Sunday, February 7, 2010

Strahan and Queenstown with Dr Abt

We left North-West Tasmania bound for Strahan and the Western Wilderness. The drive took us through Tullah, Roseberry and Zeehan too quickly to do them justice but frankly there were no obvious attractions to lure us off our path. While the towns are still active mining centres they are no longer booming but continue to trade off their glory days in the late 19th century when lead and silver were first discovered there.

We arrived at the Esplanade in Strahan Village and, after much deliberation and helpful advice from the extremely well-run tourism centre, decided upon the West Coast Wilderness Railway - tantalisingly billed as one of the world's great railway journeys.

Well, I don't know about that. A little over-stated in my opinion but I must declare that trains are not my favourite mode of transport. It was nonetheless a fascinating trip through ancient rainforest gorges up and down some of the steepest inclines of any railway in Australia traversing 40 bridges in 35 kilometres.

Once the supply route for the inland copper mines between Queenstown and the port of Strahan, the rail trip today seeks to bring to life the experience of the original builders from the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company. This was indeed an amazing engineering feat, handbuilt piece by piece using the unique cog-rail system invented by the Swiss clock-maker, Dr Roman Abt.

What was a more startling revelation was that the two rivers over which the train passes - the King River and its major tributory the Queen River - are arguably Australia's most polluted rivers. From the 1880s, waste water from the Mt Lyell copper mine was disposed into the Queen River and between 1922 and 1995 the tailings (ore-washing residue) was dumped in into it. The fumes from the ore smelter produced acid rain which also leached minerals from the bare Queenstown hills. Both rivers are grey and sick to this day.
Poor old Queenstown too is in a sorry state, and so were we when we arrived, for the second time, late at night.  You see, the rail ticket included a return bus trip to Strahan where our car was parked but ... our accommodation was in Queenstown... so we had to drive straight back. Infuriating!

Queenstown struck us as a despondent place the first time around and was pitch black on our return. The train trundled past delipidated and graffiti covered houses backing the track, and the centre of town was like an out-post in a Wild West movie. But despite these rash first impressions, our accommodation was divine.

We drove up the winding streets to the Federation mansion, Penghana, built in 1898 as the residence for the general manager of the Mt Lyall Mining Company. We occupied two of its six grand bedrooms decorated with period antiques and were served a sumptuous breakfast the next morning in a formal dining room. Quite a contrast to our park cabin the night before. There's just no telling from last minute on-line bookings is there?

View over Queenstown from the then Mt Lyell Mining Company's General Manager's bedroom window.

Back-tracking once again, we made our way next morning on the pilgrim's route to Cradle Mountain - the unmissable destination in Tasmania likened in the tourist blurb to the "ruined remains of a medieval cathedral perched imperiously above the lakes that adorn its base".  I've longed to go there for more than a decade, so head off with big expectations.


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