Friday, September 25, 2009

Gordon River Cruse

Lady Jane Franklin II entering  the Gordon RiverThe day after a ride on the West Coast Wilderness Railway it was time for a cruse from Strahan (Tasmania), up the Gordon River.

Lunch aboard the Lady Jane Franklin IIThe Lady Jane Franklin II, cruse ship is part of the Pure Tasmania tourism conglomerate, who also run the tourist railway, casinos and resorts. This is an aluminium 32 m catamaran built by Richardson Devine Marine in Hobart and designed by Crowther Design Sydney (now merged with Tasmania's Incat, into Incat Crowther), with interior design by Spear Green Design. With a capacity for 228 passengers, this is a very large and very comfortable ship.

Lady Jane Franklin II InteriorThe rival World Heritage Cruises run a similar cruse using a very similar ship. Lonely Planet recommend this cruse and you can get a YHA discount. I didn't realise this at the time and book with Pure Tasmania, but do not regret it as the tour was good. WHC have a very poor web site compared to PT, making it very difficult to find any information about their tours.

Launching Kayaks on the Gordon RiverThere are three classes of seating on the ship: the upper deck has the premium class, with wine supplied, the window seats on the lower deck are second class and third class are termed "atrium" away from the windows. While the cheapest seats, the atrium area at the front still provides a good view, with large windows each side, out the front, and through a glass roof. There is an outdoor viewing area at the bow and stern, open apart from when the ship is docking. At more than 30 knots, standing on the bow while approaching the harbour entrance between two rocky outcrops of "Hells Gate" was an exhilarating experience.

Kayaks on the Gordon RiverThe ship tours Macquarie Harbour. The environmental cause adopted by the ship is the endangered Orange Bellied Parrot. For those wanting to see the wildlife closer up, there are kayak tours from the ship. For the less adventitious, there is a short board walk into the forest while the kayaks are launched.

The ship is equipped with LCD displays similar to those in aircraft with a moving map showing the location and orientation of the vessel. We started at 42 degrees 9.207 minutes South, 145 degrees 19.745 minutes East. The harbour is the second largest in the world. Much of the year the top few m of water is fresh, with a brown colour of tannin from the roots of native grasses.

Fish farming equipmentThe harbour is used for salmon and trout farming. It would be interesting to see if the tannin in the water increases the anti-oxidant levels of the fish. Some rivers of the harbour are contaminated by mining with heavy metals, but the water is diluted with other fresh and salt water.

Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout are farmed in floating nets. A black polythene tube, looking like a giant bicycle inner tube, floats on the surface holding the net in place. A water cannon is used to fire the fish food across the floating pen.

The tour visits the southern end of the Tasmanian world heritage area, which extends north to Cradle Mountain. The tour guide was proud to point out that the area meets 7 out of ten of the criteria for world heritage areas, equal first to one in China. The area has significant natural heritage and cultural aspects. Some of the reasons for listing are nothing to be proud of, such as the existence of endangered species and the indigenous cultural remains of the people who were driven out of the area.

Convict building on Sarah IslandPatricio Silvia tour guide on Sarah Island also performs in the play "The Ship that Never Was" by Richard Davey. The play is performed in Strahan by the Round Earth Company and is published as a graphic novel. The play was first performed in 1984 and has been running since, including performances on Sahara Island. It tells the story of convicts who take over a ship on the island and sail to Chile. The theatre company have taken a break from performances to visit Chile (and thus delay their attempt to beat Christie's "The Mouse Trap" for the number of performances of a play).

Huon Pine crushing the board walk on the Gordon RiverThis week the movie Van Dieman's Land (by Jonathan Auf Der Heide and Oscar Redding) opened in Australian cinemas. It tells the story of the escape of Alexander Pearce from the penal colony at Macquarie Harbour. While the landscape is majestic when seen from the comfort of a luxury ship, close up it can be far less comfortable. A reminder of this was the sight of a Huon Pine crushing one of the board walks on the Gordon River. Beneath the path is mud, lots of mud. The tree did not break suddenly, instead it gradually lowered itself to the ground through the mud. The trees use this as a means of prorogation. The result is a dense tangle of vegetation and mud which is very difficult to travel through.

Strahan BungalowsTasmania's past shows up in other ways for the observant. Tasmania has a mining tradition. Part of that tradition is temporary miner's huts, called "Dongas". The modern version of these are sophisticated prefabricated and modular buildings (I suggested they be used for classrooms). In Strahan, after the cruse, I noticed on holiday village "Strahan Bungalows", which appeared to be made from these modules, probably by Statewide Constructions.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

West Coast Wilderness Railway Tasmania

ABT steam engineThis month I achieved a long term ambition, by riding on the West Coast Wilderness Railway from Strahan to Queenstown, Tasmania. This is a narrow gauge line using the Swiss Abt system to get it up steep hills. If you are interested in historic steam railways, then you must visit Tasmania and travel this railway.

On my previous Trip to Tasmania for talks, I was jokingly asked if I would like to run the railway. I aimed to do a "live" web report from the train, but had to settle for taking some photos and posting them later.

ABT steam engine crossing roadAbt locomotive on turntableThe railway was built to carry material to and ore from the mines at Queenstown. It is now a tourist railway, restored using lavish federal and state funding. The railway has been controversial from the day it was opened, being the subject of company rivalry as well as a pawn in state and federal politics for more than one hundred years. This is touched on in the commentary on the train and covered in detail the excellent historical book available at the Strahan station: "The Abt Railway : Tasmania's West Coast Wilderness Railway" (by Lou Rae, latest edition 2008 ).
Strahan Railway StationThe Strahan station is the restored original (the other stations on the line are modern replicas). If you are a steam enthusiast, then check when you book that one of the original steam locomotives will be used (some trains are pulled by a historic diesel). If you are early you may see the locomotive come out of the shed, cross the road and be turned on the manual turntable (two staff pushing with their backs). I recorded low resolution video of the locomotive being turned and leaving the turntable (with the sound of the whistle) and approaching the station.

Name Plate Abt locomotiveCab of Abt locomotiveThe seam locomotive was built by DUBs & Co in Glasgow Locomotive Works 1898 (No 3730). This is a talk engine, as popularised by the books and TV show "Thomas The Tank Engine". Meticulously restored and carefully maintained the locomotive has gleaming brass and shining steam gauges. It is a bit uglier than a cartoon loco, due to the extra pipes needed to power the rack and pinion "ABT" equipment, needed to pull the train up steep hills.

Thomas the "Fat" Conductor on the ABT railwayThe train is fully crewed, this being a real train which has to meet the usual railway safety standards. Much like an airline flight, the conductor "Tom" (inevitably nicknamed "the fat conductor" despite his slimness) provided a safety briefing, as well as giving some history and selling travel guidebooks (the detailed railway history is a better buy for the enthusiast).

While the locomotives are genuine, the passenger carriages are locally built replicas (the original carriages being used on the "Puffing Billy Railway" Victoria). The carriages feature local Tasmanian timber and polished brass (with luggage racks from Queensland Rail). While I went to a lot of trouble to power a wireless modem from USB for the trip, I found there was a 240 Volt power point next to each seat.

River beside ABT RailwayLower Landing Station on ABT RailwayThe line first follows the curve of the harbour, then up a river valley. On one side of the line most of the time the line clings to the side of a steep river valley, covered in dense temperate vegetation, with the river visible below. There are several stops for the passengers to get out and take in the view. The stations and some track work are newly built in a sensitive way: not attempting an exact historical restoration.

Water tower made from bailey bridge at ABT Railway stationAs an example bailey bridge components have been used to build several bridges and the water towers for the stations. Clearly these are not from the 1890s, but are in the spirit of a non-nonsense line.

Train at station on ABT RailwayFor the rail enthusiast there is the delight of being able to walk across the tracks, examine the ABT "rack" close up and watch the locomotive being oiled and watered.

Fallen iron bridge on ABT RailwayRemains of the original engineering works are event at several points of the trip. The original iron bridge, washed away in a flood is visible in the river. At another point the original test track for the rack and pinion system can be seen from the 1800s.

At one station you can observe the train from an overhead bridge. In the photo you will notice that a cover (like a lid on a pot) has been placed over the funnel of the locomotive.

Locomotive turntable at station on ABT RailwayThere is also a second turntable, which can be seen close-up.

Pedestrian overpass made from bailey bridge on the ABT RailwayThe nearby pedestrian bridge is constructed from the same bailey bridge components as the rail bridge.

ABT Steam Locomotive from AboveThe water tanks which make this a "tank engine" can be best seen from the bridge. The small tanks also result in the train having to stop to take on water. While the line is short, the steep grade results in the engine having to expend considerable energy.

River foam from natural detergentsAt one station you can walk down to the river. What at first looks like snow on the water is foam from a natural detergent from the forest.

Observation car on ABT RailwayThe end carriage of the train has a delightfully ornate open observation platform. Several times the safety briefing emphasised the danger of opening the doors while the train was in motion, so it is not clear if the open platform is used.

Wooden trestle bridge on ABT RailwayNot all the bridges have been replaced with steel. One is a wooden trestle, which you can walk under.

Carrage couplings on ABT RailwayI have included some photos of the buffers and chain couplings, for those interested.

ABT Steam Locomotive on RackABT Steam locomotive The rack which is used on the steeper track is newly made, to the original design, but the rails are second hand, recovered from other Tasmanian rail lines.

Abt rack system.Close-up of the rack between the rails on the ABT railwayDriver checking the ABT LocomotiveDriver checking the oil in the ABT LocomotiveClose-up of ABT Locomotive

The rack and pinion is a complex mechanical device and must require considerable maintenance. Along with the staff needed to look after the passengers, it is not clear how the railway could be a paying proposition, even if full.

Tree fernApart from the railway and the river, there are the temperate plants to examine close up.

Bailey Bridge on ABT RailwayAs with most railway journeys it is rarely possible to observe the train itself, or where it is going, while on board. The commentary provided gave plenty of warning when there was a good view coming up and on which side. I was able to get a photo of the train crossing the bailey bridge.

King RiverAbt Steam locomotive However, the views of the river were frequent, as the train wound around the steep bank. It is difficult to imagine how the line was built with limited use of powered machinery.

Yellow tailings water mixing with black tannin water beside ABT railwayThe effects of mining can still be seen in the rivers, with the yellow water contaminated with mine tailings mixing with the black water naturally stained by the grass.

ABT Locomotive at Queenstown stationQueenstown station interiorPassengers at Queenstown stationQueenstown station

The journey ends at the reconstructed Queenstown station. There is an excellent gift store in the station as well as a coffee shop.

The rail fare includes a bus ride back to Strahan.

The trip is half a day, but seems much longer and I fell asleep on the bus ride back. There are shorter trips during the peak tourist season. For those wanting a more adventurous experience there is "Piners and Miners" tour in a stretched Land Rover converted to run on and off the rail line.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, September 21, 2009

Strahan, Tasmania

Strahan Backpackers YHA Strahan was previously an important port for the mining at Queenstown, but is now a centre for fish farming and tourism. Strahan Backpackers YHA is on the edge of the town, about fifteen minutes walk along the waterfront to the main street. There are individual cabins set near the trees near a creek and bunk buildings for the more sociable.

You collect the key from the Discovery Caravan Park, down the road opposite the police station. There was a very elaborate WiFi antenna array on a pole in the middle of the YHA complex, but I was not able to get it to work (I had to sit in the caravan park office to get Internet access).

Old customs house and telegraph office at Strahan The main street of Strahan is on the waterfront with the jetty on one side and some historic building on the other. Most impressive is the Old customs house and telegraph office. This still carries out much the same function, housing the post office and branch of the State Library of Tasmania, with Internet access (the 21 century telegraph).

Strahan at Dusk The town is set by the magnificent Macquarie Harbour, which the locals will keep reminding you is many times the size of Sydney Harbour.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Booking Rental Cars in Tasmania via the Web

After my difficulties with booking accommodation online a short trip around Tasmania, car hire was very easy. Europcar offer a discount for YHA members, so I just had to click on the bottom of my room booking to go to the car rental site. This already recorded that I was a referred and gave me a discount. I still had to enter my name and address details, but this was reasonably easy. Selecting a car is complex and the small, enviornmentally friendly car I wanted was not avilable, so I had to settle for a larger less fuel efficient one.

What is still a problem with Tasmanian bookings is the YHA accommodation. While YHA offer a central online booking service, the smaller hostels do not appear to be covered. I emailed Strahan Backpackers YHA and Cradle Mountain Backpackers YHA getting very prompt, useful and friendly replies.

I wrote to YHA's travel service to ask if it was possible to book the smaller hostels online and was told: "I would suggest that if the web does not work, I would try to call them ...". YHA seem to have a problem with their web site and a more serious problem with their customer relations. This will be harming Australian tourism.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Booking accommodation in Tasmania via the Web

After my difficulties with booking airline flights via airline web sites for Jetstar and Virgin Blue in the end I gave up using the airlines web sites and use and using the WebJet airline booking website. Now I have started booking accommodation online for the same short trip around Tasmania.

After a pleasant stay at the Newcastle Beach Youth Hostel I thought I would try Tasmanian hostels in the system. YHA have a very good online booking system. This worked well for the central Hobart based Montgomery's. One catch with the system is that YHA members get a discount when they book a room, even if it is a shared room with non-members. But you have to separately account for the members and non-members on the booking web page.

One point of confusion is the smaller hostels, such as Strahan Backpackers YHA. There does not seem to be any way to book this via the web site. The hostel has a "Rapid Room Number" (0245) which is supposed to be used to identify the hostels to the system. But this number doesn't seem to be listed in the system.

There are no YHAs in Launceston. The Arthouse
in Launceston taks a minimalist approach to booking, having an e-mail address to send a query. What they do have on their web site which is useful are google maps to places, such as the city Transit Centre. These links are more useful than the maps usually found on hotel web sites. You are able to customise the map, for example, to see how long it will take to walk, rather than drive.

Labels: , , , , , ,