I have always enjoyed railways and train journeys. As a kid it was spotting the different stations on the Bangor – Belfast train line. My home country of Northern Ireland is hardly blessed with a lot of train lines. I grew up about 5 miles from the nearest station, and my birthtown of Newtownards doesn’t even have a station. Somebody once asked me if Belfast has an underground system, I had to laugh at that idea. (Especially in the 1970s and 1980s when bombing was happening a lot in my country.)
I’ve been on quite a few train journeys over the years in a range of countries and cities, taking in various landscapes and lifestyles. Here’s some of my previous train journeys:
1. Belfast – Dublin (for concerts mainly)
2. Glasgow – Carlisle (for football)
3. Budapest Nyugati – Debrecen (visiting Noemi’s home city)
4. Ljubljana – Bled (Beautiful Slovenian countryside)
5. Beijing (The crowded underground)
6. Berlin – Warsaw (the famous party train of 2005)
7. Malaysia – Singapore (sleeper train)
8. Inter-railing through Europe (mainly Germany, France and Czech Republic)
9. The London Underground (the train I’ve used most often in life)
10. Paris – Marseille (in just 3 hours on the TGV)
But now I have a new one to add to my list and possibly the best one yet. I have traveled through rainforests, mountains and the overall general landscape of the western wilderness of Tasmania. Known as the West Coast Wilderness Railway, this is one of the longest train journeys you can so close to the south pole. It will take a story spanning a few chapters to write about my journey, so here in this post we have part one of an epic journey…
WEST COAST WILDERNESS RAILWAY PART ONE – LEAVING STRAHAN
I had stayed in Strahan the previous night. It had been quite peaceful and enlightening. Thunder and ghastly rain storms greeted me that evening on the dark west coast. Strahan is a nice wee town. I found a good place to sleep there. In the public car park right by the sea, by the estuary of the Gordon River. There they have public toilets and showers, a perfect way to relax and get up early to be fresh for the big day out.
I already had a lot of breakfast ideas stored in my car. I keep crackers and spread, cereal bars, cereals, milk (which I buy every few days), chocolate bars and cookies. I munch on a mixture of those,drinking my orange juice and saving a cup of tea for the special train journey ahead. I moved my car from the public car park (which charges you during the day time) to the concrete car park next to the tourist information centre for the day. Parking there was free, as the lady from the tourist information centre had told me the day before when I booked my ticket.
I had made my booking the day before, and was actually quite lucky. I literally had just this one day to do the train journey and they had a few seats left. It’s wasn’t cheap – but then it was to be some experience and a once in a lifetime opportunity so it had to be paid for. The cost was $129 all in which included a coach journey from Strahan to Queenstown, some time in Queenstown, and a 5.5 hour train journey back with many stops and surprises along the way including a full lunch. I was excited when I got my reservation paper from the tourist office. It was just a white sheet of paper with black writing on it. I had to exchange that for my train and coach ticket the morning of the trip.
So I got to the departure point in Strahan very early. The coach wasn’t due to leave until 9.30 am, I was there around 8.15 am. I came equipped with my bag of tricks. I had the usual suspects like my camera, my video phone, my wallet, more than enough food for the day (which in the end I brought too much), some magazines, my notepad and laptop. I had initially expected during a 5.5 hour train journey to have some reading time, possibly some laptop time to write my blog. BUT NO! There was no time to relax or stop. The journey was that action packed, I should have left my reading materials in my car.
What I did have was my notebook and pen which came in handy though as I made notes along the way, and am now able to compose this nine part epic story of Tasmania’s West Coast Wilderness Railway. I traveled alone.
On arrival at the departure point, I took some photos and the reception desk was suprisingly open and ready for the customers. They do all sorts of tourist attractions from the same place, Pure Tasmania as it’s known. They do boat tours, bus tours, helicopter tours, museum tours, mining tours and they do the West Coast Wilderness Railway.
The lady on reception took my sheet of paper, crossed it off and handed me back the receipt, along with a keepsake and the most important object of the day – a slipcase folder including my two tickets! One was for my coach journey from Strahan – Queenstown. The second ticket was for my magical train journey from Queenstown back to Regatta Point on the south west corner of Strahan.
A picture of a vintage steam locomotive was on the front cover of the ticket slipcase. Against a green backdrop of forested mountains, it bore the words, in typewriter style font “Experience one of the world’s greatest train journeys.” I was like a kid at Christmas (in the western world) as I opened it up to reveal my two tickets inside the folder.
I laughed at the name and spelling they had given me on the tickets. I had paid using my card and spelt my name out as well to the lady at the tourist office the day before, yet they had put me down as not JONNY, but JOHN. Mr. Blair John it said. I quite liked it. Jonny is a modern name and a rare one too. John is an old fashioned name. In my head they had simply warped me back a few decades, where my name was indeed John.
I was happy to be known as John for the day, change my accent and my attire. I didn;t have much choice (or want it) with my attire. I don’t have any old fashioned clothes, they’re too bulky anyway for a traveler. I had a current Northern Ireland football shirt and a year old pair of Soul Cal tracksuit bottoms on. But for the day I was John. All I’d have needed to be an old Northern Ireland football fan would have been a cup of Bovril, a pipe and a corncrake.
The ticket company responsible for the WCWR (I’ll use that as an acronym from now on for West Coast Wilderness Railway) is called Pure Tasmania. Their emblem features on the top left corner of the ticket. MY coach ticket read:
Mr. Blair John. Coach. Strahan – Queenstown Coach. Row C1 Seat 32. Monday 10th May 2010. 9:30 am. Adult.
By 9 am a crowd had developed at the departure point. Not all of them were on the train journey, some were doing boat trips. I had a seat outside the reception and the lady next to me (in a party of four) noticed my ticket. She hadn’t realised you needed a ticket, she thought her booking confirmation online was enough. So I helped her and told her to pop inside to pick up the tickets. I’m a person who likes material things in life. Doing something like this wouldn’t be the same for me without tickets, receipts, souvenirs, photos and videos. They all enhance my memories and experiences a lot.
In fact without them, I couldn’t be writing this blog in the detail that I do. I have all my material things here in front of me. A lively crowd had gathered by 9.10 am and I was clearly the youngest one there. Everybody seemed to be retired or pensioners, though there were a few couples in their thirties and forties and a few kids with them. There were certainly no other working travelers. There was also nobody else traveling alone, as far as I could tell. I felt good about that and I like to think the older couples respected me because I was unlike others my age who would blow the money on cigarettes and alcohol for a forgettable night, in exchange for a memorable train journey. I was once that young person blowing the money, too.
The coach arrived. It was a normal coach. White exterior. Clean and comfy. Although the seats where numbered, you could sit anywhere. There was only one spare seat on the entire coach the one next to me! I had chosen to sit on the back left thinking there would be nice views of the coach journey from there. An elderly couple were on the other side. They took a few photos of me and also let me put my bag up on the spare seat. We got to keep our tickets.
Within minutes we had left Strahan. A different way from the way I had meandered in the previous night. We took a right hand turn down Harvey Street and a left onto Reid Street which became the Lyell Highway, the B24 all the way to Queenstown. Even the coach journey was interesting and picturesque.
I have a basic digital camera, which is all I need really as I ain;t no camera expert. But I noticed a lot of my fellow passengers had these big bulky quality cameras. At times like this, these were a good idea. I tried to take about 10 photos from out of the coach window, but they were all blurred, no matter what mode I chose. The roads were narrow, long and winding. Yet tarmacked. It would have been hard enough to drive a coach full along them.
A documentary came on the television a few minutes after we have left Strahan. There are 37 kilometres between Strahan and Queenstown. The documentary detailed the mines and the history of the train line on the west coast. It began on the 26th June 1896. It was also interesting to hear that Zeehan, (a small town) at the time had a high population, the 3rd largest in Tasmania in 1900. This did confuse me a bit, as it just looked so small when I drove through it.
The coach journey lasted around 50 minutes, meaning we arrived in Queenstown around 10.20 am. Arrival in Queenstown was surreal. We were greeted with copper mines on the way in, beautiful mountains,a mid morning sun, sheds, barns and old style housing. It was sublime. John Blair had been timewarped. I didn’t have a watch on and didn’t want one. WE came in actually on the A10, which was slightly better road than the B24. We crossed the Queen River on a small bridge and we parked up on Driffield Street. Right outside Queenstown Station.
The WCWR train wouldn’t be leaving until 11 am. Although the coffee shop (Tracks Cafe) was open and ready to get busy, I felt that 30 minutes would be much better spent exploring Queenstown. I had a map of the town (it’s one of five town maps including on the tourist informations free Western Wilderness Guide) and it was small enough for me to see what I wanted.
Travelled From – Strahan Esplanade – Driffield Street, Queenstown
Transport Used – Coach
Distance travelled – 37
Highlights – Wilderness scenery from coach, arrival in Queenstown, old train footage on the documentary
Nationalities Met – Australian
Time period – 7 am – 10.20 am
EXCELLENT COPPER MINING DOCUMENTARY ON THE COACH:
COACH DRIVE THROUGH WESTERN WILDERNESS: