Thursday, October 31, 2013

31 October 2013 - Strahan Holiday Park, Strahan, Tasmania

The alarm went off reliably this morning and we were down at the wharf in plenty of time for our cruise on the Eagle, the red boat run by World Heritage Cruises, an outfit that boasts five generations in the business. Today there were just eighty passengers, a much more pleasant number than a full contingent of two hundred and twenty two would be, a sentiment confirmed by one of the hostesses.

We were most impressed with the very smart and modern Eagle, an aluminium catamaran of 35 metres, a beam of nine metres and a draft of two. It was launched in 2007 and stacks up well against its competitor, the Lady Jane II.  By all accounts there is little between the two services, offering the same route for the same price, but the Lady Jane sets off half an hour earlier and offers more exclusivity to the clientele in the top echelon, the plebs do not have access to the captain as do those who travel on the Eagle.  We were however very well satisfied with our day on the red boat.

We set off down the harbour to Hells Gate, the aptly named entrance in from the wild western seas. Explorers Bass and Flinders failed to identify this as any more than a river mouth. The entrance is just seventy five metres wide and requires some negotiation. In 1900 William Napier Bell designed a massive wall, three kilometres long, five metres deep and the same wide, to maintain the channel in the same place and deepen it at the same time. A breakwater was built at the same time, and all of this remains today allowing boats like the Eagle and the Lady Jane to exit and re-enter to thrill the tourists. We were treated to many stories all about the entrance, the disasters and the natural wonders of the place, but I would be doing the companies a disservice to repeat them all here.

A trout fish farm
We then travelled up the harbour passing a great number of aquaculture setups, stopping at a trout farm to learn more. Fish farming is still relatively new here, as it is throughout Australia. In 1990 40 tonnes were produced; just twenty years later the farms were producing 15,000 tonne, and still they are struggling to keep up with demand. Here Atlantic Salmon and Ocean Trout are on the menu; fingerlings are hatched in other locations, raised in those fish hatcheries for two years and then carted to Macquarie Harbour in tankers where they are transferred to the pens out in the harbour which is neither too salty, nor too fresh. Here they are fed and grown to the appropriate size and then harvested and sent off to markets.

Today as our boat nudged up to one such pen, we saw many fish jumping about, apparently happy and healthy, and obviously ignorant of their future status on a plate. The aquacultural operations undergo all sorts of controls for quality, density and a number of other tests, and then there are the licences and permits and other red tape. A desire to expand operations and production is no easy matter, even if enhanced employment and economic output are no-brainers.

Our next stop was Sarah Island, which was the precursor to Port Arthur, operating from 1822 through to 1833, although this very small island, just 2 miles in circumference housed 380 convicts, up to 95 military personnel, and forty civilians including women and children during its heyday. The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station’s reputation as the bloodiest and most brutal penal has been immortalised in Marcus Clarke’s For The Term of His Natural Life and many subsequent publications, as well as this now celebrated cruise and a nightly play staged in the Strahan Amphitheatre, a performance that has been running for twenty years and 5,000 performances. Again I could say much more but would spoil the punch lines for those who want to follow in our footsteps. I will say however that it was here that Scotsman David Hoy was one of the “goodies”, providing guidance and training in boat building, one of the more positive outcomes to emminate from Sarah Island, and this activity was continued at Port Arthur.

Janelle, our story-teller on Sarah Island
One of the “baddies”, an anti-hero, escaped convict Matthew Brady could well have changed Australian history had he not met with the end all such people should, in such moral stories. And that is all I will say.

We considered seriously attending the play tonight but in the end settled for buying a couple of little books which tell the stories in a more factual way than Marcus Clarke’s historical fiction Chris is currently reading.

On the island itself, we all followed guide Janelle as she took us from place to place and filled our head with stories, amusing, shocking, educating and entertaining us. Janelle is part of The Round Earth Company, and while she personally is not involved in the long playing “The Ship That Never Was”, is an amazing entertainer. As wide as she is tall, a most unimpressive person in a crowd, she emerges on the “stage” like a butterfly from a chrysalis; confident, dazzling, mesmerising.

Reboarding on the Gordon River
We continued up the harbour which is twice the size of the Sydney Harbour and on up the Gordon River, the third longest river in Australia at 193 kilometres, and on into the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.  Rain forest grows right down to the shore, shading the already tannin dyed water so that it appears almost black. It is for this that there are few waterbirds on the river, just as there are few birds in the forest, because the trees that grow in the rainforest are of ancient beginnings, before trees needed pollination and the like. They need only wind and water and there is no lack of these. This explained the paucity of birds heard in other remnants of the Gondwanna forests.

The Gordon River has the largest flow of all Tasmanian Rivers, rising at Lake Richmond not far from Derwent Bridge, passing through Lake Gordon and the Strathgordon Dam. Its largest tributary is the famous Franklin River.

We travelled about fourteen kilometres up the river, learning about the Piners and the Huon Pines as we went. A jetty seeming to jut out from nowhere led us onto a short walkway built in 1989 through river-flat rainforest. This is far as commercial boats are permitted to travel upstream in the river. Further downriver we had passed the Boom Camp, now a fishing hut, originally a piners’ camp. Huon Pine logs were floated from upstream and collected there at the boom, a wire rope attached to logs and anchored near the far bank allowing access by boat. The logs were formed into rafts and towed back to Strahan by small steamers, when there were about five sawmills in operation.

Huon Pines were milled by the convicts during the Sarah Island years; in fact the whole point of locating the station here was to provide timber for the mushrooming Hobart, however transport of that timber proved problematic. The timber was of particular value to boat-builders because it resisted the marine worm, terrido navalis, which turned good oak into rotten sponge. Logging was resumed during the years from 1860 until 1964, the reign of the Piners, until cutting of the timber was prohibited.

Since then it is only the cut logs retrieved from the forest or those caught up in the rivers that are allowed to be collected and processed. Despite the fact that many of these have sat about on forest floor or buried in mud, the oil in the pine has preserved the timber in excellent condition. At the Heritage Landing Nature Walk, we learned much about the special features of the Huon Pine from pretty young Katie, who probably had a doctorate in biology, but works as one of the hostesses on board. The Huon pines only grow to about thirty metres tall but to a very great age. Many of those still living in the forest are over 2,000 years old, one even having been dated at 2,500 years old. Needless to say, they grow very slowly, taking at least three to four hundred years to reach maturity. They have no capacity to recover from fire, however fortunately grow in places that have heavy rainfall so fire is not as likely as occur as it does in other parts of Australia. Only 10,500 hectares of Huon pine remain, of which 7,666 hectares lie in the World Heritage Area, nearly all of it concentrated in the rainforest lined valleys of the Franklin and Gordon rivers and their tributaries.

Salvaged Huon Pine awaiting their demise
It was in this context I learned that there was a permanent settlement of piners at Port Davey in 1849. Port Davey lies far to the south of Macquarie Harbour, so very isolated from the rest of Tasmania, only accessible by sea. The piners stayed on there until the 1900 however no one has lived there since. With no roads and the nearest human habitation a week’s walk away, they had to rely upon bartering Huon pine logs with passing ships for food and the other necessities of life. The settlement came close to famine a number of times, on one occasion survived only on wombats.

Today it is on the South Coast walking route and passed through by those crazy folk who undertake the sixteen day trek. The nearest road access to this place is here at Strahan or that down south of Southport, which if you check the map, is no road access at all.

On board our luxury cruise, we were fed well as we travelled up the river, on ham, corned beef and smoked salmon, Tasmanian cheeses and a wonderful assortment of salads. Many took advantage of the bar and by the time we headed back down the harbour for Strahan, the full bellies and midday alcohol took its toll on many; heads nodded and mouths fell open. Fortunately we had not indulged on anything other than coffee so remained awake sufficiently to enjoy every moment of the cruise, the commentary, the DVDs that were played to inform and entertain, and of course our sleepy fellow passengers.

We docked beside the Morrisons’s Huon pine working mill where we were treated to an exhibition of a Huon log being sawn up, various Tasmanian timber samples were handed about and we were urged by the talented and versatile Janelle to view the array of turned and carved trinkets in the adjoining shop.

This we did, sniffing and enjoying the wonderful aroma of Huon pine, marvelling at the weird and wonderful objects for sale and then escaped without adding any more objects to our hoard of possessions we are already towing about.

After five and a half hours on tour, we were ready to settle down for a quiet evening, without further entertainment, and to ready ourselves for our departure from yet another marvellous Tasmanian destination.

And a confession, a rather sad, or perhaps, pathetic, confession: I popped out to the local store a little while ago and realised as I was driving all alone on this short stretch of road, this was the first time since February this year I had been behind the wheel, alone in the vehicle, and even worse, probably the first time I had been alone, apart from when I go off to the amenities or laundry, since then as well. This is indicative of the togetherness one enjoys travelling and living as we are. It is just as well that my husband and I are best mates.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

30 October 2013 - Strahan Holiday Park, Strahan, Tasmania

Does it always rain here in Tasmania? I should be grateful that there is little wind, or none to bother us at least. We decided over breakfast that we would not pack up until there was a pause in the precipitation even if it made us late; however we were still gone by the witching hour of 10 am.

We parked near the Empire Hotel in Queenstown, in the hope it might be open for a quick peek. My father mentioned the other night, on Skype that it has a marvellous staircase and this was confirmed in a list of tourist attractions I saw yesterday. Alas we were too early, but too late to buy the Australian and had to settle for the Herald. It’s cheaper anyway; however we have reserved a newspaper for tomorrow here.

Strahan Harbour
It is only 40 kilometres down to Strahan but the road is steep, windy and slow, although not as much as that from Derwent Bridge to Queenstown and not as spectacular, although that could have had much to so with the rain mist obscuring the distant peaks. We had our second near death experience with a large truck this morning as a Double-B came around on the other side of the road. I suspect he gave himself a horrible shock and will change his driving habits for at least the rest of the week. Two days ago a logging truck had done the same.

Strahan sits at the head of a harbour of the same name, tucked around the northern edge of the Macquarie Harbour and is home to less than a thousand people. It was originally developed as a port of access for the mining settlements in the area, those around Queenstown, and soon became very more important for the timber industry around Macquarie Harbour. The post office opened in 1878, starting as Macquarie Harbour, then Strahan, then East Strahan, finally settling on Strahan in 1893.

Today it is services a small fishing fleet, a limited timber industry and a growing tourist industry which has grown from the historical convict history on Sarah Island, the Huon pine milling, and now even more importantly, its status as a World Heritage Area which was attained only after topsy turvy protest years and the genesis of the Australian Green Party.

Calling into the Information Centre right down on the waterfront, we learned that the two caravan parks in town were now just the one, and that we would get a better deal by booking our river cruise direct with the provider rather than through the Centre, particularly since Chris had a Senior card and we were electing to sail with the family owned World Heritage Cruises on the Eagle.

By the time we had checked into the caravan park and reversed into our site, rain had started yet again and we dodged the intermittent showers while we set up in bursts. On check-in, we received our 10% Discovery Parks loyalty card discount as well as a 10% discount voucher for the cruise company; just as well we had yet to buy our tickets.

After lunch, we returned to the waterfront and bought our tickets for tomorrow, choosing neither the flash seats nor the cheap ones; with the discount we could shout ourselves those labelled “Premium” which means we get window seats and a buffet lunch.

Lettes Bay
We drove up to the Water Tower Hill and looked down over the waterfront section of the town, drove on around past Regatta Point to where the West Coast Wilderness Railway tours  arrive and on over the hill to Lettes Bay where we came upon a surprising number of private little shacks with their own shared jetties.

Back in the opposite direction, we headed west out to the Macquarie Heads, finding a hidden camping ground full of permanent caravans and lean-tos. Alas the road came to an end short of the heads; only a sandy 4WD track disappears into the low scrub, a track which we chose not to take.

Back at Strahan, we returned to the Information Centre to see the Reflections Gallery , an award winning display which tells the story of the Macquarie Harbour. This is truly excellent with a very modest entry fee and not well promoted; I suspect that there is less patronage than it deserves because the entry is tucked in a corner of the Centre. There is a wealth of information to be absorbed and much of it will serve us well as we set out tomorrow on the water to see many of the places described in this mini-museum.

Jetty stretching out into the Strahan Harbour
I did learn a little more about the chemical devastation of the area around Queenstown; that since 1922 over ninety million tonnes of tailings were dumped from the Queenstown mine into the Queen River, down which it flowed into the King River. The tailings literally swamped all life. By 1992 the King River was perhaps the most polluted river in Australia, its water course and banks dead from this extreme pollution. Since then, the Mount Lyell Remediation, Research and Demonstration Program  has set up to trial various “best practice” methods which could reverse the environment degradation of the past. Among projects undertaken this far are construction of a tailings dam and the vegetation of the King River banks and delta. Prior to the commencement of this remediation, the Company had predicted that the King and Queen river system would be devoid of life for up to two hundred years after closure of the mine. I thought that was good of them to be so honest and upfront about the situation; such apocalyptic prophesies are normally left to conservationists.                 

Strahan is a charming spot, certainly more appealing to the average tourist as we had been warned, and it would look so much better in the bright sunshine. Hopefully tomorrow will bring better weather. Boat trips do demand sunshine, don’t you think?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

29 October 2013 - Queenstown Cabin & Tourist Park, Queenstown, Tasmania

Rain fell in the night and again just before we rose, however the temperature was less formidable than the previous day; we are, after all, now much lower at 129 metres ASL. Opening the blinds we found ourselves still alone in the park and bumble bees already busy in the beautiful flowering azaleas alongside the caravan, one a pale lemon, the other a rich crimson.

After breakfast we headed back into the centre of town, perhaps a kilometre upstream on the Queen River, and parked in the main street. I found myself accosted by an elderly toothless portly gentleman, if "gentlemen" can be toothless, who was enjoying a mug of coffee on the pavement outside one of the several tearooms in the street.

Main Street Queenstown
He asked after our landcruiser, and shared that his was an 80 Series, as opposed to our 100 Series, and this triggered further chatter. He told us that it had snowed right here in town just last week although it had soon melted. We learned too that he and his wife had returned from the Sunshine Coast to their hometown after forty years of absence to care for a dying relative, who had since died. They were now twiddling their thumbs, enjoying the community warmth of Queenstown, looking forward to Christmas with their family and planning without too much commitment, a trip around Australia. He had travelled most of the tourist hotspots as a tour driver over his working life, but his wife had seen little of this country. Alas, I felt, as he sat there, rather stuck to his chair, that the trip was unlikely to be taken, despite the fact they had already invested in a camper trailer. It also occurred to me later that this man was probably little older than my own husband, and yet his physicality made him seem so much more ancient.

Across the road we met up with a woman of about my own age, who had returned after several years away, previously an import to this corner of Australia, and who was intent on spending the rest of her days here. I suspect however that a lover or a fascinating work opportunity might take her away again at some future time; she is a woman wide open to adventure, despite expressing satisfaction with her cat and patchwork. In love with this strange town, she encouraged us to drive hither and thither, and was full of advice about our next destination of Strahan.

Part of the Miners Siding installation
After picking up our favourite newspaper from the local newsagent, today’s no less, we made our way around to the Galley Museum pausing first to wander about the sculptural installation across the road. Titled “Miners Siding”, Stephen Walker’s bronze sculptures depicting twenty one facets of the evolution of the Mt Lyell Mines and surrounding areas, celebrate significant and traditional events of the 100 year old history of the Lyell District. The work is quite beautiful as well as both informative and very tasteful.

The Eric Thomas Galley Museum is situated in an old pub, filling a multitude of rooms with over one thousand photos, memorabilia and videos. The place has been run by volunteers since 1986 and the relatively modest entry fee from the few tourists who pass through probably does not cover the running costs.

Personally I found the crowded rooms all a bit much, and the fact that many of the captions had been typed up in capital letters, probably back in 1986, very difficult to read, or at least speed read the way I normally attack such places. Best of all, I enjoyed the rather antiquated video which explained the history of the area and probably should have watched this first, rather than try to make sense of the area’s history from the hundreds of photos.

It was well after midday by the time we left the museum, having only explored the ground floor and then not fully. It was the sort of day for toasted sandwiches, and an appropriate sort of lunch when one is back in the caravan and on mains power.

Dishes done and appetites satisfied, we headed out again, this time back toward Lake St Clair, up Mt Lyell on that very steep road of hairpin bends. This time without the caravan in tow and with visibility so much better than yesterday afternoon, we were both able to enjoy the views back down to the township and marvel at the colours on the barren rocky surrounds.We paused too to enjoy the sight of the long single drop of the Horsetail Falls, aptly named, we thought.
A drive up Mt Lyell

Continuing to the top of the saddle, we turned north to a lookout over the Iron Blow on Gormanston Hill, the very first local gold mine which made a fortune not from gold, but from the copper in the ore that continues to be Queenstown’s principal product.

The mine was discovered by three hardened prospectors, brothers Bill and Mick McDonough, and a Scandinavian seaman, Steve Karlson. It was taken over by three canny investors, William Dixon, James Crotty and Frederick Henry. In 1892, the mine was sold to a new company, The Mount Lyell Mining Company whose shareholders saw its real worth was not in the limited gold.

While the Iron Blow copper ore body was ultimately disappointing and was phased out in 1922, the Mount Lyell Company went on to buy other leases, making its investors into wealthy men. Of the six Mount Lyell pioneers, the three original prospectors ended their lives in poverty, injury and alcoholism. The three shrewd investors held onto their shares through difficult times, made their money and died in luxurious surrounds.

Colours of nature on Mt Lyell
The remnants of the settlement below us, Gormanton, or “Gormie” as the locals know it, is one of a string of local towns created in mud, forests, valleys and mountains, only to be destroyed by human weakness. They were the product of a bitter feud between two mining men and their rival companies. James Crotty and Bowes Kelly had by the end of the 1880s each built their own major mine, smelters, railway, port and series of towns, housing a total of 10,000 people.

Crotty had the richest mine, North Lyell, which suffered from poor management and financial blunders. Kelly’s Mount Lyell Mining Company had astute leadership but diminished ore reserves. A merger was inevitable. Locals waited nervously to see which railway, port and towns would die. The agreement was signed in 1903 and went against the North Lyell Company.

The town of Darwin, south of here, was abandoned almost overnight. Crotty was soon deserted; its site is now below manmade Lake Burbury. Pillinger, at Kelly Basin, with brand new wharves, houses, shops and brickworks, lingered for a few years. Gormanston and its sister town, Linda, despite much adversity, have managed to survive with a permanent population of around fifty people. New recreation opportunities rather than mining are now the life blood of the communities. Queenstown became the area’s main town and Strahan its port. But it could just as easily have been Gormanston and Pillinger.

Beyond the now water-filled mine, we could hear heavy machinery working, obviously that working deep in the earth. This one remaining mine, the renamed Copper Mines of Tasmania, is the sole survivor of forty four mining companies and syndicates, for whom many thousands of men, their supportive women and the environment spilt their blood, either actually or metaphorically.

In the boom years of the 1890s and the early 1900s, the once heavily forested hills met their fate. Felled to fuel the smelter furnaces, the hills were blackened by bushfires and the topsoil scoured by rain. For seventy three years a pall of sulphurous smoke from the furnace stacks killed any new growth, and surely must affected people’s health. And now seeping through the sulphide rich rock of the mine workings and waste dumps, water turns acid then flows into the rivers below, carrying a toxic concoction of metals.

Just as the hills have been made barren by sulphurous fumes, huge quantities of acid drainage from the Mt Lyell mine lease have devastated the Queen and King Rivers. The effects are still evident as far away as Strahan’s famous Macquarie Harbour. A clean-up program has begun, but restoring life in the lower reaches of the King River by removing acid and metals from the leaching drainage is not a simple process.

There was one particularly significant impact on the human aspect of the operation; that was the fire and resulting loss of life in 1912. On 12 October 1912, one hundred and seventy men descended the North Lyell shaft to begin their shift on six deep levels. Late in the morning, at a level of 700 feet (213 m), fire broke out in a pumphouse. The mine workings above and below rapidly filled with smoke and poisonous gas. Remarkably fifty one men were raised to safety on the following Wednesday; forty two had perished.

This terrible disaster followed on from a massive strike just over a year before, which if my memory serves me correctly, lasted about fifty six days. It was a terrible decade for those here in Queenstown indeed.

These stories and many more were supported by the many photos in the museum and were repeated all about the town on interpretative panels. This is a town with real history, but then, doesn’t every town have a history?

Other significant dates celebrated are:
  • ·         In 1896 the Abt railway line between Queenstown and Strahan opened.
  • ·         In 1932 motor traffic linked the West Coast to the outside world.
  • ·         In 1963 the last train on the Abt railway closed.
  • ·         In 1969, the Queenstown smelters closed after seventy three years of continuous operation.

Today the Western Wilderness Railway operates for the tourist trade, the original Mount Lyell Mine railway restored for the thirty five kilometre journey to Strahan through thick rainforest, past river gorges and across high trestle bridges stopping at little stations along the way. Nearly two months ago a landslip occurred toward the Queenstown end of the rail line and while the workers have been endeavouring to stabilise and repair the site in time for the onslaught of tourists, the train for now is out of operation. I do believe that it would be quite a delightful trip to take.

Queen River
On the advice of the blonde in the antique shop, we headed down the polluted orange Queen River, through healthy looking forest then on up to Mt Jukes from where we look east to Lake Burbury and the mountains beyond. Here the rock formations and colours thrilled us as much as those on the damaged hills of Mt Lyell.

From here we also looked north west and caught a glimpse of Lake Margaret, that created to provide the first hydroelectricity for the running of the smelters, as an alternative to the timber being stripped off the hill.

We could have driven on down to the shores of Lake Burbury and then south to Bird River and the upper reaches of the Macquarie Harbour, however chose to turn back, pulling into the entry to the John Butters Hydro Electric Station. Access was denied us, on foot or by vehicle; however we did manage a glimpse of the imposing white structure through the screen of trees. 

There is a real charm in this place; the tourist brochure describes the area as having the “bare grandeur of the hills”. We chuckled when we first read this but now having spent this little time here and driven about, we would agree with the description. We were glad too that we had stayed and walked the streets, talked to the locals and “felt” the community vibes to really appreciate this otherwise rather scruffy town tucked down in the bottom of the valley.

I was glad to have purged some of our accumulated possessions; a great bag of books enjoyed and now sacrificed, hopefully to be enjoyed by others who venture into the local Vinnies in search of diversion.

Returning to camp we found we were still alone, however since then, three other parties have arrived, two caravans and a motorhome. I am glad they have come; Queenstown deserves to be a stopover for tourists, even if the train is not running.

Monday, October 28, 2013

28 October 2013 - Queenstown Cabin & Tourist Park, Queenstown, Tasmania

The forecast was wrong; the temperature dropped to -1.6 degrees this morning and I swore that if we decided to stay another night, I would pull our sleeping bags out and pile them onto the duvets and blankets we were already using. However over breakfast we decided that we would stay with our resolve, to leave after our walk and risk travelling further west at dusk. So we struck camp and moved across to the Park Centre car park before going into the Lodge reception to hand back the amenities key and suggest how they might improve their camping facilities, particularly with reference to the water pressure.

It was 9.30 am when we set off along the Overland Track up the western shore of Lake St Clair. The day could not have been more perfect; the sub-zero temperatures heralded clear skies and comfortable walking conditions.

Preening pademalon
Our first encounter along the track was a pademelon, busy grooming him(or her)self, not bothered by our presence at all. We had been treated to a similar show over breakfast, as another pademalon fussed about in the sunshine within view of the caravan, but this second was far more relaxed and would not have looked out of place if a begging bowl were placed on the pathway for tasty titbits rather than the usual gold coin contribution.

Immediately after crossing the bridge at Watersmeet, where the Cuvier and Hugel Rivers converge and rush together into the Lake, we detoured off the Track around to Platypus Bay where we peered unsuccessfully through viewing windows down to the lake below. This did not surprise us; the sun was shining brightly on the lake water, lapping gently on the pebbly shore. Platypus prefer the obscurity of shade and hidden holes.

We walked for over two hours up the shoreline, or rather, along the path high above the shore. The track meandered up and down, along paths of confetti-like beech leaves, through shallow creeks, over muddy sections and all the way delighting in the incredible beauty of our surroundings. The snowy topped peaks were not visible from the pathway; they lay to the west of the ridge. Likewise we were protected from the wintery breeze and soon warmed up. I stripped my layers off as we continued; gloves, scarf, vest, jacket…. Fortunately it became no warmer.

We found ourselves beside the lake perched on rocks for lunch, a little earlier than normal, but suitable dining rooms were scarce, in fact this was the only easy access we found to the lake. Across the lake from our perch, we saw the imposing peak of  1241 metre Mt Isa standing to the north of the Traveller Range which runs up the eastern shore of the lake.

We calculated that we had walked half way up the length of the lake, and decided to call it enough, turning and heading back to Cynthia Bay where we were parked. On the way back we took time out to unblock water flow, refashioning the channels with our walking poles, this engineering our contribution to the planet. I have always enjoyed this pastime; it takes me back to puddling about in mud and water as a child, and no less for my husband. Funny the pastimes one shares.

There were few others on the track, only two couples, one Japanese who we shared our delight of the day and walk, and the other, two queers too queer to contemplate engagement with at all.

Once back at the car park, we did not waste time before setting off, first to seek out the old pumphouse, that to undergo renovation for accommodation purposes and the St Clair Lagoon and the birth of the River Derwent.

The pump house on the lake
The gravel road is now unmarked and we nearly missed it, but then it is understandable that they really don’t want the curious exploring. The buildings around the pumphouse are all fenced off and we probably were trespassing as we found our way around the barriers and out onto the long pumphouse access. It was near here that I encountered a snake, slim, fast and black; probably only two feet long but big enough to startle me.

I had to hop out a couple of times to break off branches, or hold them back, to facilitate easy access for the rig, not wanting to scratch the paint work. At the “dam” we stopped and walked across the structure which is simply an open spillway gate and has been like this for more years than anyone can probably remember. The Derwent River spilled out, rushed out, free to flow fast, ignorant of the route to come.

Satisfied with our exploration of the Lake St Clair area, given our time restrictions, we headed back out onto the Lyell Highway, for the eighty six kilometres or so through to Queenstown. It was 3 pm and we knew this would be a slow trip.

Views before the steep descent
“Highway” is a misnomer, the road is narrow even if two lane, and steep in places although for us travelling west, mainly downhill. The road winds down from the plateau to the young Franklin River, between high snowy peaks and ranges, forests that look as if they have never known fire, finally after about sixty kilometres arriving at Lake Burbury, formed by the Crotty Dam above the John Butter Hydro Station, yet another power scheme. We had dropped down into rain mist and very black storm clouds hovered in one corner of the sky putting an end to the wonderful weather.

The road crosses a narrow section of the lake and I did believe, erroneously as it turned out, that the road would stay fairly flat as we wound around the shore and Mt Owen before arriving at Queenstown. Interestingly, this very day we had been told by the Japanese walkers that they were warned against travelling through to the northern section of the Cradle Mountain National Park via Queenstown, because the road was very dangerous, very steep and narrow. I assumed that they had been referring to that we travelled before reaching Lake Burbury. Not so.

Five kilometres east of Queenstown, the road climbs up through barren looking land, growing only a scattering of feral pines, or wildlings, and then winds tightly down the side of what seems a deep bare open mine. At the base of the hole, through the rain mist, lay clusters of houses, and we presumed, correctly, that this was Queenstown.

Queenstown today has a population of less than 2,000, but it has fluctuated greatly over the last century, standing at over 5,000 in 1900. Gold was discovered soon after the area was first explored by Europeans in 1862. The Mount Lyell Gold Mining Company mined for gold from 1881, and then in 1892 began searching for copper.

Queenstown remained the centre of these mining operations right through to when these ceased in 1994, the mines during that time producing over 670,000 tonnes of copper, 510,000 kilograms of silver and 20,000 kilograms of gold.  Operations began again in 1995 and are now owned by the Indian Company, Sterlite Industries. The last census confirms that there are indeed quite reasonable employment rates in the town which belies first impressions.

As we drove through the town, directly to the caravan park through residential areas, we decided that these were indeed mining type houses, which looked like they hadn’t been maintained for the last fifty years. We assumed the population was mainly surviving on benefits and unable to stretch their budgets to non-essential repairs and maintenance. We are wrong; there must be some other reason the populace choose to live in such crummy houses. But we will learn more about this tomorrow.

It was not yet 5 pm but the caravan park office was unattended and the park empty. We telephoned the number on the door and were told that the manager would be right over. She had been visiting a neighbour; with little business, what else would you do to fill your day?

The park is immaculate, old but clean and we have the whole place to ourselves. And we have water!

27 October 2013 - Lake St Clair Lodge, Lake St Clair National Park, Tasmania

I woke at some point of the night to hear waves being heavily dumped on the shore, and yet there was no wind; at least, the tree tops had ceased their wind cries. Later when we woke again, the sun was shining and the sea was calm. This all boded well for our day’s journey although it would have been nice to have had better weather during our two weeks or so in the Hobart area.

We would have been away earlier but the lock on the hitch jammed up and no amount of fiddling with the key or dousing with CRC provided remedy. Eventually the hacksaw came out, the old padlock divided and disposed of and once hitched, a spare in place. We travel with spares of so much, not only the extra cans of peas and pens, batteries and baked beans.

Our route back to Hobart was north along the shoreline, turning north east at Kingston rather than back over the Channel Highway. Foolishly I thought this might be a less challenging road than the steep four lane highway. How wrong I was; the road twisted and turned, up and down along the coastal cliffs frequented by lycra clad Sunday cyclists, with little opportunity for pulling over to let more urgent travellers through.

But the effort was worth it, at least for me who did not need to concentrate so much on the road directly in front of the wheels; the road winds its way along through the suburbs of Taroona and Sandy Bay, where houses sit perched on the hillsides with views to die for, out over the lowest reaches of the River Derwent. As we closed in on the centre of Hobart, we passed between old character buildings and both agreed that Hobart, now thrice visited, was indeed a very beautiful city, although if one were to live here, one would need to have good insulation and good heating.

We found our way back to the Officeworks shop to do some more printing. Parking with the caravan in tow was easier than it would have been a weekday but still problematic; Chris stayed in the vehicle while I attended to business. And then we were off, out along the Brooker Highway, past now familiar landmarks of the Botanic Gardens, the Showgrounds where the show people were packing up after the annual Show, past MONA and our Hobart camping ground, and up the river all the way to New Norfolk, where we filled with fuel and bought fresh bread, before retiring to a lovely little recreational reserve beside the river for lunch.

Near here, I noted a quaint old pub on the main road, the Bush Inn established in 1815 and boasting itself to be “the oldest continually licenced pub in Australia”. Later I read that Hobart has the oldest continuously running pub, the Hope & Anchor established in 1807. So who is right here? Should we simply disregard all these claims, many of which I have repeated here in this blog?

From here on it was new ground, for me anyway, and for Chris, the opposite direction to that travelled forty years or so. The road to Queenstown from New Norfolk is just over two hundred kilometres, no distance at all, but it cuts through one of the most rugged sections of the State and is mostly a very slow trip. Often we crawled up hills in second gear doing not much more than twenty kilometres an hour, letting the little traffic through whenever possible. As we passed through the grazing land, the roadside hawthorns were abloom in their wedding white splendour, even more so than when we had travelled into the wilderness area a week or so ago.

Soon after New Norfolk, the valley opens out wide and supports a surprising amount of sheep farming. This should have been expected because I saw that Hamilton has a “Sheep Centre” tourist attraction where one can see all there is about farming sheep. Coals-to-Newcastle for me, but if they can make money from such activities, why not indeed? I had expected Hamilton to be about the size of New Norfolk, although was pre-warned that it hadn’t changed much since the mid-19th century. The road descends down a wide valley to a small settlement of very old brick and stone buildings, nearly all converted into cafĂ© craft operations; you wonder how they can survive all competing with one another and with scant traffic passing through.

As regards the sheep farming, I read this evening that the Tasmanian population density goes like this: 7.1 people and 49.6 per square kilometre so really the Aussie should stop making those rude jokes about New Zealand and direct their course jokes to their own southern State. Fair enough?

Soon we passed through the settlement of Ouse, situated on the Ouse River no less, the village proving to be more substantial than Hamilton, although the name on the map was in far smaller type. This place is a service centre for the locals rather than a hopeful service refreshment centre for the travellers. The farm land gave way to forest, State Forest, plantations of pine and eucalypt. To our right the Derwent River flowed, passing through several manmade lakes, part of hydro schemes; Meadowbank Lake dammed by the Meadowbank Dam, the Cluny Lagoon by the Cluny Dam, Lake Repulse by the Repulse Dam, Lake Catagunya by the Cluny Dam, and so on.

I had emailed the Lake St Claire Lodge last night to ask about their tariffs and site vacancies, because once one came this far, there was little nearby either forward or back, especially if one had a mind to enjoy the Lake St Claire National Park. By lunch today there was a response, in poor English, stating their tariff, $30 for a powered site, and that they did not take bookings; it was first in, first served. But we still prevaricated about staying, the options being to stay forty seven kilometres back at Tarraleah or even about twelve kilometres back again at Wayatinah. We discussed the pros and cons of the options, and I left the decision to Chris, because it was he after all who was suffering, or not, the stress and strain of driving. Soon we had gone past the turnoff to the Wayintinah Lagoon, Option A off the table.

We started to climb steeply, the old girl pulling well today, and then arrived on a high ridge and found ourselves following a wide water filled canal. Soon the water entered a series of huge round pipes and we continued along the ridge, following the pipeline until we arrived at Tarraleah.

This is part of an amazing hydro scheme which starts up in Lake St Clair where we were headed. From this lake, the Derwent River is led through a complex system of flumes, weirs, dams, canals, penstocks and power stations, beginning at the rivers source in the south east corner of the lake.

During the 1930s, the Hydro Electric Commission constructed a weir to raise the lake level by three metres, flooding the nearby Frankland Beaches and killing trees fringing the steep western shore. A pumping station was built to draw down the levels by six metres, although it has rarely been used. The station, with its inter-war art deco-style pump house, had cultural and architectural value, and has just in the last week or so had consent to be renovated into exclusive tourist accommodation. This surely will be fodder for Kevin McCloud or the likes?

The development was commissioned in 1938 and supports six downstream power stations. Hydro power is supposed to be the cream of renewable energy, efficient and economical, however try telling that t the Tasmanian consumers who apparently pay more for their power than mainlanders. We have heard much of that hue and cry since arriving here and I am sure it has been going on for some time. Perhaps this is a reason why one should not bother to live in Hobart after all?

We stopped at a lookout from where we could see the power station far below us adjacent to the Nive River, and realised that we too had to descend to that level before climbing back up the other side. Close to the lookout was the most delightful hotel type building, landscaped and immaculate. I do wonder who comes to stay here? Perhaps the rich and famous where no one will know them and they can spent a week with their head buried in a book and forget about the world?

Beyond this complex is a caravan park; however we were not drawn to stay here either, so returned to the Lyell Highway and descended the steep gorge, crossed the fast flowing river and wound our way up again on the other side. From here the road climbed more subtly and soon we were crossing marshy plains, gold with mountain button grass, and beyond, the snow covered mountains. The scenery was truly spectacular.

At Derwent River we passed a roadhouse, crossed the bridge over the much diminished Derwent, for here at Lake St Claire is its genesis. We turned north into the National Park, travelling the five kilometres through the lovely forest and arrived at the Lodge.

“Lodge” is a very strange word; in New Zealand there is the Huka Lodge and several other top class accommodation places that use the word in their name. But “lodge” is also used to describe a tramper’s bunkroom, a scout camp or the like. And it is this confusion that has most likely caused the furore of those who comment on Trip Advisor about the Lodge here. This was originally part of the National Park and set up more for the trampers who do the world famous Overland Trek rather than the well-heeled yuppies who prefer to be pampered and pumped full of caviar and champagne. I suspect the detractors expected this Lodge to be more like the latter? It is not. While there has been enormous investment on the site since Chris was here, and the very simple buildings are relatively new, this is a bush camp. And as such, we were well satisfied with the location if not the price, until we hitched up to the water.

The water pressure is so poor that it cannot even climb the distance to our water tanks, and so we are using our own water on board, of which we have more than adequate, however that is not the point. And we are paying $30 for the privilege! So I shall join the grumpy ones on Trip Advisor and add my complaints with theirs, but not before we have explained the problem to the lovely Asian family who run the place and tell them why we are only going to stay the one night even though we indicated we would be here for two.

Strange to say, they must be only too aware of the complaints and are trying hard to accommodate in all senses of the word. When we said we wanted to stay and pay for two nights, they said, “Go check out the sites first and then come back and pay”.

“No”, we said, “we are staying”, and so we paid for one, because still they would not take our money for two nights. They must have suspected we too would be like all the other ungracious moaning round-eyes who have come through.

Swampy edges of Lake St Clair
After setting up, and remaining hitched up, no mean feat in this park of smallish sites, we walked over to the Park’s Visitors Centre and wandered about reading all the information and displays on offer. It is an excellent centre and manned by a Japanese girl, which all added to the strangeness of the place. Chris explained that he had walked The Track back at the end of 1971 or the beginning of 1972, the first through after the Footscray group became lost and one of their party perished. Did she know when that was? No, anyway, did she have the Hut Logbooks here?

They are apparently in the Tasmanian Archives, a building which I had seen and remarked on this morning as we had driven through Hobart. I noticed it because it seemed to be a structure of simple corrugated iron, a material one would not normally consider appropriate for housing important state archives. Perhaps I was mistaken as regards the iron? It was a strange coincidence anyway.

A propos of the sheep referred to earlier, I leaned in the Park Centre that foxes in Tasmania manage to kill up to 30% of lambs, promising to devastate the farming industry if something is not done about them. These cute little brushy tailed critters, so loved and tolerated in England are not so here in Tasmania, or for that matter, anywhere in Australia, where it is estimated that nationwide they kill up to 10% of lambs. The loss to farmers is estimated at $40 million every year; now whether that is in Tasmania or the whole of Australia, I am not sure, but it is one hang of a big claim. How do they come up with those figures?

Of the mountains and the National Park here, I learned that it was an escaped convict who  was one of the first Europeans to cross this wild country in 1828, when he came up the Gordon and Franklin by Huon pine log canoe, then across the mountains to Wylds Crag west of the Derwent Valley. Within the next decade surveyors and explorers followed and in 1835, Surveyor-General George Frankland visited and named Lake St Clair, climber Mt Olympus and named some of the nearby peaks. From the summit, Frankland admired the lake’s “beautiful bays and golden beaches”. It was obviously in summertime because beaches are the last thing one thinks of looking at the lake with snow about.

Across the lake to the mountains
However it was not until this last century that anyone did anything about capitalising on that beauty, when in the 1920s, a mountaineer and photographer presented a series of public lectures supporting a campaign for a national park at Cradle Mountain. In 1930, work was begun by volunteers on the development of the Overland Track, and as they say, the rest is history.

I learned too that Lake St Clair, sitting at 737 metres ASL is the deepest freshwater lake in Australia, at 167 metres. Should we believe this?

We wandered down to the viewing platform in front of the centre and looked across the lake to the snow covered mountains above the giant swamp gums and myrtles or beeches. What a perfect picture! Last night the temperature got down to 1 degree, tonight it is forecasted to be -1.

Back at camp I dug out our pyjamas and Chris covered the door vent in cardboard; the last thing we want is snowy drafts through the vents! Chris had thought that tomorrow we should walk to the end of Lake St Clair, thus undertaking some of The Track ourselves, but we learned the distance is seventeen kilometres one way. There is the ferry which conveys walkers to that shorter staring point, but the ferry fare is hideously expensive. We will probably just walk for a couple of hours up the lake and then turn back, satisfied to have done that much.

There are pademelons about us here in the forest, but the betongs and other amazing little critters are shy. Perhaps we will see platypus in the lake tomorrow, perhaps we shall see a pair of the endangered Swift Parrots; there are apparently only 1,500 pairs left.