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Into the heart of the Tasmanian wilderness
River cruises and scenic railways journey to ancient rain forests and unique wildlife
There are few places on earth more wild or remote than the west coast of Australia’s island state, Tasmania. One side is lashed by 20-meter waves and violent Southern Ocean winds, while the other is distinguished by 13,800 square kilometers of inhospitable mountain ranges.
The area around Macquarie Harbour –- a stillwater respite from the maritime mayhem that begins at the Franklin and Gordon Rivers -- long remained the last bastion of colonization. Once known as "Hell’s Gate," the harbor was only seen by the most despised convicts en route to Sarah Island.
It later became the scene of a long-running conservation battle, when the Tasmanian government planned a dam before being stymied by the federal government.
Now it’s part of a World Heritage Area that encompasses 20 percent of Tasmania. It’s home to 2,000-year-old Huon Pines among the ancient, temperate rainforests.
Hundreds of endemic fauna species include the Tasmanian Devil, Eastern Quoll, velvet worms and the 250 million-year-old Mountain Shrimp -- one of nature’s first crustaceans.
With a history of explorers, indigenous slaughter, fishers and whalers, prospectors and tree-loggers, today Straham attracts a different kind of traveler: visitors in search of a journey into Australia's wilderness frontier.
That journey starts by getting to Strahan -– a hire-car or bus journey from east to west from either Launceston or Hobart.
Tassie Link Transit's buses run from Hobart ($74.50) or Launceston ($81.30), www.tassielink.com.au
Car hire companies include Europcar www.car-rental.europcar.com.au/car-hire-tasmania
Group tours can be arranged at www.travelaust.com.au
Set on Risby Cove, a tranquil inlet in the northern reaches of Macquarie Harbour, Strahan’s heritage-listed terrace buildings along the esplanade are home to only 600, but accommodate more tourists.
It’s also home to public bars, restaurants, cafés and galleries for tourists who are embarking on the wilderness trail.
View 42 has panoramic views of the heritage village, where travelers can indulge in a seafood buffet of ocean trout, salmon or mussels ($47.50) while choosing between local brews Cascade or Boags.
In the village, Tasmania Special Timbers is touted as “the best smelling shop in Australia”. It sells Huon Pine -- the long living tree was once popular with colonial-era shipbuilders as its wood is waterproof, but today logging of it is banned.
But wood harvested from areas flooded by hydroelectric projects and leftovers from historical logging sites can be bought here.
“We still have waiting lists of Huon Pine for boat builders, but it’s mostly novelty stuff or high-end tenders for multimillion-dollar yachts,” says Dianne Coon of Tasmania Special Timber. “Most of it goes to make furniture and smaller items … souvenirs across Tasmanian and the mainland.”
From Strahan, the Tasmanian wilderness awaits.
View 42, Jolly Street Strahan, +61 (0)3 6471 7160
Tasmanian Specialist Timbers, The Esplanade, Strahan, +61 (0)3 6471 7190, www.tasmanianspecialtimbers.com.au
Hotels in Strahan Village can be booked via www.puretasmania.com.au
Following the river trail
The 32-meter passenger catamaran, "Lady Jane Franklin II," sounds its horn and departs Strahan Wharf at 8:30 a.m. for a three-quarter day cruise that takes in Hell's Gate, Macquarie Harbour’s trout farms, the old penal colony at Sarah Island and the Gordon River rainforest walk.
With floor-to-ceiling windows, the cruise can be done under any weather conditions, which is a good thing as 1,500 millimeters of rain falls every year.
“This World Heritage Area belongs to all of us,” says captain Graham Ridler, who encourages passenger to sit in the pilot seat and steer his boat. “So grab your camera and when you go home you can show your friends that you stood in one of the oldest bio-masses on earth.”
River Cruises, +61 (0)3 6225 7000. Tickets $90 or $210 (first class), www.gordonrivercruises.com.au
West Coast Wilderness Railway
By the late 19thcentury, demand for the fossil fuels and minerals saw industrialization boom in the area.
The biggest and oldest is the Mount Leyell Mine in Queenstown, 40 kilometers west of Strahan, which operated continuously from 1893 to 1994.
Copper ore arrived at the market via a railway line that carves through the King River Gorge, linking Queenstown and Strahan. Construction of the railway is recognized as one of Australia’s engineering triumphs. Built by hand, it saw laborers cut through massive rock faces and install bridges that were constructed off-site.
Rocketing costs saw the railway closed in 1963 and fall into ruin. But when tourism gained momentum here in the 1980s, a plot was hatched to restore the railway, allowing tourists to experience the raw nature that surrounds it.
“It’s worthwhile because it lets you get really up close to rainforest areas that are pristine,” says Michele Percy, of West Coast Wilderness Railway. “And the history that goes with it and how they cut through mountains to create it is amazing.”
That is a journey into the Tasmanian wilderness: unique flora and fauna and a history to match.
West Coast Wilderness Railway, +61 (0)3 6471 4300. Return tickets $129 or $210 (first class), www.westcoastwildernessrailway.com.au