Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Back in the Wild, Wild West - Day 2 - Kelly Basin and The Road to Ruin

Mt. Huxley -View from the Crotty Road, south of Queenstown. The debates on the Origin of the Species were raging when the area around Queenstown was being explored in 1862, so whoever was responsible for naming the mountains, had a bet each way, naming  two peaks Jukes and  Owen after critics of the theory of evolution, one after Darwin and one after Huxley who was initially against the idea, but became a staunch supporter of Darwin, after the great debate at Oxford in 1860 
The day didn’t start brilliantly – grey, overcast and a little misty and cold. We hadn’t slept well and now we had to rush to get my friend to the Gordon River Cruise. That, and the “The Ship that Never Was”  -Australia’s longest running play (in years, not hours that is),was sure to keep her pleasantly occupied for most of the day, so taking the winding road back to Queenstown, I head for Kelly Basin,  40 km South.  Where it belongs to the Hydro, the road is awesome in both the original and current sense of the word. It scales grades of 1:10 but is wide and smooth and there are several lookouts.  The view is over many stegosaurus backed mountains, standing stones, the dams and the King River and the rift valley which runs through most of Queenstown.  The ten km of unsealed Parks road that follow once I enter the Wild Rivers National Park, aren’t too bad either. Then I am confronted with a challenge.

Do I walk the last five kilometres in to the Bird River to the start of the track or do I take a chance and drive?  The road is a former railway track minus the rails and is not recommended for two wheel drive vehicles, but walking would add ten kilometres to an already longish walk. While I am pondering this and pulling on my boots, a small sedan whizzes past and disappears into the tunnel-like gloom. I wait a while, walk a little bit of the track which looks almost smooth, though extremely narrow. Then I drink my first coffee of the day. 

Start of the Bird River Road -  a very narrow former railway line

 When neither the car nor its occupants reappear, I jump back into the driver’s seat and take off after them. I hold my breath. It only takes five minutes or so in a vehicle but it’s the longest five minutes in the universe. I pass a big SUV parked slightly off the road in a wider section and the van just makes it beneath the overhanging trees and almost scrapes the sides of the steep cuttings. I honk my horn at every bend - and there are many, but I do get through. My sons will give me a long lecture about this, but here I am at the Bird River Bridge.

A shower of petals and the buzz of bees greet me as I cross the Bird River Bridge. The bees are busy making Tasmania's famous Leatherwood Honey which comes from places like this
The track still follows the old railway line but it's not possible to drive further because of earth movements and washed out bridges. As I cross the historic bridge, the sun comes out and I am showered with petals from tall leatherwood trees. I feel like a bride. Bees buzz. The river gurgles  alongside and the rainforest puts on its prettiest face.  I walk softly amid mosses and tree ferns while the river grows larger and breaks into riffles, rapids and falls. It is supposed to be a three hour walk, according to the sign, and though not unpleasant - mostly a gentle downhill to Macquarie Harbour, it seems a lot longer. About half way I meet a man taking photos. He's the owner of the SUV. He couldn't drive in all the way yesterday because there was a fallen tree across the road. 

A dense cover of tree ferns and tall trees provides welcome shade
Mosses and ferns clothe steep railway cuttings
The river grows stronger and louder
At last I come out near the harbour and there is some signage. It says that here beneath the vegetation lies the town of East Pillinger, boldly carved out of the rainforest because of a feud between two mine owners. This is a story that begs to be told. 
The main protagonists were both of Irish descent but Bowes Kelly (1852–1930) was an early investor in Broken Hill and was already wealthy. At over 6’ (183 cms) he was described “as a massive man, red haired, with a bone crushing handshake.” By investing heavily in mining and industrial opportunities such as the fledgling BHP, he became one of the richest men in Australia.  He also liked to gamble – stories are told of games of two up with gold sovereigns after board meetings. 

Carpets of moss
Meanwhile, according to Geoffrey Blainey writing in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, James Crotty (1845 -18980) had to walk a hundred miles to Waratah to register his claim on what was to become the Mt. Lyell Mining Company.  Crotty was “excitable and eloquent” and liked to take matters to court. In 1890 Crotty’s gold mine was badly managed and he had to work on the Sydney sewerage project to pay his debts.  Most of his shares passed to the Silver Kings of Broken Hill including Bowes Kelly.  Bowes Kelly who had had great success with his railway at Silverton and Broken Hill, immediately set to work building one to Strahan and establishing port facilities there. He also built smelters and towns for his workers. The Mount Lyell Mine however, was running out of ore. 
Crotty meanwhile profited both from the sale of his shares as well the better management of the mine. In 1897, he began the North Mt. Lyell Copper Company (where the Iron Blow is) and soon found himself the proud owner of an even richer find.  He too set about creating identical facilities – a port at Pillinger, the towns of Crotty where his smelter was, and  Linda  which was the railway terminus for the ore from the Iron Blow, and a railway line to link all three.  
Over a thousand people worked in East Pillinger at its peak -making bricks, cutting timber for the smelters and unloading ore. In 1898 however, while in London attempting to raise more capital, James Crotty died suddenly and with him died the vision for both his mine and the towns. In 1903 the Mt. Lyell Mining Co. and the North Mount Lyell Copper Company concluded a difficult merger as the Mt. Lyell Mining and Railway Company with the people in both sets of towns waiting anxiously to see which facilities would survive and prosper and whose would go. 

Strahan was the winner in the port stakes. The sign at the Iron Blow says that Darwin, a small community along the railway line, was abandoned almost immediately. Crotty lasted a little longer but now lies beneath Lake Burbury since the building of the Crotty dam. The government town of West Pillinger with its police station vanished without trace and East Pillinger was almost deserted by 1920. Most of the population of  Linda moved on to Gormanston, the workers' town of the Mt. Lyell Mining and Railway Company. Only the magnificent ruins of the Royal Hotel which closed in 1950, hint at its former glory. Gormanston lingers on with a population of around 164 at the 2006 census, relying mainly on tourism and fishermen attracted by the Lake.
The details may vary, but by such slender threads hangs the fate of many a mining town.  

 The remains of Pillinger's newly built 80 metre wharf which was forsaken for Strahan
While this marked the end of Pillinger and James Crotty’s dream, the story doesn’t quite end there. Bowes Kelly went on to acquire many other mines, start railways and cement works, not all of them successful. By the time he died in 1930 he had lost most of his fortune, leaving only around 60,000 pounds to his wife and six children. By contrast, Crotty's estate was worth around  200,000 pounds (roughly $400,000, a vast sum in the 1890's) but his wife fared far worse. He left her only 100 pounds a year, with an extra 500 pounds a year if she agreed to enter a convent. After giving his siblings and one or two others a similar sum, he donated the remainder to the Catholic Church to build St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.*

This was once the mess hall, centre of community life
One of two brick kilns which could produce enough bricks for 13 houses a day

The other
I poke around the substantial ruins for a while.  The bush has reclaimed almost all of Pillinger, except for the brick kilns, the mess hall, some rusting boilers, a few strips of metal and a couple of calla lillies.The National Parks and Wildlife Service has done a great job of bringing the scene to life and you can imagine how the place might have looked and sounded in its heyday. 
Suddenly I spot another sign which says that  it's 7.5 km to “Bird River Road.” That’s a lot longer than 1.5 hours, even for rangers.  I hurry back, not stopping now to take pictures. It's a pity. The mountains look even more spectacular now in the late afternoon light. I fly up the train track with my headlights on, back over the Crotty Road and then back down to Strahan. 

My friend is not pleased when we finally catch up. She's had enough of roughing it in the van and tells me that she is staying in a hotel tonight and catching the bus home tomorrow. I think of Crotty's hundred mile walk, or the privations that Philospher Smith went through to find his Mountain of Tin and wonder where that pioneering spirit has gone. I do confess that I am over carrying a twenty kilo pack, sleeping in tents  and foregoing hot showers myself. Lucky I didn’t have to walk the other five km both ways as well. Fifteen km feels like quite enough for one day. 

And the bush claims all
* For the full story of these early days of Mt. Lyell  and the bitter feud between these men, Geoffrey Blainey's The Peaks of Lyell (1959, 1993, ST. David's Park Press, Hobart) makes a riveting read.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Back in the Wild, Wild West – Day 1 Getting There

This is the real West Coast - rugged mountains, rich vegetation
I wanted to show an American friend the West Coast with its rainforests, lakes and waterfalls and  those crazy mining towns clinging bravely to life. Unfortunately, I totally wore her out just getting there. She did like the leatherwood flowers though.

It's Leatherwood season
No matter how often I travel the Lyell Highway- more times than I care to count, it never fails to thrill me to leave behind the relative bleakness of the plateau, or the smug pastoral hamlets of the lower slopes and plunge down through the Surprise Valley with its sharp, richly clothed mountains stretching almost to the sea.  It is almost always an adventure, some of which I would rather forget, but today the sun is almost shining and the leatherwoods are in bloom.

Like much of Tasmania, Hobart to Strahan doesn’t look far on the map. Only 299.7 Km from Hobart according to Google, but don’t be fooled. Whoever wrote that it takes 3.59 hours is either a Targa driver or hasn’t been there. It’s a long hard drive with big hills and sharp corners where at any moment you might confront a landslip, a broken down vehicle, or if you are really unlucky, bad weather including ice and snow. My friendly neighbourhood hydrologist always takes a thermal blanket, a thermos and some Cuppa Soup when he travels this road. Wish I’d thought of that the night we were stuck for four hours in the middle of  the night with ice crystals forming on the windscreen while waiting for the breakdown service. No matter, we are ready this time. I have the van. There’s virtually no traffic, even though it’s peak tourist season and there’s been no signal since about Ouse.

We visit The Wall, a most original concept in a very inhospitable environment. It features intricate carving using Tasmania’s unique woods to render the history of the timber industry.  It’s been over ten years in the making and the work continues. The whole place smells of Huon Pine, but sorry, no photos allowed. You have to go and see it for yourself (Entry is $12). 

We also stop at Lake St. Clair – Australia’s deepest Lake and the end or start of the Overland Track. Then there's a ritual stop at the Franklin River near the beginning of the Wild Rivers World Heritage Area and the subject of major controversy during the heated dam debates of the 80’s.  Alas, by the time we arrive at Nelson Falls, another favourite stop (and the best toilets on this stretch of road), my friend who’d been up since 4 too tired to go in, so we stop for a rest  at the Lake Burbury Picnic Ground instead.  It’s a shame the dams are so low at the moment. It is usually a stunning sight with lowering hills all around.

Lake Burbury
For a good picture of what it usually looks like check out the excellent website: which also tells you a great deal about the geology of the region and  outlines a trail where you can actually see it).  Had planned to stay the night here since at $6 per vehicle/ tent etc  overnight camping is cheap, but as we were already a day late and wanted to make the most of the rare good weather, we keep going. As we approach Linda and Gormanston the illusion of timeless, untouched rainforest evaporates.

The Iron Blow - After gold was discovered there by Steve Karlson in 1883, the area was soon found be rich in  silver and copper. This marked the beginning of Queenstown's rise. Between 1895 as the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company, it produced 5,497,468 tons of ore, yielding 12% copper, 2 ozs. of silver and 0.065 ozs of Gold per ton.
At the top of the hill, we make a short detour to the Iron Blow – site of the long defunct North Mt. Lyell Mine, but with great views over what was the township of Linda and the surrounding countryside. If you haven’t been there for a while, there’s a new viewing platform with a lot of information about the history and geology of the area. The stories of rivalry between two colourful mining magnates, along with intrigue, mine disasters and mystery, would make a great movie. The set is all ready. It’s a great place to catch your breath before tackling the 99 into Queenstown. Victoria has its Great Ocean Road. We have the 99. The name refers to the number of bends you have to negotiate to get there. MrAgm65, has captured  this on  videocam, including the more typical weather. 
I plan to spend more time in Queenstown soon, so we only do a quick lap of the town, taking in its grand hotels -relics of an earlier boom, and cast an envious glance at the West Coast Wilderness Railway. If it wasn’t so expensive, it would be a fantastic way to get to Strahan. The train uses the original rack and pinion system to cope with the steep grades.  The hiss of steam and the smell of coal just go together on the West Coast which remained largely inaccessible  by road until the 1960’s.

 [If you are a train buff or would just like a shorter, less expensive but no less authentic train ride visit “Wee Georgie Wood” at Tullah on the first Sunday and last Saturday and Sunday of each month between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. – Closed June to October].

Seen in Q'town - sorry, couldn't resist that one
It is a beautiful  late afternoon when we finally arrive in Strahan – pronounced STRAWN, by the way, so we walk the 40 minute  track to Hogarth’s Falls – not high, but pretty and easily accessible from the People’s Park. We that is I, also enjoy a BBQ  here much to the chagrin of my friend.

Strahan has the second biggest harbour in Australia - It's substantial buildings, especially the customs house which you can see in the distance, gained importance  as the mines grew -originally shipping silver from the mines at Zeehan and then becoming the export hub for Queenstown's massive output. 
In 1983, just as the big mines were winding down, Strahan became the focal point of the bitter dams dispute which divided the state. Although it had long been a local favourite being the venue for most mine picnics, it now came to the attention of a far wider audience and was easily able to reinvent istelf as a tourist destination. It being peak tourist season we are very lucky to find the second last space in the caravan park – unpowered alas, even though we are sandwiched between tents and other vans and there is not a tree in sight.There is still no phone connection, the internet doesn't work, nor does Eftpos, and that slight haze in the above picture would prove to be ominous.

Pretty Hogarth's Falls in the People's Park, Strahan
Sunset at Ocean Beach