Watershed: The Pipeline and Kunanyi/Mount Wellington | January 2019

STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH

‘To live, for me Jane, is to stand on a crater-crust that may crack and spew fire any day.’ Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.

I should start with the fires. It was a hot dry summer, and a week before I stood on top of a hill with friends and family, watching dry lightning striking over and over as far as I could see. Now, far to the south west, a fire is burning out of control at the Gell River. We can’t yet see or smell the smoke, but the awareness of it is like a burr that I keep fingering in my mind.

Lou and I have a Monday to walk, write and make art. ‘Let’s do some Stone and Tree’, we say. But where? The city is January-hot and glaringly bright and choked with tourists from two cruise ships.

Water is on our minds. Water, shade, coolness, quiet. I can see the streams of the Mountain in my mind’s eye, almost hear and smell them. We decide on the Pipeline Track, halfway up Mt Wellington/kunanyi.

The Old Huon Road wraps around the mountain’s middle like a girdle, tight bends curving around tall trees, houses on steep driveways, sudden gushes of water pouring down rocks. We get out of the car and breathe deeply in relief. It’s easy 5- 10 degrees cooler, and the air is perfumed with white bells of Tasmanian Christmas bush and the smells of leaf mould and gum trees.

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But even here at Fern Tree it’s crowded. Bus tours from the ships drop off bewildered-looking tourists for a toilet stop, or to cluster mournfully at the closed pub. We will not be escaping people today. Then perhaps I shouldn’t expect that with the Pipeline track anyway – it’s always a sociable place, with lots of dog walkers, joggers and cyclists. But for two women to rediscover their walking legs it’s a good choice. It’s been nearly a year since our last Stone and Tree adventure. I come here a lot, and so as with the Gorge, this place is layered with memories.

The Pipeline Track runs along a literal pipeline, transporting water from the creeks of Browns River and North West Bay River to reservoirs in Dynnyrne. When Hobart was first settled by white people, they chose the site because of what we now call Hobart Rivulet: a cool fresh, perennial source of water from the Mountain above. The governor set up rules to protect the stream, but by and large these were ignored and as the waste from new tanneries, abattoirs, wool mills and sewerage flowed it became dangerous to drink for the poorest people who lived nearby. The Pipeline was built to supply clean water for everyone, not just the wealthy.

Wellington_Park 2smallWe start out with the walk to Silver Falls. The Christmas bushes arch like an avenue overheard and drop their white bells on the path and everywhere. I pull them out of my hair and walk with them in my hand. I feel welcomed – maybe like a guest at a wedding stepping on scattered petals in the wake of the bride and groom. The smell of the Christmas bush flowers is sweet, somewhere between alyssum, honey and mint. When the forest blooms with them in December and January, and the wind blows from the right direction you can smell their blossoms from kilometres away.

The sounds of running water are everywhere, which is a relief in this dry, troubling summer. The path is broad and flat, with a row of sandstone blocks running down the centre. As far as I understand it, we’re walking along the top of the Pipeline – so I walk it like a tightrope, imagining the water flowing beneath my feet.

Wellington_Park 3SmallWe turn off up the steeper hill to Silver Falls, beloved picnic area of Edwardian-era families. Like the Gorge in Launceston, Fern Tree gave Hobart people relief from the heat in the era before air conditioning. I can imagine them clearly, on Sunday-school picnics and Christmas parties, walking up the path in the cool. Working men in their moustaches and bowler hats, the boys imitating their fathers in their best waistcoats, the girls with bows in their hair, the women in their best hats carrying picnic baskets. Or middle-class families walking from a nearby holiday ‘shack’, with the women and girls in white, because someone else will be doing their laundry afterwards. I day-dream about Strawberry Feasts, held at the local church as charity fundraisers with locally grown berries. Would you like your berries in a paper cone sprinkled with sugar? Or with cream and pancakes?

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We reach a cistern, with a pipe overhead like a bridge. Here is the sound of water again. Brown’s River is flowing past us – a baby creek here, half diverted into the Pipeline and half left to tumble down the belly, knees and feet of the Mountain and empty out at Kingston Beach. The creek is managed with cement and stone channels deep in moss and leaves, colonised by the forest.

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The track turns steeper and I am definitely feeling out of practice. Just enough effort and we are there. Silver Falls is a baby waterfall on a cliff face maybe four or five metres tall. It is a refreshing place in the heat of summer. Everything around us is covered in a soft fuzz of moss, now drying in the summer’s drought. To the right another track winds up the hill, and another cistern catches and diverts water away into the Pipeline. Look a little more closely; there is a basin below the falls, made of cut stone and cement. Both the track and the water are managed but also they are beginning to look as though they have always been there, 150 years on.

Looking east through the forest we see a low stone wall, almost hidden in moss and leaf litter. I step off the track and into the bush with a slight feeling of transgression.

‘It looks like an old tram track,’ I call to Lou, ‘maybe to bring equipment or materials into the site?’

Lou isn’t sure about leaving the path, but she comes and looks in the end. And that brings us to a conversation as we walk back down the path. About our worry about getting off the path, away from where we are supposed to be. We worry about damaging what we love. We worry perhaps about getting lost, although neither of us ever has been and here it would be impossible. Perhaps we feel at the heart of it that we shouldn’t be here, we conscientious white middle-class walkers.

How we miss out. A walking track is a curated experience – we see what we are intended to see. Here is a small, unexpected surprise – just a piece of rail lying atop a mossy stone wall.

Forests often make me feel oddly hopeful. I like the feeling of the leaf litter and moss and fern spores falling on manmade things just like they do the ‘natural’ things: boulders and fallen trees. It comforts me to know that fungi and moss don’t distinguish between artificial or natural, but convert whatever is suitable to their use until they slowly decay into smaller and smaller parts.

We walk down to the cross-path corner, and turn south towards Neika and the Wishing Well. We pass shelters for snow and storms, with chimneys where once people might have warmed themselves, now looking like they are quietly being devoured into leaf-mould and lichen. 

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We start to see gates from hidden houses leading onto the Pipeline track. Some are grandly marked with stone pillars and steps, and some are simple. Some lead into the bush and some into dense gardens with roses in cages to protect them from possums and wallabies. I wonder what it would be like to step out one of these gates and onto the path, to a friend’s place, or to the pub in Fern Tree perhaps on a winter’s night with a torch in falling snow.

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We catch our first views to forever opening out to Storm Bay and Iron Pot, to South Arm, the Peninsular and Bruny, all far below. I remember another walk with another friend, saying what she loved was the layers of peninsulas, islands, and then the open sea all the way to Antarctica. ‘More, and more and more, and then nothing,’ she said with delight.

I say to Lou that I always imagine the lives people live in a place like this must be just that bit more interesting – artists, academics, dreamers and fools, all seeking winter snow and summer cool, and the voices of the Mountain like a roar in your ears. Still, this is not a place for transcendent solitude. It always strikes me as intensely sociable. The houses are all within sight of each other. People know their neighbours here, and they stop to talk on the track with us.

I wonder if the Mountain works on you, makes you into something rich and strange, more a hybrid. Perhaps we are all under its influence; perhaps we are all slowly changing into something else? Something bigger than ourselves working on us.

The thought of the faraway fires nags and prickles. In past years I’ve seen smoke billowing over the Mountain, sucked up by a katabatic wind from forests in the south west. It looked like a volcano from the deep past, when the dolerite ranges of Tasmania were made. In many ways living near it is like living near a volcano. We never really know when the next big fire will be. Will we be there, staring up in horror and awe as the sky glares orange and cinders fly over our rooftops? How deeper the horror and awe for the people who live on the Mountain or just at its feet, because they don’t want to be anywhere else?

Wellington_Park_smallMy thoughts of fire cool at the Wishing Well, the end point of this part of our walk. The Wishing Well is a stone circular cistern that diverts water to the Pipeline, but also sends it down its proper path back into Fork Creek. The water pours in from several mouths into the central well. It sounds like a bath that never quite fills. There is a metal screen over the top to prevent anyone from falling in, and as you peer through the mesh you can see more ferns and moss, making it look like a cool, secret, living place. We follow the advice on the nearby sign and try walking around it three times and making a wish before heading back to Fern Tree.

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As we walk back we can see the Pinnacle and the Organ Pipes towering above us. Up there is where the water we have been hearing and smelling comes from, and the water much of inner Hobart still drinks every day. We decide to drive up to explore the watershed.

The Pinnacle is nearly always crowded these days. I love the view, and generally I love watching people having fun but today it’s just too much. Too many people posing with their cameras, laughing and shrieking. That huge space of sky and plateau seems to make some people want to fill it with noise. We walk away south from the trig point, the Lookout and the stinking toilets, down the track a-ways. We can still hear the shouting and laughter, but with distance it becomes almost soothing, a reminder of the space between us and them.

We are on a sloping plateau of rock and minute alpine scrub, dust-dry and tough as dolerite. The maps say this is where the water collects that filters through the rocks and forms the springs that then become part of Hobart’s oldest drinking supply. We sit on a rock as far from everyone else as we can manage, looking out over the estuary. The wind is at our backs, yes, but also the uplift from below meets us, touches our faces. We see small clouds forming below us and come wandering up the slope like sheep. They brush over the ground, over the rock we sit on, over us, engulfing us in that misty taste of water vapour, and then they are gone.

Now I can see how it works, even on this hot dry day. How the water collects – the warm, moist air from below upwelling and meeting the colder air from the mountain range. The maps show it as a marsh. One day I would like to see it filling with water.

Back at Fern Tree near the pub again, there is a pumping station by a path that leads down to the reservoirs where the water is collected. It sets the water pulsing through the Pipeline like blood in an artery. As we walk through the forest to the stone aqueducts we can hear the water rushing over our heads to a steady beat.

The reservoirs that saved Hobart’s people from thirst and typhoid look like two small lakes cupped in the flank of the mountain. It is late afternoon as we reach the lakes and look at the water gleaming from behind the fence-line. Dynnyrne is always chilly, and there is always something mysterious about lakes, whether made or natural. Is it just me, or do they always seem… inhabited? Certainly if a head broke the surface to look back at us I wouldn’t be too surprised.

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‘Look! Native cherry!’ says Lou. We wander over to the tree and begin to pick and eat these tiny little fruit – they taste a little like a waxy, resinous dry tomato. As always there’s a pleasure in tasting the place we’re in, as well as smelling, touching, listening and seeing. Lou puts some in her hat to take home.

Later that afternoon when we pick up my daughter, I give her some native cherries to eat as well and see the delight in her face as she tastes something new, and passes me back the little dark-green seeds that sit like caps on the fruit.

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After I wrote this, we spent weeks breathing smoke as fires bloomed across Southern Tasmania. When I visited the Pipeline again in a month’s time I could barely breathe for smoke, and helicopters buzzed overhead like something from the movie Apocalypse Now. The Mountain’s katabatic wind up its western slope sucked bushfire smoke from over 100 kilometres away and spewed it over Hobart and beyond. We all breathed the same smoke together, the same air as from the south west wilderness – the wilderness that the Mountain is connected to and part of.

For those weeks, that sense of connection tasted bitter.

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