Strahan heroThere’s a story the locals love to tell about the road that joins Strahan, the stunning west coast Tasmanian port, with Queenstown, the rough-hewn mining town 41 kilometres away.

Until 1937 the only link between the towns was a railway regarded as one of the engineering marvels of its time. It traversed slopes of up to one-in-fifteen; so steep that it had a cogged drive connecting with a centre rack between the narrow-gauge lines. It was Queenstown’s only link with the world until a road connection to Hobart was established in 1932.

Both towns then started lobbying the Tasmanian government for a road joining the two. Not only would this improve the amenity of both towns, they argued, it would also open up access to rich timberland generating income and jobs. But given the difficulty of the terrain a road promised to be both complex and expensive. The government was reluctant.

But the far-away Hobart administrators had a bright idea; they offered to pay for the road if the two towns covered the surveying and the bridges. Given that the railway crossed no less than 42 bridges between the two towns the compromise offer would either stop the idea in its tracks or save the government a bundle if it didn’t.

But the two towns agreed to the deal and began survey work, and the road was opened in 1937. And there wasn’t a single bridge along its entire length. The surveyors had come up with a route that wound and twisted around the hills and rivers like a snake on steroids.

Strahan longAnd it remains almost completely unchanged 80 years later. There are some straight sections on this road but they’re few and don’t stay straight for long. When you get to 60 kmh along here it feels like you’re flying, and for anyone who enjoys the act of driving it’s absolutely one of the best roads Australia has to offer. The road is a special stage on the Targa Tasmania race and is a favourite for car companies launching new models.

It’s all lock-to-lock steering and alternating accelerator and brake. There are a few places where you can overtake, but a very few indeed and when you get stuck behind a campervan you have to rely on that driver’s good nature to pull over and let you by. The up-route from Strahan is probably the most challenging direction but bear in mind that it takes a long time before you’ll reach any overtaking points and the campervans and caravans are slow on the up-slopes. The down route from Queenstown is faster and at the end you’re rewarded with the gorgeous town of Strahan, but either way you’ll work very hard and you can’t afford to lose concentration.

In cold weather beware of ice, and if you’re travelling with children or anyone even halfway prone to motion sickness be prepared to stop and note that turnouts can be hard to find. This is one of the few roads I’ve driven that have made me queasy while I’m driving.

Far gentler access to Strahan can be had through Zeehan to the north, where there’s one of the most engaging small mining museums I’ve ever visited supplemented by an outdoor display of old locomotives and rolling stock. There are also some veteran and vintage cars in display.

Abt

A rather more dignified way to travel between Strahan and Queenstown is the Abt railway, which started out transporting copper from the Mt Lyell mine to the port in 1897 as well as passengers. It closed down in 1963, reopening as a tourist operation in December 2002 after a federal government grant of $20 million.

Gradients are so steep that the locomotive lowers a cogged wheel onto a rack between the lines to haul it and its load up the hills, and to assist with braking on the way down. This rack and pinion system was devised by Swiss locomotive engineer Roman Abt.

Despite new facilities at each end there’s a distinctly heritage feel. With the exception of one bridge that was washed away the railway follows its original route and some of the locomotives date back to the start of operations almost 120 years ago. But the passenger carriages are new; with the 1963 closure much of the original rolling stock was picked up for Puffing Billy in the Dandenongs.

Various tours are available with the railway journey ranging from all-day packages at $149 adults, $65 children to half-days at $95 and $40.

Published December 2015

 

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