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The brooding beauty of Hanging Rock, a cluster of striking volcanic outcrops in Victoria's Macedon Ranges, inspired a novel and subsequent film, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Now the rock, about 80km north of Melbourne, is at the centre of a battle between the local council, which has approved plans for a conference centre and 100-room hotel to be built there, and local residents, who fear the development will destroy its ambience.

A popular day trip destination - and picnic site - for city folk, Hanging Rock already has a cafe, car park and visitor centre, as well as a racecourse and sports facilities. It has hosted rock concerts by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart.

Yet those who climb the winding path to its summit experience a sense of isolation and serenity that locals fear will be lost if the development - which may include a restaurant, day spa and apartments - goes ahead.


Luke Spielvogel, who has collected more than 5000 signatures on a petition, says the designated site, known as the East Paddock, is "really the only unspoiled vista from Hanging Rock as it stands". The petition calls on Macedon Ranges Shire Council to reconsider its plans and consult residents before deciding on the rock's future.

An important Aboriginal site where tribal people gathered to trade and hold weddings and initiation ceremonies, Hanging Rock - now a conservation reserve - was in the 19th century the refuge of notorious bushrangers such as Dan "Mad Dog" Morgan. Joan Lindsay used it as the setting for her 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, about three girls who disappear while climbing the rock during a school outing on St Valentine's Day, 1900. Peter Weir directed the critically acclaimed 1975 film based on the book.

Nowadays, despite its popularity, the site is failing to pay for its own upkeep, according to the council, which says that work costing A$8.5 million ($9.1 million) is needed to upgrade buildings, eliminate weeds and pests and regenerate native vegetation. The decision to seek private investment was passed 5-4 by councillors at a meeting last year.

Critics say that, as well as being out of keeping with the special character of the place, the hotel and conference centre could destroy a wildlife corridor used by vulnerable species such as the powerful owl, Australia's largest owl, and greater glider, a small marsupial.

Hanging Rock was the main draw for Spielvogel, who moved to the area with his wife, Megan, eight years ago. He walks his dog daily there and also runs nearby.

"It has a real sense of mystery and isolation," he said yesterday. "You can get up on the rock and sit there and ponder the world. It's a great retreat."

He disputes that the site is in dire straits, citing the council's own financial returns, which show it has made a profit every year over the past decade, thanks to income from entry fees, the cafe and concerts.

In April Hanging Rock will host the Rolling Stones during their tour of Australia and New Zealand.

He and other residents hope the state government will intervene to protect the rock from development. Victoria's Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, has agreed to visit, and is expected some time this month.