Last updated 18 May 2022
kunanyi (Mount Wellington) at 1271 meters towers above the city of Hobart, a magical backdrop seen from many vantage points below. As one of the city’s most iconic symbols, kunanyi should be on top of your list of places to visit when in Hobart. And if you take a guided tour as I did, you’ll not only see for yourself the stunning vista from the summit, but you’ll also learn some fascinating history and geology along the way.
We pause for a moment, the only sound a subtle breeze whispering through clusters of tree fern fronds. Watching their glorious green crowns sway gently above the chunky brown trunks, I cannot believe I’m in this tranquil space. Because 15 minutes earlier I was walking around the bustling Hobart waterfront. In less time than it takes to down a couple of Cascade beers, I’ve swapped harbour views for an enchanted forest, where I’m half expecting some sort of mythical creature to emerge from beneath the moss-covered fallen tree trunks. (And the thought of fairies or goblins appearing is not from the actual downing of a couple of Cascade beers, although we did pass the Cascade factory on the way.)
Walk on kunanyi guided tour
I’m on the Myrtle Gully Trail in the foothills of kunanyi (Mt Wellington) with Hobart local, Andy Crawford, owner-operator of Walk on kunanyi.
“I don’t like using scientific names that often, but this tree fern has a name I adore,” says Andy. “It’s Dicksonia Antarctica.”
I ask him to repeat the name as it’s foreign to me. This fern species unique to Australia and New Zealand thrives in moist areas like gullies and sclerophyll forests – akin to the area we’re currently wandering.
“Fossilised tree ferns are found in Antarctica,” Andy explains. “It’s one of these species that links the Gondwana continent to Australia and Antarctica. Tasmania being one of the last bits of landmass to split away.” I’m learning so much and this is only the first part of the half-day tour In Darwin’s Footsteps
Down to the Hobart waterfront
We meet at 1.30 pm in the foyer of the Vibe Hotel and head to his car. Andy drives down to the waterfront parking on Hunter Street. We wander over to the life-sized bronze sculptures in the forecourt of the Macq 01 Hotel. The sculptures of three women and a child were created by internationally renowned Irish artist Rowan Gillespie to represent the plight of female convicts (and their children) who were forced into exile as prisoners around 155 years ago. They disembarked at this location, which back then was Hunter Island, originally separated by water from the business area of Hobart.
As we move away from the grim reminder of Hobart’s convict past, I turn around and see the outline of kunanyi watching protectively over the city. kunanyi (pronounced koo-narn-yee) is the indigenous name for Mt Wellington and is now officially recognised. In the revived language of the surviving descendants of the original indigenous Tasmanians, palawa kani, kunanyi means ‘mountain.’
Andy begins the tour with an acknowledgment to country, acknowledging the original custodians of the land, the muwinina mob. The history lesson about Charles Darwin begins.
Who is Charles Darwin?
In case you’re unfamiliar with Charles Robert Darwin (1809 – 1882), allow me to briefly enlighten you. He was a British naturalist and biologist best known for transforming our thoughts about the natural world and how life developed. Darwin’s most famous works – The Origins of Species (published in 1859) espouses the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection.
He undertook a five-year voyage around the world, studying flora and fauna in many locations including Australia, the Galapagos Islands, the Pacific Islands, and New Zealand.
Charles Darwin celebrated his 27th birthday on the ship, the HMS Beagle, which set sail from Sydney arriving in Hobart Town on the 5th of February 1836. Over ten days he studied the flora and fauna around Hobart.
kunanyi’s secret falls
We drive past the iconic Cascade Brewery Building on Old Farm Road, to a car park at the end of the road. From the car park, we follow the Myrtle Gully Track passing through a wet sclerophyll forest dominated by eucalypt trees (that’s another new word for me: sclerophyll refers to Australian vegetation – trees with hard, short, and often spiky leaves.) Andy leads me to a secluded part of the trail only locals would know where to find. Dropping three metres into a very narrow crevice is Gully falls (turikina truwala.) Water spills over dark rocks where lush moss and ancient tree ferns peacefully co-exist. Weird-looking fungi cling to the trunks of fallen trees. I’m looking out for fairies or …….
Andy bends down and picks up a rock from the creek, turning it over he shows me a fossil from another time. It’s almost like he’s purposely planted the rock for this wide-eyed tourist. But then I recall his background in geology. Geologists tend to know a thing or two about fossils.
Reluctantly I leave the quiet pocket and return to the car driving further up kunanyi, stopping for afternoon tea at the Lost Freight Cafe
Andy commanders one of the picnic tables and from his backpack unpacks a selection of local produce: peppy quince paste, Richmond cheese, crackers, and fruit.
A couple walking by comment, “We’re jealous of that spread you have going on.”
I follow Andy’s suggestion and add a little of the quince paste to the cheese. So good.
He reaches for a shiny red apple, a variety called Cox Orange Pippin, he picked them up in his recent travels near the Huon Valley.
“You can tell if they’re ripe by shaking them and you’ll hear the seeds rattle.”
I hold one up to my ear, give it a little shake and yes, from inside the apple I hear the subtle rattle of seeds.
“You’re super lucky to have these as they’re only around for about four weeks of the year.”
I’m feeling very lucky just to be here Andy!
Explaining complex geology using a jam doughnut analogy
Andy asks if I’m ready for a geology lesson about kunyani’s sheer dolerite columns. kunanyi’s unique geological formation, called the Organ Pipes, is observed on the mountain’s eastern face from Hobart CBD.
“I’m ready,” I reply, taking another cracker loaded with cheese and quince paste.
“The dramatic breaking up of the supercontinent Gondwana happened in the Jurassic Period around 180 million years ago,” Andy explains. “When the continents broke apart the earth’s crusts were weakened and the molten rock [magma] bubbled up through the crust. In various places in Tasmania, the molten rock didn’t reach the surface, instead, it injected, like hot jam in a doughnut into sedimentary rock. And like a jam doughnut that’s just been boiled, if you bite into it, you’ll likely burn your mouth. All these little pockets of jam oozing through the rock columns, cooled very slowly in the centre, because it was so well-insulated. The Jurassic dolerite was created as the magma cooled.”
“So how did the dolerite come out of the doughnut?” I ask.
“Erosion over the course of probably 10 – 30 million years,” Andy replies. “The top half of the jam doughnut was eventually washed away, exposing the centre of the doughnut. How do we know that? Because the crystals are the largest at the top compared to the edge where they would have been quenched by the rock. We see these on Kunyani today as the spectacular dolerite cliffs, the iconic Organ Pipes.”
Outcrops of dolerite can be seen in the wildest of places in Tassie, on tops of mountains and down by the sea. The cliffs of Cape Hauy, the high cliffs of the Great Western Tiers, the tops of mountains – Ossa, Cathedral, and Olympus observed from the Overland Track, are almost all dolerites.
Following my geology lesson I’m unlikely to forget, Andy hands me a book he had brought along to our picnic – by Maria Grist, The huts of kunanyi
From the late 1800s – 1930s some of the more practical pioneers of Hobart were building recreational huts on kunanyi. Once built, they became places to socialise. Some were two storeys, a few had tennis courts. One hut housed a piano carried painstakingly up the mountain. There were tea houses you could visit and enjoy a cup of tea and scones. A few original huts remain today, although mostly in ruins, on the Myrtle Gully Trail.
Become entangled at the Octopus tree
We pack up the picnic gear and drive further up Pinnacles Road to the Shoobridge Bend, parking near the entrance to a track. We take an easy one-kilometre walk on a naturally formed path, to the gigantic Octopus tree. Over centuries, the tentacle-like roots from this ancient Eucalyptus Regnans tree have ‘gripped’ firmly onto a large sandstone boulder.
You can walk all the way around the base of this magnificent tree. The left side is the most reminiscent of an octopus, and it doesn’t take much imagination to observe the ‘tentacles’ before they disappear into the earth below. For anyone with an appreciation for bonsai, this is ‘root over rock’ on a GRAND scale!
We follow a circular trail through a fern-covered forest back to the car park.
Tasmania could have been the demise of Charles Darwin
From papers written 150 years ago about Darwin’s visit to Hobart, Andy shares a story about the naturalist’s encounter with a tiger snake. Long skinny black snakes in the northern hemisphere are not poisonous, so when this one Darwin discovered became aggressive, instead of leaving it alone he ‘whacked’ it with a stick and killed it.
“Darwin thought he was doing the right thing,” Andy says. “But it would have been the end of him if he’d been bitten and the theory of evolution would never have come to light. The interesting part about the poor snake Darwin killed is it gave birth and is the first scientific recording of snakes giving live birth. In the northern hemisphere, snakes lay eggs. In Australia, most snakes have a live birth.”
On top of kunanyi
We’ve driven to the summit of kunanyi. It’s the middle of April and we pass patches of snow on the roadside, where excited kids, are throwing snowballs.
For every metre you ascend up kunanyi, the temperature supposedly drops a degree. Before we leave the car Andy hands me a warm jacket.
“You will need it,” he warns.
I open the car door and immediately feel kunanyi’s much-talked-about alpine conditions.
kunanyi’s peak is right in the heart roaring 40s where the prevailing often gale-force winds blow persistently from the west, throughout the year. As I make my way down the stairs to the lookout, I draw my coat close and pull my beanie around my ears. Visitors to the summit always comment on how much cooler it is at the top of kunanyi. And our guess is the temperature has dropped down to around six degrees! Brrrrr.
At 1,271 metres I marvel at the clear view of the mighty Derwent River below.
We make our way inside the Pinnacle Observation to where it’s noticeably warmer away from the wind. Andy shares the final accolade for Charles Darwin.
The discovery of fossilised remains of Archaeopteryx the bird reptile with dinosaur-like traits (found in Berlin, Germany) around 1874, a few years after Darwin published his paper, meant he was fortunate to have his Theory of Evolution proven while he was still alive. Not always the case for all scientists!
“Darwin said there is going to be an animal that will prove his theory that many doubted. But finding the bird reptile when Darwin was still alive, Woah, can you imagine how satisfying that would be?” says Andy excitedly. “How lucky was he to see his life’s work proven, so many scientists don’t get that.”
Yes, a lucky guy indeed. All of Charles Darwin’s hard work finally paid off. And when Darwin published his revolutionary paper , it was evident his time in Tasmania, helped support his theory about the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection. And how lucky am I to have heard snippets of his story and to walk where he walked.
Along with the many nature discoveries on the guided walk, Andy’s expertise on botany and geology leaves me with far greater knowledge than if I’d stumbled through these places on my own. In fact, knowing my poor sense of direction, I’d likely still be stumbling around. A fascinating tour.
Why I chose In Darwin’s Footsteps tour
I did the half-day tour with Andy on Friday, April 16th, 2021.
Originally, I was going to tackle the Sea to Summit – a full day hike (9.5 hours) from Macquarie Wharf at the Port of Hobart up the summit of kunanyi. When making initial inquiries with Andy, I expressed my concern regarding my level of fitness and this knee ‘issue’ I have had for some time. But he seemed confident I could manage the walk – although I might have to take my time when it came to rock hopping the dolerite screes.
The matter was taken out of my hands with the weather forecast the day before the planned hike not looking promising. Andy and I discussed options. We decided on a last-minute switcheroo to the half-day In Darwin’s Footsteps This one-on-one tour with Andy’s business walk on kunanyi revealed some very cool experiences close to Hobart and was one of my most memorable moments in the apple isle’s capital.
In Darwin’s Footsteps Tour details:
$130 per person (at time of publishing)
3.5 hours duration (1.30pm – 5.30pm)
Included: pastries, fresh fruit tea, and coffee
Fitness level required: As long as you can walk for 3km on uneven ground
Footwear: Supportive walking shoes with firm treaded soles
Bring: Raincoat, drink bottle, warm layer, and any personal medication
Note: The writer paid for the tour. All comments are my own and I have Andy Crawford’s permission to include his stories in the article.