Friday, 26 February 2010

Tasmania III: Funny thing, landslides

"As one approaches the Martian tundra of Queenstown, the customary holiday fondness for cream horns, pies and other regional bakery fare recedes and the term 'undulating' emerges as pitiably inadequate. Talk about hills. Sheesh."

Helen Razer, The Age, Saturday 9th October 1999;
article found laminated on every table of the Regatta Point Tavern, Strahan

HOBART to Strahan is just one road, but what a road. From the minimal bustle of the tiny Tasmanian capital, you quickly span rivers and weave along valleys, crossing over flat, low-lying bridges that give the impression you must be below the water level. Then the ambling farmland, a lush green hybrid landscape that looks British (I should perhaps say Scottish) but remains somehow Australian, even though you can't put your finger on why. There are hedgerows. There shouldn't be hedgerows in Australia. You then leave civilization behind and have only a cohort of sheep between you and an enormous expanse of freedom. The road starts to climb, the fields become forest and before you know it you are roaring up and down mountainsides, gullies and gorges and around lakes and enormous reservoirs. The thought of what on Earth you would do if you broke down has little time to form in your mind before you have to negotiate yet another set of hairpin corners. Invariably, there would either be a sheer drop to one side of you or thick, unrelenting rainforest that probably housed monsters. Briefly you appear in a landscape stripped to bare, red earth, whereupon you drop, sharply and severely into Queenstown, a famous mining town, but then it is back into the thick vegetation once more. My concentrating face was almost permanently in use, even when Rachel was driving.

Our wheels through this landscape came attached to a hairdryer called Philippa. Philippa was a scarlet Hyundai Getz. She didn't have much power, but what she lacked in strength she made up for in spirit. She was the girl to take us into the Tasmanian wilderness. From Lake St Clair onwards was pristine, cold rainforest, a World Heritage site that is devoid of any development whatsoever. I'm convinced she was loving it as much as we were.

I've thought long and hard how to explain what it felt like to drive through this, and also how we felt taking a cruise into the wilderness from Strahan the following day, but there are no descriptive words to do it justice. The forest is so old it has no birds, as fruit had not yet evolved. Hundreds of square miles are left untouched, potentially unexplored. From the river, which is 35-metres deep at places, it is utterly peaceful, and this is the only way I can explain the whole wilderness experience. I was utterly at peace. We were at peace. It lasted a long time.

It even survived the landslide.

After two nights at Ormiston House we were heading to a farmstead in Hamilton. This meant, once again, driving along that magnificent mountain road. But heavy rainfall had caused a landslide above Queenstown and had closed it and, being the only road back to Hobart, we suddenly became rather anxious. We felt like we were experiencing the trials and tribulations of real explorers, thwarted by the elements on our expedition, only we had heaters and Tim Tams. We waited for an hour, parked in torrential rain, amused by cars reaching the barricade and, in their confusion, having a look, pulling back and then having a look again. After an hour somebody came to us and told us it would be a further few hours until the cliffs were safe and clear - by this time we would be arriving in Hamilton at night time, when we were not allowed to drive - and advised us to take another route.

Because, despite the A10 being the only road through the wilderness, there is another route.

So that is what we did.

We drove around the whole of Tasmania in a day. We stopped only to change drivers.We didn't stop to eat. We had to keep going to beat the sun. With no radio reception and no phone reception, and townships en route effectively non existent, we could not ring ahead to Hamilton to warn them we would be late. We couldn't contact anybody. Thrifty, the adopted parents of Philippa (who brought her up, it has to be said, very well indeed) had provided us with a map of Tasmania, marking all the Big Roads. We had two conditions of our rental agreement: not to drive on unsealed surfaces and not to drive at night. Unintentionally, we were about to break both.With hindsight, what we did was stupid, but I wouldn't have changed it for the world. It was just Rachel, Philippa and I, and 398 km of beauty that we would not otherwise have seen.

Trusting the Thrifty map, we went north, driving on roads that connect disparate, tiny habitations, and sometimes connect nothing at all, but carve through the finest scenery in Australia and the finest scenery I have ever seen. We didn't really have time to admire it, as we couldn't stop, not even for a photo. I was in my element, in part because I have had the great fortune to have been to Tasmania before - having honestly thought I would never be lucky enough to go back - and here I was, revisiting some familiar scenery (albeit briefly). So the road past Cradle Mountain I recognised, longing to see a wombat there again. I recognised Mole Creek, remembered the honey shop in Chudleigh and the turning for Marakoopa caves. As the afternoon got older, we were carving up and down mountains, confounded by the lack of easterly main roads across the state, still miles to go. But we weren't panicking. In fact, we were rather enjoying it, especially when we passed a sign saying "Paradise (Sheffield)".

The shops were close to closing as we went through Deloraine, a small town that seemed satisfyingly old-fashioned, tucked away and cut off from the rest of Australia (something you could say of the entire state). From here we joined the A5, a highway that would take us nearly all the way to Hamilton. It was a highway that would be our undoing.

The A5 connects Deloraine with Melton Mowbray, via the farming town of Bothwell. It travels up to the Central Plateau Conservation Area, the highest flat land in the state. The plateau spans from the Walls of Jerusalem National Park to the Great Western Tiers and is home to a thousand lakes, including Great Lake, the second largest in the state and 1,030 metres above sea level. It is a fisherman's dream and a popular holiday location for families in the summer. It was not the summer. It was cold, bleak and up here, empty buildings were simply eerie. I've seen too many horror films.

Worryingly for us, at the highest point of this road, when our options were to keep going or turn back for several hours in search of a single alternative (let alone a suitable alternative), despite being an A-road and on our map, the tarmac ends. I had wondered why we had not seen any traffic for hours. For 27 km we slid and skidded along wet gravel, trying to avoid enormous potholes and the greater risk of sliding into the second largest lake in Tasmania, which was only a few metres to our left. Keeping up our speed was impossible and, frankly, dangerous. The sun was lowering, providing an idyllic backdrop, but far from tranquil we were terrified, particularly when lorries hurtled by in the opposite direction.

I have since discovered that the A5 is the least used highway in Tasmania.

It then became a race against time to reach Hamilton, and a race that we failed. Despite my best efforts (Rachel and fallen asleep), it was very much dark when we rolled up at the home of Tim and Jane at Curringa Farm. They had just finished their dinner and their son was playing with their pet cockatoo.

They asked us how we were and where we had come from, and took pity on us for our journey. In the warmth of their kitchen, they proceeded to show us incredible kindness: filling up tupperware with portions of their own dinner, they not only gave us a free evening meal but also a hamper of homemade bread and jam, butter, milk, bacon and eggs from the farm. Tim and Jane are sixth generation farmers at Curringa, a large site in the Derwent Valley. They have three holiday cottages at the far side of their land, overlooking a lake, itself annexed to the river Derwent, which flows to Hobart. At the time of visiting, they had, at least, one pet cockatoo and one pet wombat.

"Do you like fishing?" asked Tim. A previous visitor had left a fishing line in our cottage, so Tim went off to fetch us bait and lure. I didn't have the heart to say I didn't have the faintest clue what to do. "Feel free to fish beside the lake or take the canoe out", he added. "Although, if you see a boat pass by, you best not get caught. You need a licence to fish."

Jane asked us of our plans for our short stay, whereupon Rachel mentioned that the following day was my birthday. At this both Jane and Tim got very excited and, entirely unprovoked, produced a bottle of champagne from their fridge.

"Sorry it's not local", apologised Jane.

After a day of hurrying, hunger and panic, landslides, unending vistas and extreme isolation, their sudden hospitality could not have been more welcome. It set up our stay there nicely.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Tasmania II: The best little pub in town

STANDARDS of accommodation, it seems, are far lower in Tasmania than elsewhere in Australia – hostels are usually hit and miss but prior research into those in Hobart suggested that they are well below par. I had stayed before at the Hobart Hostel, which was acceptable, but, keen to try somewhere else, we weren’t having much luck. In the end, Rachel being braver than I and making the decision, we took a risk on the New Sydney Hotel, which claimed to be a hostel but was entirely absent from hostel-booking websites. Its own website hadn’t been updated for years (it has since been given a spring clean, but is still spectacularly vague). Rachel gave them a call, discovering that they did indeed provide accommodation and at a ridiculously cheap rate (less than half price of anywhere else). Reviews of everywhere else seemed so dire that we cut our losses and decided that if it was going to bad, it might as well be cheap.

As it turns out, the New Sydney Hotel, an Irish bar in central Hobart, has a fantastic atmosphere, good beer and a tempting menu. The staff were friendly, helpful and not at all worried that we had arrived late. We had a drink in the bar before heading to bed, feeling content. Unfortunately, our room was very cold (it was winter in Tasmania), but they gave us dozens of blankets. The room was bare, the television had a broken aerial, but we had the floor to ourselves and we couldn’t complain, given the price. We spent the evening looking at leaflets for Tasmanian attractions, often distracted by pictures of cute animals.

The real problem with the New Sydney was its lack of a kitchen. For many this wouldn’t be a problem, as you could go out and buy breakfast, but finding a gluten-free breakfast in Hobart isn’t so easy. A barmaid let us use the pub’s cutlery and crockery, even fetching us some milk from the bar for our Rachel-friendly cereal, but we realised that we would have to find somewhere else. So, with heavy hearts, we bade farewell to the ‘best little pub in town’ – almost without paying, simply because they forgot to ask – and began ringing around.

Hostels in Hobart are few. Montgomery’s YHA, probably the most popular hostel in the state capital, tried to charge us $110 a night for a room above a karaoke bar. So the Pickled Frog became our only other option. It had promise: it has won many awards and claims to be the best hostel in Tasmania. But this, we can reveal, doesn’t bode well for the others.

It is easy to see how the Pickled Frog has become much loved. In the summer, the atmosphere could truly be the hostel’s strength. The entire lower floor is dedicated to lounge spaces, comfortable communal areas and a large kitchen, all resembling an old, adapted tavern. We would sit by the roaring fire, strumming the communal guitar or listening to the music pumped out by reception - good stuff, like the Cat Empire and Xavier Rudd. If there had been more people around I dare say we might have met some fascinating people.

But finding dirty bowls tucked in the furniture of our room – goodness knows how long they’d been there - certainly dampened the initial appeal. And it got worse. There were things growing in the toasters. A sign on the bathroom doors warned of a long-passed, one-morning-only water pipe switch-off, which had prompted a disproportionate overreaction: that is, nobody bothered to flush the toilets. Things were growing on the bathroom ceilings. We don't mean to be snobs: you expect hostels to be basic. But on the first morning we both felt that we had come out of the showers dirtier than we had entered, so on the second morning we didn't bother to shower at all. We were keen to escape and so after three nights in Hobart we left, smelling something awful, heading out of town in a hairdryer-on-wheels called Philippa.

Imagine our surprise and delight then, when, after a day’s driving along a road that deserves an entire book unto itself, mountains, ravines, gorges and rainforest between us and the Pickled Frog, we arrived at Ormiston House in Strahan. For less money per night than Montgomery’s YHA we checked in... to a mansion.

Post script
If you need to stay in Hobart, we really recommend you go for one of the more expensive options or, if you do want a hostel, I can’t recommend the Hobart Hostel enough over the others. With hindsight, it's more than acceptable, and the staff were top people. Overall, however, we recommend you head out of Hobart and visit Mike and Carolyn at Ormiston House. It. Is. Beautiful.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Tasmania I: Choo choo

IN June 2009, Simon and Rachel flew to Australia on the Big Plane. They stayed with Rachel’s sister Julia and brother-in-law Alex in Sydney for two weeks, where they saw the sights, ate too much Thai food and bought a ring. They then took a longer-than-expected flight to Perth in Western Australia, hired a bigger-than-expected camper van and drove a further-than-planned 2,000 miles. With two weeks left and no plan, they quickly revisited Sydney before taking a further flight to Hobart, Tasmania. Here they drove around mountains and through rainforest, they befriended a wombat and Simon climbed a very big hill. This is their story.

THE West Coast Wilderness Railway, which spans from Queenstown to Regatta Point near Strahan in western Tasmania, is a truly remarkable piece of engineering and one of the greatest train journeys in the world today. It was built to service the copper mines of the Mount Lyell region, providing a means to get to market. Before the railway, all incoming plant and equipment was shipped to Strahan, where it would be loaded on to lighters and ferried as far as possible up the King River. Once landed, this gear would be dragged on sleds or packed on to mules for the 18 hour journey inland to the mine.

But this is the Tasmanian wilderness, with services and lifelines few and far between. It is the 1890s. Strahan, a tiny fishing village, is situated on Macquarie Harbour, an inlet accessed only by Hells Gates, which opens on to the cold, southern Indian Ocean and is named as such because it once welcomed prisoners to the infamous Sarah Island penal settlement that lay within the harbour. Hells Gates has been observed, in modern times, to have 25 metre-high swell and has claimed many victims – this after defences were constructed to tame it. The King River is unpredictable and regularly floods. The terrain, once on foot, is mountainous and coated in thick, temperate rainforest. Stray a few metres off today’s roads and you will be lost: what it must have been like to transport plant through this we can only imagine. Tracks were often boggy, and goods prone to damage. It was, to many people, impossible terrain to traverse.

The Government had recently built a railway from Strahan to Zeehan, and talks to build a railway from Strahan to Queenstown for the use of the Mount Lyell Mining Company began. Finances were tight, but the discovery of silver in 1893 added further incentive, and the decision was made to build as far as “The Bar Rock” (Teepookana) at the highest navigable point of the King River, 17km from Strahan.

The first section to be built was from Teepookana to Dubbil Barril. This required, for just 7km of track, the construction of 19 bridges, one of which became known as the Quarter Mile Bridge, spanning 244m over 18m deep water. The work force for this came from the state of Victoria, as Tasmanians had deliberately declined the job. Dubbil Barril station was situated at the foot of a 1 in 16 incline, for which the German-patented ABT railway system had to be adopted. This was the only system in the world at that time that could cope with such gradient, up to two and a half times the steepness of any other railway system. This limited the tonnage carried on the railway but was, until 1932, the only access through to Queenstown.

The 10km from Dubbil Barril to Lynchford was built in simultaneous stages, with a change of staff and management, and in November 1896, the railway was finally ready to take goods. In total, the line ran for only 22km and had 48 bridges. Bridges amounted to 1.3km, 6% of the total line length.

But still lighters had to navigate the treacherous King River, so in 1899 the line was extended to Regatta Point where it was met by an extension to the government’s Strahan to Zeehan line. This required a further 11km of line and 11 bridges, including a 43m, 110 tonne iron bridge constructed in London. Queenstown and the Mount Lyell mines were finally connected to the rest of the state. Now Burnie, Launceston and Hobart wanted to build railways to Queenstown too. Prospects were looking good.

Meanwhile, rival companies and mines were building railways. James Crotty’s North Mount Lyell Copper Company constructed its own railway from Kelly Basin, deeper within Macquarie Harbour, to Linda via Darwin and Pillinger. It was longer but a far more efficient line, built over more viable terrain with shallower gradients and greater tonnage capacity. It threatened to ruin the efforts of the ABT rail, but Crotty died in 1898 and the company merged with the Mount Lyell Mining Company. The Linda line was closed in 1929, the settlements along its route abandoned. Today, these are ghost towns that are very difficult to access. With the exception of Linda, which now contains only one burnt out building, you won’t find them on maps. The township of Crotty was permanently flooded in the 1980s because of dam construction and the creation of the artificial Lake Burbury. This slice of engineering history was reclaimed by nature.

Teepookana could not compete with the port city of Burnie. Finances and reserves dwindled and, though mining activity continued, on Saturday 29th June, 1963, the Queenstown to Regatta Point ABT railway closed. The track was ripped up and sold. By 1972, much of the Quarter Mile Bridge had been washed away by floods. Teepookana, Dubbil Barril, Rinadeena and Lynchford dwindled.

In 2000, work began to restore, as much as possible, the Mount Lyell Mining Company’s line. It was to become the West Coast Wilderness Railway, a lifeline tourist attraction to the isolated Queenstown and Strahan. It is one of the most remarkable pieces of engineering in the world and regularly voted one the greatest railway journeys on Earth.

When Rachel and I arrived in Strahan, the story of the railway mesmerised me, and we immediately drove to Regatta Point and to the terminal. We had been driving all day around and through the wilderness and I was in love with the countryside. I couldn’t wait to see more of it, and what better way than over the Quarter Mile bridge in a century-old steam train?

The West Coast Wilderness Railway costs $118 each for a one-way journey, which is a ridiculous amount of money. So we never caught the train. We got on a boat and went into the depths of the wilderness instead.

Source: The Abt Railway and Railways of the Lyell region by Lou Rae