Wild west of Tasmania: rain, wind and a warm dinner!

Today we are off exploring the wild west of Tasmania. 

Buoyed by the wonderful time we had hiking around Dove Lake, I have planned a morning hike to Montezuma Falls, then a drive to Strahan hoping to catch a boat for a cruise on the Gordon river after lunch, followed by another scenic drive thru the southern part of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park to spend the night at the  Derwent Bridge Wilderness Hotel. Google Map shows it should take over 3 hours to drive the 210km and I am allowing a couple of hours each for the hike and the river cruise. I think it’s a workable itinerary, Mr T has his doubts but goes along anyway muttering something about winding roads and rainy weather.

We skip breakfast, not by choice, but as a result of the kitchen opening at 7.30am, too late for us keen to hit the road early and beat the tour buses. It takes 1 hour to reach the small car park at the entrance to the Montezuma Falls hiking trail, then it is an easy walk on a track that was originally used for trams, back in the late 1800s when the area was cleared for gold and silver mining.

The path is pretty flat and well maintained,  and because the falls are a little out of the way and not as famous as Dove Lake, there are hardly any selfie stick-wielding tourists. The few who make it here tend to make it a day excursion from Strahan and arrive late morning, so I guess it pays to come in early so you can have the place to yourself. The hike thru the rainforest is lovely and tranquil, ending up at the base of the highest waterfall in Tasmania ( 104 meters ).

You can either climb over a few boulders for a closer look at the bottom of the falls or cross a suspension bridge for a better view of the scenery. Either way, it is spectacular and we spend a while there, until a couple of tourists arrived, our cue to return the same way we came.

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Overall, it took 2/1/2 hours to hike the 10.7 kilometres, I thought the day was off to a great start but Anne was unimpressed: she was hungry, there were too many bugs for her liking, the walk was too long… I had to promise a nice lunch at our next stop in Strahan.

Except that I remember reading about the Henty sand dunes on the way there, so I  ask Mr T to make a side stop. The picnic area is deserted but for another couple of tourists who have come equipped with large cardboards to slide down the dunes. We are so ill prepared compared to them, one look up the hill and both Anne and Mr T ask what is the plan once at the top. I shrug my shoulders, point to my camera and march on up in a who’s-with-me kind of way. The hill is not very high, though high enough for a good workout ( mountain climbers anyone? ) and considering how unfit we all are, I am pleased we all make it to the top ( though in hindsight, it might not have been such a smart move for Mr T who is still recovering from a pulmonary embolism! ). The view at the top is unexpected: it is a vast expanse of sand for a couple of miles, with the ocean far away in the distance.

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I cannot convince the crew to venture further out, by then the weather has turned quite windy and rain starts to threaten, so we retreat back to the car and look forward to a nice warm lunch on the river cruise.

Well, that was the plan, until we realise that the boats leave either early morning or mid-afternoon, neither options suitable to us today. Plan B is to try anyone of Strahan’s cafes near the waterfront, but that idea is shelved after several attempts to find somewhere to park the car that doesn’t involve walking in the rain.

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Besides,  time is running fast and Mr T begins to worry about reaching Derwent Bridge in the dark, so we do the Steen thing and pick up some provisions at the local service station for a picnic lunch and drive off. We did find a decent carpark on the way out of town, but too late, we have bread rolls, cold sausages, and apples, set for a car snack!

The drive to Derwent Bridge along the Lyell Highway takes hours. Google maps stated it would take just 2 hours to complete the 126 km journey, but of course, it was counting without the couple of stops we make along the way. 

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One is just outside the old mining town of Queenstown. We didn’t venture in the town itself, which was established in the late 19th century after gold was discovered in the surrounding mountains.  It became, and still is the centre of Mount Lyell mining district, had numerous smelting works, brick-works, and sawmills.  Owing to a combination of tree removal for use in the smelters and the smelter fumes (for about 40 years), and the heavy annual rainfall, the erosion of the shallow topsoil back to the harder rock profile has contributed to the stark state of the mountains for many decades and many describe the landscape as moonlike.

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Indeed the area looks devastated and bare of vegetation, showing odd pastel shades emanating from the rocks. We briefly stopped at the Iron Blow lookout where iron ore was found and mined for many many years in the now bare hills behind Queenstown. There is a cantilevered walkway that affords a view down into the former open cut mine as well as spectacular views across the almost ghost towns of Gormanston and Linda and on to the mountains of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area that surround Lake Burbury. As I stood at the edge of the walkway, windswept and cold, I reflected on the contrast between the ruined vegetation washed down by acid rain over the years and the millennial forest preserved within the realm of the National Parks. 

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Continuing on, the Lyell Highway is a narrow and winding drive via Tasmania’s newest hydro dam and trout fishery, Lake Burbury, then across 60 km of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area through the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park on the way to Lake St Clair. We pass many lookouts, starting points to hiking trails into the wilderness but we don’t stop due to time constraints and also because the rain is now relentless making getting out of the car for photos an exercise in frustration.

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It is late afternoon by the time we arrive at our final destination, the Derwent Bridge Wilderness Hotel. Located on the roadside, this lodge style hotel is a popular stopover for those travelling to and from the West Coast as it sits half way between Hobart and Strahan. It offers a mix of backpackers accomodation ( with dormitory rooms ) and hotel rooms, all sharing bathroom facilities except for one Family Ensuite which I am glad we booked in advance. While the room is spacious enough for a queen size bed, 2 bunk beds and a table setting, it comes with no fridge, the ensuite is on the small size and there is a definite lack of natural light with the front door doubling up as the only window.

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Mr T is feeling early signs of claustrophobia so I quickly usher him and Anne out of the room and into the bar and dining area. There, comfy lounges and a roaring fire greet us, though sitting is at a premium as most spots are already taken. You see, Lake St Clair is the starting point (or destination) for those who want to walk the Overland Track between Lake St Clair and Cradle Mountain.  The Overland track has a world-famous reputation and many trekkers from around the world stay at the hotel before starting or completing the track. So the place is filling up fast with hikers as well as people in motorhomes or caravans staying on the vast parking lot outside ( where camping is free ) and coming in to enjoy a drink and a hearty meal.

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For the hotel has earned a reputation for its kitchen, led by Sri Lankan chef Ima de Silva, who not only offers standard pub fare like porterhouse steak, lamb shank, and roast chicken but also local delicacies such as river trout and Ima’s own Sri Lankan curry which seems to attract curry lovers from everywhere. Of course, it is Mr T’s choice, jumping at the opportunity to enjoy something warm and spicy on this cold night, while I order the river trout. For some reason, Anne eschews the mains selection and goes for the chicken and vegetable soup. It turns out to be quite a large serve, made even more filling with the addition of garlic bread! 

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The lamb curry comes in its own bowl and accompanied with rice byriani, a fried soft egg, and crunchy pappadum along with daintily plated condiments. Mr T is wowed first by the presentation then by the taste, declaring it the best curry he’s had in a long time. He “generously” shares a spoonful after I ask for a taste, and I agree it’s pretty darned tasty. I leave him to lick his bowls clean and tuck into my river trout which seems a little bland in comparison to the richly spiced curry. Not that I don’t like it, I do, the fish is flaky to perfection, smothered with garlic herb butter and sitting on a tangy rhubarb sauce. Served with plain vegetables and a square of potato gratin, it is simple but deeply satisfying. I imagine the other guests feel the same though a quick look around the dining room reveals the curry eclipsing most requests.

We reluctantly leave the warmth of the main lodge and retire to our room, where thankfully sleep comes easy. 

The alarm rings at 5am the next morning, a result of me convincing Mr T to get up early for sunrise shots over Lake St Clair, 5 km away.

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Situated at the southern end of Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park, the lake fills a valley that was carved out by ice during several glaciations over the last two million years.  It is the deepest freshwater lake in Australia (160 m ) and the source of the Derwent River.  According to our guide book, spectacular mountain peaks covered in snow for much of the year surround the lake.  Sadly for us, a combination of bad weather and dim early morning light means that the lake and its foreshore blends with the surrounding hills and the misty clouds in various shades of grey. We’ve driven to the visitor centre so early that it is not opened yet so we are missing out on the displays and activities inside. On the positive side, we are ahead of the tourist crowds which allows us to walk around in total peace and quiet. The hike of the day is a short stroll to the dock, where a ferry service operates daily to cross the lake, something I would love to do but Mr T points out that we should have allowed 2 full days to enjoy any kind of hikes in the area. As it is, he has his eyes on the clock and reminds me that we have a 250 km drive to Port Arthur ahead of us. In theory, it should take no more than 3 1/2 hours but we have a couple of places to visit along the way so we expect a full day on the road.

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I wait a few more minutes hoping for the sun to break thru the clouds, exploring the shore trying to get a close-up view of Pumphouse Point, the definite upmarket accommodation option but entrance to the estate is via a heavy gate, which is closed overnight. Eventually admitting defeat we drive back to the hotel just in time for breakfast and a cute encounter with the local wildlife in the form of a wallaby or two. 

** We visited Tasmania in January 2018 and a few changes have happened since I started to write this post. The most notable one is that chef Ima no longer works at the Derwent Bridge Wilderness Hotel and has relocated to the Cape Wickham Golf Course King Island. The Hotel still serves curries, prepared by staff reportedly trained by chef Ima!

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