I have long been intrigued by the history and beauty of ?Hells‘ Gates?. At last I got a chance to get back and have a good look around. The base for this exploration was to be Macquarie Heads, or as it is not so romantically known ?Hell‘s Gates?, the only opening from Macquarie Harbour to the sea. We camped at Macquarie Heads where the West Coast Council maintain a camping ground on what has recently become National Parks and Wildlife land. Only the tip of the peninsula is maintained in this way, the rest being a Forestry Tasmania softwood plantation. On, Under and Around Hell’s Gates | FEATURE STORIES | Adventures in the West Aug – Sept 2010 Page 36 The caretaker is a proud West Coaster with independent and firm ideas about things, including the parks service‘s bureaucratic ways. This of course misses all their useful measures, like attempts to control the rampant erosion that has been eating away at the foreshore. He has the usual standard of dental care you get in an isolated area with poor access to fresh food. He is proud of his park, which he hacked out of ?rubbishy bush? and weeds. He cleared a mountain of litter that had accumulated around the area and generally tidied it up. The pit toilets are typical of the NPWS standard of 20 years ago, but its cheap and tidy. The caretaker also takes an interest in the surrounding area and recently picked up 3 ute loads of rubbish off the beach in just a couple of days. Most of it floated in on the tide rather than being caused by the locals. We set up camp in regrowth coastal eucalypt forest surrounded by noisy groups of YellowTailed Black Cockatoos, New Holland Honeyeaters and Blue Wrens. As the light faded we headed 1 km down the road to walk on Ocean Beach and admire the brilliant sunset. Hell?s Gates ?Hell‘s Gates? was named by the convicts who had to pass through the Heads on their way to the dreaded secondary punishment prison at Sarah Island. The name stuck because every sailor since then has to draw a deep breath before threading through the pounding surf to find a 30 metre wide tide-swept gap between two rocky landmarks. In the early days there was a sandbar at the entrance only a few feet deep to add to the excitement. Surf would be breaking on the bar in heavy weather. The first European visitor was the prominent Hobart whaling captain, James Kelly, who at the age of 24 entered the bar in a whaleboat during his 1815 circumnavigation of Tasmania. He only just found the entrance which was obscured by smoke from a bushfire lit by the local Aboriginal people. He feared being attacked by their spears as he entered the narrow gap. Instead the local people largely kept their distance and he explored the bay and shot dozens of black swans for food. He reported stands of Huon Pine in the Eastern reaches of the harbour, then much valued for shipbuilding. Surprisingly the heads were negotiated regularly during this period by Government vessels without mishap, perhaps because they were not working to a schedule and could wait out adverse weather. The government had facilities at the Heads and used the convict labour to maintain a navigation beacon on the entrance. To feed these men they cleared nearby land and planted a convict garden which is still marked on some maps. This convict garden has long since been overgrown and is now used for shack sites. | FEATURE STORIES | Adventures in the West Aug – Sept 2010 Page 37 The most prominent structures at the Heads are the navigation aids and harbour works created during the mining era and they were to be the subject of tomorrows journey. Bonnet Island The Lights We launched at the new deep ramp near the camp ground and threaded our way through sand shoals towards the heads. Alison is fair weather sailor, so the small standing waves and whirlpools caused by the tide rushing through the narrow opening caused some excitement. We passed by Bonnet Island which is now the subject of nightly penguin and birdwatching tours from Strahan. The lighthouse jetty has been rebuilt so small groups can watch the Little Penguins and Muttonbirds come ashore. Twice a day the massive Gordon River charter cruisers roar through the opening to give tourists a 2 minute look at the amazing coastal scenery of the Heads. Going through the heads we also admired the spectacular scenery before returning to the old jetty at Macquarie Heads. Formerly the main jetty for the lighthouse settlement it is now used by a few holiday makers who have bought the remaining old buildings for shacks. The land under these old homes is now national parks land, so there is a tussle on as to how long they will be allowed to continue to use the area. When we walk above the settlement we can see both sides of the argument. The shack owners have protected the old buildings, but also left behind mountains of rubbish. They haven‘t been able to stem the regular firing of the undergrowth by vandals and unnecessary clearing that has stunted the nearby vegetation. Going up to the headland where a semaphore station once stood, we can get a fantastic view of the treacherous Hells Gates and its amazing harbour works. | FEATURE STORIES | Adventures in the West Aug – Sept 2010 Page 38 Gateway to Riches In the 1880s an amazing reserve of copper, the largest deposit in the world at that time, was found at Mt Lyell. Shortly after, rich silver ores were found at Zeehan. At the time Tasmania‘s economy was stagnating and the population in decline. This vast reserve of minerals gave hope that Tasmania could be a land of untold riches rather than a pastoral backwater. Getting to these riches was impossible by land, thanks to the rugged and impassable West Coast Ranges. At that time the West Coast was a total wilderness with absolutely no infrastructure for sea or rail transport. Massive plans were hatched for new harbours, towns, railways and ore processing plants. Nearly all of the materials needed for these developments had to come in by sea through this 30 metre wide hellish gap. Attracted by huge shipping rates, a few small steamers of less than 500 tons tried to run a regular service. From accounts it seems they waited for the weather for as long as their freight contracts would allow before charging the sandbar at high tide and bumping over. A disaster was only a matter of time. The wreck of the “Devon” In 1888, the small 191 ton iron steamer ?Devon? joined the West Coast trade under the flag of the Launceston and North West Coast Steam Navigation Company. She had weathered many bad storms and by 1894 her crew was well-versed in the dangers of the bar, perhaps too wellversed and a little complacent. In September 1894 they struck on the bar so heavily that she lost her propeller, but luck was with them and the tide carried them to safety. Only a few weeks later the barway was similarly rough. As she was lightly laden, the captain did not wait for calmer weather as he tried to leave the port. The ?Devon? struck heavily and swung broadside on to the bar. The force of the waves crashing down on the vessel burst a steam pipe and broke off the propeller and rudder. Helpless, she finally washed off the bar and grounded on the old South Spit. There she sank with the superstructure partly exposed and was a total loss. | FEATURE STORIES | Adventures in the West Aug – Sept 2010 Page 39 Years later a breakwater was constructed on the spit and actually covered the bow of the old wreck. Sand has accumulated behind the breakwater, advancing the shoreline and causing the wreck to now be in shallow water. The majority of the wreck is buried with only the stern uncovered. This is a wreck that the non-diver can enjoy as the steering gear actually breaks the surface at low water. This wreck provides an interesting snorkel dive if you are in the area. Divers have to be wary of strong currents that occasionally sweep around the bay and affect the wreck site. A flood tide will also provide better viewing conditions. Approx location of the “Devon” The wreck of the “Grafton” Ten years were to elapse before another disaster. This time it was the elegant clipper bowed steamer ?Grafton? of 299 tons. She was an old vessel built in 1854, but she had recently been extensively remodelled before joining the Union Steam Ship Coy‘s West Coast fleet in 1896. In June 1898, she was loaded in Melbourne with vital machinery for the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Coy, including their new furnaces and several ABT system locomotives for their new railway to Strahan. Overseeing this vital operation was the American metallurgist Robert Sticht, the man who had cracked the secret of smelting Queenstown‘s notoriously difficult sulphur laden copper ore. His discoveries had propelled the company‘s operations into the | FEATURE STORIES | Adventures in the West Aug – Sept 2010 Page 40 black, but his pyritic smelting process also bathed Queenstown in a pall of sulphurous smoke that poisoned the vegetation and turned Queenstown into a bleak moonscape. The ?Grafton? arrived off the heads in a hurry to unload her cargo despite the foul weather. The S.S. Mahinapua? was also waiting but decided not to risk it. The ?Grafton? ploughed forward and bounced heavily on the barway. With most of her propeller blades snapped off she only just managed to back out to sea again. The engineer reported that the plates were sprung and she was leaking badly. Passengers were transferred to the ?Mahinapua? who agreed to attempt to tow the ?Grafton? over the bar. Heavily weighed down with water the ?Grafton? struck even harder the second time and the tow cable broke. Helpless, the vessel drifted onto the North Spit where huge surf raked across the decks and she was soon a total loss. All the crew were saved. When the weather abated, much of the cargo, including most of the furnace parts and all of her locos were recovered. So when you go to the ABT railway its even more astounding that the locos are so well preserved considering that they have already been for one swim before starting their long service life. I only know of one dive team who has visited the wreck and she lies in a treacherous area of very dangerous surf that can only be visited at risk on an exceptionally calm day. Almost never visited she still has rows of brass portholes in place along her heavily broken up hull. Macquarie Heads Township I believe this is the old pilot station, now a shack The first works to improve harbour safety were the lighthouses at Entrance and Bonnet Islands. The Entrance Island light was erected in 1899 and was serviced by a large staff. On the island there was a large wooden cottage for the lighthouse keeper. Another light was built | FEATURE STORIES | Adventures in the West Aug – Sept 2010 P
The dam debate When I think of the Strahan I recall rescuing a German backpacker from a service station attendant who wanted to beat him up because he looked like a “Greenie”. That was 1983 at the height of the Franklin Dam blockade. Strahan?s business centre was largely abandoned and boarded up and you could count the tourists visiting the West Coast on one hand. The West Coast communities were addicted to mining and Hydro development, but Hydro industrialisation was coming to an end and mines were shedding jobs. It was a community afraid of the future and ill equipped to move to a service based economy. Many were warning everyone to look to tourism, but then the “service” at the Hotel Cecil in Zeehan was a thrashing with a pool cue if the Renison miners decided to take a dislike to you. However, I kept coming back. The big drive and anachronistic locals never deterred me. The West Coast is just so interesting, beautiful and wild. Everything is blunt and overwhelming. If I had to describe it, it would be a clichéd phrase like a “rugged, unforgiving beauty”. You can cast your eye over Gondwana like rainforests unchanged since the age of the dinosaurs, or a dramatic heritage site hidden like an ancient ruin amongst the vines. One moment there is a feeling of relaxation as you sit motionlessly to admire a waterfall. Then, a second later, several March flies have bitten you on the leg and it starts sleeting. If you are far from a car and wet weather gear in a few hours you might die of exposure. The West Coast is an exciting if reluctant maiden who plays hard to get. Everyone starts a West Coast adventure at Strahan these days, so let?s start by tagging along with the crowd. On, Under and Around Strahan Page 61 Tourist Boom If the dam debate alienated West Coasters from the rest of the community, it also set in train events that were to give new life to the area. By the late 1980s, Strahan had boomed on the infamy it gained during the blockade, selling off the negative air time as charter boat tickets to visit the now much lauded Gordon River. Soon Strahan was one of Tasmania?s most visited spots and everyone wanted to come for a crowded, tightly scheduled, snapshot of the “wilderness”. Strahan took to the new money blowing into town with much greater success than the equally historic and interesting towns of Zeehan and Queenstown. While the residents of those once grander towns waited nostalgically for the discovery of a new „mother lode?, Strahan got on with milking a trade it already knew quite well. Strahan had always been a bit of a resort town. Virtually cut off from the rest of the world by the West Coast Ranges, Strahan had been the only place where a West Coast family could „get away from it all?. Mining families would take the ABT railway from Queenstown to escape the sulphurous smelter fumes and bleak landscape of the Mt Lyell mine. At Strahan there was vegetation and a bit of fishing, boating, hunting, or sightseeing. Many Queenstown miners still maintain shacks in the area. During the recent boom, investors, including sometimes large corporations, studded the crumbling town with a proliferation of new hotels and restaurants. Many seachanging „outsiders? moved in and restored the old houses and set up new small businesses. The newcomers have sent real estate prices soaring past the means of any local wanting to own a shack by the harbour. The crumbling railway formations have become tourist walks and renewed government interest has seen money flow back into public infrastructure. Generous grants reopened the ABT railway as a tourist attraction, restored the old railway station and renewed the rotting wharves. Roads were repaired and Strahan can now even boast the odd bit of road rage. There has been a lot of primping of private buildings, not all of it sympathetic to the heritage values of the old town. Overall, the renewed interest has stopped Strahan from falling foul of decay and insurance fires, a fate that has befallen much of Zeehan and is starting to eat away at large parts of Queenstown. Page 62 The old Entrance Island Keeper House (apparently haunted) was moved near Lettes Bay for use as a shack. Recently it has been almost entirely dwarfed by a modern extension. Even a spook needs a third bathroom it seems. The Heart of Strahan You could just rush through Strahan and spend all day with 200 other people on a Gordon cruise instead and I?m not saying that it isn?t a worthwhile experience. However, these days I?d prefer to skip all that and dig a bit deeper into the whole West Coast story. The history of the area is just as interesting as the scenic tours, but it takes time to read up on and appreciate. Just reading about it or visiting museums also seems a bit stale. I?d prefer to explore for the rusty relics that are part of our history, the ones that have confounded our efforts to eliminate „untidy? and „unflattering? things from the landscape. I?m after the stuff that?s left “in context” as the archaeologists nowadays keep talking about. A tour of the town starts around the Western wharves and old Customs House. Once bustling with large freighters unloading mine machinery, today freighting sightseeing passengers is the trade. In the early history of the harbour, prospectors came here to resupply at F.O. Henry?s store. Henry had a reputation as a soft touch and accepted worthless mine shares from struggling diggers in return for provisions. His generosity paid off when he ended up holding a significant part of what later became the Mt Lyell copper mine. His fortune allowed him to build a mansion at West Strahan Beach called “Ormiston” that can still be seen today. The Huon pine sawmill at the wharves is still nominally working. Pining was the earliest trade on the harbour and Huon pine had been used to build many fine colonial sailing ships. Resistant to shipworm and waterlogging this extremely slow-growing riverside tree allowed Tasmanian shipbuilders to turn out vessels superior even to English vessels of the day. A Huon pine rush had started by as early as the 1820s. Stocks are now so low that no living tree can be felled and the current trade is based on salvaged drift logs alone. The timber is so rare and valuable that millers have already gone back into the bush to dig out the stumps left by the old convicts. When that ran out they returned to recover even the roots. A sailing ship built from Huon Pine would cost a small fortune today. Nowadays the timber is often used for tourist Page 63 bowls and salad forks. Functionless and unimaginative, the only wonder comes from the scent. Even that eventually fades away. A few relics of the shipping and sawmilling era have been left ?in situ? along the Strahan foreshore. Walking the foreshore You might need to feed the parking meter and dodge a few overlength campervans, but the foreshore walk along the old railway track is well worth it. Take the time to stop at the “Peoples Park” and admire the waterfall. The interpretive signs are handy, but I?d also suggest bringing along a history book with a few old photos of the town. It would be the perfect spot for a picnic, sketch or snooze on a hot day, except for the incessant March flies. This is an athletic adventure where the flies keep you on the move at least until you get to the pub at the end to re-create that other common mining activity, beer drinking. Once a bit too roughhouse, the pub is now quiet and friendly. The old railway from the Customs House to Regatta Point is now a tourist walk with interpretive signs. Unfortunately a lot of old railway relics were recently removed and sold for scrap to make room for this foreshore beautification. If the foreshore wreck of the S.S. “Glenturk” is still there I didn?t see it. Page 64 The railway At Regatta Point there is often some action around the restored railway station with the shunting of engines and snapping of cameras. From here the ABT railway arrives from Queenstown. The rail trip is unique and well worth the reasonably inconvenient cost. The railway will probably always need government support as it was originally built on one of the most difficult rail routes in the world. The grades defied the normal rules, requiring special locos to be bought in from Germany with a unique ABT „rack and pinion? gear to help them over the big hills. Maintenance was and still is a nightmare with dozens of wooden bridges including one a ¼ mile long. Any heavy bushfire and flood damage will be harshly expensive to deal with, as it was when the railway was in service. Again, knowing the history enlivens the whole journey. The ABT was one of two competing railways built in the 1890s by a couple of prominent and quite grumpy old mining magnates. They hated each other and wouldn?t cooperate. It would take too long to explain the whole saga, so read Blainey?s “The Peaks of Lyell” instead. They don?t make soap operas scripts as good as the genuine local mining history. This unnoticed steam crane would have once been a common site all over the world, but to see it in its original location would be a rare site in most busy harbours today. These cranes loaded copper nodules into waiting steamers at Regatta Point. Its heritage value keeps growing while its scrap value remains a pittance. One fell through the rotten decking and is still there to see for any diver who doesn?t mind the dark waters. Page 65 The King River delta The ABT railway tourist brochures don?t talk much about mining development, but focus on the manferns. In reality, when Mt Lyell mine opened the miners slowly removed half a mountain and shipped the recovered copper down to Strahan over this little railway. Most of the mine rubble didn?t contain copper and was allowed to wash into Conglomerate Creek at Queenstown, which was basically a big open drain loaded with silt and mineral contaminants. That creek in turn fed into the King River and the pyritic sediments smothered the riverside vegetation with a blanket that has resisted nature?s best efforts to revegetate. There was so much silt it created a 250 hectare delta at the mouth of the river at Lowanna on Macquarie Harbour. Progressively the mine operators have reigned in their outflows until today the water is relatively clear. The contaminated soil is still resisting revegetation, but eventually the verdant greenery will triumph, as it has slowly reclaimed the moonscape at Queenstown. The Mt Lyell mine has left a legacy of heavy metal contamination in the harbour which is a challenge to the clean image of the local marine farms. Just typical West Coast, even a huge contaminated wasteland can be compelling and strangely perhaps even beautiful. Page 66 Strahan can be a beautiful place and it is much-admired. The mining landscapes of Queenstown and Zeehan, in different ways are just as novel, but in contrast they have been shunned. Even the lessons to be learned from studying the uncontrolled despoliation of the landscape that accompanied early mining have to be forgotten when you only want to be sold a somewhat romanticised vision of an untouched and ennobling „paradise?. Perhaps in our own over-industrialised lives its harder to appreciate another bleak “hole in the ground” as also a heritage site that tells a human story. That human story was one of hardship and toil that made West Coasters the dangerous and innovative radicals of their day, ironically something like the radical “Greenies” of our times. It might be hormonal, but there is something about the local tourist boom in Strahan that seems quite artificial to me. Perhaps it?s just that the “wilderness” values are only superficially touched upon and it?s less than half of the story of the area anyway.
Marine Farms For a change of pace its time for a roundabout diversion into the open harbour to see what lies in the middle reaches of this vast waterway. Macquarie Harbour has become one of the most intensively marine farmed areas in Tasmania. All manner of old ferries and barges have been pressed into service and converted into live-aboard supply bases for the many massive fish pens that dominate the landscape of the middle harbour area near Liberty Point. Not so long ago workers fed the penned fish by hand, but these days umbilicals connect the feed tanks to the pens and automation is creeping in. The work is often cold and lonely but its welcome work for a new generation that has been displaced from the mines. Hard working conditions are something West Coasters have been brought up to grin and bear. Marine farming in Tasmania is growing rapidly and will soon outstrip the wild fishery in terms of value. As a job creator it‘s a winner too, as the wild fishery employs relatively few people by comparison and wild stocks are declining in many areas. Due to the high labour and feed costs the fishery focuses not on volume but high value gourmet fish like Atlantic Salmon and sea run Trout. Touted at one time as an antidote to overfishing in the wild, locally it is adding to wild fishery production rather than replacing it. The wild fishery is often supplying low value species as fish meal for the Atlantic Salmon. There have also been quality and environmental concerns from excessive use of anti-biotics, and copper contamination from net anti-fouling treatments. The pens also have to be moved On, Under and Around Macquarie Harbour Page 21 regularly as nitrates building up from uneaten fish meal essentially poison the bottom under the pens. Lower Macquarie Harbour is probably a good location for a fish farm. The bottom is deep, dark, muddy and pretty lifeless already. The harbour is also huge and largely deserted in many places, which reduces any adverse visual impacts and crowding out of other harbour users. Swan Basin Closer to Strahan we stop by Swan Basin to check out the bird life, but today at least it‘s devoid of swans. In 1815 James Kelly virtually lived off them during his circumnavigation of Tasmania. Not familiar with the area we also manage to ground on a sand bank and also do some prop remodelling on an unmarked reef. The Swan Basin area is studded with interesting small coves and islets. We settle near a long isthmus for lunch and admire the mountainous scenery and coastal tea tree groves. The foreshore marine life is unsurprisingly thin. Only a few hardy shore crabs and blennies can withstand the frequent changes in salinity caused by the massive freshwater outflows that enter the harbour after heavy rains. The dark tannin-stained water also deprives the surface layer of light and algae is reduced to a fine slime on the foreshore rocks. The water is obviously still rich in nutrients and there are many schools of fingerlings exploiting the littleused resources of the bay before heading back out to sea again. Page 22 Ships Graveyard I think Alison is hanging out for a café, so we head back to Strahan. Of course I duck off to explore every waterway along the way, keeping an eye out for the many relics of the mining era that I have heard are abandoned in the West Strahan area. West Strahan was always an active ship repair and servicing centre and for 100 years any disused vessel has simply been abandoned. Yesterdays junk has become today‘s maritime heritage. Alison doesn‘t seem to mind the delay as the sun is shining and it‘s a parenting-free outing. Soon we come across bays filled with more modern flotsam, old barges, nets under repair, and shore facilities for the aquaculture industry. Even an old Sydney ferry seems to have been press-ganged for the needs of the industry, and is seeing out the last of her days in somewhat unbecoming servitude. Soon we spot older and more fashionable ?heritage‘ junk amongst the rotting stumps of old jetties from the mining era. We come across the remains of an old slipway with vessels still lying rotten where they were pulled ashore at the end of their useful life. The hulks are so badly decayed it would be hard to say with certainty what they were, but the area is a known graveyard for several harbour lighters and smaller harbour steamers from the mining era. Page 23 The vegetation is so resilient it is even trying to reclaim this wreck along the foreshore Along the harbour there was also much evidence of damage to the shoreline being caused by prop wash. Whenever the charter launches went by we were rocked by relatively large waves on this ordinarily placid inland harbour. In the Gordon River, restrictive speed limits have been needed to slow the rate of bank erosion that has in some places caused the riverbanks to recede by up to a metre a year. Now we are only losing the Gordon River riverine vegetation at the rate of a few centimetres a year. Over time, still a big impact on the local ecology. Tourists have complained about restrictions that cut the journey short before reaching the Franklin River sites, but this is to save some unique oxbow lakes that are being undermined by the prop wash. Mill Bay We assume that Mill Bay is named after an old nearby sawmill site, and the proof is soon found in the form of a large industrial boiler. This has been ?recycled‘ as a mooring for an equally defunct recent jetty. All along the foreshore there is a large quantity of modern jetsom including a lot of plastic rubbish and beer cans. It will be a long time before any of this reaches the status of heritage. It might be easy to write off this litter as the ignorant acts of a few local bogans, but a lot of Page 24 this plastic includes luxuries like mineral water bottles. The locals don‘t pay $2 for water they can get for free from a tap. Litter is an environmental issue that at least some of the locals have taken readily to heart and they don‘t seem to enjoy this side-effect of earning the tourist dollar.