Strahan, Tasmania (28/8/07)
Today, my birthday, I woke up in Zeehan. Not many people do that - it is a tiny mining (primarily zinc) community just inland of the West Coast of Tasmania. Once awake, I saw no reason to stay, as the only forms of commercial activity are the three pubs, two service station and gruesome takeaway bar. Besides, I had a train to catch. Not just any train, but a “Wilderness Experience” train. It is much better than it sounds - a genuine 100 year old steam train:
one of a fleet of five formerly operated by the Mt Linney Copper Mining Company. Three are now back, running the same line between Strahan and Queenstown, although their purpose has changed.
They always did a bit of tourism, in a sense, by bringing the mineworkers out to Strahan for a break. Now they run day trips to give tourists like myself a wilderness experience.
It is done pretty well - the line runs along the King River for a bit, and then has to go up and over a steep hill to get to the Queen River and Queenstown. So steep is the incline that a special technique was developed by a Swiss clockmaker named Abt - essentially the engine is fitted with cogged wheels which fit into notches in a central rail (a rack and pinion system):
While the natural rainforest at each end has long since been chopped down (to provide firewood for the mines!) the central part is still intact. What is staggering about the whole venture is that the line fell into disuse 40 years ago, and was completely rebuilt as part of the celebration of the centenary of the Australian Federation. Forty bridges, 33 kilometres of track, half a dozen stations, it all had to be built, virtually from scratch. Two of the bridges had a fomer life in Hobart, only one original bridge is still in use - this 110 tonne steel girder bridge was shipped over from England, barged in two pieces up river, the barges waited in appropriate spots until the river ran high, then they were manhandled into place.
This is just one of the many amazing stories surrounding the making of the railway. The other one that really got to me was the one about the locomotive taking us on our journey. It was made in Scotland, shipped out, taken apart, and carried on packhorses into the then railhead (I think about 15 km inland). I wonder if we’d have the stomach for doing this sort of thing today. I doubt it.
Mind you, apparently the Tasmanians didn’t mucfh want to do it either - the work was done by a mixture of convicts and imports from other States. The train guide had many stories of local history. After mentioning that it only rains twice (once for five months, and then for six months) we rounded a corner, and pointed out the venue of a former (and remarkably long-lived, at just over three years) nudist colony!
Then there was the story of the big hungry seal which broke into the salmon farm, setting 70,000 of them (some as big as a man, allegedly) free. Locals thought it was Christmas! Or the one about his dad’s mate, annoyed at the way our guide’s dad would tooooot for far too long outside his house. So, the mate got his own back: he set two mine detonators on the track. Very effective in eliminating effusive tooting, apparently.
Less cheerful was the tale of the two rivers: so bad was the pollution from the mines that the rivers died and turned orange - nothing lives in them, no fish, no plants, not even bugs apparently. It rains so much that the rivers are having a hard time regenerating - too much water pressure and too much silt. But he sees hope - the banks are starting to show signs of life, and fish are being found in the river mouth.
Looking at these rivers had a special resonance, given all the news reports about the proposed new pulp mill, up on the Tamar north of Launceston. The minister has said that “if they pollute, we’ll close them down” but damage can last a long long time. And in the Tamar, there is more than the river at stake: there are the current agricultural operators, the tourism operators and the citizenry themselves. I can see the benefits of the mill, but don’t know why it has to be there: even without any air or water pollution, it is going to be a rude incursion into the district. Somewhere slightly less visible would be better, and there are several mining towns which could use a shot in the arm.
Anyway, once off the bus in Queenstown (one such town - half of its shops stand empty) it was a quick bus ride back to Strahan, where I checked into my first ever tourist cabin. It’s a tiny little room, but there are plenty of communal facilities and it is cheap. I had planned to stay in a yacht on the waterfront that claimed to be doing $40 B+B’s, but the yacht was nowhere to be seen. Since it is my birthday, I decided to splurge a bit on dinner. Since I couldn’t decide between the two main nice places in town, I went to both: a very nice slow roast pork belly entrée and baked trout in one, followed by an oyster entrée, gelato and coffee in the other. Without wanting to denigrate the Tasmanian oyster industry in any way, they’re not a patch on the bluff oyster.
But Strahan was in a very nice spot: