuls of saved top­soil and leaf lit­ter over fin­ished track, and the re­in­state­ment of moss-furred rocks to en­sure that lit­tle dis­en­gages a walker from the nat­u­ral world.

The measure of good work­man­ship here, Mather sug­gests, is its in­vis­i­bil­ity. “In the end, you’re re­ally hop­ing for all the work to just blend in, dis­ap­pear into the land­scape.”

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