Review: Ride the heritage rails on the West Coast Wilderness Railway in Tasmania
Queenstown's lunar-like landscape tells the tale of the mining boom that once gripped this part of Tasmania. But scorched earth soon gives way to verdant valleys and scenic vistas as you ride the epic West Coast Wilderness Railway.
The West Coast Wilderness Railway will have you travelling back in time in Tasmania’s rugged west. Ride the original rack-and-pinion line that once transported minerals from Queenstown to the port of Strahan. Choose from two classes of travel and enjoy live commentary along the way. Duration: 4 hours (approx.)
In the late 19th century, a railway was needed to transport the riches from Queenstown’s mines to the port of Strahan on Tasmania’s west coast.
Just 35 kilometres of track was required, but between dense rainforest, towering King River Gorge and, above all, Rinadeena Saddle’s steep gradient, more than one engineer said it couldn’t be done. Thanks to an ingenious rack-and-pinion rail system and plenty of hard labour, the copper, gold and silver made it to Strahan, and travellers can now enjoy a heritage railway adventure through Tasmania’s western wilderness.
There are a few West Coast Wilderness Railway tour options, departing from both Strahan and Queenstown. I’m on a half-day trip from Queenstown to the route’s midway point and back again — a journey that begins at 9am with a high-pitched toot and a slow, steam-powered chug-chug-chug.
As the original Mount Lyell Mining Company locomotive No. 5 pulls out of Queenstown’s covered station, passengers in the posh Wilderness Carriage take excited sips from welcome-aboard flutes of Tasmanian sparkling wine. We’ll soon enjoy canapes too, then fluffy scones and a simple lunch, served at comfy four-person booths by dapperly dressed steward Tom. He’s also a font of knowledge about this remarkable railway, which was re-born as a tourist experience in 2002 — forty years after the mines had switched to road transport.
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The slightly less roomy Heritage Carriages also have stewards offering commentary, and food and drink for purchase. Whichever carriage you choose to travel in, it’s air-conditioned comfort all the way. While the varnished wood, leather upholstery and brass fittings look 100 years old, West Coast Wilderness Railway’s carriages are actually modern reproductions crafted with old-fashioned attention to detail.
Every passenger gets a good view too — though perhaps the Wilderness Carriage’s best bonus is being able to step out onto the balcony at one end. On the outward journey I watch the track trail behind us in an archway of vegetation, and get a grand view down into King River Gorge. The loco switches ends for the return journey so mostly blocks the balcony view, but what a thrill to almost be in the driver’s seat amid the rattle and hiss of this venerable engine that could.
Our first stop is Lynchford, where the heritage station has been transformed into a minerals museum. Entry is included in the cost of your train ticket, as is the chance to pan for gold, but there’s really only time for one experience. Back on board, we soon sense an incline and the train latches onto the Abt rack-and-pinion rail between the two standard rails. This cog-like system gives the train enough traction to climb — and safely descend — Rinadeena Saddle, whose gradient reaches 1:15 (one metre rise for every 15 travelled). Standard railways are usually no more than 1:40.
At Rinadeena station, we take a close look at this clever third rail, peek inside a dark, disused mining tunnel, and look down at our train from a quaint bridge above the track. The next station is Dubbil Barril, and here the loco does its switcheroo from one end of the train to the other for the journey back to Queenstown. Briefly set free from her carriages, No. 5 thunders toward a massive turntable, stops in a noisy cloud of steam, then gracefully turns 180 degrees.
There’s ample time to experience this trainspotter thrill as well as take an easy rainforest walk along the loop trail beside the station. Lush ferns, moss and trees, including Tasmanian sassafras, look beautiful dappled in sunlight, but there’s no reluctance to leave when the ‘all-aboard’ whistle blows. We can’t wait to ride the West Coast Wilderness Railway again!
Cover image courtesy of Tourism Tasmania. Image: Rob Burnett. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Patricia Maunder has been a media professional for more than 20 years, and has worked in print, online and radio. Currently based in Melbourne, she considers the Canadian city of Montreal to be her ‘other’ hometown — having lived there from 2012 to 2016. Patricia has travelled in every continent except the one that’s beckoned since she was a child — Antarctica. A travel writer as well as an arts journalist, she enjoys culturally themed journeys and nature-based adventures.