Thursday, 25 February 2016

A Day on The Rails

It rains in the south west of Tasmania for about 300 days each year.  Therefore, the odds of us having a dry day were not good.

Last time we visited Strahan we went on a cruise up the Gordon River, so we decided not to do that this tour.  It had been on a wet day, but that just made the trip rather atmospheric.  We didn't think it detracted from the experience at all.

Months ago we booked to have a day on the West Coast Wilderness Railway and of course the weather forecast ended up predicting the wettest day so far on our travels.  However,  that did not bother us in the least, as it meant we were going to have a day sitting in a nice dry train carriage rather than on a wet bike.  We were very pleased we had booked as we heard of several people who had missed out.

Here is our little train before it left it's shed.

We were greeted with sparkling wine and canapés when we boarded.

The only downside is that photos were going to look like this through the window.

Not to worry, we had a rear balcony that we could stand on.

Now, that's much better.

This railway was built to access the copper mines of Queenstown.  It was a huge gamble and extremely difficult engineering feat to build the track.  

The landscape is rugged, through dense rainforest and the climate is unforgiving, being wet and cold in the winter and often blistering hot in the summer.  

There were also many bridges to build.  You can see the remains of one original bridge lying in the river bed.  All the timbers for sleepers and bridges were cut on site.

We stopped at several little sidings along the way where the train drivers were happy to have their photos taken.

The inner working of the engine were intriguing.

At the halfway point we went for a short rainforest walk.  Fortunately, it has stopped raining at that stage.

We had been following the King River for most of the trip so far, but from here the train had to cross a mountain.  The builders took another gamble and installed some brand new technology, the first rack and pinion rail track in Australia and it remains the steepest in the Southern Hemisphere.  They had only read about it in pamphlets before going ahead and ordering enough for seven miles.

The system uses a rack rail in the centre of the track and a cog system under the engine hooks onto it, pulling the train up the hill.  Otherwise the grade would be too steep and the train would slip on the rails.

It is a slow way to travel and apparently when the train was pulling a load of ore it would travel slower than walking pace.

Once we were under way again it was time for morning tea.

We learnt that no explosives were used in the construction of the train line.  All the cuttings were done manually with pick axes.

This is the reason the train track had to deviate from following the river.  King River Canyon is rather stunning and was a popular picnic spot for the miners - once they had scrambled down the steep bank.

At one little station we were able to have a look in an old gemstone mine.

There was also a bridge over the railway.

Which gave us a birds eye view of the drivers getting the engine watered and oiled for the next stage.  It was surprising how much water was needed during our trip.  The engines originally were wood fuelled. Now they use recycled engine oil. 

Finally, we arrive in Queenstown, just in time for lunch.  It had taken us four hours to make the journey, admittedly with plenty of stops along the way.

Here we were treated to a delicious buffet lunch, with the finest Tasmanian ingredients.  I couldn't go past the steamed salmon.  No photos, as we were too busy eating and chatting to fellow travellers.

Before we left Queenstown we joined in a short heritage waking tour.

Like many mining towns, the main grand buildings were pubs, some of which survive, but a couple are looking rather sorry these days.

The Empire, however, is still in good nick.

How flash is the foyer!  The Blackwood was milled locally, before being shipped to England to be crafted into the magnificent stairway.  A process which took two years.

Meanwhile, it was back on the train for our return journey.  At our first stop we had the opportunity to pan for gold.  A couple of people found a speck, while most left disappointed.  Much like the gold rush days I suspect.

For the trip back to Strahan the engine was at the other end of the train, so instead of seeing a retreating rail line we were able to watch the train drivers at work.  Yes, it was raining again.

Now, you can't let us get hungry again.  This time it was a cheese and fruit plate.

As we passed the King River Gorge again we saw a wedge tailed eagle sitting in a tree.  It was weird being at the same level.

It took just under two years to construct the railway line.  Four men lost their lives, three from rock falls, but not while working, and one fell off a bridge. Not bad considering the work involved.

When the train line was built the only other way to travel from Strahan to Queenstown was on foot and the train was still the only access until the early 1960s when a road was finally put in.  Sadly, in 1963 due to the aging engines, increasing repair costs of the line and the road access, the railway closed.  The first engine to run on the line was also the last.  That engine, along with two others are in use now.

After much lobbying, in 2001 the line was rebuilt, being funded by the Federal Government ($20 million), the State Government ($10 million) and private investment ($5 million).  It reopened in 2002.

We had the best day on the train.  We didn't get back to Strahan until 5.30pm, so it was a long day.  I would recommend it to anyone.  There are half day trips as well, which would also be great.


loulee said...

Looks like a wonderful trip.

Rachaeldaisy said...

I loved this post! Hearing about your day, and seeing your wonderful photos of the train and the scenery. I'll definitely add this to the things I'd like to do if I ever visit Tassie.