Mt Wellington Public Forum

Geoff Law speaks to the community at the 2012 Mt Wellington Public Forum

People here can probably remember the weather the weekend before last. An intense cold front moved across the state on Friday, bringing fierce wind, heavy rain and snow down to 700 metres. It was sleeting in South Hobart and Dynnyrne. From Friday to Monday, the mountain was enveloped in a thick cloak of fast-moving cloud that every now and then permitted brief glimpses of snow-covered middle slopes. Then, on Monday, it 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 completely 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 would believe that it is only the absence of a cable car that prevents us from being effortlessly whisked up into a winter wonderland, where big fluffy flakes come falling vertically down, with metre-deep snow the perfect consistency for making snowballs.

At the pro-cable car meeting in Lenah Valley about six weeks ago, a tourism-industry representative even 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 you face by high-velocity winds; 20-metre visibility; views of dementedly thrashing scrubs – and then suddenly it’s raining again with the snow being washed away.

Sure, there are times when Mt Wellington experiences heavy snowfalls followed by sunny weather, creating the classic ‘wedding cake’ effect – 1991 was like that: a succession of heavy falls during the week followed by gloriously sunny weekends. But for every 1991, there are years of patchy, underwhelming snow, or years like 2009, when winter was dominated by dreary easterly weather and the mountain was obscured in murky drizzle, seemingly from June till October.

The fact is we have a maritime climate. We’re in the roaring forties. And no matter how cold the wind and wet can make you feel, the fact is that the conditions are rarely dry enough or cold enough for the 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 about 134. So, perhaps, two weeks out of each year. And road closures aren’t always because of deep snow – it is 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 views on two out of three days!

Mean temperatures for 9am and 3pm are below zero for each month. Mean winter relative humidity is about 90 per cent. And the mean wind speed is greater than 30 kilometres an hour.

The 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 float down and settle.

The other major argument advanced for the cable car is that Mt Wellington receives an estimated 300,000 people a year who are impotently waving around $50 notes that they can 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 deconstruct that 300,000 figure, about one-third consist of locals, – multiple visits by people like many of us, who have packed a lunch box and thermos for an outing on the mountain and who don’t intend to spend a cent. Then there are those who, if faced with the choice of $100 to get the family up and back on a cable car, might rather opt for the $10 petrol to get up and down instead.

For those tourists who do want more facilities, shelter and refreshments, there’s an approved development 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. And it does not involve large-scale defacement of the mountain and scenery.

Last month’s meeting in Lenah Valley was a good indicator of some of the mentality behind the push for a cable car. Many of the suggestions and opinions advanced – or should I say vented – were downright whacky; such as a 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 rather basic Hunters Track was a fire trail rather that a walking track. Someone else expressed deep frustration that Mt Wellington wasn’t like Victoria’s Dandenongs (overlooking the difference between a leafy suburb of Melbourne at 400 metres, and a 1270–metre summit considerably further south).

The contributions were so irrational they seemed to be the result of a deep-seated emotion, a 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. 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, with a diversity of life and landforms. Forests, big trees, fern glades, sandstone overhangs, dolerite cliffs, alpine moorlands.

Its attractions are already widely accessible by walking track, mountain bike or motor vehicle. The mountain does not need costly and intrusive infrastructure. What it does need is our appreciation and our care.