Last night as I was leaving Queenstown’s Empire Hotel after a great dinner I ran right into a wall of thick smoke. For a place that usually gets 3-5m (10-15 feet) of rain each year (!) it sure has been dry and hot on Tasmania’s West Coast and fires are raging as a result. That throws a big wrench into my plans to continue cycling west. The smoke is so thick that it’s seriously affecting visibility on the roads and I’m getting a sore throat. This morning I decided it’s probably best to wait for the smoke to clear a bit.
That’s alright – I had no trouble finding lots of interesting excursions to keep me busy.
The West Coast Wilderness Railway is a historic train ride that takes you through dense rain forest, up over a mountain, and perched precariously on the edge of a deep gorge.
Back in the 1890s, huge quantities of high-grade copper were discovered in Queenstown and large mining opperations began in earnest. But there was a problem. Queenstown is surrounded by rugged mountains and impenetrable rainforest. The only clear way to the sea, where you need to send the copper if you want to sell it, is through a deep gorge that floods every year. How do you put a railway through such harsh country?
The first surveyors who were sent out to find a viable route for the railway came back and said it was simply impossible. They were fired on the spot. A second, more determined, group gambled that they could avoid the gorge by going up an absurdly steep mountain and make it work using an ingenious “rack and pinion” system that adds a 3rd rail line down the center with teeth to pull the train forward. They hacked their way through dense rainforest and up steep mountainsides, all by hand. Incredibly, the railway opened less than years later and remained the only way of shipping anything out of Queenstown until the road finally arrived in 1932. Without it, the copper mines never would have gotten off the ground and Queenstown would be little more than a ghost town.
Speaking of ghost towns, that’s exactly what I visited in the afternoon. But first, why is there a ghost town so close to Queenstown, anyway? There was another problem with the copper mines. To supply power for such a large operation, the mines were voraciously burning all the wood they could get their hands on. Soon, all the hills around Queenstown were bare. Not a single tree remained. The Lake Margaret Power Station was built in 1914 to switch to hydropower.
This hydro-electric system is another ingenious solution against long odds, just like the railway. Water was redirected from lakes and rivers to flow through pipelines made of wood, down into a station filled with turbines. Amazingly, the pipeline is still made of wood and most of the turbines in the power station are original. It’s not everyday you get to see the inside of a working hydropower station, is it? Let me just say, it’s quite a sight and amazingly loud!
So, how about that ghost town? Originally, there were no roads between the power station and Queenstown so the station workers built houses right next to it. It developed into a community of ten or so families. Even though it was a small community – not even a village, really – they became quite close and even built a community hall.
When the road reached the power station in the 1930s and there was less need for regular maintenance, these families moved to Queenstown to find other work. They left their homes behind but I’m told if you come here at the right time you might just run into an old-timer paying a visit to the place they grew up and reminiscing of times long gone by.
Up next, I discover that Tasmania’s B&Bs are full of character. And ghosts!