Friday, October 02, 2009

Launceston Tasmania

Australian Technical College LauncestonAfter a night at Cradle Mountain, it was time to drive north east across Tasmania to Launceston. This was a convenient place to fly out of Tasmania, without having to return to Hobart. Also the Launceston Chapter of the Australian Computer Society invited me to give a talk.

In 2007 I talked in Tasmania about "Demystifying Broadband options for Tasmania". This cast doubt on the feasibility of the then national government's broadband strategy. That strategy was replaced by the new government with its NBN strategy. I suggested Tasmania be the place to prototype the NBN and this is now happening. So it seemed opportune to return and as the question as to what the new network could be used for in a talk on"Green Broadband Jobs".

Interior of the Australian Technical CollegeDesks in the Australian Technical CollegeIt seemed a good ome that the talk was held at the Australian Technical College (ATC), which is located in the arts and education precinct in the old Inveresk railway workshops. The college is part of federally funded initiative for vocational education. It is located in a very interesting new building. The top floor of the building has an open plan flexible learning centre with curved desks for students with laptops and plasma screens for group instruction. The front wall of the building opens to provide ventilation and access. Just inside is stepped seating. The wall can be closed and a screen lowered, turning the foyer into a lecture theatre.

Launceston Tramway MuseumTram test at Launceston Tramway Museum There is a tram track between the buildings, which not just a remnant of the area's history as a railway workshop. The Launceston Tramway Museum is located beside the ATC and run a restored tram on the tracks around the complex. I was delighed to see Launceston tram Number 29 (Launceston's last tram built) on a test run outside the ATC. There are no overhead wires to power the trams and a generator on a trailer is hitched to the tram.

Tram track under the  School of Architecture,On one side of the ATC is the University of Tasmania Architecture School, which I visited last time I was in Launceston. This is a refurbished railway building and like the Blue Cafe has been refurbished with black metal frame windows in the style of the powerhouse at the Fagus Factory (Fagus Werk).

I found that there was not realy much I could tell the IT professionals of Tasmania they did not already know about broadband. The ACS already does it bit for the Tasmania economy by exporting green education online using tutors located in Tasmania.

Arthouse Backpacker Hostel There is no YHA in Launceston, but the Arthouse Backpacker Hostel roved very comfortable (it is a block from the art precinct). This is an old wooden building, looking like the set from the Adams Family. The building is being refurbished and the views from the new top floor will be good when it opens.

Taste of the TamarLaunceston is on the Tamar river and there are several dozen wineries in the region. There is a well established tourist wine tour route, but on this occasoion all the wineries had brought their goods to Launceston for the "Taste of the Tamar". I found details of this on Tourism Tasmania's calendar of events. Bizarrely, this government agency seems to delete the details of the events after they are over, preventing potential tourists seeing what they missed.

Alexandra Suspension bridge LauncestonPeacock at the Launceston Cataract GorgeLaunceston's largest tourist attraction (because the Boag's Brewery is not open on weekends) is the Cataract Gorge on the northern edge of the city centre. There is a walk up the George, with a Victorian era tea house, complete with peacocks, a chairlift across the river and the Alexandra Suspension bridge.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Cradle Mountain Tasmania

Boathouse at Dove LakeAfter a Gordon River Cruse and a ride on the West Coast Wilderness Railway it was time to drive north east across Tasmania to Cradle Mountain. This is in the northern end of the same world heritage area which I visited at Strahan. Dove Lake was a surprise, with breathtaking snow covered alpine vistas. Even direction I pointed the camera there was a picture-postcard scene, of rugged peaks covered in snow, crystal clear lakes, mossy rocks and stunted trees like a Japanese bonsai, rough shacks of weathered local wood and cute little marsupials hopping from rock to rock.

Small marsupial near cabins at Cradle Mountain Backpackers YHASmall marsupial at Cradle Mountain Backpackers YHACradle Mountain Backpackers YHA is located opposite the Cradle Mountain Transit Terminal outside the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park entrance. Due to the pressure of tourism, visitors are discouraged from bringing their cars into the park. There is only limited parking in the park with narrow roads having many one way sections. Visitors can park at the transit centre and take a suttle bus into the park (cost included in some of the National Parks Passes). The YHA is located at the back of a caravan park and is run from the caravan park office. The cabins are set between the trees, with the wildlife coming right in amongst the buildings (you need to make sure you close the door or they will be in with you). The accommodation is clean, warm and comfortable. There is a small shop and free Internet access at the caravan park office.

Cradle Mountain ChateauSnow at Cradle Mountain Chateau In addition there are several upmarket resorts near the park entrance, particularly Cradle Mountain Chateau, run by the same Pure Tasmania group which runs the railway and cruses at Strahan.

Call a ranger panel at the Cradle Mountain visitors centrePower cable conduit under the board walk at Cradle MountainA point of confusion is that the transit centre is separate from the park visitors centre, which is right at the park entrance. Both the transit centre and the visitors centre have gift shops and information displays. There are some short walks around the visitors centre. The visitors centre is not always staffed (visitors are still obliged to pay an entry fee). There are two push buttons at the centre for contacting the shuttle bus or summoning emergency assistance (this appears to be the award winning "Telstra Wayphone"). Also there are books for visitors to record their arrival and departure for safety. All visitors are encouraged to log in and out, even for short walks.

Waterfall near the Cradle Mountain visitors centreSmall marsupial at Cradle MountainThe board walks in the park are extensive. This is because the ground, which is wet for much of the year, is very fragile and in many places is impassable due to the thick mud. The main board walks from the visitors centre into the park carries power cables under it and may one day form part of the National Broadband Network.

It is about ten kilometres from the park entrance to Dove Lake, the most accessible of the scenic vistas. At the lake there is a small car park and a shelter, with another log book for visitors. This is the furtherer the shuttle bus goes into the park.

Dove LakeVista at Dove LakeFrom this point for the next two and a half hours on a quick walk around the lake I was unable to stop marvelling at the view, which is unlike anything I have seen before in Australia. The views look like something from a picture postcard and are almost painfully wonderful. Around each corner of the walk around the lake there seems to be an even more spectacular view.

Snow on the group near Dove LakeDove LakeThe boathouse at the water's edge, made from local timber now weathered to a lustrous grey, appears suspiciously like it was build for no other reason than to enhance the scene. The snow on the lichen covered rocks appears as though it has been carefully arranged by a landscape artist to enhance the view between the gnarled trees to the distant peaks.

Perhaps if this was Japan or China, it would not seem so remarkable. But Australia is usually a land of large flat open plains and animals you see fleetingly after dark. Here were the wildlife was standing around waiting for me to photograph, with lakes and snow peaks behind.

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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.

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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.

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