Turning the Abt locomotive around at Dubbil Barril.




JOHN ROZENTALS discovers 10 really good things to do on Tasmania's West Coast

1. Ride and boggle at the West Coast Wilderness Railway

I can’t imagine the toughness of the men who built the railway — through seemingly impenetrable rainforest and across daunting, slippery ravines — between Strahan and Queenstown in the 1890s, covered in leeches and daily facing truly life-threatening challenges. And the tenacity and devotion of the women who brought up kids and kept home fires burning in the most demanding, inhospitable of situations.

What has become known as the West Coast Wilderness Railway served until 1932 as the only way to get the copper and other minerals mined at Queenstown’s Mt Lyell to the world, via Strahan’s harbour.

My contribution to building the railway and reopening it as a tourist venture comes in the form of getting slightly grimy in the engine cabin of the train as it uses Australia’s only example of the Swiss cog-driven Abt system, engine in full reverse, to descend, through the rainforest, one of the steepest railway lines in Australia.

And then it’s back to the hard slog of the Wilderness Carriage, downing Tasmanian bubbly and scoffing local fare. And resuming my role for day, wearing brown top-hat and playing James Kelly, one of the West Coast’s mining pioneers. Sorry, I’d omitted to mention my other part in the opening up of Mount Lyell to the world.

Yes, a Gordon River cruise may well show you the immense natural beauty of Tasmania’s West Coast, but the Wilderness Railway is the best way to experience its history and grab a glimpse of the toughness and sacrifice that built it. Do yourself a favour, and do both if you can.

West Coast Wilderness Railway; phone (03) 6471 0100; visit http://www.wcwr.com.au.

2. Roam the West Coast Heritage Centre, Zeehan

It seems that just about every Australian town has a regional museum housing what’s important to the residents but really doesn’t have much more significance to a wider world.

But those who have spent hours wandering the Gulgong Pioneers Museum will immediately understand why the West Coast Heritage Centre, in the old mining town of Zeehan, is special and just so well worth visiting.

It seems to grow like Topsy as it spreads from room to room and spills over into the yards and various outbuildings.

Every nook and cranny is crammed with interesting memorabilia of the days when Zeehan was a genuine Australian powerhouse, and home to some 10,000 settlers and thirsty enough to reward more than 20 publicans.

Particularly worth a look is the Masonic Lodge collection, and if you’re into minerals and ores then you’ll need dynamite to be removed out of these dedicated rooms.

West Coast Heritage Centre, 114 Main Street, Zeehan; phone (03) 6471 6225; visit http://wchczeehan.com.au.

3. See The Ship That Never Was

Kiah Davies, whose father Richard wrote The Ship That Never Was, has been performing on the Strahan waterfront in this rollicking nautical tale for 22 years, with participation from a variety of regular cast members and ‘support’ from an irregular evening line-up of ever-so-keen and variably talented audience members.

To quote the Round Earth Theatre Company’s website: “It’s January 1834. The Frederick, the last ship built at the convict settlement of Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, is about to sail for the new prison at Port Arthur. Ten convict shipwrights have other ideas. So begins the story of an amazing escape, an extraordinary voyage and an intriguing twist in the tale of The Ship That Never Was.”

To say this is ‘fun’ is an understatement. This is ‘FUN’. Performed nightly during spring and summer at 5.30pm in an all-weather theatre.

The Round Earth Theatre Company, Richard Davey Amphitheatre, Strahan Waterfront; phone (03) 6471 7700; http://www.roundearth.com.au.

4. Stroll the Strahan Waterfront

The waterfront, with its boats, shops, theatre, artisans’ studios and other craft outlets, really is the heart of this charming West Coast town.

It’s just so easy to spend a couple of hours here. Indeed, you’ll probably spend that long just browsing the absolutely excellent furniture and craft at Wilderness Woodworks.

Wilderness Woodworks, 12 The Esplanade, Strahan; phone (03) 6471 7244; visit http://www.wildernesswoodworks.com.au.

5. Cruise to Bonnett Island

Picture this. We’re the only guests on quite a small (12 passengers max) speedboat near Hell’s Gates, at the breakwater to the entrance of Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s wild West Coast. They don’t normally go past the heads because the swell rapidly increases to five or so metres, and it’s nearly dark anyway.

Then the Woman with Altitude quietly asks: “Do they normally have whales on the other side of the breakwater? Because there’s three of them out there right now.” Guide: “Shit! You’re right. Can we take on the swell?” Driver quickly assesses the situation: “Sure!” and flattens the accelerator as we pound through the waves, go round the breakwater and watch the three whales for a couple of minutes.

Unfortunately too dark for pix, but wow, I’ve been through Hell’s Gates in a small, but incredibly powerful, speedboat and watched three whales!

And then it’s off to Bonnet Island to clamber through undergrowth and watch fairy penguins, then drink pinot noir and eat Tasmanian cheese.

Somehow, we didn’t mind having missed the Gordon River cruise — the traditional highlight of just about any Strahan visit — because the boat was having its annual scrub-down.

Gordon River Cruises, 24 The Esplanade, Strahan; phone (03) 6471 4300; visit http://www.gordonrivercruises.com.au.

6. Sink a beer or three at Hamers

This is definitely the place in Strahan to have a cleansing ale after driving from Hobart or the North-West Coast, a day on the water, working the rails up to Queenstown, or just enjoying a leisurely day.

The pub was rebuilt in 1936 and its atmosphere reflects that of a mining centre turned fishing port and tourism hotspot. Now part of the Strahan Village group.

Hamers Hotel, 31 The Esplanade, Strahan; phone (03) 6471 4335; visit http://www.strahanvillage.com.au.

7. Confront the elements at Ocean Beach

Much of the time you’ll have to lean at 45 degrees into the wind here as you watch seven or eight sets of perfectly formed breakers crash into the sand.

The waves haven’t sighted land since they left the southern coast of Argentina so they’ll have travelled uninterrupted for more than 8000 kilometres, spurred on by the Roaring 40s, before making landfall on this desolate stretch of beach about a 10-minute drive west of Strahan.

8. Visit Lake Margaret Power Station

Lake Margaret holds two significant marks in the world — it has the almost unimaginable rainfall of nearly an inch (25mm) a day and it was the first of Tasmania’s many hydro-electrical schemes, one incidentally that depended entirely on a natural flow of water and required no dam to be built.

As with the West Coast Wilderness Railway, to visit here is to take in the immense sacrifices that people made to open Tasmania’s resources and bring a better life to their families.

The original village — though significantly dilapidated — that housed so many migrants in the early years of last century is still there. And so are some of the coopered-timber pipes that transferred the power of water to turbines that powered the Mount Lyall mines.

And turbines still run, playing their role in serving the Tasmanian grid.

Add this to your Tasmanian West Coast must-visit list. It would be a national shame if we lost this vital chunk of our industrial history.

Queenstown Heritage Tours, 24 Sticht St, Queenstown; phone 0407 049 612; visit http://www.queenstownheritagetours.com. This tour can also be taken as part of a West Coast Wilderness Railway itinerary.

9. Stay at Strahan Village

Strahan Village doesn’t quite have a stranglehold on the town’s tourist accommodation but the conglomerate certainly occupies a significant foothold.

It offers a considerable number of rooms covering a variety of styles: classy renovated en-suite pub accommodation in Hamers; quaint cottage accommodation along the Esplanade, and modern motel-style accommodation both on the waterfront and on the Hilltop, overlooking the town.

Strahan Village, The Esplanade, Strahan; phone (03) 6471 4200; visit http://www.strahanvillage.com.au.

10. Visit frontier towns such as Tullah and Rosebery

These must have been daunting prospects for visitors in the 1800s and even much of the 1900s — wild, woolly outposts occupied largely by hard-working, often hard-drinking men and women who didn’t immediately take to out-of-towners.

Things have changed quite remarkably over the past few years though. There’s still an enormous sense of community pride in location and history — perhaps even more than ever — but many locals realise that the prosperity of their future lies in tourism.

They have a lot to offer and they’re offering it with a broad smile and a firm handshake indeed.

Visit http://www.westcoast.tas.gov.au.

Kiah Davey ... has been performing The Ship That Never Was for 22 years.

Zeehan's West Coast Heritage Centre ... has grown like Topsy.

Bonnet Island ... excellent for penguins, great for whales on a good day.

Anthony Coulson at Lake Margaret Power Station ... showing off an essential part of Australia’s industrial history.

Hamers Hotel ... great place for an ale or three.

Strahan’s Ocean Beach ... the waves haven’t sighted land since they left the southern coast of Argentina.

Maintaining an Australian railway icon ... steam fireman and carriage restorer Peter Nolte (left) and steam-loco driver Allan (AJ) Johnson, one of Australia’s most experienced steam drivers.

Rosebery shows off its proud mining history.

The Strahan waterfront ... boats, shops, theatre, artisans’ studios and other craft outlets.

Strahan Village ... a range of accommodation including quaint colonial cottages.