West Coast Wilderness Railway – Tasmania

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.

Refilling the water tank in preparation for a steep climb

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.

You can see the central rail with the vertical teeth

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. 

This fella certainly enjoys his job!

 

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. 

The delightfully misspelt Double Barrel!

Lynch was the first to find gold in the area

Beautiful scenery.

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!

A glimpse into Kings Canyon

Visit Queenstown

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 barren mining scared hills are a big contrast to other areas of Tasmania

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.

Peering into the Iron Blow open cut. Originally for gold but the copper deposits were much richer.

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.

The Empire Hotel, very grand on the outside but in need of a makeover inside.

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.

 

 

Cruising the Gordon River Tasmania

Tree huggers win

The Gordon and Franklin Rivers have close to mythical status in Australia. They symbolise the start of the political party “the Greens” and intervention by our Federal Parliament into what had previously been considered State business. 

Back in the 1980’s the Tasmanian Government planned to dam the Franklin River for the purposes of hydroelectricity. A massive and effective protest movement arose with a strange alliance between old loggers and “tree-huggers” to protect the wild rivers. 

Eventually in 1983,  the newly elected Federal Labor Government led by Bob Hawke stopped the development and the area is now a UNESCO World Heritage protected area. 

The pristine, undeveloped and wild area cannot be easily accessed by vehicle and most areas remain undisturbed except by intrepid bush walkers. Several tour companies also run river cruises for the first 12 km of the river. They are required to travel at very low speeds in the river  to prevent bank-damaging wash. No commercial crusies are allowed beyond the 12 km mark. 

The area near Strahan had been selectively logged for the fabled Huon Pine since colonial settlement but now, no commercial activity other than boat cruises are allowed on the river.

World Heritage Cruises

As part of my Great Southern Road Trip, I booked a Premium seat (aka window seat) with World Heritage Cruises. The cruise leaves the jetty at Strahan at 9 AM and returns at approximately 3PM. Prices vary but I paid $165. In the height of summer (December and January) there is a second afternoon cruise. 

The cruise includes lunch. Normally a buffet, but in these times of COVID it was a prepackaged bento box with a bread roll, cold meats including smoked salmon, salad and cheese. Drinks and snacks can be purchased separately throughout the cruise. If you book a Gold ticket, morning tea is included.

The cruise takes you out of Macquarie Heads through “Hell’s Gates” a very narrow opening to the ocean, Sarah Island, an aquaculture area and the Gordon River. At the end you can also watch a traditional saw mill in action cutting up salvaged logs.  

You get off the catamaran at Sarah Island for a half hour walk around with a very entertaining guide from the Round Earth Company and you can also leave the boat at the 12 km turnaround point for a short board walk through the forest. 

There is extensive commentary from the boat’s captain and owner as well as some video clips displayed on monitors. This commentary was detailed and interesting. The Grining family who runs this particular cruise company have lived in the area for generations. Firstly as loggers, then loggers with a tourist side business and now the tourism business is their main activity. The family were also actively involved in the 1980 protests. The Grining family lobbied their passengers to sign a petition, ran supplies to the protesters as well as ‘smuggling’ in new protestors to the protest line.

Sarah Island

Sarah Island is a small island in Macquarie Harbour. It was a penal settlement for secondary offenders, that is convicts who reoffended. It was a “hell on earth” with harsh weather adding to the man-made deprivations and frequent floggings. Many of the convicts tried to escape. It’s history is bloody and it was closed after 12 years and the convicts moved to the equally infamous Port  Arthur. The history of Sarah Island is certainly worth checking out. 

As you can see it was raining heavily!

Poor weather

The Western coast of Tasmania is wild and the weather can be just as wild. At a latitude of 40o South the area is buffeted by the “roaring forties”. The next closest landmass in South America. It rains here frequently with the average annual rainfall being a little over 2 metres.

On the day of my booking it was raining heavily and cold. Visibility was poor but the sea was relatively calm. When we got out at Sarah Island, even though I had wet weather gear on, I still got soaked through. Cold I know is a relative thing. Cold here in Australia counts as anything less than about 15C! The previous day had been clear and 25C but on this day it maxed out at 15C.

One of the lighthouses at Hell’s Gate.

The boat

The Harbour Master 2 was only launched in 2020. It is an impressive double hulled aluminium catamaran. It has comfortable fittings and seats. It has large windows and open decks at the front and rear. There is a bar/cafe. As stated they usually serve a buffet but because of COVID restrictions still in play they served prepackaged Bento boxes.

Gold Tickets holders sit on the top deck and have access to the roof deck. When you are boarding and awaiting departure watch the time lapse video of the boat’s construction.


Despite the poor weather, it was still a good day out and I would recommend it. There are other tour companies which run similar trips. Gordon River Cruises also have a catamaran and Stormbreakers run an over night cruise in a sailing boat. I wish I had of seen this before I booked the other cruise!

Note: because of the poor weather and reduced visibility I don’t have many photos! I did make this tongue-in-cheek video of highlights.