Railways and River Cruises
Start - Strahan Foreshore & Queenstown Station
Time - 6 Hours (Cruise), 4 Hours (Railway)
Cost - $135-$185 (Cruise), $115-$185 (Railway)
Date Visited - 14th & 15th of April 2021
Best Time - All Year Round
Traditional Custodians - Peerapper People
Gordon River Cruises - With a few days in Strahan and plenty of trails already under the belt, this leg of the trip would be about enjoying some of the more touristy aspects of the West Coast of Tasmania. Strahan is a small town on the edge of Macquarie Harbour that has had a long history with convicts, logging, fishing and tourism so there is plenty to discover if you're interested in booking a tour or two. From the start of planning this holiday I had my eye on the Queenstown Railway (see later on for this) but Candy and Hal were interested in doing a cruise along the Gordon River as it holds a special significance to Candy.
Regular readers will note there isn't any information about trails and while there is a short trail experience on each tour, sometimes I like having this website as a vessel to put my holiday photos rather than try and attach them to trail related posts. With more rain forecast for the day (this part of Tasmania gets rain 300+ days of the year), sitting in the comfort of a big boat while we cruised around the harbour and river wasn't going to be a bad thing at all. There are a couple of big operators here with many different packages on offer depending on your budget but Hal booked us in with World Heritage Cruises and their big red catamaran. Being July school holidays the boat was pretty full and the six hour cruise would take us across the harbour towards the ocean and then double back to head up the Gordon River before returning to Strahan. Settling in to the morning, we were free to move around the boat with several open decks and the opportunity to join the captain in the control room to see how one person could pilot the large vessel. There would be a running commentary over the course of the cruise by the captain explaining the history of the area and various points of interest along the way. The first destination was the entrance to Macquarie Harbour through what is called "Hells Gates". A narrow passage into the harbour where many ships over the years have had problems thanks to the wild weather and nearby rocks.
With powerful engines and modern controls, it's not an issue for the tourist boats so you get the opportunity to be taken through the gates and given a taste of the open ocean that extends all the way to South America. The headlands here are quite photogenic and there are two lighthouses at Hells Gates that stoically show the way through. With high winds and a bit of rain, it was a challenge to stay dry and keep your feet on the open decks but I managed to get a few shots as we hung around for a while learning about the man made jetty that seemed to have been a bit of a folly. After getting a taste of how wild this stretch can be, we headed back into the relative safety of the harbour and made our way to the first onshore visit of the day at Sarah Island. On the long cruise across the harbour we passed all the different salmon farms, a good source of employment in the area but with a dark underbelly that is starting to cause some big environmental issues. Reaching Sarah Island, the site of a penal settlement dating back to 1821, this is where you can get off the boat and enjoy a tour of the island. With so many people on the cruises, we were rounded up like cattle into various groups and shuffled around the main sites by one of the guides.
The guide we had was a humorous young man with a skill as an orator and he really made the tour worthwhile thanks to the interesting stories of life as a convict and what they had to go through over the years. It really hammers home how terrible the British were and the issues colonialism had throughout the 19th and 20th century. Back on the dry comfort of the boat, the final part of the cruise was a trip up the wilds of the Gordon River. This is what Candy and Hal were looking forward to the most as Candy had been involved with the efforts to stop the hydro schemes when they were first proposed. Between hydro and the Huon Pine harvesting, there are plenty of stories about life along the river and it's a sad tale that the Huon Pines were all but removed from this area over the last two hundred years. The turnaround point on the river cruise is a short walk at the Heritage Landing where you can do a loop through the rainforest and see one of the Huon Pines that wasn't cut down. It was bucketing down with rain when we arrived so the walk was brief and I didn't take many photos. The journey back to Strahan was a case of enjoying the gentle cruise through the misty rainforest before being deposited back at the docks for a woodworking show. All in all it was a worthwhile experience, you just have to be alright with a lot of other people.
West Coast Wilderness Railway - The second tourist experience we were booked in for during our stay at Strahan was on the famous West Coast Wilderness Railway. This is something I had wanted to do after seeing it many years ago and I love the romantic fantasies of being on old railways. We booked this in for the morning of our departure from Strahan and would be doing the Rack and Gorge offering that departs from the Queenstown end of the line. There are multiple options you can do on the railway with tours starting at either Strahan or Queenstown. Another rainy day was on the cards as we arrived in Queenstown and I was excited for this one. I had brought to Tasmania my big woolly coat that is a replica of Newt Scamander's coat from the Fantastic Beasts movie. This was about as close as I was going to get to riding the Hogwarts Express so I was going to be dressed for the part. It also helped that it was a cold day and the big coat served me well. The Rack and Gorge name comes from the system of railway they used here that was essential given the steep terrain they had to build on. This is one of the steepest tracks in the Southern Hemisphere and was crucial to the success of this area when mining was first being developed around Queenstown.
Caris had booked us into the Wilderness Carriage that provided drinks, lunch, snacks and a balcony at the back and is well worth the extra cost. The train that is used is one of the originals that worked this line over the course of its working life and is an old fashioned steam engine that really adds to the experience. Departing Queenstown, you follow the banks of the Queen River and it isn't long before you are in the rainforest and it starts to feel very special. The first stop of the morning is at Lynchford where they setup a class in panning for gold that thankfully was undercover. Our group wasn't lucky in finding any gold pieces but there are some in there I am told. Back on the train we started the uphill portion of the track and the rack and pinion system used to get the train up steeper section is certainly noticeable as you are going along with a steady clunk and jolt pattern. Enjoying some morning tea on the ride up the hill, it was good fun staring out the window at the rainforest and the steep drop-off to the river valley below. At the top of the hill is Rinadeena Station and another opportunity to get out and explore the nearby area. I was loving it so far as the combination of steam railway, wet weather and temperate rainforest was a comforting mix.
After stretching the legs and getting some photos of the train, we headed back into the carriage and were soon going downhill towards the turnaround point at Dubbil Barril. The weather had cleared up along here and we spent a bit of time on the balcony at the back enjoying the views looking at the sunlight streaming through the ejected steam. It created some moody scenes that were fantastic to photograph. Another highlight before we got to Dubbil Barril was a stop overlooking the King River from high above. With the sun out this looked a treat and makes you appreciate how difficult this terrain would have been to build on. Arriving at the turnaround point, this marks halfway between Queenstown and Strahan, and where the engine does a spin to take us back to Queenstown. At Dubbil Barril there is a short walk into the rainforest and along the King River that is very enjoyable and adds another element to the day. We finished the walk just in time to see the engine turn around on the rotating platform before being coupled back up to the carriages. This meant we would be the front carriage on the way back and the balcony would be facing the engine. The return journey was just as enjoyable with lunch being served (pumpkin soup with warm fresh bread) and dessert as we arrived into Queenstown. A fantastic experience and one of the highlights of our two and a half week road trip.
Final Thoughts - As I said before, the big tourist experiences aren't really my thing but these were more than worth putting up with the crowds.
Strahan is well known for the boat cruises and tourism has now taken over where logging and mining have declined so it's nice to support that industry. Despite some of the glorification of the Huon Pine logging and the new salmon industry, the information on the cruise was excellent and it's one of the easiest ways to experience the wilds of this part of Tasmania.
My favourite part of our stay at Strahan was the West Coast Wilderness Railway. I'm a sucker for old railways and it lived up to every expectation I had. From start to finish it was highly enjoyable with a good mix of things to do and time to appreciate the scenery. If you can afford the extra cost then the Wilderness Carriage is worth it.
Get out there and experience it!