Driving towards Sheffield with my American visitor, we crested a hill on the Barrington Rd and, suddenly, there it was in front of us: the massive monolith of Mt Roland. ‘Wow!’ gasped my guest. ‘That’s some heap of rock!’ Yes, our mountain does have a ‘wow factor’; it can take your breath away! Rising abruptly 1234m above sea level, the majestic sight of Roland’s long rocky bluff instantly charms, enchants and leaves most observers awe-struck. Since Captain John Rolland first climbed this mountain 200 years ago on 7 Dec 1823, a continuous stream of climbers and spectators have recorded their impressions of it, being the ‘most beautiful’, ‘most handsome’, ‘most picturesque’ or ‘the grandest mountain’ in Tasmania.

This imposing mastiff is one of the first landmarks you observe when approaching Tasmania by air or sea. Its visual prominence acts like a navigation beacon, beckoning all approaching planes or boats. Standing central and well-forward of its satellite mountains – the Western Tiers and Claude/Vandyke – its bold profile dominates the skyline. As one astute observer of this cluster of mountains remarked, ‘They remind me of the dais boxes for presenting medals at the Olympic Games: Mt Roland for gold, Mt Claude/Vandyke for silver and Western Tiers for bronze.’

Viewed from much of the Kentish district, Mt Roland appears as a humongous hump, giving the impression that, like its front side, its far side drops steeply away as well. But this is not so. As all aerial maps clearly show, Mt Roland is not sausage-shaped, but meat-pie shaped; round and stout, possibly indicating the circular rim of an ancient volcano. Now filled in, the mountain top consists of an enormous, elevated plateau covered with button-grass and stunted scrubs.

Constantly Changing Moods
Part of the mountain’s seductive character is its constantly changing moods, revealing temperament changes not unlike our own. On hot, clear days, its dazzling rock formations shimmer in the summer sun, radiating feelings of euphoria. When winter’s dark storm clouds hang heavy and low, the mountain becomes sullen, glum and depressed. But should the sun shine brightly while it is still snowcapped and the surrounding trees and bushes are covered with hoarfrost, everything turns into a winter wonderland.

Viewed at dawn, as the sun rises over the Badgers, bright rays strike the top of the mountain first and slowly creep down the mountainside to its base, gradually flooding the massive monolith with a glorious golden glow. Because Mt Roland faces due north, the first rays of the rising sun hit the lengthy mountain at an acute easterly angle, lighting up only one side of its rocky buttresses, leaving shadowed crevices on their western side. As the sun moves around to the north, by midday the contrasting light and dark shadows are gone and the mountain appears flat. As dusk nears, the reverse happens: the sun sinks in the west and a smorgasbord of sensational pink, red and purple colours splash across the sky, surrounding the deepening grey shade of the mountain, whilst farm dams all across Kentish gleam glorious reflections of the day’s end. In December, the sun sets well behind the mountain, turning its serrated profile inky black, silhouetted against a bright blue sky; backlit from the sunken sun. To observe Mt Roland on a crystal-clear night is to view two different worlds at once. Close-up is the colossal dark profile of our ‘neighbourly nob’ set against the distant canopy of the heavenly cosmos, twinkling with myriads of stars within the Milky Way. Also the Aurora Australis, best seen in early autumn, with its quavering shafts of lurid lights producing ghoulish mixtures of red, yellow and green shooting up behind Mt Roland from the South Pole.

Apart from projecting an overwhelming sense of timelessness, there is something deeply mysterious and intriguing about Mt Roland. Just imagine the Kentish district without this dominant feature in our backyard, without this all-embracing focus of our existence. Our lives would lack its inspiration, our vision would become benign. We would just be another non-descript farming community, completely ignored because of our wretched sameness to the rest of this vast agricultural continent. But, Mt Roland is here, in our midst with its immensely powerful social, symbolic and spiritual influence upon all Kentish inhabitants. You cannot live in Kentish without being aware of its pervasive presence. Eminent geologist Professor Stephen Cox admits: ‘Mt Roland has a real pull on me. It is as mysterious in its make up as it is mystic to the mind.’ Writing in the Advocate 7 Jan 2011, Libby Bingham says, ‘Mountain Roland is a naturally formed masterpiece, and like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, it casts a spell on all who view her… its dominant presence goes to the heart and soul of the place.’

Claiming Mt Roland as our own
So we claim it. It quickly becomes our mountain, part of the fabric of Kentish life. Our identity, our psyche, our mindsets are indissolubly bound together with Mt Roland. As Don Thwaites said when mayor: ‘It is our rock, it is always there for us, people take their bearings from it, you don’t have to climb it to feel it.’ We develop a deep emotional attachment to its raw beauty and various moods. Mt Roland is an essential part of our Kentish ambiance, ethos, heritage, history and social DNA.

Some give the mountain its own persona, human characteristics and soul. Tasmanian author Marie Bjelke-Petersen writes of Mt Roland, ‘He must love to have the soft fair clouds playing around him, caressing his fine old head. The dear old rock which has grown so familiar and friendly, it is wonderful how intimate we get in very short time. Annette Higgs in her recent book ‘On a Bright Hillside in Paradise’ describes Susannah leaning on the garden fence, gazing up at Mt Roland and saying, ‘Ho! What are you looking at, old Mountain?’ and a faint sound drifts back to her, ‘Ho!’

Many local residents connect with the mountain in a spiritual way. In its bold beauty, they see the grandeur, glory and power of the Creator God. To them, the sight of Mt Roland symbolises God’s strength, stability, confidence and certainty. In a letter to me reminiscing about Mt Roland, the late Hon Sir Davis Hughes, who was raised in Sheffield and attended the Sheffield state school, and later became Minister for Public Works in NSW (1965-73) in charge of completing the Sydney Opera House, wrote, ‘I think it is the most beautiful mountain in the world. It stands out and dominates the skyline. I have always kept its shape and beauty in my memory. Throughout my life whenever times were difficult, I closed my eyes and looked at the image of Mt Roland. It has brought me great comfort and peace, for the Bible says: I will look unto the mountains from whence cometh my strength. My mountain is Roland. These words echo the sentiment of many early Kentish pioneers who knew ‘God as their Rock’. From it, they drew comfort, solace and strength; a bulwark against trouble. Its timeless grandeur acted like a balm, a kind of cathartic and therapeutic treatment for one’s health and spiritual renewal. The last line of Bertha Brammall’s poem on Mt Roland declares: ‘Behold, you tread upon holy ground.’

Trekking to the Top
There are two main climbing tracks to the top of Mt Roland, both used since settlers first arrived. The Face Track via Kings Road, Claude Road, is 6.8km return and takes 3-5 hours. This is the steepest track and involves clambering over big boulders. The second one is O’Neill’s Rd Track up from Gowrie Park. This track is longer, at 16.6km return, has a more moderate incline and takes 4-6 hours up and back. Until recent times, most mountain climbers used the Face Track, but now the recommended route is via Gowrie Park.

From Kings Rd, the front face climb enters dense, green bush where majestic gum trees and tall tree ferns grow beside a brandy-coloured creek. After nearly an hour, you leave this lush rainforest behind and toil up a deeply eroded gully beneath huge rock buttresses, whose sphinx-like faces stare down at you. Here, shrivelled beech and cider gums appear, their gnarled branches at times covering the track. The last 150-metre climb is rather steep, sometimes requiring monkey-like clambering over boulders and rough stones until you suddenly emerge on top of the mountain. Here you find an elevated plateau covered with rough button grass, low stunted beeches, mountain heath and miniature alpine wildflowers that can withstand winter snowstorms and the bitter howling winds of Tasmania’s exposed high country.

Along the northern edge of the mountain are huge piles of lichen-covered basaltic rocks. Some are enormous slabs, tilted on their edges in precarious positions; remnants from some cataclysmic past. The ‘hanging rock’ is one. This huge oblong boulder, the size of a school bus, is suspended at an awkward angle with each end resting on a stack of smaller boulders. They form a large stone arch, beneath which climbing parties like to take their group photos. Nearby is an immense ‘fissure’ that has split an enormous rock buttress in half. This colossal crack, approximately 50 metres long and 17 metres deep, appears held apart by boulders wedged between two vertical rock walls. At the base of this long fissure, a narrow passageway, just wide enough to walk along, takes you through to the front face of the mountain. You emerge onto a small platform of rock on top of a precipice, where you can look down onto treetops hundreds of metres below or outward to the glorious Kentish countryside. But this is not the real summit; that’s at the western end of the mountain, 30-minutes’ walk away.

Climbing to the summit from O’Neill’s Road is the easier and now more popular trek. Commencing at the carpark 1km up O’Neill’s Rd from Gowrie Park, the trail follows an old vehicular track through a lovely eucalyptus forest for about an hour. Then it narrows and steepens for 30 minutes until you reach ‘the saddle’ where the track divides – the Mt Roland track to the left, the Mt Vandyke track to the right. Turning left, you leave the last of the trees behind and climb across the open plateau for about 1 hour to the summit. A final 5-minute scramble across big boulders brings you to the trig point on top.
On a clear day, the pinnacle offers a stupendous 360-degree panoramic view of much of northern Tasmania. The richly cultivated Kentish countryside looks like a patchwork quilt, whilst beyond is the magnificent sweep of the northern coastline from the Nut at Stanley, past the Devonport lighthouse, Low Head, and up the Tamar valley to Ben Lomond. Looking south and west, Cradle Mt and Barn Bluff are prominent amid a score of other peaks in the National Park.

It was from the top of Mt Roland that Austrian alpine adventurer Gustav Weindorfer (31)
and his newlywed botanist wife Kate Cowle (42) first saw Cradle Mt. In Feb 1906, they spent their five-week honeymoon camping on top of Mt Roland, collecting hundreds of species of flora. Kate had collected native flowers there twice before in 1902 and wanted to show it to her new husband. Revisiting the summit of Mt Roland many years later in 1929, Weindorfer said, ‘The view from the summit is one of the best I have seen in Australia.’

Unique Features
Mt Roland is the only mountain in Tasmania with such an elongated northern face that allows the slow-moving sun to ‘scan’ it from dawn to dusk. It is the only mountain whose rugged grandeur can be observed close-up, leading many to declare it the most beautiful mountain in Tasmania. The top of Mt Roland is different to any other mountaintop in Tasmania with its thousands of acres of button-grass plains; a kind of alpine parkland with tiny wildflowers where thick-furred kangaroos, wallabies and possums thrive. It is the only mountain in Tasmania from where you can see most of the northern half of the island, including Kentish and our unique NW coastal skyline.

Although we claim our mountain, we never own it. At best, we’re given a life-long lease. Standing impervious to time, it remains, while we transient admirers live and die. Both Geo McCarthy and Ephraim Doe had boys born so big, they were named ‘Roland’. Other pioneering families with sons named Roland include the Dawsons, Treloars (2), Rouses, Rockliffs, Stephens, Smiths, Wilsons, Whileys and Youngs. If we move away, the mountain we love moves with us, for we carry it in our psyche, where it emits a constant call to return. At life’s end, some like my 49-year-old son John Dyer, have been buried close by this ‘life-long companion’ in the iconic Claude Road Cemetery. Others have asked that their ashes be scattered on top of Mt Roland. They include Reg Hope MLC, who first met his future wife up on the summit, Kentish health inspector Roy Austin and Richard Sand’s friend Charlie, whose ashes were brought all the way from England.

But in the final analysis, Mt Roland is just an innate piece of prehistoric rock. Yet, like my American visitor’s initial reaction, we have succumbed to its ‘wow’ factor and live our lives awe-struck, humbled and comforted, drawing strength, resilience and inspiration from its protective presence amongst us.

Next month: How we have treated or utilised this humongous hump in our midst!