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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Contradictions ~ 24 February 2010

Our story begins several lifetimes ago when three old codgers were scratching for gold on the forest slopes of a mountain range behind Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s remote west coast. All of a sudden their spades brought up some sparkling golden stuff along with lumps of a green mineral. It was the year 1883, when those gold diggers pegged out fifty acres of what later became known as Linda Valley and their claim included a large ironstone outcrop, which eventually became "The Iron Blow" in the Mount Lyell fields. This marked the beginning of the Mt Lyell Mining Company, an icon in Australian mining, spanning nearly a hundred years.

In those early days, roads were few and far away, so supplies were brought by ship to Strahan then up the King River to Teepookana. From there they were taken by punts up through some 26 rapids to Sailor Jack's Creek, then after that, lugged by professional packers through four miles of thick forests above the King River Gorge for a penny a pound to the “Fifteen Mile Store” where they were sorted and taken to the fields.

I’ll come to our little adventure in a moment, but first we need a bit more that’s important. In 1888, five years after first pegged, the Mt Lyell Gold Mining Company was formed by a syndicate of six; the original three claimants, plus Bill Dixon, James Crotty, and F.O. Henry. But their mine made little profit. Then in 1892, two Adelaide financiers who realised a fortune in copper was being washed down the sluice boxes, bought in. By then, 28 companies were working the field.

Following a feud with the new Directors, James Crotty left the Company and was paid out with 3000 Mt Lyell shares and a small lease at North Mt Lyell. He went on to build this into a company that rivalled the might of Mt Lyell - for a short time. More about Crotty later.

To get the ore out and supplies in, a railway was proposed, so The Mt Lyell Mining & Railway Company was formed on 29th March 1893. In a glorious testament to man’s ability to overcome immense difficulties an army of young lads hacked down thick virgin rainforests and worked waist deep in freezing water to build a twenty kilometre railroad. Their motto, Labour Conquers All, encapsulates their achievement. Many surveyors said it wasn’t possible; the land was harsh, the weather extreme, the trains had to climb 1m in 16m (6.25%) and thirty-nine timber bridges had to be built over chilly creeks and raging rivers. But in three labour intensive years, the ABT railway was completed between Teepookana on the King River to Penghana, soon renamed Queenstown after the Queen River that flows through it.

The new township of Queenstown flourished as the mine grew rapidly in size. The ore was crushed and processed on site, and the tailings were discharged directly into the Queen River, which, flowing into the King, silted it so badly, ships started finding it impossible to reach Teepookana. So, in 1901, government funding was sought to extend the railroad to Regatta Point in Strahan.

Mount Lyell’s brilliant metallurgist, Robert Sticht built a smelting plant that had eleven blast furnaces. Sticht perfected a system called "Pyritic Smelting" which utilised sulphides locked within the ore to generate heat. This system revolutionised smelting through-out the world, resulting in a drastic cut in fuel needed for smelting, but it produced such noxious fumes, the surrounding forests in a thirty kilometre circle around Queenstown were killed. However, this suited a company needing timbers to shore up and fuel the smelters. Guess they thought, what’s one giant bald patch when surrounded by miles of virgin forests? Unfortunately that patch was just the first visible sign because the mine tailings, the left behind processed earth containing toxic chemicals and heavy metals, started killing vegetation and critters as it drained down the King. Not for a month nor a year, but it is still polluting what once was pristine rainforest.

In August of 1963, after 67 years of operation, the railway was closed because along with increased financial costs, many bridges needed rebuilding and the rolling stock needed replacement; plus there was now a road straight through to Hobart.

Despite various proposals post 1963, it was not until the late 1990s, as part of the Gordon below Franklin Dam agreement to increase tourism, that this railway was rebuilt with Federal and State money. During the reconstruction, the line was given various names, but a common usage was the 'ABT Railway' due to the cogs on a third rail used to assist the engines up the steep inclines on the second half into Queenstown.

In 2002, it recommenced operation as the ABT Wilderness Railway, and is now known as the West Coast Wilderness Railway operated by Federal Hotels, who run four hour train trips, twice a day, in each direction between Queenstown and Strahan. The two trains cross at Dubbil Barril ("double barrel") Station where the special ABT steam loco takes the ascending carriages up to Queenstown while the diesel loco returns to Strahan with the descending carriages.

It’s been estimated 100 million tonnes of tailings were dumped into the Queen River. So it shouldn’t have surprised us that during our six week stay in Macquarie Harbour last year, the excessive acidity and toxic heavy metals deposited in its mud bottom ate the galvanising off our brand new anchor chain. We left with raw steel that soon started to rust. Since that event, we have really wanted to witness the contradiction of forested mountains, madly rushing river gorge, silting, and death along the King River.

Here’s a further paradox that came in 1998, when the mine was sold into foreign hands. To guarantee the mine would continue, and protect five hundred jobs, a Federal exemption was requested and granted, allowing the continued dumping of tailing’s acid into the river. Jude and I just had to bear witness to this, but a four hour train ride would hardly be enough to gather a true image. So we decided to walk the tracks.

RED = 1st day     BLUE & Orange = 2nd Day     GREEN = 3rd Day

My planning discovered an emergency access road leading from the main highway down a mountain spine to Rinadeena Station at the track’s highest point. And here’s another contradiction. To reach the seaport, the King flows at a gentle pace, except below Rinadeena where it madly crashes through a massive rock gorge. The Mount Lyell engineers first proposed blasting a tunnel through the mountain, but that would have taken too long. Remember James Crotty? Well, his North Mount Lyell Mine was swiftly laying its own tracks down the Bird River, a much easier route, to carry their higher grade ore to market. So a fierce race to supply copper was underway. To save time, The Mount Lyell Directors chose a new Swiss invention.

Before setting out, I studied the train schedules to determine just when we could safely be on the track, and had obtained a topographical map to help find suitable campsites. And that brings us to the morning of our departure, with packed rucksacks on the roadside just past Strahan’s only servo, thumbs extended soliciting rides with little idea of what lay ahead.

Then a 4WD pulled in and a bespectacled, goofy type jumped out, and starts re-arranging the mess on his seats. Climbing in, I still had to push jars of something rather heavy aside. Jars full of coins.

“We’re on our way to the Rinadeena Lookout,” I said, and Mr. Goofy smiled wider causing his short bristle red hair to stand even more erect.

“Used to ride that train lots when a boy,” Mr. Goofy said. “My dad used to take us to the coast for holidays.”

“Oh, you’re a local then.”

Yep, born and raised in Queenstown.”

The so-called highway twisting and turning like a wiggling worm is much loved by bikies, but I’m not a fan and asked how often Goofy drove between the two towns.

“Drive this road at least once everyday, sometimes twice. Before moving to Strahan, maybe three round trips daily.

“Crikey, what do you do?”

“Oh, I’m Strahan’s general manager. Name’s Ronald. Everyday I go to the bank to deposit the parking meter money and sometimes attend meetings. You thinking of walking the train tracks?”

Oops. I wasn’t sure if that was allowed, but thinking honesty the better policy than try to fool him and chance looking one myself, I said, “Yeah, I’ve read there’s an access road from the lookout, so we’re off to see what a hundred years of mining has done to the King River.”

Well, this started a long dissertation on the destruction predicated on the once majestic King River and how funds had once been set aside to start cleaning it up, only to have them reallocated to other needs. Ronald elaborated on the scheme agreed to when the mine went to foreign owners, and gave us considerably more details on just how the ore is processed. It’s a Catch-22. The area needs the jobs, but the company can’t afford to clean up the process or rejuvenate previous companies’ environmental destruction. So it’s all in limbo. Except Nature. It’s still being hammered. But, hey, you got to take a four hour train ride to see just a tiny bit of that destruction.

Jumping out at the lookout, the bare hills of Queenstown before us and two groups of tourists madly snapping photos of the orange yellow hills and plumes of white smoke, Ronald winked.

“The tourists love it. Queenstown council once voted to pluck out the regrowth so the place would stay barren, but Nature’s winning. You can see the green tinge of new growth.”

Then with a wave, he wished us good luck and drove off down the highway.

Loading up, Jude and I slipped round a metal boom gate then found ourselves on a well formed dirt track heading steeply downhill. In the distance, we could hear the puffing of a steam engine labouring up a rise. Then slowly the sound and us started coming together. Walking round a last bend, a metal walkway passed over railway tracks and instantly came a whoosh of hissing steam as the morning train out of Queenstown pulled into Rinadeena Station. Jude and I quickly shucked our sacks into the understorey, and then like little elves, silently scampered to where we could snap photographs without being seen. After a short ten minutes, there came the cry of, “All aboard.” And when No. 5 Engine started huffing and puffing great clouds of steam, I stepped out with my video camera to record her leaving the station.

Cautiously after that, we peeked up and down the tracks - low profile our motto - no use ruffling feathers. But there were no feathers in sight. So, along the platform we strolled, our big rucksacks on our backs, fully surrounded by Nature’s beauty. Small leathery leaf Myrtles were casting deep shadows and the glossy toothed leaves of Native Laurels shone brightly red and yellow. And quaintly among them, a replica of the original Rinadeena Station with pictorial placards depicting some of the early families who had lived thereabouts. We read that the Kerrison diary had been a mile into the hills and that their ten children had taken the train to school each day, few of them wearing shoes. Then it was time for us to walk those very same historic tracks. As there were no signs declaring we shouldn’t, along the side we trundled off.

It was glorious to be surrounded by dense forest, smelling sweet Leatherwoods and being showered by their white blossoms, and able to walk easily down a flat even slope. Freshets rushed out gullies along the three kilometre stretch cut into the mountainside above Sailor Jack Creek. Many spanned by bridges. Every one with non-slip grating along one side, and each exposing a bird’s eye view over magnificent Tasmanian rainforest. Hints of smoky campfires wafted up, carried in the stillness above the rushing stream, and I would swear we could hear punters singing while poling their cargo up towards the Fifteen Mile store.

What surprised us was how many fallen limbs littered the gravel bed and sleepers. In fact, every so often we’d come to a big stack of sawn wood, ready for someone’s fireplace. Then just when we thought the small valley would never end, coming round a sweeping bend we beheld the colossal chasm of the King River Gorge and understood how those shear rock sides could have diverted man’s best efforts, forcing the company to try a new invention. Fine mist from rushing water filled the chasm, partly hiding its dull grey jagged face. Primeval Earth, unmeant to be conquered found its way onto to my recording tape as I spoke of man’s will and what still lay ahead.

Not far away was Dubbil Barril Station where the two trains meet and transfer locos while the passengers enjoy lunch during an hour long stop. As we approached, we heard the familiar, “All Aboard.” And ducked into the forest to film the puffing steam engine start up the rise and it would have brought glee to any child’s eyes to see “Thomas the Tank Engine” hissing clouds of steam from its green livery.

Boldly we entered the now abandoned station carved out a hillside, finding two sets of tracks and a hand powered turntable at the uphill end. Again the station reproduced the era, except this one had a mass of lunch benches, mostly big Huon planks, separated by more pictorial placards enlivening the story of the men who had created this huge undertaking. I was moved by old stills of denuded hills littered with fallen trees and young lads in bowlers and vests struggling to push logs through what looked freezing mud. My God, there was a story of a labour strike, when the men downed tools to shorten their eighteen hour workdays, down to fifteen for a bit more money. No dole in those days. No medical insurance or retirement funds, just employment if lucky. Or if not, kind relatives hopefully.

Surrounded by station, water tower, and mountain rock giving way to forest green and a view down to the King River, Jude and I had lunch while reading and photographing each of those information signs. And by doing that, the true magnitude of this achievement started to have its impact. Man can conquer such huge tasks when we all pull together; be it for a dream or money. Both of which relate to survival.

Planet Earth is struggling to survive, and witnessing these great achievements encourages me to think mankind can rise to the task to save her. What’s needed is a vision we all can strive to achieve.

Leaving Dubbil Barril, we had a few hours before the afternoon trains started their second run, so heaving backpacks in place, we set a slower pace as the track now started to follow the King River. Immediately on the first bend and then along wider stretches were banks of pulverized lacklustre ruby rock trapping pools coloured yellow like watered down honey that had streaks of lurid red where the sun penetrated. As if hordes of bees had been boiled into syrup. Normally, west Tasmanian rivers aren’t clear. Everywhere in this region, rain passes through button grass or tea-tree, picking up tannin that stains it like weak tea or good whisky. But this river also has dirty foam floating down it and mud banks coated with bright sulphur yellow. Seemed unearthly, unnatural. A contradiction when our eyes rose up mere millimetres to the thousand greens of lush rainforest.

After walking the tracks for nearly ten kilometres, the sun began casting dark shadows down the western hills and then we heard the toot of dear Thomas chugging his way up the hill for the second time that day. Off to our left the map showed river flats leading to the “Quarter Mile” steel bridge crossing the King River, so we plunged into the bush to search for a campsite.

Finding our first camp proved easy. The thick bush quickly gave way to a wide flood plain of old mine material barren of trees. Over much of it grew thick, soft moss, with a column of saplings hiding the river. In other places lay piles of rotting timbers. Under the open sky next to a gnarled old stump washed down long ago, I set up our tent while Jude organised her kitchen. After that we took a walk along the river.

What an eye opener! That same yellow coating seen from afar stank like rancid butter. It coated everything; trunks, limbs off fallen trees, and numbers of discarded car tyres. Walking atop the heavily eroded bank that fell to flats of crushed mining rock, we were quite surprised anything grew as the air smelt acidic.

An uncomfortable night passed. Not that the moss wasn’t comfy, but just touching the ground gave us a feeling of touching poison. We made sure our hands stayed away from our mouths and cleaned ourselves thoroughly before slipping into bed.

Just after dawn, the maintenance train passed, and by the time we had eaten, dried the tent and broken camp, the morning tourist run had also passed, leaving the line free till after lunch.

Ten minutes from camp, we crossed the steel “Quarter Mile Bridge,” and filmed the original one washed away in the ’76 floods. Shortly after that we saw a sign announcing the next station, and were alarmed to hear workers and see another locomotive. Stashing our sacks, we silently slipped closer to see what was up.

Through understorey we saw two large trucks carrying huge Huon Pine logs – one more than two metres across – being loaded onto flat carriages. That had me remembering what Snowy Morrison had told us about State Forest harvesting remnant logs from the Teepookana Plateau.

Ol’ Snowy has been cutting Huon most of his life. When a boy, he felled trees with his father and grandfather, and Snowy had told us the biggest and straightest grew on the plateau above what was called Teepookana, now known as Lower Station. In years gone by, Teepookana was also where the ore was loaded onto ships for the journey abroad, and where the big Huon logs were rafted down to the mills at Strahan. Today, you can join a 4WD tour up to a forestry lookout and see what they call a demonstration plantation. Different methods of growing Huon Pine are being tried because they are the world’s slowest growing. Takes 1000 years to reach a metre across. When they were harvested they averaged 2000 years, and the oldest known was around 4000 years old. Plenty up on the Teepookana Plateau weren’t good enough for the ol’ piners. Bark inclusions, a bit bent, any fault, and they were left on the forest floor. But those pines don’t rot, a natural oil protects them. So, State Forest has hired contractors to dig ‘em out, up to 50 truck loads per annum, supposedly to sustain the industry. And as there’s no road out, the trucks come and go on the railroad.

Well, after the train chugged out the station, we moseyed in, took one look up the steep forestry track then dumped our sacks before hiking to the lookout for a picnic lunch. In fact, we also wanted to check that route out as a possible way to the top of Mount Sorell, because earlier in Strahan, I’d used Google Earth to search satellite images and had noticed forestry tracks to within a few miles of the mountain’s slopes. Of course, bashing those few miles through Tassie bush can still take days, so we hoped to get a better idea from the lookout tower.

On the way up, another two trucks passed carrying logs and limbs, straw yellow inside, grey and smooth outside, their drivers giving us a cheery wave while we calculated their loads could be worth a million dollars. At the sign welcoming us to the “Huon Experience” we studied the plot layouts then opted to first walk along the boardwalk which leads past several rainforest species to the lookout. What a lovely experience and very informative to read the names then see the trees and their leaves close up. In this way we became more familiar with the uses and growth patterns of Sassafras, Blackwood, Myrtle, and of course Tasmanian Blue Gum; tough, durable, particularly suitable for bridges, wharfs. Pale straw to brown in colour, it makes excellent flooring.

The lookout was raised on six poles well clear of the forest at the plateau’s highest elevation of 275 metres. I thought the rustic sapling railing up the outside stairs was downright dangerous, especially for obese visitors and those unaware that weathered timber is brittle. But inside it was spacious with views all round through tinted Perspex. Before us spread a ruffled forest to rising mountains and the magic of Macquarie Harbour to a far away sea horizon. Above our heads, an artist had drawn a silhouette with place names in their positions. And straight away we could see the route to Mount Sorell was fraught with difficulties. Thick, deep, green ravines hampered that route, and then Sorell’s closest slopes were clothed in dense vegetation.

While eating crackers and cheese, a noisy red helicopter kept buzzing round like a pesky March fly that I wanted to swat. Thrice round, it made a final approach then set down not far from us. Some time later, voices approached through the forest, and then we were joined by three mature aged visitors and their pilot Rodney, who we learnt was Snowy’s cousin. Straight off he captivated us with stories of his youth in forestry camps, only pausing to show us how to pick the drooping light green foliage of Huon and pointing to the Myrtle’s dark green crown seen low down near the understorey. He ended by telling us how Blackwood, a wattle, grows fast and tall to 35 m, and is easily found by their olive green, lance-shaped leaves that set them off from other forest species.

Mount Sorell - our next destination

When they departed, Jude and I took up the tower’s binoculars to follow their progress through the Huon Pine demonstration plot, watching Rodney show them the tiny scale-like leaves, spirally arranged on twigs. Clearing our lunch, we soon followed and read that Huon Pine reproduction usually occurs vegetatively; that is where a branch falls or touches the ground it forms roots and begins to shoot. Seedling regeneration does occur, but is less common as reproduction only occurs every 5–7 years, so Forestry are trying various cuttings, spacings and plant mix to see which grows the swiftest.

Back down the hill, we brewed a tea while the afternoon train made its stop, and then after it departed we saddled up to wander further down the tracks. Quite soon, bridge number 36 loomed, recrossing the King by way of a large steel truss painted a god-awful red. Studying our map, not much flat ground lay ahead, but across the river we could see another flat wasteland. But how to reach it? The truss on the far bank sat in a notch cut through a near vertical rock face.

After taken our usual dozen photos of us crossing the river, I raced ahead after detecting a faint line on that rock face. It proved to be an old time foot track, overgrown and crumbling in places. But enough, I thought, for me with my pack. Of course, a slip would prove disastrous.

Obviously, in yesteryear, hundreds would have combed these hills, and their paths still remain. This one tippy-toed round the face, then on to a moss covered timber walkway missing half its planks. Gurgling below lay Virginia Creek bordered by a lovely sandy beach, so I rushed back to help Jude negotiate the track.

What a perfect camp. We imagined it used by countless earlier workers, maybe even a favourite place for some to holiday as the creek poured pure mountain water into the putrid King and had a grand view over the entire steel bridge. In fact, its pink reflection off the black river kind of struck a sweet photogenic chord, especially when Thomas chugged home that night.

Well, the rest of our journey was sort of common. A very comfortable night after snapping heaps more photos of the green and red train crossing the bridge, its reflection mirrored in the river. And then a trudge along more railroad flats for a further seven kilometres, witnessing an increasing amount of pollution and waste. Until finally, under a hot high noon sun, we regained the road at the Lowana Station, about twenty kilometres all up on the tracks. Before us then lay the King River mouth, a tragic example of man’s lust and wilful disregard for our dear planet.

We can hardly say the folks back in 1900 didn’t know any better. They knew precisely what they were doing when dumping toxic chemicals and waste down a pristine river. But, money ruled. Jobs were at stake.

Jobs, jobs, jobs. So important. Some would say more important than Earth. Proof, Copenhagen. Politicians will debate, argue, compromise, and in fact do anything to hold onto power while the future of our children and civilization crumbles under waste and pollution.

Now I am just a man, not superhuman, nor an oracle. But from my travels I feel Earth is heading into deeper trouble and she’s rebelling. Resources and space are getting tight. Wars and terrorism are on the rise and quite possible will escalate to a scale that will put fear into every human life, unless mankind soon finds another way to govern that puts Earth First while sustaining our desires. What a predicament, I love children dearly and wish every one of them a wonderful full life, but I feel reducing our population will help solve the dilemma. It would give all a bit more space, including the wild creatures, and lessen Earth’s burden.

So long for now. Next time I’ll tell you about our second attempt to conquer Mount Sorell, a less mental, more physical challenge….

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jack and Judy,
    Great to hear your story of your walk. I've read a few of your bloggs and have really enjoyed them - so thanks. Empire Vale has had a good wet season and the mozzies are healthy. I noted that your house was still standing. Not that I had any intention at the time to check it for you. I was in Strahan when the Franklin Dam protest was on- maybe January 1982 - so I had some interest because of that.
    I hope you continue to have great adventures. I'll look forward to reading about them.
    Rick Cubis