[This is the last of five posts in the series Tasmaniacs]
Queenstown is a copper mining town about forty kilometres inland from Strahan in Tasmania’s West Coast Ranges. Tourism Tasmania claims it “was once the richest mining town in the world”, although they give no indication as to when that might have been or for how long. I’m guessing fifteen minutes during the depression of the 1890’s. It is a dubious distinction in any case. Like all mining towns, Queenstown has had its ups and downs, but the general direction has been down for a long time.
We stopped for petrol and a toilet, and didn’t expect much more. After fulfilling our needs, a stroll down the main drag, Orr Street, revealed a surprisingly charming town centre. Handsome Victorian structures intermingled with once grand pubs and hotels, most now closed and decaying, weathered, withered and warn, hinting of glory days long gone.
I spied a nearby hill with a pinnacle that promised 360 degree views of the town and the mountains that surrounded it. The Spion Kopf Lookout, as it was named by soldiers returning from the Boer War, was something of a monument to ore bore, a common malady affecting men who leave exciting wars to return to dull mining towns.
The story goes that the local Scots, who are always up for a good schism, broke off from the town militia to form their own contingent, the Gay Gordons. The Gay Gordons challenged the remaining militiamen to a mock battle, with Spion Kopf as the prize. Predictably, the mock battle was a little less mock than anybody anticipated. A cannon, sans projectile but overloaded with gunpowder, exploded in the face of an unsuspecting Gordon, causing much hilarity, spurring the Gay Gordons on to victory. The less-than- Gay victim would spend the rest of his day on the bar at the Empire Hotel having cannon shards removed from his face.
In addition to an excellent story, the Spion Kopf Lookout offered a marvellous glimpse of the environmental atrocity that is Queenstown: deforested, slag-covered mountains as far as the eye could see. We also could see an even more bizarre tourist attraction, “Queenstown’s Gravel FootBall Oval” (sic). I’ll let the local experts tell their own story on that: http://www.queenstowntasmania.com/Football_Ground_Page.php
As we descended back into town its 1,900 residents were just starting to stir on this Sunday morning. A couple cafés had put their tables out on the footpath, and the Lions Club was running as sausage sizzle at the RSL. A bagpipe’s shrill broke the morning still, children running in excitement to witness this puzzlement. Gaelic standards such as “Jingle Bells” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” echoed in the streets. The piper himself was with the Gay Gordons, who maintain their Spion Kopf stronghold to this day.
As we purchased our coffees, I overheard a man say to his friends “Strahan’s got a big hotel, but you go inside and everybody’s like ‘What are you doing in my pub?’ You don’t get that in Queenstown.”
Back on the road, we climbed out of Queenstown on the intense switchbacks through former and current mines, a dramatic wasteland of bare stones glimmering a copperish yellow. Frank found the mountain driving harrowing, but uncharacteristically, I was enjoying it, so I took over. A couple hours later we arrived at Lake St Clair, on the southern end of Cradle Mount /Lake St Clair National Park.
Lake St Clair is also the end of the Overland Track, the six-day mountain trek we had hiked the first hour of two days earlier at Cradle Mountain. The Lake St Clair Lodge was crowded with trekkers delighted not to be trekking, celebrating with a burger and a beer, nursing sore and blistered feet. It occurred to me that those poor souls who had started out with us two days earlier were still out there somewhere – with four days to go. Admirable.
We booked a passage on the “ferry”, a simple covered powerboat seating about sixteen, which generally left the lodge almost empty but returned packed with hikers that couldn’t bear to hike the last thirteen kilometres of the Overland Track. As we were doing a round trip, our voyage was deemed a “cruise”, meaning we were charged a few extra bucks and given a scenic meander around the more interesting aspects of the lake. For the first half of the trip it was just us, a bottle of wine, and Captain Peter, a local fisherman, knowledgeable and jovial. He provided an interesting mix of information on the lake’s geological history and the epicurean attractions of gay culture in Tasmania, both of which he seemed to know top to bottom, literally.
At the north end of the lake we picked up a dozen tenth-graders and their chaperone, all from Adelaide. They had just finished the Overland Track and had not bathed in six days. They regarded us quietly, dandies sipping wine in panama hats. I felt a bit ridiculous, so I let them know: “Ya’all STINK!” That broke the ice. We had a good chat all the way back, the group beginning to formulate their collective trail story myth, reconstructing realities into harmlessly inaccurate remembrances which they would recount for the rest of their lives.
Lake Saint Clair is the source of the Derwent River which some 250 kilometres southeast empties into the sea at Hobart. Our last night in Tasmania was spent in nearby Derwent Bridge. It says something of this locality that TripAdvisor rates its petrol station as its best restaurant. It was not open for dinner that Sunday night, so we had to settle for the second-best (and only other) restaurant at the Derwent Bridge Wilderness Hotel.
We walked there from our accommodation, ten minutes away across the actual bridge. As we strolled into the car park, Captain Peter pulled out in his truck, waving and shouting something about beer. Inside we discovered a crowd in the pub, and a 45 minute wait before the kitchen opened. I left Frank there while I trotted back down the street to our room to grab my laptop. When I returned, Frank was utterly alone, the sizable mob we had encountered earlier having wandered out, lord knows where. We had a nice dinner, albeit unexpectedly lonely and expensive. Frank had a wallaby burger, made of actual wallaby mince, quite heavily seasoned. Not recommended.
I have mixed feeling about our accommodation, a single room, fully equipped cottage in a cluster of a dozen or so, part of a well-kept property offering relatively good value compared to the other lodgings in the area.
We tried to check in on arrival at 1 pm, but nobody responded to the buzzer at reception. After Frank hunted down the proprietors, they politely but sternly advised him to come back at three. Checking in later Frank was lectured about the declining morality of the “younger generation” which made it necessary to charge a fee if we left the dishes dirty. The cabin itself had rather terse warnings posted, for example, about the ills that would befall us should we eat their breakfast cereal without first paying for it.
All of these requests or rules or demands are normal fare in the hospitality business, but in this instance they were delivered with palpable animosity. It was our job to reduce their workload, and the whole transaction would work best if we’d just stuff a couple hundred bucks in the mailbox and leave. I got the sense our hosts didn’t actually like having guests. Not that I ever laid eyes on them.
On the other hand, I felt sorry for them. They had a sizable investment here, with significant, high-quality infrastructure, and only a short season to make it pay. I imagine many a young and tired hiker, fresh out of the woods, took advantage of them, too exhausted to clean up after themselves. Was this another case of the bed & breakfast dream gone awry? I did not dare ask.
In the morning we swirled our way out of the mountains one last time, to Launceston. We picnicked by The Cataract Gorge Reserve, which the Launceston City Council describes as “the heartbeat of Launceston and central to its lifestyle and sense of community.” Now what do you know?
We re-familiarised ourselves with central Launceston, having not visited in sixteen years. Launceston rightfully prides itself as being the shopping mecca of Northeast Tasmania, and we recalled the highlight of our previous trip being the purchase of health insurance, policies which we hold to this day. Now what do you know?
Launceston hadn’t changed much. For some reason they have an enclosure of Japanese Macaque monkeys in the otherwise sensible City Park. I wished we had taken my sister’s advice to book the zip-lining tour which promised to deliver one a safe distance from Launceston (www.treetopsadventure.com.au).
Launceston is a lovely city to fly out of, though. Great views on the way home to Melbourne.
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