A trip to the West Coast of Tasmania for the purpose of taking a slow and genteel train trip probably makes us official members of the club whose membership requires the carrying of tartan blankets, thermos flasks, a bag of travel Scrabble and the wearing of beige velcro fastening shoes. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a club, but I reject our membership as being a little premature. A jaunt to the West Coast for a train ride was definitely worth the trip and highly recommended for anyone of any age and preferred club.
Strahan was the destination, on the rugged West Coast of Tasmania and we headed off through Burnie, then down the winding roads, leaving suburbs behind us to be replaced by open grassland, then through bush and rainforest, zipping past Tullah and then through the streets of Rosebery. The west coast of Tasmania is marked by the contrasts of pristine wilderness and mining towns such as Rosebery, so we shot through and kept up our path towards the pristine.
We motored on down the remote highway with a few more twists and turns and then cornered our way into Strahan. This is a West Coast town with a very different vibe. No mining here and with the town nestled around a grand harbour, it has very much a village feel to it and a picturesque setting beside the water. It’s certainly a nice little town and we planned to park ourselves here for a couple of nights and see a bit of the interior by rail.
The next morning we headed up to the small train station beside the harbour, did our Covid check in, got temperature checked, passed the Covid Q&A from the very friendly lady at the ticket counter and collected our tickets ready to board. I applaud all our “front line” workers during this pandemic, but sometimes it’s the folk like the lady on that ticket counter that need a good hearty clap as well. “Do you have any symptoms such as sore throat, cough or fever?” “Have you travelled anywhere that’s a known hot spot?” “Have you been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for Covid19?” she asked with a smile. After answering “No” to all questions, she handed us our tickets with a smile and the instructions for boarding and as we stepped away, I heard behind me, “Do you have any symptoms such as sore throat…”. How many times must she have to say the same thing over and over again and yet she was doing it with a smile and a friendly, chipper personality every time. Good on you! You’re a champ!
Tasmania hasn’t had any passenger rail service anywhere for decades, so the only train trips to be had are tourist experiences. Our train today was a heritage diesel train and we had taken tickets in the Wilderness Carriage, which was to provide us with on board food and refreshments and a designated carriage host. We were welcomed aboard by our host Rachel, who would not have looked out of place serving martinis in business class on British Airways, with her perfectly bunned hair, under her pillbox style hat and sharp, crisp suit. We were shown to our seat by the beaming and friendly trainee Kaiya and sat ourselves beside the window. Due to Covid safe measures, fewer passengers are placed in carriages, which meant we had a four berth seating arrangement all to ourselves, which was a definite silver lining.
We were immediately approached by the poised and professional Rachel. “What can I get you to drink? We have complimentary champagne, or fruit juice if you’d prefer? I’ll be along with the canapés in just a moment.”
“Well this is a bit west coast posh,” I commented. The carriage was certainly decked out nicely with sparkling wine glasses, Tasmanian timber interior showcasing the work of a local craftsman and everything shone, as did the smiles of our tip top carriage hosts. Rachel soon appeared again, walking down the carriage serving our fellow passengers with their canapés of marinated wallaby on potato rosti and pepper berry relish, while we were offered a plate of very tasty vegan felafel and dipping sauces. We were immediately stoked with the provision of a vegan option and we tucked in, looking at our posh surroundings, while I tried not to think too hard about the origins of what was on the plates of our fellow passengers.
The onward trip was nothing short of fab. We rattled and rocked along the line in the old heritage train, first past Macquarie Harbour, which is six times the size of Sydney Harbour. Yes, you heard that right, the iconic Harbour in Sydney is but a puddle in comparison to this expanse of water beside the sleepy village of Strahan on Tassie’s West Coast! We were hitting a top speed that was the locomotive equivalent of a gentle jog, so plenty of time to see the scenery slowly sweeping past the carriage window. Along the way we were informed and entertained by commentary that was interesting, but only occasional, so as not to be intrusive and we were able to marvel at the scenery while also being fed some stories and facts of life on the railway from days past.
“Can I top up any drinks here?” asked Rachel as she swished up and down the carriage being exceptionally hospitable to all her passengers. She then reappeared with morning tea for all and began to place a scone the size of a small passenger vehicle, accompanied with bowls of jam and whipped cream. in front of her appreciative passengers. “They are freshly baked this morning and the jam is Tasmanian made. Everything we use is locally sourced,” she informed us with a smile. She then placed a very tasty vegan slice in front of us and left her passengers to their murmurs and sighs of scone-fuelled joy.
We arrived at our first stop of Lower Landing, a restored station and platform, where we were able to leave the train for a stroll through the rainforest and down to the river. We had learned that there were once 250 people living at Lower Landing, which is literally in the middle of nowhere, just plonked in the rainforest and when the site was established, the first thing that was built was a pub. Well, of course it would be!
“We’ll give you a toot on the train horn to let you know when it’s time to come back, “ Rachel informed us with a smile. “One toot means start walking back to the train, two toots means walk a bit faster and three toots, you can wave to us from the platform!”
We roamed through the canopy of the rainforest on the marked paths, the additional useful information from the delightful Rachel, still in our ears. “Stay on the marked paths,” she had stressed upon us, “because the leeches won’t get you there!” I sure didn’t want one of those little blood suckers latching onto me, so we walked where we were told!
Roaming amongst the trees was lovely, with peace and tranquility all around and…TOOT!
“Was that the train? I think that was the train!” I egged Steve on with a wave of my hand and began power walking back up the track. TOOT. TOOOOT.
“That was two, I heard two toots!” I picked up the pace and hightailed it back to the platform and we skipped into our carriage with time to spare. Don’t mess with the toot!
On we rattled, through the forest and cuttings, with the river beside us. Another advantage of our posh carriage, was the little balcony at the end, which meant we could stand out there in the fresh air and take in our surroundings au naturel. As we choofed along the line, through cuttings and high rock walls, we were told that the whole railway line was dug by hand, no blasting at all. So all the rock walls we were passing, were what was left of a hill, that the workers of the day had literally dug out by hand. Amazing.
We reached the next stop and our turn around point of Dubbil Barril, the spelling of which no one can really explain and here we had another chance to take a walk through the rainforest, with a little more time to explore while the driver turned the engine around and attached it to the other end, ready for the return journey. As Rachel gave the reminder about listening for the train tooting as the signal to return, I heard a fella from a group of two couples across the aisle comment with satisfaction, “Brilliant, we can lose the wives!” To which his wife replied, “Now Barry, don’t do what you did on the bus tour! We came back from the toilet to see the bus moving off!” she told her female companion in the group. “The bus was going without us and we had to shout for it to stop. I said to him, didn’t you notice I wasn’t sitting beside you!?”
Barry merely smirked. Oh Barry, I thought to myself, you need to stop dragging your knuckles along the ground and get with the program mate.
The walk through the rainforest was delightful and then we stopped to watch the drivers at work, turning the engine. It was on a large turning circle with bars out to the side that the two fellas pushed against. They turned that 28 tonne engine around as if they were doing nothing more than pushing a supermarket trolley. The physics of that feat I do not understand! They then drove the engine up to the other end of the train, attached it and we were ready to make our way back from whence we’d come.
The stylish and smiling Rachel and beaming Kaiya had lunch already served at our tables when we boarded and we enjoyed a very nice vegetable soup on the return journey, with more drink top ups along the way. A perfectly charming way to travel! As we approached Strahan again, the rainforest thinned and the harbour came into view and we pulled gently into the station at Regatta Point.
With the afternoon still ahead of us, we strolled though the sleepy streets of Strahan and alongside the harbour and I decided I liked Strahan very much. It had a lovely village feel, quiet and peaceful and a different vibe altogether from other towns on the West Coast. Apart from it not being a mining town, for us who live on the coast, there’s always something about being beside the water that gives a place a nice touch in my book.
It had been a ripper day. A sedate way to travel on a little piece of Tasmanian history, with a touch of heritage posh. We’d learnt some things and strolled through some beautiful rainforests and enjoyed warm and friendly Tasmanian hospitality. Once again, we were not feeling deprived by our restricted travel movements because we were still managing to find little gems close to home. It might have been in the middle of nowhere, but it was a top place to be. Now, all that remained was a quiet drink in the lounge, overlooking the water and the village below and maybe a quick sweep of the leech patrol on the lower legs, just to be sure we hadn’t picked up any unwanted passengers. You can never be too careful with those slippery little suckers!