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Tales of Power – A Visit to Waddamana

The Highlands Power Trail

I hadn’t really planned on doing the Highlands Power Trail but I wanted to avoid the steep valley where my van gave up the ghost last year. Now, belatedly looking at the brochure, it seems I did most of it anyway. Apart from the fact that the C 178 was unsealed and narrow and there was always the risk of meeting a fast moving ute flying around a blind corner, it was a lot more interesting than the A5. This was obviously where most of the action was before the main road came through. Farmsteads with freshly -shorn lambs clung to hillsides, elder trees with frothy flat flowerheads lined the banks of the Shannon River and puffy clouds drifted overhead. It looked altogether more lived in than most parts of the A5. 

I shouldn’t complain about the road. Had it not been for the Hydro Electric Commission, most of Tasmania’s roads would still look like this and many parts - especially in the West, would still be inaccessible. 


Waddamana -where Tasmania's first publicly - owned hydro - electric Power Station opened in 1922. Now a museum, it not only traces the development of hydro -electricity in this state, but captures a large chunk of Tasmania's history and keeps memories alive for the thousands of  people who worked on Tasmania's power schemes or lived in villages like this.


Waddamana was Tasmania’s first Hydro village. It's named after the Aboriginal word for noisy water. In contrast to the Steppes, Waddamana which had a population of just 4 at the 2016 Census is undergoing something of a revival. About half of it has just been bought* by a Sydney family intent on making it a prime fishing and B & B destination and restoring it to its former glory. Not too far back you understand. The first residents had to walk overland from Deloraine for the joy of living in tents in what is regularly the harshest climate in Australia. All equipment and materials had to be either brought in with horses and carts or manufactured on site. The video is worth a watch because it shows what it was like in those early days. Two more power stations were added over the ensuing decades and hundreds of men worked in 24 hour shifts to keep them going, that is, until 1995 when new generating capacity came onstream first from Poatina (1960s) and then the Pieman Scheme on Tasmania's West Coast. Many families just moved from village to village as capacity had to be continually expanded to meet the needs of industry and growing populations. 



*[This isn't the only ex Hydro village on the market either. I understand Tarraleah which has 55 fully restored homes is also on the market should you have a spare 11 million.]

As I pull into town, I see builders working on a couple of cottages, a trampoline in a front yard and a boy riding a bike down the main street. To my surprise, there’s even a fully operational coffee van parked at the end of the road. It's not a mirage. Even though I have my own coffee, the aroma of  freshly brewed coffee is irresistable and beats my thermos of lukewarm instant hands down. On the off -chance that the van it isn’t operating when you call, you can even get a reasonable coffee inside the power station for a dollar or two - small price to pay, given that entry to the museum is free. Three cyclists pull up as I leave.


A village in transition and a link between the future and the past. Some cottages were sold off earlier for an educational camp

Technology's Temples 


The Turbine Hall is not only a testament to the love and care lavished on the exhibits but also the care which was put into our early industrial buildings.They are monuments to progress, science and technology. The private Power Station at Lake Margaret with its high ceilings, clerestory windows and  gleaming brass is another. Bereft of workers and other visitors they feel like churches, though the tiles also make me think of tea dances and aspidistras.

Suitably fortified, I wander through the Power Station Museum under the watchful and friendly eye of engineer, Ian McKeown. Everything gleams. The woodwork is polished and it looks like the power station is ready to leap into life at any moment. I’m not normally excited by heavy machinery, but it’s not only impressive but colourful too. The museum holds many memories for Tasmanians in particular. It’s said that at one stage – around the time of the Pieman development, one in four Tasmanians were directly or indirectly employed by the “Hydro” as the Hydro Electric Commission was known, including several members my own family. It was also rumoured on the West Coast at least, that there wasn’t a family in the state that didn’t have a pair of sturdy Hydro issue gumboots.  The History room holds photographs and interactive recordings and videos - in effect the memories of those who worked there.


Who said machinery had to be ugly? Here is a giant butterfly valve which was used to control waterflow through the penstocks - the big pipes which carry water under gravitational pressure to the turbines                

A Genset with a bright orange Pelton wheel behind it. Tell me again what a genset does.

When did you last see such large or such clean spanners ? These were made on site

Looking at the remnants of original landscaping, I remarked how nice it it was that the Hydro had gone to the trouble, especially with the row of dense conifers along the main street.  Ian tells me in that matter -of -fact way that engineer's have, that the pines were planted to dampen the sound of the turbines

How the Hydro came to have such a dominant place in Tasmania

There were effectively three industrial revolutions – the first involved harnessing the power of steam, the second was about using coal, oil and gas to drive machinery and the third was about using electricity. Tasmania was right at the forefront when it came to harnessing electricity from water. The Francis turbine which is still in use today was invented in 1879 and the Pelton wheel to drive the turbine was invented  a year later. Only a year after the first private and commercial scheme began in Wisconsin in 1882,  the Mount Bischoff mine in Waratah on Tasmania's West Coast was using hydro power to drive its stampers and light up its premises. Other countries were hopping onto this new bandwagon too. Grand Rapids in Michigan, Ottawa, and Niagara Falls were other early adopters. By 1885 Waratah had extended lighting to its township and the City of Launceston had begun using electricity generated by the privately owned Duck Reach Power Station to operate its streetlights.  Despite further developments on the South Esk River, demand by industry soon outstripped supply and plans were made to harness the waters of the Great Lakes in Tasmania’s Central Highlands. Waddamana was initially to supply electricity to private homes and the zinc works in Hobart.

One of a row of Art Deco cottages built for engineers in 1923

Unfortunately finance for the scheme fell through due to the outbreak of World War I in Europe and as the company fell on hard times, the government's newly minted Hydro Electric Department - later the Hydro Electric Commission, took it over in 2016. Despite many trials and tribulations such as budget shortfalls and snow storms, the Waddamana power station was finally opened in 1922. This marked the beginning of an ever -greater expansion across almost all major watersheds until the 1980s, when the Franklin River in the South West was the only major river left without power developments on it. 

Earlier protests over the damming and flooding of Lake Pedder had already given rise to the world’s first environment party -the United Tasmania Group. This now led to the formation of the Tasmanian Greens who set about garnering international support. The debate divided friends, families and communities. There were huge public demonstrations and more than 1500 arrests,  but it eventually led to Federal intervention and the protection of the river and a large area of wilderness. At this point the Hydro lost much of its near omnipotent power and had to make do with several smaller, less environmentally destructive schemes instead. However, the Hydro remains a leader in the field of renewable power generation and has shared its expertise in the field with many other countries. 

In the 1990’s -not long after NASA and the US Department of Energy developed the first prototype for large scale windfarms in 1981, the Hydro began developing wind farms in some of Tasmania’s more remote regions, such as Woolnorth in the North West, which lay directly in the path of the Roaring Forties and on King Island which had been too far away to benefit from central distribution. King Island now runs on a combination of various energy sources, but is able to rely on renewables plus energy storage for 65% of its needs. Many of the things we take for granted today would not have been possible without these developments. Even in the 1970s country women would tell me how grateful they were when they finally got a nice clean electric stove. However, this wasn't the only contribution the Hydro made to life in Tasmania.

The house that belonged to this lilac tree has long gone, as has its owner, but it makes me think of the women who accompanied their menfolk to places such as this and tried to make houses into homes. Read more about their lives here. The tree might need a bit of love, but its fragrance lives on

 The Hydro as an Agent of Cultural Change

Post -war refugees and immigrants from many countries found themselves thrown together in remote parts of Tasmania in villages such as this while working for the Hydro. Richard Flanagan's book "The Sound of One Hand Clapping" attests to the fact that it wasn't always easy. However, the following quote comes from the page about the Hydro's  Centenary Celebration in 2014.

"With over one hundred years of innovation, we created employment for more than 5200 direct jobs at the peak of construction, and in the past century, have employed more than 30000 people. Through the electricity we generated, Tasmania's manufacturing and agriculture industries thrived.

We saw roads built where there had been none and villages grow in the wilderness. With the introduction of diversity through our migrant communities, Tasmania's culture has flourished; from what we drink and eat; to our music, art and community celebrations. Our engineering and technological breakthroughs have helped change the way the world approaches the challenge of generating energy - and still do."

See more history here or call in and say Hi to Ian.

 A Glimpse of the Future

High on the hill before Waddamana, I catch a glimpse of the new Cattle Hill Windfarm built by Goldwind Australia and Powerchina Group on a former pastoral property. Before it was built in 2019, there was grave concern about what would happen to our threatened wedge -tailed eagles who still call this region home. To prevent eagle -strike, the company has been trialling an optical tracking system which automatically turns off the turbines if it detects an approaching bird. According to independent reports, not a single eagle has been lost in two years of operation. 

 The Hydro now exports excess power to the mainland via the Basslink cable, trains international teams and has a commercial consulting arm. It is also working on pumped hydro systems as part of its plan to make Tasmania “The Battery of the Nation." When that happens, remember that it all began in Waddamana. 

Two More Hydro Villages

I pass two more places which owe their existence to the Hydro on the way to the West. The first is Miena on the Lakes Highway - recently renamed the Highland Lakes Road, at the Southern edge of the Great Lake. It was here that the then privately -owned Tasmanian Hydro - Electric and Metallurgical Company began building a dam in 1915 to supply water to Waddamana. After taking over in 1916, the state owned Hydro built another dam there in 1922 and raised the level again in 1982. At 1000 metres elevation, Miena is both the highest and the coldest settlement in Tasmania. However, it has since made a name for itself as the centre of a thriving trout fishing industry due to its location within 'The Land of One Thousand Lakes' and currently has a permanent population of around 100. With the Highway now sealed and new windfarms in the offing, its future seems assured. It also happens to be the only place between Bothwell and Deloraine where you can get fuel. 

Turning south west from here along the Marlborough Highway - highway being a bit of a generous term - watch out for the potholes- you come to Bronte Park, another former Hydro village. In the 1950s it was home to 700 workers and their families while dams and power stations were built at Butler's Gorge, Tungatinah, Tarraleah and Lake Echo. In those days it had its own police station, post office, cinema, hospital, shop, a dairy and church.   When construction ended in 1979, the village closed and most buildings were removed, with the remainder being sold to private owners in 1991. These days it has around 28 permanent residents, a chalet and 19 cottages which are mostly let out to fishermen. I always  assumed that the country names of the cottages - Norway, Scotland, Wales etc., reflected the multicultural nature of the Hydro, but they were in fact named after the country of origin of participants in a fishing competition. 

There's no song for Hydro workers either, though there probably should be. The "Wichita Lineman" by Glen Campbell might have to do. 



PS: You might think that with all this power coursing through our powerlines, Tasmanians would have cheap power, but that isn't so since we are now part of the national grid and much of it has been privatised. We must also heat a lot more than most other states, so while my solar panels have saved me from the worst price hikes, I'm not much better off than I was before. The consolation is that it could have been worse. My bill says I’ve saved  $987.57, 3.28 tonnes of CO2 and planted 180 trees. 

NEXT: Tullah - The little town that keeps on keeping on