Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tasmania Part 5: in which there is a train and a lot of food is eaten

We had to be at the train station by 10:00 for the West Coast Wilderness Railway trip. Fortunately the station is only 5 minutes by car from Strahan Village, so it wasn’t a hard ask.

We’d booked what is called Premier Class for the tour. It was advertised as having a more personal touch, better seating and a lot more food and drink. Kind of like cattle class as opposed to first class. We were greeted on arrival by a pretty attendant called Paula, who gave us a complimentary guide book (quite a high quality product for something that they gave away) and offered us a drink.

There’s a commentary provided by one of the long term guards on the train for everyone, but Paula was able to shut that off when she wanted to or needed to and could advise us personally. She’s a local and quite experienced, so knew what she was talking about as well.

The railway was initially created to allow a quicker way for the Mt Lyell copper mine to get its product from Queenstown to Strahan and then taken to Hobart. That they were even able to hack this railway out of the most incredibly wild and challenging country in the world during the mid to late 1890’s is astounding. The fact that they did it just using man power and shovels and wheelbarrows is even more incredible. There’s quote from a journalist who was taken to observe it all and he was extremely uncomplimentary of the undergrowth, referring to the horizontal (that’s a tree that literally grows horizontally, not vertically) as abominable vegetation that didn’t even have the courage to grow up straight like a normal tree and went so far as to say that any convict who escaped and made their way to freedom out of that wilderness actually deserved it!

We look at things differently these days and find the surroundings very beautiful and picturesque. There are 2 major rivers along the way in the rail trip; the King and the Queen. There are sections of both of these rivers that are quite literally dead. For years the Mt Lyell mine dumped its tailings in the river, it may eventually come back to life and the guard said that he has noticed signs of life in the last few years, but they suffered years of abuse. In other parts of the rivers you can see another effect of the nearby mines. There’s a lot of orange coloured sediment on the side of the river, the dirt and the rocks are a tandoori orange. Whenever it floods, and as this part of Tasmania is the second wettest part of Australia, as they’re fond of saying here it only rains twice a year: ‘once for 5 months and once for six months’, then the sediment washes into the rivers and parts of them are this unnatural shade or orange, almost as if they’ve been dyed.

There was one amusing story about the men who made the railway. They worked hard and they played hard, they liked a drink. Alcohol wasn’t easy to come by in the bush, so they experimented a bit. The leaves of the locally abundant sassafras tree can be used to make tea, so why not try to make moonshine using the bark? They did just that and made a drinkable beer, the side effect was that the bark used in this way also produces an amphetamine not dissimilar to speed! Paula had actually had one of the old timers fool her into drinking some of this stuff, she said that it tasted vile, but hadn’t experienced any of the other effects of the drug that it resembles.

As well as providing information about the history and the characters of the area, Paula kept pushing food and drink onto us throughout the day, both Kirsty and I almost waddled off the train at Queenstown. It did make Premier Class worth the extra we had paid for it. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived back to our accommodation and we only had time to rest briefly before washing and dressing for dinner.

Having been unable to have a proper anniversary dinner the previous evening (we were on the Gordon River Cruise) I booked in at Strahan Village’s high class restaurant View 42. It’s actually a decent walk to View 42, up a steep set of wooden steps. It’s on the hilltop, and this gives it an amazing view over the harbour, particularly impressive, not to mention romantic, at sunset.

The buffet was good and comprised of some of the best seafood and meat that the region has to offer, it was quite delicious, but I have had better. It was really the view, the experience and the ambience that was being paid for and they were all in evidence. We had a wildlife encounter when returning from dinner. As we were making our way down the steps we saw something scampering up them. Initially I thought it was a cat until I got a good look at its bushy tail and ratlike face. It was actually a fairly large brushtail possum. We get plenty of them at home, but rarely this big and never this close. Normally they do their level best to avoid people, but this one was content to share the path with us for a moment or two until it realised there wasn’t any food nearby and dived back into the brush, where it presumably shinned up a tree to spend the night at the first opportunity.

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