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Published: August 6th 2007
Little is left of the North East Dundas Tramway, but if you look carefully...
Tasmania’s west coast is at the heart of the state’s mining industry. Unlike mainland Australia, Tasmania didn’t see much of a gold rush, but what it lacked in gold it more than made up for in other - perhaps less exciting, but arguably more useful - metals. Zinc, iron, tin, copper…As a result of this, this part of western Tasmania is crisscrossed - rather incongruously - by a freight rail network that was (and occasionally is) used to transport ores to the coast, from where it was shipped to the rest of the British Empire.
This part of the state is as physically beautiful as any other - the green, forested hills and distant mountain peaks haven’t vanished by any means - but western Tasmania certainly seems to bear the marks of human activity more than other parts of the island we have visited this far.
The place we are visiting this morning is intimately connected with Tasmania’s mining heritage. It lies at the end of a three kilometre track originally cut in 1889 to allow the construction of the North East Dundas Tramway, a tiny two-foot gauge railway built to connect the town of Zeehan with the mining
At the bottom of the falls, the remains of the trestle bridge which one carried precious ore from the mines.
township of Williamsford and the ore mines buried deep in the mountains and valleys further inland. Originally 29km in length, little remains of the line - which closed down in 1925 as the mines became less profitable, if they ever were profitable at all - but what does has been painstakingly preserved along this walking track. This part of the line followed quite a hair-raising route, climbing into the hills and seemingly clinging on for dear life to hillsides with absurd gradients. So incredibly difficult was the terrain the line had to overcome to reach the mines that two feet was the maximum gauge the engineers could manage. Today the track’s location seems as precarious as ever, practically slipping down the hillside into the invisible but definitely audible Ring River below.
Evidence of the railway’s presence and purpose is discreet but fascinating. The occasional wooden sleeper, small mineshafts or adits running out from the track into the hillside, and most impressive of all the remains of a wooden bridge spanning one of the larger streams the tramway had to ford. It is quite amazing that a railway was ever operational at all here. The line - all 29 kilometres
Highest in Tasmania
Here the river hurls itself more than a hundred metres into the void.
of it - took over a year and a half to build and cost £170,000. Quite a sum of money in the 1890s…
The vegetation the track creeps through is typically Tasmanian, the forest consisting mainly of leatherwood, myrtle and sassafras. It rained here the previous night and as we navigate the muddy track with nothing but the sound of the river below, it feels like despite the tramway, despite the eighteen months and the £170,000, man never quite managed to tame this place, always on the verge of swallowing these remnants of human activity back up again.
At the end of the walking track, some 90 minutes’ walk, we reach Montezuma Falls - a sight to behold. At 104 metres, the falls are Tasmania’s highest. The water seems to hang in mid-air then fall in slow motion as it hurls itself off the top of a cliff towering above the valley. Funny name, though, for a waterfall in far-flung Tasmania. Why name the state’s highest waterfall after an Aztec Emperor ? Originally named Osbourne Falls following a - surprise - mineral survey of the area in 1890, a local mining company, the Montezuma Silver Mining Company (no
These spectacular falls can only be reached via the old tramway route.
doubt a reference to the Aztec Empire’s thing for precious metals) ended up giving its name to the falls. Quite fortunate the company had a nice exotic name, then. “Xstrata Falls” doesn’t quite have the same ring…
Today a precarious-looking swing-bridge spans the river at the bottom of the falls (“maximum load two adults or one adult and two children”) but in the tramway’s short heyday a 160-foot wooden bridge did the job, although how anyone managed to build it in such impossible conditions is a mystery.
As we rejoin the car and turn back onto the main road southwards towards Queenstown, we notice a sort of miniature cable-car spanning the road overhead: a set of cables strung up between pillars with small metal hoppers dangling at regular intervals. Quite an unusual sight ! These are the remnants of the Hercules Mine operations and ferried raw zinc ore from the mine shafts buried in the mountains not far from the Falls. The ore was originally hauled to Williamsford - now long abandoned - where it was loaded onto the Dundas Tramway for smelting in Zeehan. Later, with the mine under new management, the ore was transported via the
Just like in Indiana Jones
The narrow swing-bridge which crosses the creek at the foot of Montezuma Falls.
ropeway to nearby Rosebery, from where it was sent to smelters in Hobart. The mine is more or less inactive nowadays, although a specialised firm recently did conduct some small-scale mining here. I found it quite mind-boggling to imagine this inhospitable, mountainous and heavily-forested land as the hive of industrial activity that it was in the early 20th century, and to think of the dozens of shafts, tracks and haulages now quietly rusting and crumbling, smothered in forest and perhaps never to be seen again…
We pause for lunch in Queenstown, obviously once a bustling place thriving on the profits of mining. These days Tasmania is hardly a major player in the world metal economy, but the town remains quite lively as the starting point for Tasmania’s only passenger railway, which connects Queenstown with the coastal town of Strahan, and has absolutely no usefulness whatsoever other than as an attraction for visitors and steam-train buffs. At Queenstown the road - which roughly circles Tasmania’s rocky centre - turns eastwards and climbs abruptly and unsettlingly through sterile mountains stripped bare. Here Man’s mining activities have well and truly left their mark and converted a previously lush temperate rainforest into a
Montezuma Falls in all their glory, tumbling nearly 105 metres.
wasteland of rocky slopes and open-pit mines, all in shades of pale yellow, brown and red. One such open-pit mine is accessible from the road: we go and have a look, peering over the railings down the pit’s steep sides into the bright blue, and no doubt viciously caustic waters at the bottom. The landscape is stark: with the vegetation uprooted to fuel the smelters, Tasmania’s wet weather quickly did away with the soil, and toxic fumes from the various furnaces did the job of poisoning anything left over.
Various mines, exploiting mainly gold and copper, are still active in the region, but Queenstown’s fifteen minutes of fame seem to be well and truly over, as attested by the main street’s derelict buildings, once the glory of the town but now dilapidated.
As you cross the low hills and mountains just east of Queenstown to the Lyell Highway, green reappears just as quickly as it had vanished. Here the highway follows the northern border of Tasmania’s Southwest National Park, part of the Wilderness World Heritage Area which covers a whopping 20% of the island. To our right lie thousands of square kilometres of forest, rivers, and wild coastline
This even takes bicycles !
- not a single public road crosses the park. The region’s complete isolation makes it more or less impossible to access the park at all, unless you have your own yacht (we wish) and approach it from the sea, or are prepared to do a lot of hard hiking. Nonetheless, there are a couple of spots along the Lyell Highway where short tracks give the visitor a fleeting but tantalising glimpse of the wilderness beyond. One such track runs for a couple of kilometres or so along the Franklin River, a central feature of Tasmania’s southwest. The Franklin River came very close to being flooded some decades ago, when a massive hydroelectricity project was proposed in the region. It took a bitter fight and a ruling against the Government from Australia’s highest court, but the plans were dropped and the Franklin River has since become a symbol of “people power” in the fight to preserve Tasmania’s unique environment.
The view you get from the track of the river, with its shallow, pebble riverbed winding lazily through the temperate forest, gives little idea of the wild, swirling, rapid-strewn waters that lie further south. Of the tranquil river-bends where wild platypus
Remains of a wooden bridge spanning a stream along the tramway's route.
dive for food. It’s all left to your imagination. And all the more exhilarating for it.
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