The Great Alpine Road will open for business again today, six weeks after the start of the Harrietville bushfire.
The damage is obvious just a few kilometres on from our seven-car convoy’s starting point at Harrietville in eastern Victoria.
The first of two “slips” — where the road’s foundations have washed away — is on one of the hundreds of s-bends occupying the snaking path.
And, despite the many fallen trees now charcoal that scatter the mountain, it’s the rain that has done the damage on this particular section of bitumen.
Hundreds of metres above it a narrow, creek-like valley has formed.
This almost-vertical creek, North East Maintenance Alliance manager Drew Morrison informs the gathering, is where the rain has channelled, washing a 15,000 cubic metre “tsunami” of dirt and rocks down the hill.
The rubble blocked the drain that is designed to transport water under the road’s surface.
A few kilometres up the road the second slip leaves a bigger impression.
Last week’s rainfall created a cascade of water to flow over the bitumen and has eaten away crucial foundations from underneath the widest section of the road.
In some areas the road overhangs mid-air and metre-long cracks show the stress the bitumen is under.
To strengthen it back to a satisfactory level, Mr Morrison said, it will take at least three months and work won’t start for a few weeks.
For now steel barriers cordon off the unstable part of the road while portable traffic lights ensure only one vehicle at a time passes along the 100-metre stretch affected by the slip.
“The water has run across the road and eroded the batter and that’s fallen away,” VicRoads North East director Graham Freestone said.
“What we need to do now is get in here and rebuild that batter and to start somewhere down there.”
Mr Freestone points to a spot 30 metres down the hill.
A steep stretch by anyone’s reckoning.
To build up the batter crews will use hundreds of gabions — a wire basket filled with basketball-sized rocks.
“It’s what people use to build retaining walls, you could say these are gabions on steroids,” Mr Morrison said.
From the second slip up to the summit, the road is in good nick.
An arresting sight is the grey and black matchstick-like tree trunks that stand, devoid of undergrowth, above and below the road like pins in a pin cushion.
Looking down, the hills are part green and part brown where the heat from the flames has sucked away moisture.
In front of our convoy three excavators pluck away at 20-metre trunks as if they were shrubs.
Some of these trees have been burnt in as many as five bushfires from 2003 to 2013 and have been identified as being dangerous to passing cars.
Yesterday the road was covered in debris from the clean-up, today it will be clear.
For the next few weeks the public will only be able to use the road during daylight hours.
But that’s little concern to mountain officials who are just happy the life-source of their businesses is open.
“For businesses having the road open provides a lot of confidence,” Dinner Plain manager for Alpine Shire Keith Biglin said.
“I think we’ll see increased traffic for this weekend and for Easter and they’re the main points of interest for tourists but also businesses in town.”
For Mount Hotham Alpine Resort chief executive Jim Atteridge, an open road means his mountain can finally start recouping losses he estimates are more than $250,000.
“The key issue for us is that this road is made safe,” Mr Atteridge.
“We would be anticipating something like 80,000 vehicle movements up and down this road during the ski season.
“It’s the economic engine for this region.”