Western Wilderness Reawakening

Tasmania’s wild west, a lost world of brooding forests, reflective harbours and abandoned mines is enjoying a renaissance, thanks to a band of talented artists and entrepreneurs – and a little steam train that can.

“Choof, choof, choof, choof, TOOOOOT!”

The slow, unmistakable exhalation of steam locomotive Mt Lyell No. 1 is broken by its piercing whistle as it backs half-a-dozen exquisite carriages into Queenstown Railway Station.

Passengers waiting on the platform clap hands to ears as the historic train’s call echoes off the precipitous slopes of 1,149-metre Mt Owen, at the southwest end of town.

Peter Nolte, one of two drivers, hops down and is immediately surrounded by steam train aficionados keen to grill him about the railway ‘built on the edge of civilisation’ in 1896, to carry copper concentrates from Queenstown mines to Strahan, on Macquarie Harbour, and export markets beyond.

“She takes 3,000 litres of water,” Peter says, “and 2,000 litres of recycled car engine oil”.  He explains how a special ‘rack’ system of cogs and rails, invented by Swiss engineer Dr. Roman Abt, makes it possible for the train to climb a steep spur between the Queen and King River valleys, thus opening up the 34-kilometre run.

Some 500 men laboured two-and-a-half years to build the original line, which included more than 50 bridges, and until the Lyell Highway opened in 1932, it was the only way in and out of Queenstown. Over the next three decades, road transport improved and the ‘Little Train of the Mountains’ closed down, with railway stock sold and the line left to deteriorate.

In 1998, after a decade of lobbying, the Federal Government announced some $20 million in funding to rebuild the railway. In 2002, passenger services between Queenstown and Strahan resumed.

I first heard of Queenstown in the 1990s, when it’s ‘moonscape’ was touted as a tourist attraction by some, an environmental disaster by others.

Once the world’s richest mining town – with more than 5,000 people frequenting its shops, hotels and theatres – its surrounding forests were gradually cut down for mine supports and to fuel the smelters. Over time, the toxic fumes from the smelters killed most other vegetation and heavy rains and resultant erosion stripped away the topsoil, leaving a surreal landscape of ochre, pink and grey rock. Today, regrowth has begun softening the flanks of surrounding mountains, but spectacular conglomerate rock remains on display.

Queenstown’s unique beauty captivated artist Raymond Arnold when he first visited while on a school excursion in 1967. The master printer returned time and again, and in 2006 established LARQ (Landscape Art Research Queenstown), where he and his partner, artist Helena Demczuk, hosted exhibitions, workshops and residencies over the next decade.

I met Raymond and Helena three years ago while stopping in Queenstown for directions to a nearby trailhead. They kindly opened up their studio and home to share their obvious passion for the region.

This year I returned for nearly two weeks, settling into the Mt Lyell Anchorage, a cozy guesthouse run by Joy Chappell, who allows free reign on her vegie and herb patches. On several mornings I joined Raymond, Helena and their four lively whippets, to explore steep tracks in the foothills of Mt Owen. Each walk was a mini-master class on mining history, as well as local plants and animals.

Since my last visit, Queenstown had a new buzz. Almost daily, packs of motorcyclists (more retired executive than bikie gang), grey nomads, backpackers and international tourists frequented coffee shops or historic pubs like the Empire Hotel.

One evening I enjoyed the opening of an exhibition by artists-in-residence, Jason Parker and Shawn Lu at Q Bank Gallery. The gallery is the brainchild of Melbourne psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Brockway, and social media marketer Mark Broadhead, who have transformed the 1898 bank building.

Along Driffield Street, just down from the Railway Station, I discovered Pottery Art Queenstown, a shop and gallery featuring extraordinary ceramics by local artists, as well as shops featuring artisan products throughout town.

The tourist office in the Eric Thomas Galley Museum helps fast-track your knowledge about pioneering and mining in the wild west. Or visit the incredible art-deco Paragon Theatre, where Joy and her partner Anthony Coulson run Queenstown Heritage Tours, offering a range of trips from night-spotting wildlife, to visiting World Heritage forests and remnants of the hydro scheme that powered the mines.

Best of all, hop aboard the West Coast Wilderness Railway and choof your way into rich forests of leatherwood, sassafras, nothofagus, Huon Pine and celerytop. Enjoy scones and tea as you climb up to Rinadeena Saddle, before dropping steeply to Dubbil Barril, before returning the way you came, stopping to pan for gold along the way.

The more adventurous can enjoy an adrenalin-pumping, whitewater trip through King River Gorge, returning to Queenstown on the train. Or climb aboard in Strahan and ride the train to Dubbil Barril and back.

Nestled on the shores of beautiful Macquarie Harbour, Strahan is the gateway to the World Heritage listed Franklin–Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. Only 45-minutes drive from Queenstown, it’s well worth a visit, especially for dinner at Risby Cove, where fresh seafood and sublime west coast sunsets combine for a unique Tasmanian experience.

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