The above map shows the winding mountainous road from Strahan to Hobart. It is 20 direct kilometres from Strahan to Queenstown but the road covers 40 kilometres. I had completed the walk via Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair in 1973 and one of my few clear memories is then catching a bus from Derwent Bridge west to Queenstown. I was shocked at the lunar landscape of the mountains surrounding the town where all the vegetation had disappeared due to the mining practices that began in the late 19th century and had begun to fade in the middle of the twentieth century. Now I was travelling the other direction 48 years later and I was keen to find out whether anything had changed in the mountainous valley where Queenstown was located. The view of Queenstown below shows plenty of greenery in the surrounding mountains but close to the town can be seen Mount Lyell and Mount Owen that are still bare of any green cover. It is taken from the west side of the town looking east.
One of the curious stories in the history of the West Coast of Tasmania is that when Abel Tasman was approaching the coast in 1642, he recorded in his journal that his compasses were not working as they should. He then noted, “There might be mines of loadstone about here”. Two days later the mountains of the West Coast were sighted. Two hundred and fifty years later, this area became known for a series of mining booms that brought great wealth to the mining magnates of the time but severe environmental damage to the region. The mining effluent from the mines of Mount Lyell entered the rivers around Queenstown and flowed all the way to be dumped into Macquarie Harbour. What might be a bizarre version of the Stockholm Syndrome is that some local residents have expressed concern that the slow revegetation on Queenstown’s surrounding mountains might effect the town’s famous ‘moonscape’ and thus negatively impact on the tourist trade to the town.
The transformation of Queenstown from mining to tourist town begins very quickly along the main road as it enters town and heads towards the commercial centre in Orr Street. We stopped almost immediately at the West Coast Wilderness Railway car-park so we could have a look at what appeared to be an extensive memorial area over the road from the town’s museum. The memorial to Queenstown’s mining era sits alongside the Queen River and models itself on a river metaphor as can be seen in the image on the left below. There are a series of plaques on rocks in this ‘river’ that commemorate major events in the town’s history. It all leads up to a pavilion that houses the two great emblems of the town, a huge boulder of copper ore and a large mining machine.
One of the significant rocks in the Queenstown history ‘stream’ is a small memorial to an event on October 12, 1912 when 42 miners died in the smoke-filled workings of North Lyell Mine. A fire had broken out at the 700 feet level trapping men there and in the tunnels below. The timber supports were waterlogged beams of King Billy pine believed to be fireproof. By late afternoon, 73 men made it out, but the administrators realised that the fire was smouldering in the timbers producing large amounts of deadly carbon monoxide. The subsequent sad aspect of the story is the suggestion that the subsequent Royal Commission was manipulated to avoid an adverse finding on the mining company’s preparedness for such events. A festival commemorated this event in October 2012.
From the town’s mining memorial we headed back to have a look at the impressive rebuilt town railway station that we knew was a significant factor in the new economy of Queenstown.
From the Wilderness railway station we strolled up the main street, finishing our walk at the impressive post office building, built in 1896. One of the sad aspects of the street was that we encountered no café that called us to enter and have our morning café. There were many buildings that weren’t operating, perhaps because of Covid times and the reduced amount of tourists from southern states visiting Tasmania. However, there was a contrary indicator in the Tasmanian Advocate of July 28, 2021.
A property boom in Queenstown driven by the Mt Owen mountain bike trails and an increasing desire to live in regional towns has led to concerns of a housing shortage. Latest quarterly data from the Real Estate Institute of Tasmania found that Queenstown property sales had surged by 60 per cent in the last year, and prices have risen 4.8 per cent, with the median house price now sitting at $162,500.
The above image is a photo looking up the main street of Queenstown to the barren hills that surround the town on the east. Below is the same street in October 1912 as crowds gather in the street looking for news of loved ones that haven’t returned from the mining disaster. The significant difference in the images is not just the crowd of newspaper readers, but that in the modern image, pine trees and other vegetation are now covering the lower slopes of these same hills.
It was time to continue our journey towards Hobart but I was intent on looking closely at the mountain landscape as we left town, hoping that it would remind me of my arrival in Queenstown in January 1973. While the lower slopes have been significantly revegetated, the prominent hill sides of Mount Lyell and Mount Owen still reveal their many hues of the clear rock face. Towards the top of the hill as the Lyell Hwy left town, there was a significant carpark with great views back over Queenstown; Spion Kopf lookout. We stopped and were very impressed by the quality of the information posters about the history of mining at Queenstown.
As a result of this informative stop, here is my brief summary as to what happened to the vegetation that used to cloak these mountains. After the discovery of copper in these hills, mining began in earnest. Apart from mining the ore out of the mountains, the next big issue is smelting the resulting ore in furnaces. Being a long way from mainland coal mines, the locals embraced a new ‘scientific’ approach that burnt the local pyritic ore in the smelters. The result of this process was the release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, a toxic gas that killed off what was left of any trees that hadn’t already been cut down and fed to the furnaces. The high annual rainfall then washed away any of the top-soil on the surrounding hills.
The Google map below shows the extent of the erosion on the mountain tops around Queenstown but no doubt, like vegetation returning after bushfires, slow growth is bound to start returning to the moonscape of Queenstown.