As we left Cradle Valley it was raining and a road weather alert had been issued by the Tasmanian Authorities. Towing a caravan in excess of 2.5 tonnes can be a small problem in wet weather when traveling downhill so we were quite happy to travel slowly in a lower gear than what we would normally use. The road was quite steep in places and while going up the ranges was fine going down was a steady process.
We arrived safely at Strahan about 1:00pm and set up camp at the Strahan Holiday Park where there are more cabins than caravan sites and a shortage of bathrooms – it’s a blessing to have a full ensuite in the van to make one more independent.
That afternoon we walked into the main shopping area of Strahan to see what was there. We saw where the West Coast Wilderness Railway departs from so we walked from the Visitor Information Centre to the Railway Station to determine the time it would take us on Friday when we take a trip on the Abt Railway.
We also visited the booking office to collect our boarding passes for the Gordon River Cruise and West Coast Wilderness Railway trips we planned to take on Thursday and Friday. Then back to the caravan park to dodge the intermittent showers which were still occurring.
On Thursday morning the alarm rudely and insistently woke us at 6:00am so we crawled out of a warm bed to face the cool morning and prepare for our trip on the The Lady Jane Franklin II through Macquarie Harbour (six times larger than Sydney Harbour) and up the Gordon River.
We boarded the ship and found our seats adjacent to a window near the front of the vessel. These seats afforded us a good view of the scenery during the cruise and were quite comfortable. Shortly after the scheduled departure time the Lady Jane Franklin II reversed out of her berth and moved into the harbour to begin the journey.
With a commentary from the captain we travelled firstly to the mouth of the harbour “Hells Gate”. Supposedly the name was first coined by the convicts because the life they were going to at the penal station on Sarah Island was considered to be hell so the entrance to the harbour was christened “Hells Gate”. We moved out of the harbour to the Southern Ocean and for a short time experienced the increased swell and rocking and rolling of the ship which went with it; then the captain turned the ship into the harbour and continued the scheduled journey.
There is a lot of history associated with Macquarie Harbour and we saw evidence of the extraordinary efforts that were made in the 1900s to improve the harbour to allow shipping to enter the area and berth at Strahan for the carriage of minerals from nearby mines which had been transported by rail from Queenstown and other locales.
Today Macquarie Harbour is home to many fish farms growing salmon and trout.
Because of the number of rivers flowing into the area, the harbour has an upper layer of fresh water which cannot be flushed quickly by tidal movements due to the narrow entrance at Hells Gate. This layer of fresh water is apparently useful to the farming of trout and salmon. We stopped adjacent to one of these many fish farms and watched the feeding of the fish via a system of spraying the food pellets suspended in a jet of water to ensure even distribution across the entire cage.
After the fish farm we moved past Sarah Island (the home of a Penal Settlement for a number of years) and into the Gordon River proper.
We cruised slowly upstream for about 45 minutes and eventually docked at Heritage Landing and disembarked to take a short (400 metres) walk through a thick rain forest where we saw living examples of ancient Huon Pine and other trees. A two thousand year old tree has fallen to the ground but its roots still survive with saplings growing from them.
Back on the ship a buffet lunch of cold meats, smoked salmon and salads is served. This ship cruises slowly while patrons eat the meal and when this process is completed we berth at Sarah Island for a guided tour of the remaining ruins of the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.
The penal settlement at Sarah Island has the reputation of being one of the harshest penal stations in the Australian Colonies. The Marcus Clarke novel – For the Term of His Natural Life – has some basis in the penal colony on Sarah Island recounting elements of the escape of one of the prisoners on the island.
The settlement only operated for 11 years and was closed in 1833. Apparently the settlement pre-dated Port Arthur and Norfolk Island. The settlement was used to build boats and 130 vessels were built on the site during its tenure. There is a tale of the last ship that was built actually being completed when the bulk of the settlement had been disbanded and relocated. Apparently the prisoners building the boat overpowered those guarding them and sailed the ship to the far away places in their escape – The Ship That Never Was. The tour was most interesting and we cited many of the ruins which remarkably still exist after 180 years.
Once we boarded the ship again the return trip to Strahan took approximately 30 minutes and we were back on the dock by 2:45pm after a very interesting and enjoyable outing.
The first day of autumn in Australia – 1st March dawned as a cold but fine day in the town of Strahan and saw us taking a trip on the West Coast Wilderness Railway from Strahan to Queenstown. We walked from the Caravan Park to the Railway Station at Regatta Point in time to board the train for departure at 10:15am.
A brochure about the West Coast Wilderness Railway indicates “The West Coast Wilderness Railway is a restoration of the original Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Co. Ltd railway, built on the edge of civilisation in 1896 to get copper concentrates from Queenstown to export markets. It is a railway built in a time when rugged terrain was a foe to be conquered, not grand nature to be admired. And tame it they did, with a tortuous 35 kilometre route that demanded a leap into the unknown for company officials, engineers, contractors and labourers. This remarkable railway overcame incredible obstacles to enter its first life. Its revival, also against the odds, truly makes it the railway that refused to die.”
The journey begins at Regatta Point in Strahan and travels firstly along the banks of Lettes Bay on Macquarie Harbour to Lowana Yard; then turns inland to follow the King River passing through the abandoned town of Treepookana to the first stopping point at Lower Landing where we had morning tea. This first stage of the journey is undertaken utilizing a 1950s vintage diesel powered engine which takes the train to the lunch stop at Dubbil Barril where lunch is served.
The views along the entire route are spectacular but hard to capture from the train.
Dubbil Barril is the point where the train from Strahan rendezvouses with the train from Queenstown and consequently each train changes engines. The diesel engines do not have sufficient power to pull the carriages over the range so the steam engine which is equipped with the ABT rack and pinion system takes the train back to Queenstown while the diesel returns to Strahan. There is a turntable system at Dubbil Barril to facilitate the turnaround of the two engines and all this shunting occurs while the passengers are having lunch. Of course the passengers need to change trains as well at this point and when all this has been accomplished and everyone is fed (including the crew) the journey recommences.
“The Abt locomotive has two adhesion engines driving the wheels on the rails, and two rack engines driving the pinion on the rack rails in the centre of the track.” In this way the smallish steam powered engines (dating from 1890) have the power to pull the carriages over the range over grades as 1 in 20 and control the descent of the trains down the grades as much as 1 in 16.
From Dubbil Barril the journey continues up the range to Rinadeena Saddle where the steam engine takes on water to complete the journey into Queenstown. After Rinadeena we come to Halls Creek Siding and shortly after we meet the Queen River which we then follow to Lynchford and on into Queenstown. Our train ride concludes at Queenstown and we board a coach for the trip back to Strahan across a quite windy and in some places narrow road.
Back in Strahan the coach drops us at the Activity Centre (saves a 25 minute walk) and we go inside to make some purchases. A little way up the road is an Old English Lolly Shop with an extensive range of sweets to temp the unwary. We make a couple of purchases and then step into a local cafe for a coffee to end a great day and an enjoyable visit to Strahan. Tomorrow we move on to New Norfolk.