Launceston is Tasmania’s second largest city with a population of close to 90,000 people. It’s the third oldest city in Australia after the Europeans set up camp around 1804. Wikipedia tells me it was the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to use anaesthetic and the first Australian city to have underground sewers. Impressive! It also has a large collection of historical buildings and the lack of skyscrapers makes the streetscape very aesthetically pleasing. The absence of man-made canyons and being able to see the sky makes a real difference to the ambiance. There are no windy tunnels with overpowering towering concrete monsters blocking out the sun. Launceston has managed to keep its city relatively free from development and it celebrates its architectural integrity.
I enjoy self-guided architecture walks around cities and I thought that with all the significant buildings, there would be an app or website to do such a thing in Launceston. I could not find an “official” one but did find maps and descriptions put together for architecture students on Pocket Sites. It included both historic and modern buildings of architectural significance. There is a Part A and Part B which covers more than 50 sites. It includes buildings in the CBD with a short detour into a residential street. It took me about three hours to complete and I covered a bit more than 7 km. It was a very pleasant way of getting my 10,000 steps up!
Be prepared for some interesting buildings. Not all of them would fit my description of being “significant”. I discovered that there is a style of building, common in the 1980s, called “brutalist”. In my opinion, these buildings are ugly monstrosities! They look cheap and nasty and brutal is an excellent description.
On the other hand, the Regency, Queen Anne(revival), Georgian and Colonial era buildings reflect a time of softer and more delicate facades. No doubt these were made possible due to the presence of cheaper labour, (convicts perhaps?) and materials.
If you’re the type who likes this sort of urban adventure, get out early before all the city workers park their cars and spoil your photos! It’s free and you’ll also go past some nice cafes if you decide to take a break. There are easily accessible public toilets along the way. It’s my kind of touristing!
Soaring gracefully above the verdant countryside dangling under the colourful orb of a hot air balloon with a light breeze ruffling your hair. Perhaps looking forward to a champagne breakfast when you return to terra firma. Sounds magic!
I wonder how many people have that experience on their bucket list? It was on my 60 for 60 list and on my recent Great Southern Road Trip it was marked off with a big tick! DONE! DUSTED and I survived!
A balloon ride is one of those things that feels tantalizingly, but acceptably risky. Up there with bungy jumping and parachuting. Catastrophic consequences if the very unlikely mishap actually ever occurs. In Australia, these types of industries are highly regulated and frequently audited. The risk is there, but it’s in the same order of magnitude as being taken by a shark at my home beach. Close to zero but not zero. Miniscule but not impossible. Compared to driving a car it is extremely safe!
So those butterflies in my stomach are just nervous anticipation of the fun ahead. Right? Right! The image of the balloon plummeting to the ground in a ball of burning, melting nylon with 16 screaming passengers in the basket is an over dramatisation from an over active imagination! Right?
The pilot (John) and his team are experienced and have an excellent track record. They give us a thorough safety briefing. John shows us the brace position in case we have to make a “fast” landing or the basket tips over.
Hold the handles tight, back against the basket side and bend the knees a little bit. Just a little bit, like you’re skiing.
The wind is perfect, the weather is as good as it will get and the location is captivating.
Standing here in a paddock by the side of the Bass Highway just outside of Launceston, I feel a teeny-tiny bit uneasy. Just a little bit. Despite the fact that I understand the physics of flight and my own mental safety assessment rules out a crash, I am still feeling anxious. My self talk is in hyperdrive! It will be fine! And no you don’t need to go to the toilet again that’s just nerves!
Thankfully, as the balloon is unfurled and fills with hot air, the anxious feeling flips to excitement. This is going to be good!
The balloon glides silently through the whispering air at an altitude between 1000 and 2000 feet (300 – 600 m). The pilot has clearance up to 3000 ft but says there is no point because you’re too high up to see the view clearly.
The silence is punctuated frequently by the roaring gas burners used to keep the air hot and the balloon aloft. The skillful deployment of various vents allows the pilot to turn the balloon.
The view is undoubtedly spectacular although in these days of drone cameras, it may not be as unique as it once was. It’s now common for us to see a bird’s eye view. Seeing it with your own eyes, and having a ‘live’ view has got to be a superior experience.
As anticipated we are treated to the patchwork of green and brown fields, lego size buildings and tiny little cars on the roads. The glorious skyscape is an added bonus. No pink, but a glittering patch of rays breaking through the patchy cloud. The reaction of the creatures below is a surprise. The horses skitter away, the sheep head for cover and the cows go on munching the grass. A large eagle gets out of the way and roosts in another tree. Dogs bark and people wave. Since this is the usual launch area for Hot Air Balloon Tasmania, folks around here must be used to the brightly coloured balloon floating overhead.
The landing site is a minute by minute proposition and (obviously) determined largely by the wind. We drift over the site the pilot was hoping to land at and end up in a fallow field a few blocks over. The basket stays upright and we all climb out.
The farmer who owns the plot has come out in his tractor to watch and is quite excited we chose to land in his paddock! He said he’d seen the balloon lots of times, and was hoping one day, it would touch down on his patch.
We spend the next half hour helping to deflate, then fold up the balloon before returning to the muster site at Entally Lodge for a hearty breakfast. No champagne but excellent coffee. I take out my phone open my list and tick the check box! I’ve completed a little more than half of the things on my 60 for 60 list. I might not meet the deadline but I’ll have a good time trying!
My balloon experience was with Hot Air Balloons Tasmania. It’s a family affair and runs out of Launceston in Tasmania’s north. The pilot and crew were very proficient and excellent hosts. We met at Entally Lodge which was about 20 minutes drive from Launceston but I understand you can arrange to be picked up from the city centre if you prefer. We then transferred to their transport to be taken to the launch site near Carrick another 10 km down the road. In the days leading up to my flight I was sent texts to confirm that the launch was able to go ahead, the muster location and time. There is a maximum group size of 16 people. While in the air, John will take a few photos using a camera suspended on a rig attached to the balloon.
For this flight we were asked to be on site at 6:30 AM but it can be earlier depending on the weather forecast. The flight itself was about 50 minutes. We returned to Entally House for breakfast and I was back on the road a little after 10 AM. The photos were in my email by 2 pm that same day.
It may be hard to believe but there is a very strong connection between a railway in the remote North West of Tasmania and a late 19th-century Swiss engineer. The West Coast Wilderness Railway runs between Strahan and Queenstown. Originally built to transport copper from the Lyell and Co mine to the coast, it fell into disrepair after being abandoned in the 1950s. The decline began in the 30s when the road from Hobart reached Queenstown and went through to Strahan. It was faster and cheaper to transport the ore via road. The railway is now fully restored with tourist services running nearly every day from either the Strahan end or the Queenstown station.
That Swiss connection?
The railway was cut through virgin old-growth forest. The landscape is very hilly, the rocks are very hard. Tunnelling was not really an option and the designers were charged with finding a way to go over the mountain rather than through it. They settled on a new rack and pinion system designed by Swiss engineer Roman Abt. The rack and pinion system used a third central rail which has small vertical teeth that engage with cogwheels on the undercarriage of the train. This means that the train is able to manage much steeper hills, albeit slowly, as the teeth and cogs mesh together to prevent slipping on the way up and on the way down.
Half-Day Tour – a full day of food!
I booked a seat on the half day Queenstown Rack and Gorge Tour from the small tourist kiosk on board the Spirit of Tasmania. There was only one ticket left for the time period I would be in the area, so I grabbed it. At the time, I did not realise I had bought one for the premium ‘Wilderness’ carriage for $185. Continuing COVID restrictions means that the train must carry fewer passengers. There are several tour options which are either full or half days.
The carriages and Queenstown Station have been faithfully restored to a very high standard and they are truly beautiful. The staff make it an outstanding tourist experience. As stated I had booked the premium Wilderness carriage by necessity. This included a welcome glass of champagne, hors d’oeuvres, a Devonshire Tea, Lunch, Valhalla icecream and several cups of tea all being provided in the time span from 9 AM till 12 PM! Other passengers in the ‘standard’ carriage had to pay separately for these provisions.
Lynch was the first to find gold in the area
The route passes through lush rainforest and at some points there are glimpses of the Kings Canyon. The track is very narrow and there is very little space between the train and the rock cuttings.
The train stopped at several stations along the 16 km route and there was an informative commentary as we went outlining the history of the railway and the people involved in its construction. It would have been a tough life.
One of the highlights of the tour was watching the engine being turned around for the return trip. I’m not a train-o-phile but like train journeys and this was a good’n!
There are no toilets on the train but there are on the platforms and most stops are for 20 – 25 minutes as the engine refills its boiler. Bear in mind that there are at least 100 people on the train and only a few cubicles!
At the conclusion of the tour, I stayed in Queenstown for the afternoon. Queenstown has the familiar trajectory of a mining town. It’s past its heyday and there are lots of old grand buildings that grace the streets. Many shops are boarded up and real estate is very cheap. I spent about an hour at the Gallery Museum and then did a walk around town. I was pleased to see that there is a fair bit of street art around and some quirky little houses. I was hoping to find opportunities for some street portraits but the only people in town seemed to be the tourists off the train. Good for the town, bad for a photographer looking for interesting subjects!
The Iron Blow Lookout a few kilometres out of town, is definitely worth the effort and if you’d like a little walk after eating all morning, have a look at the Horsetail Falls Walk. This is one of the 60 Great Short Walks of Tasmania. If you are not keen on walking on exposed ledges this may not be for you. It’s only short, less than 2 km return, but the boardwalk is more or less bolted on to the side of the cliff.
The railway tour ended up being a really good option on the day, as the weather was dodgy and not suitable for long walks. If it sounds like it’s your kind of tour book early, especially if you are travelling in a group. I jagged the seat because I was travelling solo and there happened to be an odd number of people in another group.
It’s certainly worth doing but may not be in the budget for all. If you’re a train enthusiast, it would already be on your “must do in Tasmania list.
Orange cat, orange wall.
PS: An interesting fact. There are no regular commuter/passenger train services in Tasmania. Even though there are lots of train tracks, they are for freight only. It’s a pity because many of the lines are through stunning wilderness areas and right on the coast. Maybe one day with the resurgence of rail tours in post COVID times more tourist lines will be developed and opened.