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.”