Hobart's Mountain Of Dreams

The Age

Tuesday August 17, 1993

Andrew Darby

In the tradition of No Dams and No Mill, Tasmania now has the No Skyway debate. Andrew Darby reports on the row about plans for Hobart's Mount Wellington.

WELCOME aboard Skyway. In just 11 minutes you could be carried to the summit of Australia's most spectacular capital city backdrop. First, though, we must traverse a local hazard: a sharply polarised political debate.

A cable car to the peak of Hobart's Mount Wellington; a ride over a favorite symbol of this island to a restaurant at its peak. What a timely test in the '90s for characteristically Tasmanian environmental politics, now a generation old.

``I recognise it's going to be a tough battle as far as committed greenies are concerned," says developer Tim Burbury. ``I think you have to stand up and be counted on this sort of thing.

The consortium behind the proposed Skyway project could hardly have chosen a more difficult place to try to get their scheme off the ground _ well off the ground. Hobart is said to have the greenest parliamentary seat in Australia: Denison _ for 10 years the federal parliamentary seat of the very voluble Michael Hodgman _ now held by federal Justice Minister Duncan Kerr. And in Denison, the greenest booth is at Fern Tree _ on Mount Wellington, proposed site for Skyway.

This is the state, remember, where the `No Dams' campaign began a dynasty followed by `No Mill', and `No Logging of National Estate', together with such lesser known fights as `No Silicon Smelter' and `No Wilderness Lodges'. The latest is: `Skyway. No Way.' In an equally traditional manner, Tasmania's Liberal Government _ its electoral nerves sensitised by a continuing record 12.8per cent jobless rate _ is backing the Skyway project. ``You're talking about Tasmania's last real chance to get a major capital development," says state Tourism Minister Peter Hodgman (younger brother of Michael, now a humble _ but no less voluble _ State Government backbencher) with a touch of desperation. ``This is our last-ditch opportunity. If we can't get something like this up, developers are going to desert the state.

IT WAS Unghanyahletta or Pooranetteri, then Montain du Plateau, Skiddaw and Table Mountain before an admiring colonial Governor Sorell named it after Wellington, the British vanquisher of Napoleon. It lifts the eyes 1270 metres above the Derwent estuary. No other Australian capital has such a presence. It is the single most dominant feature of Hobart life.

Each day, thousands of Hobartians look out their windows and up to see what the mountain is doing. They do it to choose the day's clothes, and to take in whatever it is offering to their spirit. Some delight in a snow cap. Others fear the giant.

``My childhood was overshadowed by a brutal, bad-tempered eminence," wrote the Oxford academic and author Peter Conrad in his 1988 book, `Down Home: Revisiting Tasmania' (Chatto and Windus, London). ``It looms suddenly and grimaces; squeezes the settlement denying its toehold ... It terminates every view and invigilates every back yard.

Nearby in Hobart's northern suburbs, the family of Conrad's school friend, artist Geoff Dyer, was also looking out the window.``What's grandma doing today?" was the familiar question in the Dyer household. Clouded in, she had her woollies on. Bare and stark against a summer blue sky, it was a sign of a hot day.

ABOUT 175million years ago, the rock of Mount Wellington began to form as molten dolerite burning at 1000 degrees into deep mudstone layers.

``It is a very resistant block of intrusive rock that came in as a flat line sheet," says University of Tasmania geologist Ron Berry.

About 50million years ago the Derwent valley fell down and faulting uplifted the mountain. It weathered slowly, giving up streams of boulder scree now creeping down its sides. Some dolerite cooled and cracked into pentagonal columns, and was exposed near the peak. Not only does the formation known as the Organ Pipes vault upward, walkers say that in a high wind it wails.

A cloak of eucalypt forest, pleated by creeks and pocketed with ferns, surrounds the mountain, rising into a wind-twisted snow gum mantle below the bare rock peak. Tasmania's spidery endemic waratah dots some higher slopes, and on the summit small helichrysum and snow daisy flowers shelter between boulders. Nowhere else in Australia does alpine flora grow so close to the sea.

And it is cold. On the pinnacle, snow can fall twice in January, and perhaps eight times in July. The Bureau of Meteorology says in those two months it is foggy more than a third of the time. For 120 days a year, the wind is stronger than 22 knots.

The pinnacle has an average maximum of 7.3 degrees celsius, and minimum of 1.1. Its highest known temperature was 28.3 degrees in February 1967, when the mountain burned. Some Tasmanians, still with dread in their voices, remember looking up to the summit and seeing great clouds of bushfire flame pouring over it.

Mount Wellington's Aboriginal history is little known. The first European to climb it was George Bass on Christmas Day, 1798. We do not know for certain if he reached the top; it was cloudy at the time. The city below is now 190 years old. For all of that time, Hobartians have wandered the foothills and mountain trails.

Early last century the diarist Reverend Bobby Knopwood recorded proudly that he ``shot a white hork" there. Skyway developer Tim Burbury has walked the mountain end to end. A traditional Hobart climbers' prank is to raid suburban gardens for little gnomes, then take them up to grin at other surprised climbers on ledges of the Organ Pipes. Today, homeless young people sometimes use its rock shelters and huts for what can only be a bone-chilling night.

``IT IS EXTRAORDINARILY fortunate that so readily in Hobart we can go out the back door and find ourselves in a wild domain," the national Greens leader, Dr Bob Brown, recently told an approving audience at a public meeting against Skyway. ``We can climb up to the alpine moors, close to the heavens, and look beyond to the world heritage area which represents our real hopes for an economic future.

Indeed, Mount Wellington is Hobart's immediate connection with the wilderness behind. If one were to walk a line along ridges due west from the pinnacle, one might cross only a couple of rough vehicle tracks before reaching the edge of the South West Tasmania Wilderness World Heritage Area, 40kilometres away.

But the mountain has always meant opportunity for some. The Cascade brewery has taken its water from the slopes for more than a century, and the city supply is partly collected in pipelines on the southern side. During the Great Depression, when the Government was seeking work for unemployed men, the Labor Premier Albert Ogilvie ordered the construction of the first road to the summit. Built by hand on a line like a surgical slice across the mountain's belly, it has the enduring appellation: `Ogilvie's Scar'.

Over the years, telecommunications towers have clustered at the top, where they stab unruly spikes through the skyline. A squat, stone blockhouse viewing shelter was also forced on to the peak in 1988. And at least four times since 1903 people have tried and failed to build a cable-car to the summit.

The last attempt was made in 1987, when Tim Burbury's Trinity Projects released plans for a hotel to be serviced by cable-car. ``It became a public issue before we could do detailed planning," he says. ``We decided to drop it.

The Government will have to take heed of local sentiment. In addition to having fans among conservationists, the mountain has had authoritative planning assessments commissioned by the Government itself: the latest, in 1991, found opinion strongly against developments like Skyway.

As he walks out the front door of his home in Hobart's Battery Point in the morning and looks up to see what the mountain is doing, Premier Groom will certainly ponder the views of the voters of the state seat of Denison.

And yet, Skyway backers argue, Cape Town has a cable-car. So does Tromso in Norway; Queenstown in New Zealand; and Albuquerque in New Mexico. Skyway was launched a few months ago with a Government press conference, artists' impressions, and Peter Hodgman hyperbole. Hodgman claimed that the cable car would be a tourism spectacular rated alongside Uluru or the Great Barrier Reef. The Premier, Ray Groom, said it would rival the Sydney Opera House.

Skyway's consortium of Trinity Projects, Swiss aerial tramway builder Von Roll, and the national construction company Leighton Contractors is planning a $31million, three-part development. The aerial tramway would rise from a lower terminal on a hill beside Cascade Brewery to a summit terminal just above the Organ Pipes, standing 26 metres high and containing restaurants and viewing decks. Over the back of the peak, one kilometre away, a small ski-field would be built.

OPPONENTS have taken on all three parts of the project. The cable-car would pass near some houses in the bush foothills, leaving people who sought seclusion there ``rather like insects under a microscope", says resident Anne Wessing. Other opponents have complained the summit station would be a giant carbuncle, visible from most of the city. And the ski-slope's grooming would mean destruction of rare alpine habitat.

It has been claimed that 185,000 tourists would use Skyway each year.

``Let us not forget that every day 185,000 people look to that mountain and its natural beauty, and don't want it scarred by a cable car running to the very top," Bob Brown says. ``If people want a Skyway, then choose Qantas or Ansett and return to Melbourne or Manhattan where there is no nature, but there's plenty to do of the variety you're looking for.

But tourist operators and local people are convinced that a Skyway ride would draw people to the mountain, even at the proposed $16 an adult, $8 a child price. More importantly, Skyway's advocates such as the State Treasurer, Tony Rundle, call it the kind of ``sensible development" that would demonstrate that Tasmania is open for business. ``New projects like the cable-car create new jobs, and we don't need a lot of them to make a real difference," he said in last week's Budget speech.

Yesterday a bill was introduced into State Parliament laying the path for Skyway's approval. Much the same road was travelled in previous Tasmanian development debates, when unhelpful dissent was overridden.

Yes, says the Government, the process provides for public consultation. No, there will be no public appeal against decisions taken by a committee of State Government and the local council. Final decisions will be made by the Government that already backs it.

Tim Burbury is convinced that, given time, Skyway will win public support. The Tasmanian Conservation Trust, however, says that there is clear hostility, and opposition is hardening. Doubters query whether anyone will eventually come up with the $31million.

We can be certain of only one thing. Whatever the outcome, the mountain _ unlike an old growth forest or a dammed river _ will still be there.

© 1993 The Age

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