We feel clear headed this morning after our quiet night so don't get locked out and 15 minutes later are driving down Elizabeth towards the excellent coffee waiting at Jam Packed. Some days a morning coffee tastes better than it has any right to – this is one of those days. We are taking a look at the southern coast today, an area dotted with coves, inlets and pretty coastal villages. Our thinking is to spend tonight not too far north of Hobart ready for an early morning start to Strahan on the west coast - a comfortable all day run.
We are soon past Kettering, from where we boarded the Bruny ferry yesterday, passing through Woodbridge, Middleton and Gordon, all pretty waterside villages.
A few photo-stops later we arrive at Cygnet near to lunchtime and are drawn to The Red Velvet Lounge on the left as we drive into the small township. The name sounds like a venue from the 70s and it does have this appearance. Although the inside space is huge, well placed tables offer comfortable seating with a degree of privacy. The service is prompt and friendly and the lunch is a very high standard. We share a slice of homemade tarte tatin to finish with our very well made coffees. These people know what they are doing and talking with other Tasmanians later in our journey, who had travelled this part of the state, we discover that everyone knows about the Red Velvet Lounge.
We talk about our lunch, on and off, for most of the afternoon – it was that good.
Apples are big business through this part of Tassie and neat commercial orchards stretch away from the road on both sides.
A well maintained orchard is very pleasing to the eye and conveys a restful unhurried pace – it belies the commercial reality, as horticulture is a risky intensive business with peaks and troughs of activity throughout the year.
The sun shines and there is a timelessness to the countryside which reminds of us of picturesque English hamlet villages beside quiet inlets. The afternoon wiles away, with 5 o'clock sneaking up on us and still a distance to travel to reach our planned overnight stop.
We have identified Richmond, just on the north eastern side of Hobart, as a heritage town offering several period cottages for daily rent. After passing through Huonville and back over the Tasman bridge we are soon admiring the façade of Hollyhock Cottage behind it's picket fence, in Percy Street, Richmond. What a charmer, built about 1830, a little miner’s cottage with low doorways – I am just over 6 feet tall and have several forehead bumps to prove where we stopped for the night. The owner, Pauline greets us warmly and doesn't seem to mind a bit that we are only staying for the one night. The cottage boasts a delightful small English garden, but unfortunately it’s a little too late in the day and a touch chilly, for us to fully enjoy.
Chatting to Pauline we get some advice for a dinner venue which is a bit limited being Monday night when a lot of restaurants choose to close after a busy weekend. Pauline gives the Richmond Arms a good review and we set off for a walk through town in the fading light.
Richmond is home to the oldest Catholic church in Australia, St John the Evangelist which sits on a small rise overlooking the Coal River and the 1823 convict built bridge. The small park and gardens surrounding the river are a delight to walk through with lots of tame bird life and boardwalks.
We come up behind the main street walking to the Richmond Arms and dinner, when Linda spies a still open bakery and we think, mmmm, croissants for breakfast, and yes there are lovely fat croissants waiting for us on the counter. We hand over our money, pick up the bag and the croissants immediately fall out of the bag bottom onto the floor spreading flakey pastry all around. Oh dear, we must have picked up the bag by the wrong end! The young assistant quickly says 'don't worry, don't worry' – we produce another $5 for 2 more, which he refuses, offering us 2 fresh croissants to replace the casualties. Not only do we get the two fresh for no more money but we leave them with the mess. 'No worries' they all say – enjoy the croissants. Doesn't something like this give you a good feeling?
5 minutes back to Hollyhock cottage, carefully place the croissants on the kitchen bench then out the door, 100 metres to the main street which we cross to arrive at the door of our dinner venue, the Richmond Arms. This is an original and charming 2 storied colonial era hotel offering bistro style dining in the lounge bar. We enjoy the lamb roast along with a couple of glasses of a local pinot noir. Good quality pub fare and excellent value. A very busy dining room with plenty of locals and a smattering of visitors like us. Busy is always a good pointer to quality and value and so it proves to be the case here too.
We walk back to our cottage through the cool but pleasant evening and are soon tucked into the comfortable bed hoping for a good night’s sleep before our lengthy drive to Strahan the next day. Hollyhock cottage is very well positioned not too far off the main road yet far enough to cancel main road noise, so we enjoy a sound sleep waking to the 7am alarm. First thing I do is crack my forehead on the bathroom door lintel – those miners of yesteryear must have been very short – waking me up and almost putting me into a permanent stoop for the rest of the stay. The shower is hot and strong, easing the head throb, further eased by Linda's excellent breakfast, cooked with the generous supplies left by owner Pauline last night. Bacon and eggs, followed by our croissants.
We are on the road by 9am, heading towards our first stop of the day, Bonorong Wildlife just out of Brighton. Bonorong operates as a conservator of wildlife, only home to animals which have been orphaned or injured. If they can be appropriately rehabilitated every effort is made to return them to the wild. Meeting and talking with Greg Irons – keeper in charge – it is easy to see the passion he feels about helping and protecting Tasmania's unique wildlife.
We are not disappointed with our visit with close up views of Tassie devils, eastern quolls, echidnas, grey koalas, blue tongue lizards, black cockatoos and emus. Greg had hand raised some orphan devils and convinces us they are not nearly as fierce as they appear but we don't test the theory ! He also has some interesting information about close encounters with kangaroos – if you scratch them on their head, which seems the obvious communication, you are telling them to go away. Instead scratch their chests and they'll come right up to you for more. We do test this theory and it is true! We love our visit to Bonorong and are very sorry to leave, but Strahan by nightfall is a must.
Having done a bit of research about the small towns along the way, we think a lunch stop may be hard to come by. But Glen Clyde House in Hamilton is a delight, from the local craft gift shop in the main house to the terrace courtyard adjoining, where we both enjoy a generous BLT. Had to try an effervescent Tassie rhubarb juice – Rhubru – it’s delicious so don't miss the chance if it comes your way. Hamilton is a quaint inland town with a main street that winds gracefully between the small houses and few larger official buildings. If you don't stop for lunch at Glen Clyde House you'll be out the other side in 3 minutes but you will have missed a lovely quiet break from driving.
The Lyell highway is a scenic drive, especially as we get into the Tarraleah area where there are several lakes. The countryside has a remote feeling and being heavily forested is cold and dark. About 20 kms out of Queenstown Linda notices a road sign which declares we have arrived at 'Linda', a wee town with a population of about 30. We have to have the photo! Moving on and coming through the mountains into Queenstown, the road winds steeply down towards the township through rocky denuded 'moonscape' mountainsides with obvious signs of the intensive mining of an earlier time. Many different minerals were mined in this area, mainly copper, but including gold and silver. The large population of the early 20th century has dropped to a few thousand now but with increasing copper mining activity a more prosperous future may develop. Not a pleasant place to live though as west coast weather is wet and cold with the artificially nude landscape creating a depressing effect. On a brighter note Linda had read about the Empire Hotel built in 1901 and thankfully now a National Trust listed building. The friendly publican provided us with 2 glasses of very drinkable pinot noir after which we inspect the famous Tasmanian Blackwood staircase. The raw timber, sourced in the western wilderness and it is still a great wilderness today, but in 1901, it would have been totally primeval – was shipped to England, hand-carved and shipped back for installation in 1904.
We have 3 nights in Strahan, 40 kms away, so we intend to come back and see more of the town over the next couple of days. Late afternoon now and the 40kms to Strahan is quite windy and it takes us over an hour to arrive at our Strahan Village accommodation around 6pm. Our spacious room is magnificent, overlooking Macquarie Harbour and the village from its vantage point above the little township. As we check in the friendly reception staff suggest we might like to book the Gordon river cruise for the next morning which, of course you must do if you come to Strahan. By booking in advance we take advantage of a 10% discount which we welcome as the cruise cost isn't small.
The Strahan village complex is substantial, built into the hillside in several tiers and includes a restaurant and bar where we are now heading. A very good quality buffet awaits us as we come through the double restaurant doors where we are quickly greeted and seated at a quiet table some way down the room. It’s 7:30pm now and quite busy, yet the buffet looks appetizing and fresh. Well maintained by staff who know their trade. Looking down over Strahan Village from this elevated spot it’s a pretty scene, although in the late twilight we can see very dark clouds gathering which promises a typical west coast day for our Gordon River cruise in the morning.
Cosy rain on the roof during the night and the morning dawns grey, cold and showery. This is quite pleasing in a way as this is usual for west coast days. We are looking forward to the Gordon under these conditions as for most of their working lives the 'piners' of the early 19th century worked the Gordon extracting Huon pine under the most arduous freezing conditions, and must have wondered where the sun had gone.
After a quick but enjoyable breakfast in the hotel restaurant, we board the Lady Jane Franklin at about 8:30am. It's not really our thing to be part of an organized tour, but there is really no other way with our time constraints to view the harbour and Gordon River. For very hardy types with open itineraries various hiking options can be arranged, although as weather conditions throughout this region are extreme, this can be dangerous, so care, the right equipment and experience are all prerequisites.
The Lady Jane is a large well appointed, almost new, locally built catamaran with aircraft type seating in the large main saloon. It is raining hard as we pull away from downtown Strahan so photography back towards the village is a waste of time. Instead, we settle down comfortably and listen to the descriptive commentary expertly delivered by our very charming young hostess. The first part of the cruise takes us out to the harbour entrance through Hells Gates, aptly named by convicts entering their ‘hell’ life on the Sarah Island penal colony. This narrow, shallow entrance creates an enormous tidal rush which combined with the heavy seas of the southern ocean can produce monstrous waves. Today’s conditions are a little turbulent but nothing like what they could be potentially .
Coming round out at sea to re-enter the harbour, we are briefly broadside to the swell and I could sense Linda becoming quite uncomfortable. Through the entrance once more and we are picking up speed heading for the Gordon at the harbour's south eastern end. The weather is wall to wall grey and misty but from time to time rain stops and we venture onto the deck for a few shots of the Bonnet and Entrance Island lighthouses and their bleak surroundings. Crossing the harbour we pass several sea cages which are salmon farms – not the prettiest things to have in this pristine environment and I am disturbed to hear in the 'on board' commentary that Tasmanian salmon is prized for the pinkness of the flesh which is produced not naturally, but by feeding the salmon artificially manufactured carotene. Farmed salmon disappears as a menu choice for me.
As we enter the Gordon our skipper slows the Lady Jane to a crawl so the vessel's wash will not damage the delicate foreshores with vegetation to water level. The fresh and drinkable, but very brown water is colored by buttongrass tannin. Being a designated world heritage area with strict entry and traverse criteria we dawdle slowly up the river rounding it's many bends, misty mountain peaks on either side.
We stop at a boardwalk set up so tourists can have a first hand feel of the rainforest. A bit touristy but it produced a most interesting discussion about the local burrowing crayfish which spends its entire life underground. Their burrow entrances could be spotted with a bit of careful attention. Back onboard for the return run down the Gordon, picking up speed for Sarah Island, the original MacQuarie penal colony established in 1821.
There is an organised tour offered or self wandering is also possible. Being us, we choose the latter and soon develop an idea of just how harsh convict conditions must have been. On one signboard a vision of misery is conjured by the words "freshly arrived stores were moved to pre-prepared storehouses to protect them from the harsh conditions but nurses and other prison staff were landed on the beach with no pre-prepared accommodation."
The boat horn sounds time to embark again and we leave a cold, misty ghostly place for our comfortable Strahan accommodation. The weather lets up briefly for us to disembark. It’s middle afternoon now and over a terrible coffee at Banjos Bakehouse we make plans for the rest of the day.
The MacQuarie harbour heads are reachable in the daylight left so we are quickly in the car and on our way. Not too long a drive with the latter part over some basic roads. Worth the effort though – the rain has cleared but the harbour entrance foreshore beach area is extremely windy with sand clouds constantly moving a couple of inches above the ground.
We can look across at Cape Sorell and the choppy waters of Hells Gates where we were in the morning aboard the Lady Jane. Linda discovers what appears to be a large curved piece of bone and we decide it is most likely some part of a whale’s jawbone. It stretches about 2 metres, so must have belonged to quite a large sea beast.
The wind is fearsome and we are soon back in our car returning to Strahan. Tonight's dinner venue is Fish Café on the wharf. Excellent fish but rather too noisy for us.
The weather on our second day at Strahan is much improved and we plan to complete our west coast adventures by following the coastal strip up to Trial Harbour and slightly inland to the old mining town of Zeehan. Our first stop of the day is Henty Dunes, an area of massive sand dunes about 20 minutes north of Strahan. We walk from the carpark out through the dunes passing a vehicle loaded with 4 wheel drive quad bikes for hire, concerned we are going to assaulted by these growly, noisy machines in the pristine, dune environment where the only sound should be that of the wind. Luckily the area is so vast, when a quad bike tour gets going, its presence is only fleeting.
It doesn't take us long, as we struggle to the crest of our second dune and can just see the line of surf miles to the west, to realize that any sort of distance travel, unless you have all day and then some, in dune country requires man made assistance. The other slightly scary experience is the disorientation which quickly occurs as you become surrounded by soaring dunes. We soon decide to turn back and acknowledge this amazing landscape as unique in our part of the world.
On to Trial Harbour over a road which starts off on seal in acceptable condition but quickly deteriorates into a 'road' where we are obliged to drive from one side to the other avoiding deep, suspension damaging potholes. Europcar's dire warnings spring to mind! A lengthy slow drive but the eventual arrival at Trial Harbour is worth it – a magnificent wild beach and lots of original bachs to photograph. The owners would either have to arrive by helicopter, which I doubt, or are more likely hardened west coast Tasmanians with ancient Toyota Landcruisers. Having got here we have to get back and there is nothing else for it but to settle down for the slow drive out. We don't pass a single other vehicle coming or going, so a breakdown would most likely mean a night in the car. Cellphone coverage of course – nil. Our trusty Mitsi Lancer is up to the task and we are arriving back into Zeehan, silver city of the west, in time for a latish lunch at a very unlikely looking café on the main street which proves all is not as it seems – We enjoy great coffee and a BLT putting all others to shame.
We are in fine shape for our visit to Zeehan's West Coast Pioneer Museum www.westcoastheritage.com.au . If you do nothing else in this area don't miss this. It includes the crystal and mineral collection of the original Zeehan School of mines and if you are not interested in geology you will be after viewing this incredible display. The historic black and white photographic collection depicting life in the area in earlier times as well as mining scenes, is completely absorbing and we soon lose each other wandering from room to room and back again.
We stay together to go through an entrance tunnel to an underground mine simulation experience which is rather too realistic for Linda's liking. Narrow adits (small tunnels) with dim lighting easily transport us mentally a kilometre underground. The next and equally outstanding part of the museum visit is the under restoration Gaiety theatre. Seating 1000, the Gaiety was the largest concert hall in Australia in the late 19th century. It’s a triumph for those involved that the Gaiety has been saved and is being restored. So much of our valuable architectural and life history is lost forever when such places are destroyed, to be replaced in some notable cases with carparks. The little costume museum in a side room has a most interesting collection of period dress and furniture.
With the time we have spent at the museum reaching Strahan by dinner time is just possible, so we reluctantly take our leave of Zeehan and life 150 years ago. It’s nightfall as we turn into our carpark at Strahan Village and the thought of the superior restaurant buffet appeals greatly. A quick spruce up in the room and we are soon seated at our usual window table overlooking Strahan township.
Our dinner does not disappoint. We linger through the evening enjoying the thought of a more leisurely day as our morning drive to Cradle Mountain is not so far.