• First published 2012-05-31 04:47 PM. Re-published today as push for a cable-car grows (Mercury: Pick a design for summit; Comments are interesting)
(Adapted from a speech by the author at the Tasmanian Conservation Trust’s ‘We Love Mt Wellington – Naturally’ meeting on Tuesday 22 May 2012)
People might be able to remember the weather around Hobart on a weekend early in May.
An intense cold front moved across the state on the Friday, bringing fierce winds, heavy rain, and snow down to 700 metres. On Saturday it was sleeting in South Hobart and Dynnyrne.
For three days, the mountain was enveloped in a thick cloak of fast-moving cloud that every now and then permitted tantalising glimpses of snow-plastered trees. The imagination conjured images of a snowy summit skyline. Then on Monday, the weather cleared up. Under a blue sky, the mountain looked resplendent – with not a skerrick of snow to be seen.
What’s unusual about this? Absolutely nothing.
It’s normal for Mt Wellington to receive a big dump of snow that all melts within a day or two.
But to listen to some advocates of development on the mountain, you’d believe that winter snow is a permanent mountain feature, and that it’s only the absence of a cable car that prevents us from being effortlessly whisked up into a white wonderland, where big fluffy flakes come drifting vertically down, with metre-deep snow the perfect consistency for making snow balls, and views across alpine expanses to distant snow-covered peaks.
Indeed, at the pro-development ‘Summit on the Summit’ meeting in Lenah Valley in April, a tourism-industry representative said that a cable car could lift Hobart’s winter tourism by making the ‘Tasmanian alpine experience’ accessible to visitors.
Such commentators appear to be blissfully ignorant of the realities of the ‘Tasmanian alpine experience’ – flecks of snow being driven horizontally into your face by high-velocity winds; 20-metre visibility; views of dementedly thrashing scrub – and then suddenly it’s raining and the snow’s being washed away.
Sure, there are winters when Mt Wellington experiences heavy snowfalls followed by sunny weather, creating the classic ‘wedding cake’ effect. 1991 was like that – a succession of cold fronts during the week alternating with gloriously sunny weekends. But for every 1991, there are three or four winters of patchy, underwhelming snow, or years like 2009, when winter was dominated by dreary easterly weather and the mountain was obscured in murky drizzle from June until about October.
The fact is that Tasmania has a maritime climate. We’re in the Roaring Forties. And no matter how cold the wind and wet can make you feel, Mt Wellington’s conditions are rarely dry enough or cold enough for snow to hang around. This is borne out by the statistics.
The average number of daylight hours each year that the Pinnacle Road is closed is 134 – about 15 days out of each year. And the road isn’t always closed because of snow – it’s often because of hazardous ice or slush. During July, August and September, there’s an average of about 20 cloudy days a month. So much for the view from the top on two out of three winter’s days. Mean temperatures for 9 am and 3 pm in winter are above zero. Mean winter relative humidity is about 90%. And the mean wind speed is greater than 30 kilometres an hour. These make for conditions that ‘feel’ freezing and can be dangerous but are usually not cold enough to freeze the moisture in the air.
The simple fact is that Mt Wellington is not a conducive environment for the retention of snow.
This is not good for the economics of a cable car in winter. And it means that the desire of locals to play in the snow is actually best met where it happens now – on the Pinnacle Road, above the Springs, sheltered from the brunt of the winds, in an environment where those big fluffy flakes can drift down and settle. The often inhospitable Pinnacle is nowhere near as safe or comfortable.
The other major argument advanced in favour of a cable car is that Mt Wellington receives an estimated 300,000 people a year who are impotently waving around $50 notes that they can’t spend. ‘You can’t get a cup of coffee on the mountain, so let’s build a cable car. There’s no proper visitors centre on the mountain, so let’s build a cable car.’
But if you de-construct that 300,000 figure, about one third consists of multiple visits by locals – people who have packed a lunch box for an outing on the mountain and who don’t intend to spend a cent. They get their cups of coffee from a thermos. Then there are those car-bound tourists who, if faced with the price of $100 to get the family up and back on a cable car, might rather opt for the $10 cost of petrol to drive.
For those tourists who do want more facilities, shelter and refreshments there’s a development that has been approved and is awaiting construction at the Springs. It’s a prime location with space, a sunny aspect, great views, access to a network of walking tracks and bike paths, and shelter from the summit’s stormy blast. There’s also the Wildside Café in Fern Tree.
Neither of these options involves large-scale defacement of the mountain and its scenery.
April’s ‘Summit’ meeting in Lenah Valley was a good indicator of the mentality behind the push for developments at the Pinnacle. Some of the suggestions and opinions advanced – or should I say vented – were downright whacky. They included:
• A proposed funicular railway carving between Junction Cabin and Big Bend, on the mountain’s steepest face, that would somehow not involve a single tree being cut, let alone unsightly earthworks. The proponent seemed to think that the Hunters Track was a fire trail rather than a basic walking track;
• Someone else expressed deep frustration that Mt Wellington wasn’t like Victoria’s Dandenongs, forgetting the difference between a leafy suburb of Melbourne at about 400 metres, and a treeless 1270-metre summit considerably further south;
Some contributions were so irrational that they seemed to be the result of emotion alone. What came across was a deep-seated sense of grievance, and a desire for things to be other than as they are. It’s this sort of discontent that drives us to want more – more things, more gadgets, more novelty. It’s a discontent that prevents us from enjoying what we already have.
In Mt Wellington, what we already have is a beautiful natural asset – a large mountain on the edge of a capital city. A diversity of life and landforms. Forests, big trees, fern glades, waterfalls, sandstone overhangs, dolerite cliffs, alpine moorlands. These attractions are already accessible by walking track, mountain bike or motor vehicle. On the sheltered eastern slopes, wonderful natural features can be enjoyed in most weather conditions. It’s not necessary to visit the exposed Pinnacle to have a great mountain experience. For those who want them, retailed refreshments are available at Fern Tree and may soon also be found at the Springs. And there are many of us who don’t even feel the need to visit the mountain – we’re happy just to look at its beauty from our homes, places of work, or the foothills.
The mountain can already be enjoyed in dozens of different ways by residents and visitors to Hobart alike. It just doesn’t need costly and intrusive infrastructure such as a cable car or funicular railway. What Mt Wellington does need is our appreciation and our care.
Decisions on the management plan for Mt Wellington are being made in May and June 2012. For further information, see the following websites: