A winter weekend in Strahan

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August 16th 2008
Published: March 31st 2010
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The text message on Claire’s mobile phone read, “The eagle has landed.” It could be from only one person.

And it was: Dave, in a boyish mood, had just arrived in Hobart. Claire had been in town for several days for work, and now, freed from a workshop, it was playtime for a weekend before climbing back onto the treadmill in Brisbane on Monday morning.

Snow during the week had cut several roads, but workers had bulldozed it off and we putted across the plateau in the dinky hire car to Strahan, on the west coast. On the way, a few stops, including the Franklin River roaring its way south, Nelson Falls, looking primordial in the rain, and Queenstown, lying shuttered beneath its denuded hills.

Queenstown was a mining town Australians learned about in primary school, when our teachers extolled the virtues of the wealth of gold and copper that were picked and drilled and blasted from Mt Lyell and the surrounding range for about 100 years. At the time alluvial gold was discovered in 1881, the range was cloaked in temperate rainforest. It wasn’t until the 1990s when Claire came across a junk-shop postcard depicting the naked
On the Lyell Highway to StrahanOn the Lyell Highway to StrahanOn the Lyell Highway to Strahan

There isn't much snow, and it's melting fast now, but it's still bloody cold
hills, poisoned by the fallout from the copper smelters, that she came across another part of the mining story. Who had the wacky idea of making a postcard of a dead landscape? Was it a best-seller? Why would a town believe this was something to show off? Was it all dark humour?

It makes your heart freeze to see it for yourself. As we continued west, we hoped the landscape turns out to be as resilient as the people who live here still, with mining gone. The town’s chief tourist attraction these days is a rack-and-pinion railway. Queenstown is still the largest town on Tasmania's west coast, with a population of 5,000 or so.

It's country for the hardy. The west coast receives the full loving attention of the Roaring Forties, which means between 2 and 3 metres of rain a year.

In Strahan, on Macquarie Harbour, many of the tourist operations were closed for the winter. We enjoyed wandering around with no particular aim in mind, through the township in its introspective mood. Along the harbour were a few plaques memorialising the lives of fishing men who have died. These simple plates were a heartfelt reminder that despite the advantages of contemporary technology people still die at sea, one can't assume safety and longevity.

Strahan was developed as a port for the mining industry, and soon took on fishing and logging as well. The excellent little museum describes the tough life of cutting down tracts of forest here: despite the privations of climate and isolation, European settlers managed to almost exterminate the magnificent huon pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii). This conifer, which is not a pine at all, was felled with so little restraint that it now survives only because of compulsory conservation. It takes many hundreds of years for a huon to reach maturity, and it will live 2,000 years, given half a chance. The wood is highly prized for all sorts of building and cabinet-making. These days so little huon remains that its collection, all timber already fallen, and sale is strictly regulated.

Starting in the 1970s, the wild, inhospitable forests of south-west Tasmania stirred the hearts of people who could see value in them other than for their timber and mineral wealth. The Tasmanian Wilderness Society (now the Wilderness Society) was born in the second half of the 1970s to protest against the Tasmanian hydro-electric power commission’s proposal to dam the Gordon River, which would flood the Gordon and Franklin rivers for power that wasn’t needed. It was one of the early environmental successes in Australia, and gave hope to conservationists around the country, and World Heritage listing to south-western Tasmanian wilderness.

Among this passionate group was a nature photographer, Peter Dombrovskis. His photo of Rock Island Bend, on a part of the Franklin that was to be flooded, became an iconic image of what could be lost, and turned the hearts of people inside and outside Tasmania to support the growing campaign. He had been strongly influenced by another photographer and ardent conservationist a generation older, Olegas Truchanas, who had long been fighting to save the landscapes of south-west Tasmania from taming.

Another was a young doctor, Bob Brown, who has made environmental activism his life’s work; he is one of the few voices for conservation in any Australian parliament. (The Strahan museum displays some photos of Brown in full early-1980s fashion regalia. Noice! It’s a good laugh among all the serious work.)

These days Strahan acts as a gateway to the south-west wilderness of Tasmania, with boats, planes and helicopters using it as a base to ferry tourists and bushwalkers in and out of unpopulated mountains.

Perhaps the old loggers, or at least their children, perhaps all of us, can hear the message in the words of Olegas Truchanas, who said in 1971, not long before his death:

If we can revise our attitudes towards the land under our feet; if we can accept a role of steward, and depart from the role of conqueror; if we can accept the view that man and nature are inseparable parts of the unified whole — then Tasmania can be a shining beacon in a dull, uniform and largely artificial world.

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17th April 2015

would like to know if it snows in strahan in july
Hi I would like to know if it snow in Strahan tas in July
18th April 2015

Not sure. It's on the coast, so perhaps not. It certainly does on mountains inland. I"m sure you can fine d out with an internet search. Enjoy your visit, it's a beautiful place.

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