The Wilderness Road

 The challenge of cycling from Hobart over the mountains to the West Coast is well summed up by ‘Discover Tasmania: A Cycle Touring Guide’, a small leaflet that has become our bible:

“The West Coast is vastly different to the East Coast. It’s rugged, mountainous, beautifully wild and has a temperamental climate. 

The remoteness of this route can be daunting for many and you must be well equipped to tackle the terrain.

The road from Hobart to Strahan is winding and brutally hilly at times. But it’s also beautiful and deserving of the challenge.

The climbs are not insurmountable but the descents are breathtaking!”

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Our route from Hobart to Strahan

Our first bit of ‘temperamental climate’ was the strongest headwind we’ve ever encountered. It became so windy that we were repeatedly blown to a standstill or knocked sideways into the road as we dragged ourselves up the River Derwent. Taking sanctuary in a bus shelter, we seriously considered turning around and sailing back downwind to Hobart.

After much debate and googling of terms like ‘long distance buses’, ‘large taxis’, ‘weather forecast’, we decided to struggle on at least to the small town of New Norfolk where we gratefully came across the Badgers Bike Cafe for a very welcome coffee.

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A bit windy

To his horror, Andy then discovered he’d left our ‘dongle’ 15km back down the road in the bus shelter. This is an important bit of kit … it’s an old mobile phone fitted with an Aussie sim card that we use to ‘hotspot’ to all our devices as a sort of wifi server.

Arrgghhhh … and lots of other expletives!

While Clare happily enjoyed a second cappuccino, Andy found a taxi to take him back to the bus shelter and recover the dongle, still on the bench where he’d left it.

Phew! 

Then on the taxi ride back to New Norfolk, he casually used the dongle to re-check the weather forecast for the 100th time.

Not phew! The opposite of phew! 

The first cold front of winter, full of even fiercer wind and rain stirred up from the Southern Ocean, had spookily sped up and was now going to cross our path much, much, much earlier than we’d expected.

We’d have to ride very fast across the hills to make it to Hamilton before it struck.

Or … we could take a taxi?

Yes … our friendly driver, John, would be very happy to take us to Hamilton. But … his back seats didn’t fold down so he could only fit one small lady-sized bike in his boot. And yes … he was the only taxi in town.

Ten minutes later, before she’d quite realised what was happening, Clare had been bundled into the taxi and driven the 40km to Hamilton. Somewhat surprised at her early arrival and dishevelled state, the elderly B&B owner took pity on her and lit a lovely warm fire.

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Andy though … had no choice but to get back on his bike. 

To start with all was sunny and calm as he climbed into the hills away from the river. He took off his rain jacket, put on his sun glasses and started humming tunelessly on what (surprisingly) seemed like a lovely ride.

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The calm before the storm

Then only 10km away from Hamilton the sky suddenly darkened as the cold front hit, hurling down rain and small piercing hailstones fired horizontally by 60kph winds. This was the same weather system that would later destroy a concrete bridge when it rammed into New Zealand.

That 10km took Andy well over two hours, mainly because he spent most of it sheltering in trees. However, it gave him plenty of time to contemplate an important rule of bicycle touring … don’t ever get delayed by losing your dongle!

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Fish and chips by the harbour in Hobart

Hobart had turned out to be a very pleasant place for a city-break especially as our son Chris flew over from Melbourne to join us. We poked around the impressive Salamanca market, enjoyed fresh fish and chips on the harbourside and hired a car to visit the haunting ruins of Port Arthur, a penal colony set up for repeat offenders.

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Port Arthur
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One of the convicts at Port Arthur

Best of all we went to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art.

Mona was set up by self-made gambling billionaire, David Walsh, as a ‘subversive, adult Disneyland’. It’s provocative, compelling, disturbing, shocking, enticing. We found ourselves drawn in by each exhibit with increasing curiosity. All three of us agreed … it’s worth coming to Hobart just to see Mona.

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Fat Car
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Human Art – he meditates there all day
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Not sure we’d have got far on this bike?

After a restful night in Hamilton we rode uphill to Tarraleah in much better weather and then onto Lake St Clair, the deepest glacial lake in Australia.

We slept in an old school that served the children of workers building a massive hydro-electric project in Tarraleah. Built in the 1930’s the village once boasted 100 houses, a police station, a town hall, shops, a church, a golf course and a school.

Hydro-electricity was and is vital for Tasmania not only for power but also for the identity and confidence of the state. But once the construction workers left, Tarraleah became a ghost town and was almost reclaimed by the bush until another entrepreneur rescued it and turned it into an activity centre and hotel.

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The hotel in a school
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Hydro-electric pipes

Good friends from Sydney suggested Pumphouse Point at Lake St Clair, an even more unusual hotel converted from a water pumping station built at the end of a pier.

Our friends were right, it was a lovely treat.

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The hotel in a pumphouse

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It might have felt to us that we’d been riding through wilderness for several days but the actual ‘Wilderness Road’ started at Lake St Clair and took us across the vast Franklin Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.

We left early to try and get to Queenstown before the arrival of heavy downpours forecast for the afternoon.

Riding across this world heritage area genuinely felt like a wilderness experience. There were no shops, no cafes, no petrol stations … just some of the most magnificent scenery we’ve ever cycled through. 

It was remote, raw and wild. And brutally hilly at times.

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Along the Wilderness Road

We crossed the ‘Great Divide’ halfway along the 85km ride, moving from the relatively dry eastern side to the much wetter west.

Weather systems from the southern ocean deposit over 2m of rainfall a year on the west coast, creating perfect conditions for thick temperate rain forest. Many of these ancient trees are only found in Tasmania … Huon Pine, Leatherwood, Celery Top, Whitey Wood, Sassafras, King Billy Pine.

The downpours predictably arrived and we got completely drenched just 5km away from Queenstown. It was like the taps being turned on.

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Brewing up before the downpour

A last breathtaking descent the following day took us down to the remote town of Strahan on the banks of MacQuarie Harbour, six times bigger than Sydney Harbour.

One of the reasons tourists come to Strahan is to take an extraordinary boat trip across to the narrow ‘Hells Gates’ harbour entrance and then up the Gordon River deep into the rain forest.

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Hells Gates

The boat tour also stops at Sarah Island.

On this tiny strip of land, seemingly at the end of the earth, around 500 of the worst offending convicts endured the toughest conditions imaginable combined with a brutal regime of hard labour and vicious punishments.

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Sarah Island

They had to build a wooden fence wall to stop the ‘Roaring Forties’ blowing the whole place away.

They had no fresh water, it had to be shipped in, so was heavily rationed.

The convicts had little shelter. Many slept where they worked.

Much of that work was sawing huge tree trunks to make ships. The saw was operated by two men, a ‘top dog’ sawing down and an ‘underdog’ sawing up. The underdogs were often waste deep in sea water and wore a hood to prevent the sawdust falling in their eyes.

The prisoners successfully protested that no underdog should have to work if the water was less than 8°C. Which means that 9°C was OK!

This put our minor inconveniences with the west coast weather somewhat in perspective.

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The old penitentiary on Sarah Island

Sarah Island only operated as a penal colony for 9 years until Port Arthur was built. Remarkably in the last 5 years a more enlightened regime persuaded these hardened men to manufacture 96 boats, known throughout Australia for their quality. All built from local Huon Pine which is prized for both it’s buoyancy and natural waterproofing. 

This included several large ships, the last of which was unsurprisingly pinched by the ten convicts left behind on the island to finish it. They escaped by sailing all the way across the Pacific to Chile.

This is brought to life each evening in a pantomime called ‘The Ship That Never Was’, now Australia’s longest running play.

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A dodgy cast member

Five days of cycling across the Great Divide from Hobart to Strahan took us 366km with 5271m of climbing. Now we find ourselves back down at sea level. To get to Devonport we’ll need to do it all over again, this time via Cradle Mountain.

Clare has decided that this is a thankless task and that Strahan makes a perfect end-point to her Tasmanian bike tour.

To her delight, she’s discovered a daily bus service from Strahan to Burnie on the north coast. There she’s planning to rent a car for a few days and enjoy becoming Andy’s support team.

In total she’s cycled over 1500km and climbed more than 17,000m.

Sometimes enough is enough!

This means that Clare has completed a ‘journey’ by travelling A to B from Devonport to Strahan. If Andy makes it back to Devonport he will merely have ridden a ‘round trip’!

Clare and Andy

12 thoughts on “The Wilderness Road”

  1. Dear Intrepid explorers, what an amazing trip you are having. Really enjoyed all the photo’s. I’ve heard from other that Tasmania is worth a visit and what you’ve done certainly confirms that. Just wondering what’s happened to your hair in that last shot Andy ?! Take care, all the best. John

    Liked by 1 person

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