Our journey on this seventh day of our time in Tasmania was around 160 Kms from St Helens to Launceston. There were various places on our list to check out along the way but the first stop, Halls Falls, was a completely impromptu one; we had only been driving for 20 minutes. This area was significant in the history of St Helens as tin was discovered here in 1870 and became part of a significant industry in the coastal town. Georges Bay was a great place for exporting tin. The path into the water-fall has not been labelled one of Tasmania’s great short walks. It is definitely a beautiful short walk but I suspect the quality of the track has meant it hasn’t made the cut for the top 60
The information board at the start of the walk is informative as well as interesting. “Hall Falls lies on the Groom River and drops from a hand-made, nineteenth century weir located upstream from the waterfall. The weir remains from a time when Chinese miners worked the regions rich, mineral veins for tin. During the 1880s, tin was used widely for household utensils, including pots and pans, candleholders, oil lamps and lanterns. Preserving food in cans, first invented in the Napoleonic Wars, was initially a status symbol among civilians but became increasingly popular through the nineteenth century.”
We enjoyed this short walk through the tree fern forest to the falls. As we were conscious of time, we failed to walk up to the weir or take advantage of the continuation of the walking paths down the side of the falls and up the other side.
Our next destination was the small town of Pyengana which can be seen in the bottom left corner of the above map. This was the gateway to St Columba Falls. We needed a toilet stop and we discovered a huge public park here for such a small town that included an AFL oval, toilet facilities and a large area for free camper van parking. This is a great way to attract the Camper Van clientele.
The falls are about 4km down the beautiful Pyengana Valley and have made the list of the 60 Great Short Walks of Tasmania. This is a great recommendation as we had already completed one of these at Freycinet, the walk up to Wineglass Bay lookout which was a fantastic walk. The St Columba Falls are claimed to be the highest in Tasmania. It has a mountainous catchment which provides a continuous flow of water. The falls were discovered by a son of one of the local pioneering families, the Cottons, in the late 1870s, when he was exploring up stream from their property. Their property was named St Columba from the heritage of Margaret Cotton, who had come to Tasmania as an Irish immigrant on board a female convict ship. The name St Columba became attached to the falls through the connection with this property.
As usual, the facilities in the car-park were first rate, directing visitors down the walking trail through a canopy of Sassafras and Myrtle trees. It crosses two creeks on the way to the viewing platform at the base of these spectacular falls.
One of the tragic stories about the St Columba Falls and Pyengana valley came about in 1929 when there were record floods in the mountains that fed the falls. Large slabs of granite were torn from the cliff face of the St Columba Falls and changed its course. The floods also rendered much of the fertile river flats of the valley useless for farming for many years. They were covered with several metres of sand, gravel and logs.
On our plan for the day’s journey made the previous night, our next destination was to be the Blue Lake which was a turn off from our road before we reached our next destination for the day, Derby. We had been told it was a beautiful spot well worth visiting. The tourist advertising explained… “Little Blue Lake between Derby and Gladstone is a natural phenomenon resulting from the pioneering mining days in the area.” The website Atlas Obscura had more details. “Little Blue Lake is one of several in the area that is the result of alluvial tin-mining. When the miners packed their bags and left town, the pit was filled with water to become a recreational spot. Visitors are warned about swimming in the lake because the water is highly contaminated with toxic heavy metals from past tin-mining activities. The shores are used regularly for camping and parties. Signs warning against swimming are frequently removed by vandals.”
Given it was Covid times, I was wondering if these same vandals were protesting about Big Brother’s health warnings, presumably arguing amongst themselves that this was just another form of Government repression of free thinkers who knew better. I know I would have been tempted to go for a dip in the Blue Lake but we missed the turn and found ourselves in the hill-side town of Derby before we realised our error.
Since leaving St Helens we had noticed the large impact on the region of Tin Mining in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. This history continued around the town of Derby. In 1874, a large lode of tin was discovered in the area and a mine was started and the town set up. The mine was very productive producing around 120 tonnes of tin per month.
I mentioned earlier the damage to the waterfall and surrounds in Pyengana Valley in 1929. The same weather system had a similar impact on Derby.
“…thousands of tons of water rushed at terrific speed down the narrow gorge to the township, uprooting trees and moving boulders of many tons weight as it passed. The first warning was given, apparently by the Assistant Manager of the mine (Mr. W. A. Beamtish) as the waters came in sight, traveling at terrible speed, and so far as is known, Mr. Beamish, who is numbered among the seven men who were reported last night to be missing, was able to warn only those people who were in the mines office before it was overwhelmed, and he himself was carried away.” (Hobart Mercury)
The mine was closed and reopened five years later but production halted in 1948.
In 2015 a network of Mountain Bike Trails was opened in the hills around Derby and it was the promotion of this aspect of the town that we had seen on news reports and so decided to check it out. The main street of the town is situated on the side of a hill with views over the valley. We were able to get ourselves coffee and cake and bask in the sunshine as we figured out what sort of bike-ride we would engage in. Being a little beyond the mountain biking possibilities, we decided we would hire bikes and go for a ride around the lake below the town, Lake Derby. This isn’t the lake that burst in 1929 which is further up in the hills above the town (Cascade Dam). The best I could gather was some of the original mine workings were under this lake. This lake bike trail is accessed by riding down hill to the suspension bridge over the Ringarooma River.
This lake ride is a mountain-bike trail so was not as civilized as the park bike trails we were used to from back home in Brisbane. However it an enjoyable ride around this lovely blue lake.
Our bike shop guy also suggested we might be interested in the trail that runs from Derby to the next town along the highway, Branxholm. We decided this was a good idea and there was a standard bike path that ran alongside the Rangarooma River for half the journey. It was a beautiful bike-ride and we enjoyed the forest path greatly. The river turned north on us and we crossed over the Tasman Highway. We made it to the outskirts of Branxton but decided we needed to leave some time to make it to Launceston before nightfall. Driving through Branxton later, I had a pang of regret that we weren’t able to spend a bit of time in this old tin-mining town. There was quite a history of Chinese working the tin mines near this town.
We managed to survive our bike riding at Derby and eventually hit the road for the drive through the mountains to Launceston. We were staying three nights at Launceston giving us a good opportunity to check out the city itself and the surrounding attractions such as the Cataract Gorge and the Tamar Valley. We were staying in Kurrajong House B&B, a lovely old house built in 1879 that was on the top of the hill overlooking the centre of town. I can confirm our hosts were friendly and hospitable and our room was great.