Trav­el­ling along Tas­ma­nia’s West Coast Wilder­ness Rail­way


STRAHAN FISH­ING VIL­LAGE looks post­card­per­fect across the placid early morn­ing wa­ters of Mac­quarie Harbour. We ig­nore it. We’re over at Strahan’s charm­ingly retro Re­gatta Point rail­way sta­tion (1899). We ig­nore that, too. In­stead, all eyes and iPhones are trained on a non­de­script tim­ber and tin shed, bil­low­ing steam. The doors open to a toot­ing blast of a whis­tle. Out rolls Mount Lyell Num­ber One. Show­time! Spick, span and spry at 121 years young, Glas­gow-built Mount Lyell Num­ber One has ev­ery­thing you’d want in a vin­tage steam lo­co­mo­tive, ex­cept maybe a Thomas the Tank En­gine face. Its mis­sion: to take us through deep, steep rain­for­est to Queen­stown and back on the West Coast Wilder­ness Rail­way – just as it did for seven decades be­tween 1896 and 1963, when this track was the lifeblood of a re­mote min­ing fron­tier. To­day I’ve em­barked on the Queen­stown Ex­plorer tour, one of three her­itage steam train jour­neys of­fered by the West Coast Wilder­ness Rail­way. Shunt­ing com­plete, our car­riage concierge Deb­bie wel­comes us aboard with a glass of Tassie bub­bly – Josef Chromy sparkling white, just the ticket for 8.30am – and a friendly warn­ing about fre­quent pas­sages through nar­row em­bank­ments: “If you don’t put a body part out of the train, we won’t have any am­pu­ta­tions.” Then on to more press­ing busi­ness. “I call my­self the Evil Food Fairy,” she re­veals, promis­ing to stuff us to the gills as the day un­folds. “You’ll be ready to roll off.” Fare enough – and all Tas­ma­nian, too, from James Boag’s beer to salmon from Mac­quarie Harbour, which we’re skirt­ing as soon as Num­ber One gets rolling. Apart from unique rain­for­est im­mer­sion, this is a day trip to the heart of West Coast her­itage, on what has been claimed as the world’s steep­est steam-op­er­ated rail­way. Back in 1891, min­ing mag­nate Bowes Kelly snapped up far-flung, fail­ing Mount Lyell gold­field, suss­ing it was rich in cop­per. But how to get to mar­ket? With no road to Ho­bart (not un­til 1931) and only a dodgy cart track to the port of Strahan, he had to think big. He also thought lat­er­ally – 35 kilo­me­tres across moun­tain­ous rain­for­est to the coast, by train. This meant lay­ing track through some of Aus­tralia’s dens­est, dampest bush – and over in­clines way too steep for any nor­mal rail­way to man­age. The so­lu­tion was a rack-and-pin­ion track. This in­volves a third, toothed rail mesh­ing with a dou­ble cog­wheel un­der the lo­co­mo­tive to help haul up­hill. The cog­wheels are off­set, so there’s al­ways teeth in the groove to pre­vent slip­page. Called the Abt Sys­tem (af­ter its Swiss in­ven­tor, Ro­man Abt), it was an im­prove­ment over ear­lier rack rails (simpler and cheaper), and was first used in Ger­many in 1885.

By De­cem­ber 1894, hun­dreds of hard-bit­ten labour­ers were hack­ing through wilder­ness, liv­ing rough in iso­lated, rain-sod­den bush camps. Hand­hewn with pick­axe, shovel and wheel­bar­row, the route reached Mount Lyell 19 months and 48 bridges later. July 1896 saw Num­ber One’s maiden run to Queen­stown, the newly named out­post ser­vic­ing the mine. Teep­ookana was the orig­i­nal base camp, near to­day’s first stop, Lower Land­ing. Only the rusty ru­ins of a few iron huts re­main, al­most swal­lowed by ferns, but un­til Strahan was reached in 1899, this was the coastal ter­mi­nus. Cop­per went by barge down the King River and Mac­quarie Harbour to Re­gatta Point, while sup­plies for Queen­stown – gro­ceries, coal, fire­wood – were loaded for the re­turn jour­ney. Bees are the only com­mer­cial cargo now; ev­ery sum­mer the train takes hives into Teep­ookana State For­est to make Tas­ma­nia’s unique leather­wood honey. But that’s an­other story [see is­sue 76]. We’re deep amidst the leather­woods now – and tow­er­ing myr­tles and huon pine, sas­safras and ferns. Ev­ery hue of green colours this king­dom of tan­gled, mossy trees. Lit­tle bridges span plung­ing ravines. We pass nar­row cut­tings, like roof­less tun­nels. Deb­bie passes a de­li­cious jam-and-cream scone, like an Evil Food Fairy. Our sec­ond stop, au­to­cor­rect-de­fy­ing Dub­bil Bar­ril, is where the Abt rail be­gins, a dou­ble row of steel teeth bi­sect­ing the track length­ways. Num­ber One’s steam breath segues into rain­for­est mist as we climb King River Gorge, a sweep­ing panorama of huge forested cliffs loom­ing above dark wa­ters. The loco as­cends the steep grade with an ever-so-slight lurch, its chug­ging rhythm not so much ‘I think I can’ as ‘I know I can’. On the moun­tain­top, our third stop Ri­nadeena is, like the oth­ers, mainly for wa­ter. Num­ber One drinks 10,000 litres ev­ery trip, but only car­ries 3000. Rain­for­est thins out as we de­scend into the Queen River val­ley. Soon we’re glid­ing into Queen­stown (pop­u­la­tion 2000) for lunch at the mod­ern sta­tion’s Tracks Cafe. Af­ter­wards, a quick walk­ing tour passes the grand old pubs you’d ex­pect in a faded boom town. The mine shut three years ago; some doubt it will ever re­open. If not, a nascent rep­u­ta­tion as an out­back arts hub should en­sure Queen­stown won’t end up like Lynch­ford, our first stop on the re­turn leg. Gold sparked a rush here in 1881 but pre­cious lit­tle re­mains. A for­est clear­ing marks where a two-storey ho­tel once stood; a re­built

store houses a mu­seum; a gold-pan­ning shed raises hopes of pay dirt while our thirsty en­gine fills its tank. When the orig­i­nal line closed in 1963, a way of life ended. Ev­ery­one liv­ing along­side – dairy farm­ers, vegie grow­ers, rail­way work­ers – moved on, and the whis­tles didn’t toot for an­other 40 years, when the first bid at rail tourism took off. The cur­rent ven­ture – gov­ern­ment-backed this time – re­sumed the full Strahan-Queen­stown run in De­cem­ber 2014. Just as Queen­stown’s hills, blasted to bare rock by decades of toxic smelt­ing fumes, are slowly re-green­ing, so too are the re­gion’s for­tunes flow­er­ing into new life. The West Coast is min­ing its rich lode of her­itage th­ese days, and it’s a rush that never has to end.

CLOCKWISE FROM FAR LEFT: The tracks snake through wilder­ness; One of the two-man crew takes a break ; A Vic­to­rian op­er­at­ing sys­tem; 19th-cen­tury in­fra­struc­ture; Steam mixes with for­est mist at Dub­bil Bar­ril sta­tion; Watch­ing tree ferns chug past.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Old school sig­nalling; Top­ping up Num­ber One’s wa­ter tank ; Cross­ing the tracks at Lynch­ford; A se­date way to travel; The pe­riod charm of the cab­ins; Tracks Cafe, Queen­stown Sta­tion; Num­ber One is lov­ingly main­tained; The spec­tac­u­lar King River Gorge.

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