Ride like the devil in Tasmania

One of the world's most incredible railway journeys chugs its way through the unreal landscapes of this remote island off the coast of Australia, Michael Williams reports
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The Independent Travel

When I told people I was coming to Tasmania, even seen-it-all Aussies, they said: "Ah, you'll like it there. It's like Britain in the 1950s." I was expecting a genteel sort of place with comfy boarding houses dressed with lace curtains.

It doesn't seem much like that as I stand blown sideways in the spray at the side of Macquarie Harbour in Strahan, on the windy north-west coast of one of the remotest places on earth. I am due to set out along the mighty Gordon River, which flows through the heart of one of the last areas on earth of temperate rainforest not yet destroyed by mankind.

I chug aboard the motorboat Wanderer II along the tannin-stained waters of the Gordon River to Sarah Island, set up in 1821 as the Guantanamo of the Georgian age, reserved for criminals too hardened even for the rest of Australia. Trunks of ancient eucalyptus, myrtle and Huon pines crowd in on the riverbanks, their branches stained like some Tolkien forest with dripping mosses, lichens and liverworts. The Huon pine trees, found only in Tasmania, are the second oldest living things on earth, some topping 10,000 years. "This one is older than Jesus Christ," my guide Kate says, pointing to a split trunk lying in the forest where we land. It, too, can rise from the dead, growing a new trunk to live for further millennia.

But just as you dream of floating into the unfathomable fringes of the universe, here is a little railway line in the forest to take you home, with trains hauled by 100-year-old narrow-gauge steam locos, built in Glasgow. Smoked salmon sandwiches and a glass of Hobart's finest riesling are served in the buffet car. No toy train this, though. Hewn by navvies against crushing odds through the rainforest and clinging by its fingernails to the mountainsides in harsh wet conditions, the West Coast Wilderness Railway is one of the most exciting train journeys in the world. It was abandoned in the 1960s but now, after a vast restoration feat, the venerable green engines puff and grind up 1:16 gradients on their rack-and-pinion track.

Simultaneously exotic and familiar, like so much else in Tasmania, it seems odd when I squeeze in for a cab ride to have to duck the giant "man" ferns draping their clammy fingers across the boiler. Otherwise, it's all comfortingly home grown. Driver Mark Tregonning represents the heritage from the Cornish tin miners who built the line and general manager Eamonn Seddon originally worked at the Ffestiniog in North Wales. "Can you see we modelled the terminus on Manchester Central," he tells me proudly on arrival at Queenstown station.

But there is no mistaking where we are. After the forest, the light returns to that ferocious clarity that you find in Tasmania like nowhere else. Locals credit the ozone hole directly above; maybe also because the air is the purest in the world. We know this because it is measured in a machine at the monitoring station on the north coast. The orange-coloured lichen covering the rocks below is nature's own litmus test.

Dark and light. As the writer Nicholas Shakespeare notes: "There is the Tasmanian light. And all over the island there are pockets of extraordinary darkness." The darkest moment was the genocide of the island's Aborigines – regarded by English colonisers as the most inferior race. I ask about "Queen Truganini", the last Aborigine, who died in 1896. Is her skeleton still displayed in the museum at Hobart? Apparently she has finally been cremated and given a decent burial at sea.

Dark, too, is the history of the fabled Tasmanian tiger – not actually a tiger, but a large dog-like marsupial with stripes on its back and large jaws. The last one was said to have died in Berlin Zoo in 1936 but there's no shortage of folk who claim to have seen them recently. At the Tiger Bar in the Mole Creek Hotel, over a Boag's lager or six, unofficial sightings multiply. The walls are covered with press cuttings, many from "Tigerman", who's published a book of tiger sightings. He reckons there could be 200 in existence. But, he claims darkly, officialdom wants to cover them up.

"Hmm," says "Wild Bill" Flowers, who takes me round the Trowunna animal sanctuary. "People like to think this kind of stuff because they feel guilty." He should know. He spends his life rescuing Tasmanian devils (inset), the small pitbull-like relatives of the Tasmanian tiger, whose numbers are being wiped out by shootings and a mysterious cancer of the jaw.

Bill pokes his hobnail toe in the mouth of a young devil, which flashes teeth that could break a human neck. "You've got to let them do this, or you can't return them to the wild. But stroke him," he says, picking the animal up ever so gently as it emits the blood curdling cry that led the original settlers to cross themselves and snuggle further under the bedcovers.

Bill thinks it not too late to save the devil from extinction. Maybe he's right. Somewhere, it is rumoured, scientists are trying to re-create a living tiger from DNA traces. Who knows: it could happen. Maybe it's something in the light or the air, or simply because it is poised on the edge of the planet, but there's a mystical quality to Tasmania. This is a place where trees seem to grow for ever, devils need salvation, and where the ghosts of Victorian railway pioneers live on in the rainforest.


How to get there

A two-week holiday in Tasmania with Tailor Made Travel (0845 456 8050; tailor-made.co.uk) costs from £2,745 per person, based on two sharing, including international flights with Qantas, UK transfers and all pre-payable taxes, 11 days' car hire, the West Coast Wilderness Railway trip and a Gordon River Cruise.

Qantas (08457 747 767; qantas.co.uk) flies from London to Tasmania via Melbourne for £868 return per person including taxes.

Further information

Tourism Tasmania (discovertasmania.co.uk).