With its isolation, rich convict heritage, historic mining towns, national parks, serene rivers, rugged mountains, and ancient rainforests, the West Coast of Tasmania is still all about wilderness. The moonscape of Queenstown and the cruise on Gordon River in the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park give a sense of isolation and remoteness.
West Coast of Tasmania
One photo. This only one photo made me drive for at least 5 hours to Tasmania’s remote West Coast.
When looking for images of Tasmania, it’s always the East. And indeed, the East Coast with its wild and stunning Freycinet National Park, Maria Island and the Bay of Fires has redefined my conception of natural beauty and the power of nature. But what about the West?
Often described “rugged and remote”, until recently, the West Coast of Tasmania wasn’t much of a tourist destination. This part of the island was strongly associated with convict settlements, wilderness, mining, and isolation. But now tourism is slowly making its way to this terra nova attracted by its quirky mining towns, the cruises on the serene Gordon River, the World Heritage site of Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, and a steam train ride on West Coast Wilderness Railway. The West Coast government is even taking a step further with their ambitious plans for 2018 to replicate the success of the Great Eastern Drive and make the West Coast the next iconic drive in Tasmania.
I go West.
The East has been farmed, and the West has been mined. The West is not the tamed and agriculturally developed eastern side of the island. The West Coast is all about wilderness.
The road from Hobart winds through the rainforests past Russell Falls at Mt Field National Park and the Wall in the Wilderness near Lake St Clair National Park, an ambitious project by a passionate self-taught artist, who is carving a giant sculpture in rare Huon Pine to pay homage to those, who shaped Tasmania’s Central Highlands region – its indigenous people, Piners (pioneering timber harvesters), miners and hydro workers.
Moonscape of Queenstown
It’s a long and winding but scenic drive to Queenstown, the largest town on the West Coast. My small car handles surprisingly well the narrow and winding roads, with the locals occasionally whizzing along. I have been driving for about 4 hours. To Australians that’s a short drive.
Now I know what they mean by the “west coast wilderness” when referring to the West Coast. I hardly see any signs of humankind feeling like being in the middle of nowhere. Only hills, trees and small towns connected by empty roads that cut through some remote and rugged landscape.
The weather deteriorates, and now I am driving in mist and rain. But soon, the fog clears, the rain stops and bare, orange-yellow hills, ruined from the mining, come into view. The famous “moonscape” of Queenstown that once saw on a photo, the one, which made me come here.
Queenstown is a town like no other. The mountainous region of Queenstown has a history of continuous mining dating back over a century. Alluvial gold and copper mining left the wounds on the surrounding hills stripping them of vegetation and creating a surreal, alien landscape, with orange and grey hues of bare conglomerate rocks. I feel myself on the set of a post-apocalyptic movie.
With its location in a mountain valley, strong colonial heritage and the atmosphere of an historic mining town, Queenstown is surprisingly attractive. It definitely has a character. There are old Victorian hotels such as the Empire Hotel with its beautiful staircase made from Tasmanian Blackwood, the 19th century old pubs, and some historic buildings such as Post Office and Paragon, the Queenstown’s art deco theatre. Their brightly painted facades evoke the town’s past with its aspiration to grandeur and prosperity.
A number of abandoned buildings is the testimony of Queenstown’s long-gone mining boom and the town’s decline. Now, Queenstown focuses on tourism rather on mining. There is a number of museums, shops selling local produce and a community of artists, whose works can been see in a few local galleries.
Spion Kop Lookout
Queenstown and the surrounding mountains, Mt Lyell and Mt Owen, are best viewed from the top, Spion Kop Lookout, which is easily reached from Hunter Street. The heritage listed gravel-surfaced football oval is also seen from the top. The region sees a lot of rain, and grass football fields quickly turn in mud while the gravel will just make you come back with flesh ripped off and bleeding.
Queenstown is also the terminus of the historic West Coast Wilderness Railway, which runs the restored ABT steam trains between Queenstown and Strahan. The railway is the only remaining ABT railway in Australia. The original Mt Lyell Railway, established during the mining boom to transport copper from Queenstown to the shipping port at Strahan, was closed following the development of roads, with the last train running in 1963 and carriages scattered to museums. But it was re-opened as a tourist attraction in 2002 under the name of West Coast Wilderness Railway taking passengers up to the steepest tracks in Australia.
Leaving the steam train with its huffs and puffs for the kids, I move to Strahan.
Leaving the copper stained slopes of Queenstown behind, I drive to Strahan (pronounced « Straw-n »), the remote, small and sleepy riverside town sitting in Macquarie Harbour.
This quaint town was once a home to fishermen, convicts, and piners, the tough and rugged men who cut timber, mainly Huon Pine, for boatbuilding. Now Strahan has a new face. Fishermen remained but piners and convicts have been replaced by tourists. Strahan is now a resort town, with many great places to stay, to eat, and to visit. River cruises, wilderness railway and seafood, this is what draws the people here. But before taking the famous cruise, I take a walk.
Strahan Foreshore Walk and Hogarth Falls
Easy walk along the shore track following the path of the old railway line that once ran between Strahan and Zeehan, passing a number of historic buildings. The walk starts at the West Strahan picnic area and goes along the foreshore to the train station at Regatta Point.
From Peoples Park Strahan, midway between the main Strahan wharf and Regatta Point, an easy stroll through mixed forest with gum trees and the species typical of cool temperate rainforest, brings you to Hogarth Falls. If lucky, you may spot a platypus inside of the creek. I didn’t.
Henty Dunes and Ocean Beach
But Strahan is not all about rainforests and waterfalls. 13 km north of Strahan on the road to Zeehan lie a series of giant dunes, some at least 30 metres high, with expansive views towards Ocean Beach. There is also a lookout about 8 km north of the picnic area for views of Henty Dunes and Ocean Beach.
Endless beaches in Tassie? I saw many. But Ocean Beach near Strahan is the longest, stretching for over 30 km from Trial Harbour to Hells Gates of Macquarie Heads. With the surrounding giant dunes, wild ocean with roaring waves, and powerful wind, it feels like the edge of the world. Ocean Beach can become really wild. The coast is battered by “Roaring Forties”, a strong wind current coming across the ocean from South America, which causes breakers and swells, up to 20 metres in bad weather.
Ocean Beach is an easy 1.5 km walk through Henty Dunes. All bird lovers should come in early spring (October), when shearwaters (muttonbirds) return after their migration to their nests in the dunes.
Bonnet Island and its Little Penguins
It turns out that little penguins and shearwaters (buttonbirds) are found everywhere in Tasmania, not only on Bruny Island. Bonnet Island is one of those places. Once home to a lighthouse and its keeper, today this remote and isolated island is home to a colony of little penguins.
Gordon River Cruise
I remember seeing a photo with a mystically looking river by Peter Dombrovskis “Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, Tasmania”. Only later I found out that the photo is more than just a stunning landscape of Franklin River. This photo actually saved Franklin and Gordon Rivers.
The battle is going back to mid-1980’s, when the Tasmanian government planned to build a dam, which would submerge large sections of Franklin and Gordon Rivers. Mass protests followed with Dombrovskis’s photo being put in the national newspapers with “Could you vote for a party that would destroy this?”. Strahan has become the epicentre of the largest conservation battle in Australia, the battle to save Franklin River. Families and friends were torn apart divided by those, who supported the construction of the dam and those, who wanted to preserve the region. The conservationists won, and Franklin River was not dammed.
I am learning the story of this environmental battle on board of the boat while it’s slipping along the mist-covered, dark, tannin-stained waters of Gordon River surrounded by dense forests.
After leaving the wharf, we safely make our way out of Macquarie Harbour through “Hell’s Gates” to the Great Southern Ocean. But it didn’t receive its name because of the notoriously shallow and dangerous channel. It was named by convicts as the channel was on their way to the penal station on Sarah Island, their “entrance to Hell”, so harsh were the conditions. And this is where we are going next, moving at a slow speed to preserve the delicate banks of the river.
Our guides are quite a character bringing Sarah Island alive with their animated stories about the place. Sarah Island used to be a dreaded convict penal colony for the worst offenders, where convicts were confined in harsh conditions before the establishment of Port Arthur. It was considered that escape was “next to impossible” but a number of them did. And a lot of them died too.
Some of my fellow passengers are so inspired by the stories funnily presented by our guides that they went to see The Ship That Never Was. This Australia’s longest running play is based on a true story of a great escape from Sarah Island by the last ten convicts. Performed nightly since 1993, this apparently hilariously funny play is an interactive performance with some people from the audience playing roles of different characters on stage.
A stop at Salmon Farm, where hundreds of thousands of Tasmania’s famous Atlantic Salmon and Ocean Trout are farmed, opened my appetite, especially for salmon, which is served on board of the boat for lunch together with other local produce.
Later, we disembark on Heritage Landing for a boardwalk tour of the virgin, moss-covered rainforest, with colourful lichens and fungi. Huon Pines are the most famous local residents. These slow-growing, threatened species are unique to Tasmania and are the world’s second oldest living trees on earth. “This tree is two thousand years old,” our guide is pointing at a fallen tree on our way. The pines were highly sought after by Piners, local timber cutter, because of its toughness and rot-resistance due to the oil contained in the wood.
The Piners have gone, but the Huon Pine sawmills remain, as we can see by stopping on our way back to the harbour at Morrison’s Huon Pine Sawmill for demonstrations. Some of us come back home with a bit of Tasmania in their bags – the crafts made of Huon Pine.
After six hours spent in the serenity of the imposing Gordon River, we return to the wharf.
Two operators offer Gordon River cruises: World Heritage Cruises, owned and operated by a local family, who pioneered the cruises more than a century ago and Gordon River Cruises.
The return is never a fun journey but the drive is scenic and Nelson Falls make a nice stop. It’s an easy walk through the forest with some ancient species of trees that used grow throughout Australia but now only found in cool, moist regions, including Tasmania.
Nelson Falls are located 30 km away from Queenstown on the Lyell Highway towards Derwent Bridge and Hobart.
Location: Queenstown and Strahan are situated on the West Coast of Tasmania, an island off Australia’s south coast. Queenstown is 260km (5h drive) from Hobart, and Strahan is 300km away (4h30 drive).
How to get there: Visiting West Coast Tasmania can be difficult if you are not driving yourself. The best way to see the West Coast and Tasmania overall is to hire a car. There are many local companies offering cheap car hire. For public transportation, visit www.rome2rio.com website.
Best time to visit: Any time but summer months (December – February) are the best, as heavy snow in winter may lead to temporary road closures on the West Coast.
Accommodation is available in Strahan, Queenstown, Rosebery, Tullah and Zeehan, and can be found on World Heritage Cruises website, Discover Tasmania and Wotif, a popular site to find accommodation deals in Australia. AirBnB is another good option to find a nice place to stay – apartments are often less expensive than hotel rooms.
Sign up using this AirBnB link, to get a discount on your first booking.
Camping: Camping is available in Strahan, Queenstown, Rosebery, Tullah and Zeehan. Information on camping can be found on Camping Tasmania website, West Coast RV & Camping Brochure, and Discover Tasmania.
For more information on the West Coast, see Discover Tasmania website.
Queenstown Heritage Tours is the place to learn about the mining history of Queenstown and go inside the mine, visit Lake Margaret Hydropower Station, learn about the famous Piners and visit the Huon Pine sawmill, see wildlife in the rainforests and visit Western Range plateau.
Driving 6km from Queenstown on the Lyell Highway towards Derwent Bridge, you will come across Iron Blow Lookout with its impressive views of the open cut Iron Blow Mine. Iron Blow Mine is where the mining history of Queenstown began.
Continuing driving further will bring you to Lake Burbury (21km east of Queenstown), where you can camp on its shores. The lake is actually artificial created in the 1990’s by damming of the King River for hydro-electric power. It’s a popular spot in Tasmania for trout fishing.
Alternatively, you can drive 18km south of Queenstown along Mt Jukes Road to Mt Jukes Lookout for extensive views towards jagged peaks of Frenchmans Cap and Mt Jukes.
A bit further along Mt Jukes Road, you will find the walking track to Newall Creek (12km south of Queenstown) flowing through rainforest and a viewing platform.
The Franklin River Nature Trail, 60km east of Queenstown has picnic tables, toilets and excellent walks through stunning rainforest to the Franklin and Surprise rivers, while further west, Donaghys Hill Lookout offers more stunning, panoramic wilderness views.