Tasmania's wild west
Standing at the Edge of the World, the last time I was in Tasmania, made me want more of the same: remote, otherworldly, spectacular wilderness. So this latest trip was planned almost wholly around the midwest and southwest of the island, coast and interior.
Strahan was where we headed from Hobart airport at lunchtime on 24 December, in surprisingly hot weather. It's about five hours from the state capital, depending on how many times you stop and what you're following along the wiggly bits over the ranges. You can avoid driving into Hobart centre, as long as you don't get thrown by the reversible middle lane (of five) as you leave the Tasman Bridge, as I did.
We took the Lyell Highway (Route A10) – there's no alternative – which takes its name from Mount Lyell in the West Coast Range where copper was mined in the late 19th century near Queenstown. Our route followed the Derwent River for some way, through verdant agriculture including fruit and hops. Beyond Hamilton, it climbs the Central Highlands, where there are hydroelectric schemes and a lakes district. At Derwent Bridge, you can turn north to Cradle Mountain-Lake Clair National Park, the northernmost reaches of which we had visited before; at Derwent Bridge my thylacine awareness antenna twitched for the first time.
Beyond Derwent Bridge the map includes wonderful names such as Plain of the Mists and Everlasting Hills. The walk to Frenchmans Cap appealed, but we didn't have the time it demanded. The partly rehabilitated mining moonscape we overlooked east of Queenstown came as as something of a shock.
Halfway along Tasmania's west coast, Strahan is hardly big enough to be called a town. It sits at the northernmost point of Macquarie Harbour, a huge shallow inlet 50 kilometres long and on average 10 kilometres wide, making it 6.5 times bigger than Sydney Harbour. It was 'discovered' in 1815 by Australian explorer and mariner James Kelly, aboard a small whaleboat. The first settlement was Macquarie Harbour Penal Station on Sarah Island near the mouth of the Gordon River, in 1822, where life was grim by all accounts. Strahan wasn't founded until at least 60 years later, to service the region's mining settlements, principally Queenstown, and ship the fruits of the hard labours of timber-getters, or piners as they were known.
Strahan is, quite simply, a delight. It's leafy and boaty and colourful and peaceful. The short main drag reminded me of a film set. Our accommodation was a five-minute walk from the 'centre', at Franklin Manor, which was comfortable and friendly: there were crackers on our breakfast plates on Christmas morning. Other places deserve special mention: The Coffee Shack was open when others weren't, and served tea for two in one large pot complete with flamboyant tea cosy; Risby Cove creates delicious food in a beautiful setting (and also has accommodation); Strahan Village (hotel) provided a lively and extensive buffet in their View 42˚ restaurant on Christmas Day when no one else wanted to open; and Bushman's Bar and Cafe looks fairly ordinary at first sight but serves the best food in town.
On more of our days than not, Strahan lived up to its Wiki description as 'rather gloomy, receiving only 15 clear days annually'. Christmas Day was one of the latter, luckily: it was perfectly hot and sunny, just as I'd ordered. I wanted to walk along Ocean Beach (top of page), west of the town and fronting the Southern Ocean; and I wanted it to be deserted. There was a fog bank just offshore, snaking in over the Henty River mouth to the north, but that only embellished the spectacle.
Tasmania's longest sandy beach is 30 kilometres long, and the 30 metre high Henty Dunes extend for half that distance. They contain shell middens, evidence of thousands of years of Aboriginal occupation in the area.
On the way back to Strahan, we veered off down a dirt road to Macquarie Heads.
Unfortunately, we collected enough plastic litter on Ocean Beach to fill a large bag; and there was considerable felling debris along the road to the lighthouses.
Day 2 was Gordon River cruising day. The weather was not promising: how would we see the famous reflections? Gordon River Cruises transport you on a catamaran, the Lady Jane Franklin II, for about 65 nautical miles in total, over five hours or so. It being Christmas, we treated ourselves to the Captain's Premier Upper Deck. The seats were plush, and angled for the best view out of large windows: you could, if you wished, eat and drink from the moment you boarded to the moment you disembarked back in Strahan.
The narrow entrance to Macquarie Harbour was named Hell's Gate by the wretched prisoners of Sarah Island. One-metres shallows at Fraser Flats, a sand bar near the Harbour entrance, and frequent inclement weather blustering off the Southern Ocean made for a perilous passage. We ventured through Hell's Gate (between Macquarie Heads) out into the Ocean. We didn't go far before turning back but the churning, broiling waters were clear to see, when the driving rain wasn't stinging your eyes shut. Vessels have to use the narrower channel to the left of Entrance Island Lighthouse as you approach: on the way back it was more obvious why.
In the late 1900s, the design of a 2.5 kilometre 'training wall' by engineer William Napier Bell eased navigational problems. It helps to funnel the water, speeding up the tidal flow so that it scours out the sand without the need for dredging, creating the 3-metre-deep Kelly Channel. It took two years for 300 men to place the granite rocks in position.
We made speedy progress southwest across the Harbour before entering the magical Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, described thus by the Parks & Wildlife Service Tasmania:
The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area protects one of the last true wilderness regions on Earth and encompasses a greater range of natural and cultural values than any other region on Earth.
The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area covers approximately 1,584,000 hectares and represents about one fifth of the area of the island state of Tasmania. It protects vast tracts of high-quality wilderness, which harbours a wealth of outstanding natural and cultural heritage.
The area is formally recognised through World Heritage listing as being part of the natural and cultural heritage of the world community. The core area was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1982 on the basis of all four natural criteria and three cultural criteria, at the time satisfying more criteria than any other World Heritage property on Earth.
Low whispy mist added to the magic and sense of the unknown. It was a silent world: the water is deep and there is little shoreline for birds to fish from. Despite the grey, the water was still and eventually reflective. The boat cut its speed once on the River to avoid wash erosion.
I had to keep reminding myself that the seemingly impenetrable and undoubtedly impressive forest is not pristine, and that generations of mighty Huon Pines were logged. It is difficult to see these trees in situ nowadays: they're well off the beaten track, in Botanic Gardens, or you have to pay (see later post about the Huon Valley).
We got off the boat at Heritage Landing and ventured into the dripping forest via a boardwalk, which always feels like cheating to me, but was the only way. It was dark and dank and deep green; most things were moss-covered. I saw one of the largest bracket fungi ever.
Important trees in the rainforest include the ancient Myrtle Beech (from Gondwana days), Sassafras, the brilliant green Native Laurel, Native Plum and Leatherwood. Another, Whitey Wood, is unique to the riverside rainforests of western Tasmania. At one point along our walk lay a fallen Huon Pine. A guide told me it was 2300 years old: the first part had fallen in 1997; the rest of it in 2000. The boardwalk had to be redirected around the remains, which have provided a suitable habitat in which a staggering 147 different species currently flourish. The sapling on the right of the image below is a Celerytop Pine.
The guide secretively pointed out a tiny shoot: it was a young Huon Pine, in the centre of the image below. Anyone trying to steal it, however, would be long dead before it was of commercial value. I didn't tell anyone in any case.
Huon Pine is extremely slow growing. Its high oil content protects it from damage by wood-boring insects, as well as waterproofing it, which is how settlers first recognised the tree's value. They found ancient logs that had been lying in river mud for ages but hadn't rotted. Huon Pine proved to be the best boat-building timber in the world. Its appearance was a surprise: it has small leaves and droopy branches, and reminded me a bit of Casuarina.
As we reached the mouth of the Gordon River, the sun came out and the world turned from grey to blue. Suddenly there were mountains to the south of Macquarie Harbour that we hadn't seen before.
And then there was Sarah Island, Tasmania's first convict settlement, a notoriously inhospitable place. You can tour the ruins with a guide, but we preferred to wander free.
The island was known as Settlement Island from 1822 until 1833: its Aboriginal name was Langerrarerouna. All the trees on the island were cleared by the prisoners, and Huon Pine formed the basis of a thriving shipyard, the largest in Australia in its day. Regrowth did not include Huon, Myrtle or Leatherwood.
On day 3 we drove north to Zeehan through beautiful buttongrass moorland. Buttongrass is a Sedge that has small flower heads on the ends of long stalks: it loves peaty soils. One million hectares of Tasmania are covered with buttongrass moorland. For thousands of years Aboriginal people managed this landscape by regular burning, which prevents its progression into forest. Tasmania's Parks & Wildlife Service and Forestry Tasmania are collaborating to use controlled burning and thus prevent hotter and more destructive wild fires.
The town takes its name from Abel Tasman's ship, the Zeahan: the explorer first gave the name to a feature south of the town, Mount Zeehan, in 1642. The discovery of silver and lead in 1882 transformed the area: a town was booming by the 1890s, becoming Tasmania's third-largest by the turn of the century. It was the Silver City of the West, with more than 5000 inhabitants. Zeehan's extraordinary theatre, the Gaiety, was Australia's largest concert hall, seating 1000 patrons. A ticket to the West Coast Heritage Centre will also get you into the theatre. Entrance fees aren't cheap, unless you've got hours to do the place justice, which we did not, having been in Zeehan Rock Shop for a while. And we had yet to visit Spray Tunnel.
The town felt largely deserted, even though it clearly was not, and is not without charm or colour. Spray Tunnel, a 100 metre long abandoned railway tunnel, is about 4 kilometres from town (signposted left off the Corinna road, then just beyond the golf course). It's pretty dark and chilly as you walk through, but you can see the light at the end. The tunnel was excavated through the hillside so that ore could be transported more easily from the Spray Silver Mine. Its keyhole shape accommodated the shape of the boilers needed at the mine and delivered by train.
We got the rest of the day wrong. We should have gone to Trial Harbour, once Zeehan's port for exporting minerals. What put us off was the thought of a 30-minute drive (one way) along a gravel road in our silly little low-slung hire car. (Word has it, it's not a bad track, so don't make assumptions: always check with the locals.) In addition, I wanted to see the Pieman River, which I thought I could do at Rosebery. I could not. And Rosebery was a bit of a dump. The mine operations need to be better screened.
At the other end of town was this mess.
We drove on to Tullah in the hope of seeing a lovely Lake Rosebery, by which to relax and take tea. It was a reservoir, however, not a natural lake, and was unspectacular, especially in the grey. We headed home to lovely Strahan, unfortunately spotting this south of Zeehan, which we hadn't noticed on the way up. Mine sites must be rehabilitated, even all these years later. Use some of my tourist dollars, if you must.
Our last day in Strahan was wet. It mattered little, however, as we walked to a waterfall in waterproofs. The track to Hogarth Falls, through the People's Park, is slightly closer to town than Franklin Manor. It's a short walk (about 2.5 km there and back) through cool temperate mixed rainforest – with Leatherwood, Sassafras and Myrtle as well as tall gums – but the ferns stole the show.
Other things to do in Strahan include: an evening cruise to see Little Penguins on Bonnet Island; a performance of The Ship That Never Was, which has been running since 1993 at the West Coast Information Centre, and tells the tale of an escape from Sarah Island; and a day trip to Queenstown on the West Coast Wilderness Railway. Unfortunately, we were out of time.
While we were having dinner on our last evening, the skies were clearing. As we left Bushman's Bar and Cafe, this most agreeable West Coast town put on its best show yet. Don't miss this place if you're heading west in Tassie.