Image for Mother Mountain: The Symphony of Birdsong (9)

The “Respect the Mountain” forum ( here, here, and here ) at the Hobart Town Hall earlier this year prompted Don Knowler to return to a diary he compiled after daily rambles on Mt Wellington during the previous year. In what promises to be a momentous year in the modern history of Kunanyi, the weekly diary gives the mountain and its wildlife its own voice. All Don’s Mother Mountain columns - and much more by this superb writer - can be found under the Category, Don Knowler, here

“Hollywood-style sign for the mountain?” ran a headline on the letters’ page of the Mercury. The writer said that with all the discussions about cable cars and restaurants there had been no mention of a sign to highlight the wonders of the mountain.

“A giant sign like the one in Hollywood could be built on the side of the mountain half way up, facing the river. It could be white, with letters about three metres high, spelling out “Kunanyi”. It could be floodlit at night, powered by solar panels mounted on top, out of sight. It should be below the cloud line and never worried by snowfall or strong winds.”

I couldn’t work out whether the letter writer had approached the subject tongue-in-cheek but the suggestion the sign be privately funded, with a huge golden M at one end of the giant letters, provided a clue.

Sphinx Rock, I was thinking, would make an ideal site for the sign, with its commanding position high above the city and the river. I had set out for the rock once again – visiting it more recently in recent weeks – to check on the migration of birds, which species had left, which were slow to depart and which ones would stay to brave the winter.

The narrow path that leads to the rock from the main Lenah Valley Track is guarded by a childproof gate and fence, along with a sign warning there is a sheer drop beyond the rock platform.

I always open the gate gently, to avoid the harsh clatter of its latch disturbing olive whistlers which are often hiding in the thick golden rosemary brushes that hem the track once inside the gate.

But someone beyond the birds had heard me coming.  The old timer I often see walking on the mountain tracks had been sitting cross-legged on the undulating dolerite, and as I arrived he turned to greet me. It was the first time he had spoken.

“Well, what a fine day and what a fine spot,” he said, putting down an enamel mug of tea, which I could see was steaming in mountain air still to be warmed by the morning sun.

“See in the paper someone suggests a big sign for the mountain, McDonald’s like,” he said without a smile.

“Good spot for it,” I replied. “Big Mac, big mountain.

“Mountain mac,” said the old man, laughing now.

“Seen you many a time; birds is it?” he inquired.

“My passion,” I replied, keeping the conversation brief, because the elderly walker had never spoken before when our paths had crossed. I suspected he was not a person for small talk.

Now, though, he proved a man of many words.

“I’ve been coming to the mountain many a year, and I know you are recent, relatively. Seen them come and go and you are recent.”

I told him that, after looking afar for years at the mountain, I had decided to visit more often.

“Mountain of memories,” said the old timer. “You won’t have many yet, but you’ll get them.”

He said that his father, maybe 60 years ago, maybe longer, had brought him to the mountain. First the summit, and then when he was older they took a regular walk to Sphinx Rock.

“We came in dad’s Morris Eight, lovely car but struggled a bit on the steep stretch up to the pinnacle. Don’t laugh but we came here for the view of the railway yards down there.”

He pointed towards the docks, and the chimney of the old gasworks at the entrance to the Central Business District.

“I was mad on trains, steam trains, as a kid. Down there was an engine roundhouse, and I’d sneak through the fence and watch the engines being turned to head back north after they arrived. And though my dad brought me to the mountain to hike, all I wanted to do was look down at the train yards, and look for the Tasman Limited leaving for the North.

“I’d look for the steam rising, shooting high into the sky when the boiler safety values popped. And I’d listen to the whistles, long ones for a passenger train set to depart the station, peeps when shunting engines were clear of the points, so the signalmen knew.”

The old man paused, still looking towards the train yards far away in the distance, yards that had survived the remodelling of the track layout years previously, and the closure of the roundhouse. The Hobart railway terminus has also closed when passenger trains ceased, the site now occupied by the ABC state headquarters.

“You must not get me on trains, I get boring,” he said finally looking away from the city and looking at me.

“Would offer you a tea but I haven’t got another mug,” he said reaching for an ancient flask half hidden in his rucksack.

“Don’t usually bring a hot drink, too heavy, but knew I would only make the rock today from the Springs. Getting harder, these walks.”

The old man had stopped talking and I felt it was time to leave him to his memories, the ghosts of steam engines and the men who drove them rising into the air and drifting up and towards the mountain, towards Sphinx Rock.

“Nice to talk,” I said.

“And next time you can tell me about some of the birds. For my sins, I don’t know most of them and I should after all these years, and I want you to tell me who makes all those calls and songs I’ve heard over the years.

“Sure thing,” I called back, gently closing the child-proof gate guarding Sphinx Rock.   

A full moon over the mountain is a magnificent sight and I had awaited nearly a year before driving to the peak to witness it myself. I looked for full moons on the calendar but each time I planned a trip the sky was overcast, or I had commitments at night that stopped me going.

The night of May 4 was clear and the sky sprinkled with stars and nothing would stop me going. There was a problem, however. A howling wind blew through the Waterworks Valley where I live below the mountain and a trip to the summit might hold the danger of falling trees. What the hell, I thought, and what were the chances of a tree blocking my way, or worse.

I waited for the moon to rise high in the sky, so that it would cast a glow over the Derwent.  The wind rocked my car all the way up the Huon Road and beyond, but when I looked in the rear-view mirror I could see the Derwent washed in a rippled silver sheen. I pulled over and did a u-turn so my windscreen faced the distant ocean. Yes, silver was the colour, a sea in a silver shimmer. I turned the car mountain-ward and pressed on. And still the wind howled, and rocked trees ahead of me, twigs falling and crashing against the windscreen.

I pressed on.

Beyond the Springs, when a clear view of the river emerged, I could now see not just the Derwent but the bay beyond the Eastern Shore headland. And as I drove higher up the mountain more bays presented themselves, as though one silver sea was placed on top of another, and another.

At the summit I draw to a halt and looked east again. The wind howled, buffeting the canvass of my soft-top Jeep. The noise was unbelievable.

Pools of silver light, set among black fingers of the land jutting into the Southern Ocean, stretched as far as I could see, like horizontal zebra stripes.

Closer to hand, the streets lights of Hobart snaked in amber across the city.

And that wind …  I pushed on the Jeep driver’s side door and it wouldn’t open. The wind was pressing against it, holding the door firmly shut. I pressed harder, eventually summoning all my weight to force the door open.

I struggled to get out and the wind, and noise hit me. A howling and then a high-pitched whine as the wind tore through the lattice work of the old radio mast. The swirling gale coursing up the main, concrete communication tower made a different sound. A groan, half drowned out by the wind rocking my car. I tried to walk towards the observation cabin and was swept along, struggling to keep my feet, struggling to maintain my balance.

Above me clouds raced across the sky. I felt like I was watching a film noir movie which had been speeded up, the racing white clouds picked out and highlighted by moonbeams, the cloud edges etched in pewter. The clouds darted east and the wind and swirling landscape made me dizzy; I wanted to sit down but I was afraid of being swept from the edge over the Organ Pipes below me.

I grabbed a handrail. After about 15 minutes, cold and exhausted I started the slow walk back to my car in the car park, more a crawl, grabbing the handrail of the path down to the viewing cabin as I went.

Once in the safety of my car, still rocking and bumping, I tried not to look at the dizzying, racing clouds screaming in front of me. I concentrated on the road ahead on the descent down the mountain and after the first big bend where the road swings from a northerly direction to one heading due south, the wind was less severe and I could hardly hear it over the drone of the engine.

An embankment forms one side of the road down to Springs, the northern side, with scattered trees and sheer drops on the other. The eastern side is protected by a barrier and on this, about level with the Sphinx Rock below, I saw a frogmouth, struggling to keep its balance, rocking to and fro. And in my headlights I could see its prey: moths and other flying insects being swept along in the breeze, before finding shelter in the understorey of gum and wattle.

Next morning the Mercury reported that the wind speed on the mountain had reached 122 kilometres an hour. The mountain was littered with fallen trees, blocking tracks out of The Springs. Silence in the air, no birds sang this morning, as though exhausted, shocked and stunned by the night before.

I drove later to a winery near Richmond, the mountain out of sight for once.  I felt I needed a break from it; like the birds I was shattered and stunned from the night before.

The autumn leaves of the deciduous trees in central Hobart parks had hardly had a chance to show their golden glory when ripped from branches by the high winds of the night before. But the poplars remained straight and resolute, pencil-like, with their yellow leaves still in place. They marked out straight streets by day, as the amber street lights did by night.

Near Richmond, black-faced cuckoo shrikes, known to Tasmanians as summerbirds,  swept on undulating flight across the vineyards, heading north for the Bass Strait crossing. They were in good time. The radio would soon be reporting snow on the mountain again, the Pinnacle Road closed beyond The Springs.

‘Respect The Mountain’ calls for upgrade at The Springs