The Retirees on the Move Again – Tasmania in Ten – West Coast Wilderness Railway

Watered and fed we returned to our caravan park, slept as best we could then showered in the freezing cold of the ablutions block the following morning, before boarding the Mt Lyell No 3 steam engine for a ride from Queenstown to Dubbil Barril. The West Coast Wilderness Railway is a reconstruction of the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company railway in Tasmania between Queenstown and Regatta Point, Strahan. The railway is significant because of its Abt system to conquer the mountainous terrain through rainforest, with original locomotives still operating on the railway today. Now operating as a tourist experience with a focus on sharing the history of the Tasmania’s West Coast, the original railway began operations in 1897 as the only link between Queenstown and the port of Strahan. The railway utilised the Abt rack and pinion system for steep sections and the gauge is 3 ft 6 in. The Abt system was devised by Roman Abt, a Swiss locomotive engineer.

A rack railway (also rack-and-pinion railway, cog railway) is a steep grade railway with a toothed rack rail, usually between the running rails. The trains are fitted with one or more cog wheels or pinions that mesh with this rack rail. This allows the trains to operate on steep grades above around 7 to 10%, which is the maximum for friction-based rail.

We stopped at various stations (now abandoned except for the tourists attending the trip), panned for gold at Lynchford, walked through a cold weather rain forest, and saw trestle bridges built by hand from forest timber, witnessed a hand operated turntable at Dubbil Barril and were feed every step of the way. The “guard” Thomas told us the story of the two Irish miners Crotty and Bowes Kelly (and co-opted two passengers into playing the parts) along the journey making some of the more boring parts entertaining.

We started with sparkling wine and salmon canapes before arriving at the gold town of Lynchford where we panned for a tiny speck of gold. Yes only one tiny speck was found. Here we saw the F O Henry sign above the shop door reminding us of the demount-able store we saw in a picture in the Hall at Lake Margaret and F O Henry went on to become one of Tasmania’s wealthiest men.

After panning for gold we had scones jam and cream before our next stop to take on water for the boiler after our engine had got to the top of the mountain. We got to see the rack and pinion system in operation.

After this stop we cruised down the mountain through the gorge amazed at the rugged country through which the railway had been built by manual labour and into Dubbil Barril where we strolled through a forest walk whilst the engineers turned the engine around for the trip back to Queenstown. The turntable is manual and lots of steam is expelled during the process and not just from the engine. On our return journey we snacked on salad wraps and hot chocolate. Thomas finished his tale of the rivalry between the Irish miners and how that determined the death of some towns and the survival of Queenstown.

After a very enjoyable journey we went home to the van and commenced our journey to Hobart, still full from all the food on the train. It is one of the longer legs of our journey and we encountered a full moon on the way finally arriving at Paul and Emily’s house in South Hobart around 6.30pm.

The Retirees on the Move Again – Tasmania in Ten – Macquarie Harbour and Sarah Island

Next morning, we excitedly awaken to a fine day and the hope of fair seas for we are sailing to Hells Gates, Bonnet Island, Sarah Island, the Petuna Fish Farm and the Gordon River. After a false start (forgot our boarding passes) we boarded the Ocean Spirit setting sail at 9.00 am. We had the opportunity to look at Strahan as we awaited casting off.

Firstly we sailed to Hells Gates (so called by the convicts sent to Sarah Island between 1822 and 1834 as it was hell on earth) the sea entrance to Macquarie Harbour and the location of Bonnet Island and its lighthouse. As we approached the Gates and passed the penguin colony on Bonnett Island, the wind blew hard and the cold grew immensely. The boat seemed to be struggling against the wind and tide. We passed the lighthouse at Hells Gate turned around and returned from whence we had come. Once we had our back to the wind the lake returned to a table top and the boat now moved easily across the water. We made our way to Petuna Fisheries sea farm where they raise Ocean Trout. We watched as an attendant hosed the pellets into the farm pen and the water rippled with a thousand fins.

From there we went to Sarah Island. The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, established on Sarah Island, operated between 1822 and 1834. The settlement housed mainly male convicts, with a small number of women. During its 12 years of operation, the penal colony achieved a reputation as one of the harshest penal settlements in the Australian colonies. The penal station was established as a place of banishment within the Australian colonies. It took the worst convicts and those who had escaped from other settlements. The isolated land is ideally suited for its purpose. It was separated from the mainland by treacherous seas, surrounded by a mountainous wilderness and was hundreds of miles away from the colony’s other settled areas. The only seaward access is through the treacherous narrow channel Hells Gates.

Despite its isolated location, a considerable number of convicts attempted to escape from the island. Bushranger Matthew Brady was among a party that successfully escaped to Hobart in 1824 after tying up their overseer and seizing a boat. James Goodwin was pardoned after his 1828 escape and was subsequently employed to make official surveys of the wilderness he had passed through. Sarah Island’s most infamous escapee was Alexander Pearce who managed to get away twice. On both occasions, he cannibalized his fellow escapees. For a short period, it was the largest shipbuilding operation in the Australian colonies. Chained convicts had the task of cutting down Huon pine trees in the Gordon River valley and rafting the logs down the river to the Island. Eventually the heavily forested island was cleared by the convicts.

It was finally closed in 1834. Most of the remaining convicts were then relocated to Port Arthur. However, 10 stole the last ship built on the Island “the Frederick” and sailed her to Chile to escape. The ruins of the settlement remain today as the Sarah Island Historic Site. The Parks and Wildlife Service website reports the following about HMS Frederick;

“Perhaps the most remarkable escape attempt occurred after the official closure of the penal settlement. Twelve convicts, under the supervision of several soldiers and Master Shipwright David Hoy, remained behind to complete the fitting out of the brig, Frederick. Despite the fact that specific orders concerning the completion of vessels in the yards had mysteriously been mislaid, the men dutifully carried out their tasks with ‘great propriety, executing Mr. Hoys’ orders with promptitude and alacrity’.

After the launch of the Frederick in January 1834, ten of the convicts seized the ship. They landed their overseers on the beach, leaving with them half of their supplies. The convicts then sailed the Frederick south of New Zealand and onto the distant coast of South America. Six weeks later they abandoned the Frederick off the coast of Chile and rowed the ship’s whaleboat the remaining 80 km to shore.

Passing themselves off as wrecked sailors, the men were welcomed into the community and several soon assumed positions as shipwrights and respected members of the community. Several married local women, while six of the men made a further escape to America and Jamaica.

Ultimately, the long arm of British law caught up with the four remaining men, bringing them back to face the Hobart gallows in 1837. At their trial, two of the escapees, William Shires and James Porter argued that they were guilty only of stealing a ‘floating bundle of wood and other materials’. As the Frederick had never been registered, there was some doubt in the Chief Justice’s mind as to what legally constituted a ship. Further, the ship had been seized in enclosed waters and not on the high sea — a requisite for charges of Piracy. It was these legal technicalities which saved the men from the gallows. Nonetheless, the men were transported to Norfolk Island for life.”

From there we sailed to the Gordon River entrance into Macquarie Harbour. Prisoners from sarah Island were sent up here to log Huon pine for ship building and of course it was the centre of controversy in respect of a Hydro dam proposed to built on the river. The skipper moved from the wheel house (where there is no wheel but only a joy stick) to his external controls and moored the vessel carefully against a decaying jetty. We disembarked and walked through temperate rain forest where huon pine is want to grow – very slowly. To demonstrate how slow it grows there is a display of a log showing 650 years worth of growth and on the ground below us is a tree three times that size, albeit it has fallen over but it continues to grow and host some other trees as well. It is a short walk but you get the idea that inside one of these forests is a formidable jungle, cold bleak and not very hospitable.

After returning to the boat we enjoyed a documentary on the area whilst returning to Strahan. A great day. That night it was a burger for me and pizza slices for Kerry from the “greasy spoon’ next door to the caravan park. We had some respite from the camper by renting a cabin for these two nights. Luxury.

The Retirees on the Move Again – Tasmania in Ten – Dove Lake, Tullah and Strahan

The following morning, we awoke to another cold day with grey skies and spotting rain. Nevertheless, we decided to visit Dove Lake and view the Cradle Mountain. The first shuttle was at 9.10 am and we were on it – apart from the driver the only ones on it. After 20 mins driving through the park we arrived at a car park with snow topped mountains in the background. On the far side of the car park was a sign board with all the walks available and Kerry selected the walk to the old boat shed. We walked past a couple getting out of their car with backpacks and bush walking sticks looking the very image of prepared experienced walkers. We walked along the edge of the lake, passing buttongrass and other alpine flora not realising we were walking in the shadow of Cradle Mountain. That couple from the car park passed us as we neared the boat shed. We started talking with them and learned they were walking to the summit of Cradle Mountain which was immediately behind us. After bidding them fair weather for their climb and taking a few snaps of the boat shed (I don’t know how long it has stood in that cold water but it seemed in good nick given the environment) we returned to that car park and caught the shuttle back to the caravan park and set sail for Strahan.

There is no mobile phone service on Cradle Mountain or its surrounds, so we blissfully thought the world had forgotten us until we reached Tullah (pronounced Tu-lah in Strahan and Tull -a in Queenstown) and we regained service and the urgent messages. Whilst Kerry rang home, I made a cup of coffee. Coffee cup in hand I walked through the mining memorial beside the highway. It had provided a convenient place to pull in and it also told an interesting story about the mining of galena (silver sulphide – the usual form of lead in its natural state) at Mt Farrell in the 19th century and later after the Depression a second strike was made saving the town till 1974.

Kerry finished her phone call and we moved onto Strahan. We had hopes of visiting Bonnet Island but the weather is against sailing through Hells Gates (or so we were told) so it is an afternoon of knitting and writing this blog.

That evening we visited Hamers Hotel for dinner. Not bad but a limited menu and a noisy woman who continuously laughed like a hyena.