home | tasmania by road and track | flinders island | sydney | sailing the channel

Chapter 8

I travel over Tasmania's newest road, climb the "Mystery Mountain" of the west; tell of the days when Macquarie Harbour was a prison, see one of the world's richest copper mines and voyage on Australia's least-visited scenic stream.

The west coast was the first part of Tasmania to be seen by European eyes and it has been the last to be opened up by road. For many years the richest copper mine in the British Commonwealth had no outlet by land, and four goodly sized towns in the Mount Lyell district north and east of Macquarie Harbour were unconnected by road not only with the rest of Tasmania but even with each other. Each of those towns had motor cars, but they were leg-roped as effectively as the cows whose milk they distributed. The Strahan motors had a run of about three miles, while from Zeehan and
Rosebery there was no way out, but the Queenstown barriers came down first. It is said that on the evening of the official opening of the road there were only three sober men in Queenstown, and they would not have been sober had not the town's supply of beer given out. One cannot blame the coasters for getting excited, for were they not imprisoned for over a hundred years? And so they would have been still had not a fairy godmother-to wit the Federal Roads Subsidy-released them at long last.

It was over a century and a half after Tasman's first sight of Mount Heemskirk and Mount Zeehan before they were seen again by outsiders. Bass and Flinders during the first circumnavigation of Tasmania in 1798 named them after Tasman's two ships. Next came Kelly in 1815, and soon the convicts began their grim occupation. I do not know who was the first person to accomplish the overland trip to this part of the coast but perhaps it was that resourceful individual Pearce-the celebrated escapee-who regaled himself on the carcasses of his companions when he ran short of food. In 1842 Sir John Franklin and his intrepid Lady performed the overland journey from Lake St Clair. Many years later the telegraph line pushed its way over the mountains and rivers and the linesmen opened a passable track. This, however, fell into disrepair when the telegraph changed its mind and followed the Emu Bay Railway from Burnie.

Even as late as 1931 -eighty-nine years after Sir John Franklin's exploit-the overland journey was accounted something to boast about and stay-at-homes dubbed the travellers lunatics. As I followed this new road to Queenstown I recalled my own walk through in 1929 and the difficulty then of crossing the Franklin and the Collingwood rivers on the wire contraptions that meant death to the careless. Now the two streams are crossed soberly and in orthodox fashion by bridges, and we who did the tight-rope act are glad we had the experience before the bridges came and ended the thrills for all time.

The road when under construction was Port Arthur over again, except that members of the gangs chose their own colours in clothes and were not supplied with yellow and black uniforms, nor haircuts, at Government expense. The gangs included some of the hardest cases on earth, according to the bosses I talked with. One overseer told me a tale of a gentleman whom we will call Jim Smith, which I pass on for you to believe or not as you like. Jim wanted to get across to Victoria, and the only way he could finance it was through the Workers' Compensation Act. In order to claim accident money the resourceful James offered a mate a couple of quid to chop his finger off. His mate accepted the job, produced a mattock, and Jim placed his finger on a log. The implement descended, lopped off the top of Jim's index finger, and the injured one drew 75 and decamped without paying his "surgeon's" fee, confiding to another friend his intention of getting the lopped digit healed in Victoria so that he could have it chopped again and draw more accident pay. Being good at arithmetic, Jim calculated that the possession of eight fingers and two thumbs would, if judiciously exploited, yield him an amount of 1,500 and enable him to retire in comparative affluence. As a stand-by he could, he pointed out, begin on his toes. Surely this is "Aurelia's Unfortunate Young Man" of Mark Twain brought up to date!

When this coast road was projected there were, of course, the critics and the pessimists; but its construction was surely justified for the scenery alone. It is the most spectacular road in all Australia. The mountains-and there are scores and scores of them-are unbelievably grand. Frenchman's Cap, that mystery mountain of shining white quartz, is the giant of the company. Lyell itself is like nowhere on earth, as you will see when you approach it. Gaunt, weird mountain shapes hem the towns of Gormanston and Queenstown, and the entry through Linda Valley is a nightmare. A journalist visitor was challenged to sum it up in a terse sentence, and his pronouncement was "Hell, with the fires out". Go and see how right he was.

Irked by the fact that all the adventure surrounding the journey to Mount Lyell has passed with the building of the road, I decided to vary the going by a side trip to the Frenchman's Cap and, anxious to live to finish this book, I asked two young men to accompany me. A mile beyond where the road crosses the Franklin River we set out, my swag swelled to fifty-one pounds by the addition of sleeping gear, an axe and a week's food. At three in the afternoon we recrossed the Franklin to pick up what was once a track. High above the wide stream stretched five strands of wire laced together, and above this two single wires about three feet apart for handholds, the top wires being connected to the bottom one by V-shaped pieces, specially supplied, I am sure, to catch your swag in. It is ticklish work freeing yourself when you are afraid to take either hand off the "balusters". In justifiable haste to get the ordeal over, I heartily cursed the companion standing on the bank who asked me to wait to be photographed, and I cursed even more on finding later that the darkness of the forest rendered the picture a "dud". Traversing a typical Tasmanian myrtle forest, we stopped at dusk on the banks of the Loddon and pitched our tiny tent. Providentially the recent bushfires had spared some of the loveliness along the river side and it was still a most beautiful spot. Five miles in three and a half hours was fast going, for it is infernally hilly and we kept losing the track. Showing his hoary head for about ten minutes we saw our goal-the Frenchman's Cap, "Mystery Mountain" of the wild west. He looked unclimbable-as more than one disappointed adventurer had found previously.

Storing some of our food in a cache, we started at daylight on the next stage, over burnt hills to the South Loddon, through a blackened tea-tree forest to the equally black stream. It was the only depressing place on the trip. The "track" we were trying to follow had been cut thirty-four years before by that resolute explorer, T. B. Moore, and naturally the blazes had been nearly erased by time. Just here the track cut ten years later by J. E. Philp branches off to the right, forgotten by the authorities and obliterated by the quick-growing scrub. Crossing button-grass bogs with a wary eye for snakes, we encountered a devilish tangle of the bush which Tasmanian explorers have cursed for nearly a century and a half. Tea-tree, cutting grass and bauera grasped our packs, encircled our legs and lacerated our hands. With scarcely enough breath left to curse we reached the top of the divide and descended through a similar inferno to the shores of a sheet of water known to the dozen or so people who had seen it as Lake Vera. To scramble along its mile of length to the far end took nearly two hours, for every known forest obstacle impeded us, including that devil-tree, the horizontal. It was a relief to throw off our loads and pitch our tent in the darkness made denser by a grove of Huon pines. High cliffs, to be scaled tomorrow, frowned above this, one of the handsomest lakes in all Tasmania.

The next day's journey will live in my memory for ever and a day. In my time I have traversed countless hundreds of forests, but never such a forest as this upon the slopes that are the outliers of the Frenchman Range. Mounting all the time, even our heavy burdens could not dull our rapture in the kaleidoscope of scenes in that vale of no travellers. Beeches, treeferns and fifty other species beautified our breathless way; grass trees touching fifty feet in height reared their strange heads among the commoner flora, the rare climbing epacris with its long pink and scarlet bells festooned remains of dead beeches and hung in ropes above our heads; gay fungi, red and tangerine, lip-shaped, reminded us of the prevailing female fashion and behind the forest towered the sheer white cliffs dripping their eternal shower-bath upon the puny mortals who had sweated and puffed their way towards the pass. Barron Pass, Philp named it, after the then governor. It is only a hundred yards or so through, but its white walls are many hundred feet in height. Then round a rocky spur, across a basin of "wild artichoke", through another smaller pass, and Lake Tahune is the welcome sight, for it means rest again. A day-long, slogging journey, and we had covered three miles!
I cannot describe Lake Tahune adequately. The immediate surroundings of this sepia pool are pines, and right out of it for a sheer couple of thousand feet rise the white cliffs of Frenchman's Cap. Away to the north as far as vision will reach are mountains, Barn Bluff being about the most distant of those that can be recognized.
The actual climbing of the Frenchman is now both a good and a bad dream to me. Before breakfast next morning we were standing at the cairn and peering awe-struck at the country thousands of feet below. First you clamber up a sort of chute for about a thousand feet, coquetting with death in risking a false step near the top of the ridge. Then the final bastions have to be stormed, which are a series of shelves and low precipices. The most daring climber went ahead, and three times during the ascent and descent I found myself dangling from a rope that had been brought in case of emergencies which duly occurred. I am not going to pretend that I enjoy climbing mountains that necessitate ropes. One slip, or sudden loss of nerve, and you would cheat the undertaker, for your mangled body could not be got out for burial. Since I made the trip a much easier way has been found.
We read the names in the few bottles under their little mausoleums, examined the nearly perished piece of pine that once bore the names of Spong, Tully and Glover and still bears the date 1857, then each of us stacked a slab of marble-yes, the Frenchman is partly composed of white marble-on the cairn, and descended. That night we got back to Lake Vera and the next day to the road, and the adventure was over. The "Mystery Mountain" of the west had yielded his secrets to three more pygmy humans. We saw an eagle accomplish in two minutes the journey that had taken us three days. We saw also the eight lakes named by Charles Whitlam, and a ninth not mentioned by him.

It was in 1821 that Governor Sorell decided to establish a penal station at Macquarie Harbour for criminals of the worst class, and at the end of the year he despatched the Prince Leopold and another ship with seventy-four convicts and their keepers. The island named Sarah Island by Kelly, afterwards and still known as Settlement Island, was chosen for the prison, and the necessary buildings erected. The entrance to the harbour is known as Hell's Gates, and although there are other Hell's Gates in Tasmania these are the aptest named.
It must have been a devilish place. The prisoners were turned out at daylight to eat a breakfast of cold porridge, they worked up to their knees in water, and when they got back to the island, wet to the bone, they were given bread and salt meat without vegetables. There were neither plates, knives, forks nor spoons; they simply employed hands and teeth. They lay down in their soaked clothes on a gravel floor, the only covering being a coarse cloth.

Warders stood over the gangs with whips and lashed at any who lagged from either laziness or exhaustion. It is recorded that in one year 7,000 lashes were inflicted. This gives a good average per man, for there were never more than 370 confined. Small wonder that murders were committed in order to obtain freedom by death from the tortures of life.
To escape was merely to exchange one hell for another. To get away by sea in the small cockleshells available was almost impossible, for the coasts are lashed by tempests and many a craft has gone to the botton in this wild spot. By land there were the nearly impenetrable forests to thread, and food could not be obtained. Some few did make good their escape, but of the 112 who absconded 62 were supposed to have perished in the bush, and nine were murdered in order that their bodies should form food for the murderers. Governor Arthur laid down in unambiguous terms that the great and grand object was to make this prison a place of dread. "You must," he wrote to the Commandant, "find work and labour, if it only consists in opening cavities and filling them up again."
The Regulations of 6 July 1824 contain the following paragraph: "During their labour in the swamps they receive no food whatever, their only meals consisting of a breakfast before they proceed to their work and a dinner when they return from it at sunset." Previous to this the prisoners were only allowed one meal a day-at sunset! Those miserable wretches, before the luxury of a breakfast of cold porridge was granted them, began the day a quarter of an hour before sunrise by rowing about fourteen miles over a boisterous harbour, on an empty stomach. In his despatches to Lieutenant Wright, Arthur certainly mentions that the Commandant is expected to show humanity; but he observes with satisfaction that escaped prisoners on their trial have declared that they would rather suffer death than be sent back; "which is," he writes, "the feeling I am most anxious to keep alive".
On account of the expense and the inaccessibility of the settlement it was decided in 1833 to abandon it, the last contingent leaving in the brig Frederick on 10 January 1834. She was seized by the prisoners, who got away to South America. Four of them were there retaken, brought back to Tasmania, and condemned to death in 1837.

The west coast then lay practically forgotten for nearly half a century, except for a few hardy prospectors who risked their lives in penetrating to its fastnesses. In 1877 Conrad Lynch, operating from what is now Strahan, prospected the valley of the King River, but found nothing payable. Four years later Lynch and Thomas Currie were sent from Hobart to search for gold. They tried round about Mount Sorell and Mount Darwin, the King and the Queen Rivers, and adventured well towards the Frenchman. Finally in a creek since named after Lynch payable gold was discovered and a claim pegged. Anything they got they earned, for their task was a stupendous one. The world has few areas more difficult of exploration. In 1883 Lynch found a pocket of quartz which gave gold worth 830, but though the King River Company spent some 20,000 they did not recover a quarter of it in gold.
In the same year two brothers, William and Michael McDonough, went from Heemskirk to the Queen River district, and from the top of the ridge that joins Mount Owen and Mount Lyell they saw a hill covered with scrub. This is the hill that afterwards became known as "The Iron Blow". The brothers pegged out the first claim, and associated with them in the syndicate were the Karlson brothers, James Crotty, William Dixon and F. 0. Henry. Mr Crotty formed a company in Launceston and work went on for several years, the operations disclosing vast bodies of copper-bearing rock under the gossan. Crotty obtained the interest of Mr Bowes Kelly and others and the present Mount Lyell Company was finally formed in Melbourne, the first smelting taking place in 1896. Nearly half a million was expended before the first dividend was paid, but since then the mine has scarcely looked back.

Afterwards the indefatigable Crotty started the North Lyell Copper Company, a railway was built for twenty-eight miles to Kelly Basin from Gormanston, and smelters were erected at the mushroom town named after the promoter Crotty. Wharves were built at Kelly Basin, various works started and a steamer brought out from England. Nearly a million pounds were spent, but the proposition flopped dismally. But though the ores from the North Lyell could not be treated profitably by themselves, they proved to be admirably adapted for blending with the Mount Lyell ores, and in 1903 the two companies amalgamated. The crater at Mount Lyell was worked till 1922, but now the mainstay is the North Lyell mine. The mines have produced over twenty million pounds worth of copper, gold and silver, and have paid over five millions in dividends. The operations are a miracle of organization, and now that the road has been built Queenstown will be visited by hundreds in place of the ones and twos that a few years back found their way to this Eldorado of metals and scenery that is the west coast of Tasmania.
Easily the finest railway journey in Australia is that from Queenstown to Strahan. The engineer who laid down that track deserved a knighthood. Seeing this country from the rail it is easy to understand why there were no escapees from the region by land except when cannibalism was resorted to. The only way to get food was to have it walking alongside for use when you became hungry, for you could not carry sufficient to last till civilization was reached. These canyons are a nightmare, the forests are next to impenetrable, the rivers quite incapable of being forded.
The gateway to the River Gordon is either via Strahan or Kelly Basin. The Gordon has neither the storied castles of the Rhine nor the high mountains of the rivers of the Rockies, but it has a magnificence and a spell of its own. Only some twenty-five miles - not a quarter of its length -are navigable for steamers, but they are miles of enchantment. The thick, sub-tropical forest, the near hills and the distant mountains are mirrored in the dark, slow-moving reflection from reality. The hillsides are a bewildering tangle of myrtle, sassafras and treefern splashed with the scarlet of the waratah or starred with the white flower of the leatherwood.
The sensation of unreality is heightened by the eerie stillness. Scarcely a bird is seen, and no human being. The Gordon from source to mouth flows through a solitude as unbroken as when its discoverer, Kelly, first set eyes upon it. Its course has never been traced, for the Gordon traverses no-man's land. It begins in Mount King William, slides through the Vale of Rasselas, cuts deep gorges, tumbles over high cliffs, and has chosen for its journey to the sea the most difficult tract of country that even this island of difficulties possesses. The first accurate mapping of the Gordon will be done from an aeroplane. There is no other way until a track is cut along its banks.

Strahan, though it is the pleasantest place of residence in the west, doubtless would not have come into existence at all but for the discovery of gold and copper at Mount Lyell and of silver at Zeehan. In the early years Zeehan stream with marvellous fidelity, and it is difficult to separate shipped its silver through the tiny port known as Trial Harbour, for there was no means of communication with Macquarie Harbour. But the development of Mount Lyell meant that a port was necessary and Strahan came into being - named after Sir George Strahan, governor from 1881 to 1886. Then, owing to the exposed position of Trial Harbour, it was decided to make Strahan the port for Zeehan also, and in 1892 the Strahan-Zeehan railway was opened. Just prior to this extensive harbour works were put in hand at Strahan, large wharves built, and the entrance dredged to allow larger ships to enter. On every occasion that I visited Strahan by the sea route I have felt a couple of distinct bumps as the little ship crossed the sandy bar. I also noticed the remains of the little steamer Devon at the Heads, her "bump" having proved fatal. Now and again one of the bigger steamers trading between Hobart and New Zealand took passengers and light cargo and transferred passengers and freight outside the Heads to the tiny steamer Moonah. I once went round in the Penguin and shall not forget the hazardous climb down her side to the bobbing lighter that was such a competent promoter of seasickness. It was almost preferable to take an all-the-way trip in the Mahinapua (239 tons) that I had sampled once. With the deepening of the bar and construction of a breakwater, larger ships paid visits to Strahan. Largest of the early ones was the North Lyell (2027 tons), flat bottomed and built to 'lump" the bar. But she only tried it once, and was taken off the run.
But the prosperity of Strahan was not built entirely on the mining freight. Sawmills flourished, treating Huon pine logs floated down the Gordon River and across the great expanse of Macquarie Harbour. When the tourist trade began to grow in importance, Strahan received a small but regular flow of visitors, for whom there are the ocean beaches, fishing and boating, all to be enjoyed in the midst of beautiful scenery. From Strahan also go the boats which you take across Macquarie Harbour to the lovely Gordon River. Strahan has come to stay.

Chapter Nine




Tasmania by Road and Track - by E T Emmett was originally published by Melbourne University Press.
The images on this site belong to Kelvin Markham and may only be reproduced with permission.
Please contact Kelvin Markham on 0419 152 612 or km@km.com.au