Start - Kings Bridge
Length - 7.5km (Loop)
Grade - Orange
Terrain - Single Track, 4x4 Track, Pavement
Vertical Climb - 319m
Time - 2-5 hours
Signed - Occasional Wooden Signs
Date Hiked - 19th April 2019
Best Time - All Year Round
Directions - From the centre of Launceston head west along Paterson St towards Kings Bridge. The trail head is located on the north side of the bridge, below the Cataract Gorge Reserve sign. It is only a 10 minute walk from the centre of the city so you can park your car pretty much anywhere and walk in.
The Hike - With a return to Tasmania discussed before we had even left on our last visit in October, it didn't take much convincing by Candy and Hal to get us to do the Bay of Fires. Booked in over the Easter weekend, we flew into Launceston a few days early so one of my first thoughts was were I could go hiking. Luckily Launceston is blessed with the fantastic Cataract Gorge a very short walk from the city centre so I convinced everyone that doing the longer loop on Good Friday would be a great idea. With most of the shops shut there wasn't much else to do and it would be a good way to stretch the legs before heading off to the East Coast for the four day Bay of Fires experience.
After a lovely breakfast at our hotel we decided to take the long way to the starting point along the riverfront boardwalk section because we'd only seen it in the dark the previous night at dinner. With sunny skies and still winds it was a relaxing way to explore Launceston and we saw plenty of people enjoying the good weather along the Tamar River. The start point that we used was Kings Bridge as it was the closest to our hotel and a fun position to start and end but you can elect to start at the car park for the First Basin if you like. From the riverside walk we were doing you could see Kings Bridge and where the South Esk River meets the Tamar River.
After passing a beautifully restored flour mill that is now the Stillwater Hotel and Restaurant, we walked under the big highway bridge and up towards the much quieter Kings Bridge. Being the leader of the day's expedition I decided that we would walk in an anti-clockwise direction, mainly because I wanted to walk on the bridge and get some early photos looking down the gorge. This didn't turn out to be a bad idea with the morning light illuminating the other side of the gorge, something you don't get to see much of if you go in the opposite direction as the trail takes you into the forest instead of along the gorge. After perusing the information boards underneath the impressive looking building that serves as an artist in residence complex now, we set off on the paved path (along with half of Launceston) that takes you along the river and provides excellent views of the gorge.
Created by the final breakup of the Gondwana super continent, this naturally occurring fault line has been shaped by ice and flowing water over the aeons to what it is today and the result is very striking. The dolerite columns had me reminiscing about our last trip to Tasmania on the Three Capes although the effect is not quite as dramatic given they are not as tall. Spotting one of the tourist cruise boats making its way along the river provided me with an opportunity to show the scale of the gorge walls, along with mixing up the photos a bit. As we snaked our way along the various bends of the gorge we soon arrived at the first of many of the wow moments, a space looking south towards First Basin and the Alexandra Bridge. Even the views looking down at the wide series of rapids was impressive and gave you a taste of what was an excellent walking experience from start to finish.
Moving on from the amazing views we stepped away from the chiselled features of the dolerite gorge and into a land of gardens, gazebos and autumnal beauty. With a lot of paths converging we had arrived at the Gorge Restaurant and surrounding gardens where we would have to figure out what we wanted to do and how to get there. First Basin is home to the longest single span chairlift in the world (so they claim) and we were close to the drop off point on the western side of the basin. We had plans on riding it eventually and with a bit of confusion around if we could get on it at this side, some members wanting to cross the basin by foot and then return via the chairlift, I made an executive decision that we would continue on the walk I had planned and would do the chairlift when we reached the other side of the basin a bit further on.
With that settled we had a chance to admire the golden colours of the leaves that the changing of the seasons had brought. While not natural to the area, the trees planted here do provide make for a lovely scene and the grassed areas are great for relaxing or having a picnic. As we were doing the longer loop on offer around Cataract Gorge (for a shorter loop head to Alexandra Bridge and cross the river) we found the path leading up the hill right next to the very Elven looking shelter. Officially called the Trevallyn Walk, this rocky single track takes you away from the crowds and into the dry sclerophyll forest above the gorge. There are a couple of side trips from the main track to lookouts and after skipping the Alexandra Lookout we elected to take the Cataract Lookout Track up to a lovely viewing platform above First Basin.
Looking down at the hive of activity below we could see the chairlift, the swimming pool and grassed areas next to the basin and further afield to the dolerite gorge and a tiny hint of Launceston in the distance. With our fill of great views and a bit of a drinks break we headed back down the rocky path and rejoined the main track as it headed uphill. As we left the moister parts of the nearby creek system that runs parallel to the track the landscape opened up to reveal yellow grasses and tall eucalyptus trees in abundance. I was much more at home here than with the crowds down near the basin and was enjoying the physical challenge of hiking up the hill (even though others were not). As we neared the top of the biggest climb of the circuit, we entered the forest properly and started seeing beautiful bracken ferns lining the side of the trail.
As we passed under a power line I was reminded that we weren't in the middle of a national park but instead a short walk from the centre of the second largest city in Tasmania. Still, the quality of the forest here was such that it wasn't a stretch to imagine yourself being miles from the nearest town or person. I knew there was a meeting of four tracks coming up soon an that we would need to take a left turn to head down to Duck Reach Power Station. Soon we had reached the intersection and everyone was relieved to see that it was a downhill stretch (mostly) until we reached the gorge again. We saw a few mountain bikers and a couple of fellow hikers as we headed along the Reedy Gully (South) Fire Trail.
More fantastic dry forest greeted us on this section as we strolled along the wide 4x4 track towards our next highlight. A section of She-Oak forest was a pleasant surprise (love my She-Oak trees) and pretty soon we were at the junction where we would need to start heading down to Duck Reach. The section leading down to the gorge again is pretty steep with a 90m descent over the next 300m being assisted by steps and sets of staircases. The views as you head down are pretty spectacular with the impressive dolerite cliffs on the opposite side coming into view and what looks like an old castle built up on the hill (it's actually the cottages used to house the engineers and workers for the power station).
The steep trail (named the Penstock Ladder) is very fun to descend and with a very lush feel thanks to the ferns, I was loving this section. A concrete platform appears out of nowhere and introduces you to the infrastructure that was created to service the power station below. It forms part of the tunnel that was blasted into the side of the hill that then fed water from the Deadmans Hollow weir (instead of piping it around the hill) and was a very controversial part of the power stations history. In the end it worked and the hydro station (one of the first public hydro stations in the world) operated from 1895 to 1955. It has since been replaced by the Trevallyn Dam and hydro station upstream so the buildings now house a museum to inform people of the area's history. Set deep in the gorge, it's a very interesting place to explore and marks the halfway point of the hike.
After exploring the museum and the flying fox (used to transport materials and people over the river before the suspension bridge was built) we crossed the impressive stone anchored suspension bridge and headed off on the return leg of the trip. I love a good suspension bridge and this one was no exception, being a beautiful structure and crossing a dramatic section of the gorge. Having fun taking photos from various angles including the iconic shot looking back at the bridge with the power station in the background, I said to the others that I'd catch them up as they ascended the steps up the hill. Now on the other side of the river we were on the home stretch as the path snaked its way along the contours of the dolerite hills.
Due to the positioning of the sun, the river wasn't looking too pleasant in the photos but it did bring out the skinks as they sunned themselves on the warm rocks. Given the one I saw didn't move much when I closed in for a photo, they must be used to the passing traffic during their midday sun baking. While there are protective fences around preventing you from slipping down the rock faces, the extent of the drop off isn't quite clear thanks to the nearby trees until you reach a wooden bridge and you can look down at the gully it crosses. We stopped here for a break to take it all in and watched the birds fluttering around in the open canopy. The next highlight of the trail was further on at a place they call the "Sentinel Lookout". Along the way you get occasional views back to Duck Reach and also down towards the river.
It's amazing to see that now the Trevallyn Dam has been built that the landscape has changed and the cracks and crevices in the valley below are filling with trees and shrubs. Given the river is not likely to flow as vigorously these days it has left an opportunity for nature to reclaim this area and the result is very pretty from a distance. Spotting a couple that looked as if they were floating in the canopy, it was clear that we'd arrived at the lookout and were soon staring out at the metal structure protruding into the valley. Allowing you to get a clear view of the valley, there is less of the jutting dolerite features and instead a forested wave of hills with the river gently flowing in the middle. Part of the fun here was to stare down at the river and notice sets of rapids or patches of deciduous trees shredding their leaves in different colour combinations.
With a few grumbly tummies we were keen to get to First Basin and enjoy some lunch so moved on from the Sentinel Lookout and on towards the most popular section of the Cataract Gorge area. After the wide views of the lookout, the gorge soon narrows up quite significantly and you descend down to a lower height where you can appreciate the spires of dolerite as they stick out from the opposite cliff. I always prefer being down low in a gorge rather than up high in a lookout as the impact of the cliffs is much higher. While the other side of the gorge was the focus of my gaze for a while, we got to have some fun on our side with the trail going through a narrow slot that I'm happy they left as part of the trail design. A balancing rock is wedged above the slot so you have to contort your way through and it adds a bit of fun to an already enjoyable section. With this narrow section of the gorge there is a requirement for a wooden bridge to be built to fill in the gaps but this just adds to the enjoyment.
The rock faces on your right tower over the path and as you look down at one of the weirs that were constructed, you have to wonder how they managed to get down and build it in such a steep area. That brings you to the second suspension bridge of the hike and feature piece of any photo of First Basin, Alexandra Bridge. While it's not necessary to cross the bridge on the longer loop we were doing I instead had a glance from the start as people wanted to have something to eat. Alexandra Bridge marks the full First Basin experience as the landscape opens up and you appreciate how cool this place is. It may not be what was originally here but I love how surreal the whole place felt. Here you were buried deep in a chasm of a dolerite gorge only a short distance from the centre of a city and you have tree covered hills reflecting in a mirror like river with cool bridges, a nice grassed area and to top it off, a turquoise swimming pool. That's not including the chairlift ferrying people from one side to the other that is another fun piece to add into the scene.
As public parks go, this one is pretty amazing and I got a Victorian era Commonwealth garden party vibe from the place (if that makes sense). Adding to the surreal feel was the presence of peacocks as we reached the Basin Cafe, the main building overlooking the lawn. After taking a few photos of these colourful show-offs Caris was ready to sample the Devonshire Tea that this place is famous for. Being after the lunch rush on a public holiday we weren't sure if there would be any scones left but we were in luck and they went down a treat. After an enjoyable snack we had one thing left to do while we were at First Basin and that was to ride the chairlift. You can elect to take a one way trip for $13 or for an extra $3 you can do the return journey so we chose to ride it twice. Soon we were in the air and enjoying the views from an elevated position. It's a relaxing ride (unless you get anxious about dropping your phone) and fits the area nicely. You have to disembark on the opposite side and line up again and as we were waiting a few pademelon wallabies and regular wallabies feeding nearby. After seeing the chair lift attendant throw some carrot on the ground we realised that it wasn't luck that we saw them but it was still cool.
With the return trip on the chairlift being just as enjoyable we were all ready to complete the last leg of the hike and return back to the hotel for some chill time. The trail takes you past the travellator that reminded both Caris and I of the transport up to the Grand Budapest Hotel. With the final climb up to the Zig Zag Track we were once again away from the hustle and bustle of First Basin and amongst the She-Oak forest. There are a couple of spots where you can look back at First Basin, most notably the lookout off a side track. As we had just climbed a hill the others weren't quite as keen as me so elected to head on while I checked out the lookout path. I caught them as they made their way down the Zig Zag Track, which is as described, a series of switchbacks designed to get you up and down the steep sections of the hill.
From the top of the hill here you get some nice views looking back to Launceston and the Tamar River. The combination of river, the city and the mountains in the background make for a lovely scene and once again they've catered well with a smaller lookout just off the trail to get the best of the views through the trees. A welcome relief for everyone was the sight of Kings Bridge once again and knowledge that the hike would soon be over. The mid afternoon sun had set behind the hills so the sunny gorge we had witnessed in the morning was cloaked in shadows. Descending down the final steps and onto the road leading to Kings Bridge I decided to take some more pictures from the bridge as Candy and Hal made their way back to the hotel.
With less hostile lighting, the entrance to the gorge looked much better and was the perfect finish to the hike. The walk back to the hotel was just as enjoyable with a still autumn afternoon bathing the empty city in golden light. With all the shops closed for Good Friday the main shopping areas were like a ghost town so we pretty much had downtown Launceston to ourselves. Admiring the wonderful architecture, the changing colours of the deciduous trees and the public art (Caris loved the Tasmanian Tiger statues that grace the malls). I fell in love with Launceston today and my opinion only got better the more time we spent there in the following couple of days.
Final Thoughts - Both major cities in Tasmania are blessed with incredible natural features that are a short distance from the city centre and it's great that both are utilised to their full potential as recreation spots.
My main takeaway from Launceston's Cataract Gorge was just how surreal it all felt at First Basin contrasted with how easy it was to feel a million miles away from civilisation in places.
The balance between tourist hotspot and genuine nature experience is very hard to get right and I think Cataract Gorge does it well. First Basin is very much for your casual tourist and easy family getaway but if you don't want that all the time then there are trails leading off into the hills where you will be immersed in forest within a few minutes of leaving the craziness of First Basin.
If you're staying in Launceston then I cannot recommend enough that you make time for a visit here. It may have taken us most of the day to get round the longer circuit but we were very much taking our time.
There are plenty of choose your own adventures available if you research the trails beforehand so it's really up to you how you walk Cataract Gorge.
Get out there and experience it!!!
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