Destination Tasmania – Part 12 – Bass Strait & Walhalla

2nd to 5th March 2020

Our location for our last night in Tasmania provided a further benefit as we drove the short distance, through a morning shower, to the ferry. We had to turn at a roundabout that put all the traffic coming out of Devonport to catch the Spirit on our left, giving us right of way. But loading was still a slow progress as the ship arrived late from Melbourne. I felt sorry for the yellow coated attendants as they stood around in the rain waiting for something to happen.

Driving up the ramp to board the Spirit of Tasmania

We had another good Bass Strait crossing. The expected strong winds did not eventuate. There was a slight swell running through the Strait but not enough wind to produce white caps.

The wharves on the Mersey River and HMAS Stewart visiting its home port

We had travelled south on Spirit of Tasmania One and returned on Spirit of Tasmania Two. They appear to be identical twins and very suited to their task. We had no complaints at all about either of them.

The north coast of Tasmania sliding under the horizon. The flat coast does not suggest the mountainous nature of Tasmanian topography.

We had booked recliner seats for the return, as a cabin was not needed for a day crossing. The recliner seats are at the back of the vessel, facing towards the stern. There are four rows and the seats have full height backs so unless you are in the first row your view is of the back of the seat in front. So we spent much of the day in the top deck lounge where the view of the water was good and we were near food and coffee.

Point Nepean, the eastern headland of Port Philip Bay viewed from inside the heads

We reached Port Philip Heads in daylight and came up the bay as the daylight faded. We docked in darkness with the City of Melbourne a mass of lights ahead of us. Disembarking was a slow process as Melbourne’s peak hour traffic made it difficult for vehicles exiting the terminal to merge into the traffic flow.

Mount Martha and bay side suburbs of the Mornington Peninsula

But eventually we were moving and making our way through the near city streets to the Monash Freeway. Streets in the near city area have changed since we lived in Victoria and I was working in a near city location. Google maps didn’t have it quite right but we found our way to our hotel in Waverley, without too much drama.

Mount Eliza with its covering of prestigious homes

Friends who we had called on in Ballina on our way south were in Melbourne for a couple of weeks and staying quite near to where we were. So we arranged to meet them at a nearby shopping centre for morning coffee before we headed out to West Gippsland to where we were spending a few days with my sister and her husband.

A vehicular ferry operates from Sorento to Point Lonsdale

A visit to a supermarket indicated that the shelf stripping that we had seen in Launceston stores was more prevalent that we thought. We now know the full story, of course, but then we thought that the cause was the many Asian tourists with whom we had shared Tasmania. 

Empty shelves in a Melbourne supermarket

On Wednesday, after doing normal family catch ups, we joined our hosts and other family members in a day out into the mountains that are part of the southern Victorian Alps and lie to the north of the rolling hills of the agricultural country of West Gippsland.

Walhalla Town Ride. Left to Right: Brother Bernard, Sister Aileen, Brother-in-law Colin, Sister-in-law Helen (widow of deceased brother Winston) and Ruth.

Walhalla is a historic gold mining town about 90 km from Drouin. It takes about 90 minutes to drive there.  It is a well preserved heritage town with a full sized rebuilt railway that operates on several days of the week. It is popular with all ages and well patronised, particularly at weekends and very popular for school excursions.

The road bridge over the Tomson River

The original rail connection arrived in the mid 1920s, just as the gold started to be worked out and the town started its decline. In more recent years enthusiastic volunteers restored the line, rolling stock and infrastructure and volunteers continue to operate and maintain it.

Running along beside Springers Creek on the outward journey.

The final few kilometres of the road to Walhalla runs beside the Thomson River before crossing it to then follow its tributary, Springers Creek, to the town. Thomson River Station is located where the road bridge crosses the Thomson. It is to Thomson River Station that the train runs.

Walhalla Railway Station viewing outbound
The train ready for departure at Walhalla Station

The railway runs along Springers Creek opposite to the road and when fully operational turned downstream beside the river after Thompson River Station.  The ride is about 20 minutes out to Thomson River Station which is equipped with refreshment rooms just like the old days. The coffee was dispensed by a machine on the press of a button, so was not of coffee shop quality, but it was coffee and it was past coffee time by then. As we refreshed ourselves the train moved up the track so that the engine could be manoeuvred back to the front of the carriages for the return journey.

Thomson River Station with everyone aboard the train
The train about to move off to change the engine to the other end for the return journey
The Thomson River road and rail bridges viewed from the Thomson River Station

Train ride over, we drove up into the town and followed the main street as it wended its curving way through the narrow valley.  The commercial buildings stand beside the road and on the flat land beside the creek, but the rest of the housing steps up the steep hillsides. The accompanying photos tell more of the the story.

Trading continues in original and historic buildings in Walhalla

As you enter the town the mining area is on the left with convenient foot tracks and stairs leading to points of interest. We have looked at these before, when we were much younger. We had no difficulty in resisting the temptation to climb the steps that lead to the hillside path.

Band Rotunda, Star Hotel (closed) and a solicitors branch office.
The old Mechanics Institute building is now used for another purpose

The best known of the Walhalla gold mines is the Long Tunnel Extended Mine. Access to this mine has been preserved making it suitable for public inspection. Tours are conducted on a regular basis and have just recommenced following Covid-19 shut down. $20 will gain entry for adults or $15 if you rate as a senior.

Old buildings beside Springers Creek
More historic buildings that are still in use

From the train we had seen a group of teen age school children camping beside Springers Creek. As we came out of the pub after lunch we saw them again. They had made it back to town and had climbed to the hillside track to take a closer look at the mines.

The facade of the original gold storage vault
The stairway to the Long Tunnel Extended Mine

The only place available for lunch was the Walhalla Lodge Hotel which is a fairly typical country pub. The meals were generous in size and hit the spot after our train ride.

Out luncheon venue, the Walhalla Lodge Hotel
A more than adequate lunch for one
A Kookaburra waits patiently on the hotel sign. Waiting for scraps perhaps?
A moving record of part of our train ride.

On our way back to Drouin we made a detour to look at a house that our niece (sister’s daughter) and her family had just bought but had not yet moved into. Such are the interests of family visits.

The East MacDonnell Ranges

Our plan had been to take the van into the East and West MacDonnell Ranges and spend nights in various National Park camping facilities. But on our first morning in Alice Springs I woke with cold feet, so checked the Weather Channel’s app to find that the temperature was zero, but felt like – 3. The forecast made it clear that there would be no improvement over the next week or so. So the imperative become to find somewhere with electricity.

Fortunately, both areas have bush resorts with caravan parks attached that have powered sites available. So the new plan is fixed. The Ross River Resort for two nights, then Glen Helen Gorge Resort for two more and then back into Alice Springs for a final two nights.

Emily Gap from the north or "other side" of the mountain

Emily Gap from the north or “other side” of the mountain

We have covered this area before, but had missed some attractions through rain that had derailed our plans. There is, however, nothing wrong with a revisit or two. So for a start we revised Emily and Jessie Gaps. One of the unique features of the MacDonnell Ranges are the gaps that cut through them. These gaps take the form of creeks that carry water from the higher ground on the north side of the range to the lower south side and ultimately to the desert. Both flow into the better known Todd River.

Aboriginal carvings of  sacred catapillars

Aboriginal carvings of sacred catapillars

When we were here four years ago Jessie Gap was full of water but this year both are dry, as is Trephina Gorge, which was to have been our base in the area, until the cold weather sent us looking for electricity. As an alternative, we had planned to have lunch there, but the road in was quite rough so we decided to put the van on site at Ross River and return later in the day.

Trephina Bluff overlooks the gorge

Trephina Bluff overlooks the gorge

Trephina Gorge is worth a visit at any time. Trephina Creek runs a twisted course between rust red rock cliffs under the watchful eye of precipitous rust red mountains, including Trephina Bluff that provides a backdrop for campers. The mountains are decorated with green vegetation which includes white boughed ghost gums that really stand out against the vivid red of the rocks.

A very dry Trephina Gorge.

A very dry Trephina Gorge.

Four years ago Trephina Creek was flowing, but this time it is completely dry. But the lack of water allowed us to walk further along the creek bed and gain a much better understanding of the area above the gorge.

Ross River Resort is like Gemtree Caravan Park, in that it is situated on a sealed highway part of which becomes a link between two parts of the very unsealed Binns Track. In both cases a section of the Binns Track ends at the highway and it is necessary to travel a short distance on the highway to reach the next part of the Track.

A rutted start to this section of the Binns Track

A rutted start to this section of the Binns Track

Ross River Resort is an older bush establishment sighted around the original station homestead with basic accommodation in older style cabins. About one kilometer away, on the opposite side of the Binns Track the very spacious camp ground is almost tucked in between two mountain ranges. Facilities are basic but clean and everyone is friendly.

Mountains on the drive to Arltunga

Mountains on the drive to Arltunga

In addition to places already mentioned we had on our list the N’Dhalia Gorge which is only a few km down the Binns Track from Ross River and the Arltunga Historical Reserve, about 40 km to the north. N’Dhalia Gorge was scratched when I baulked at a water crossing where the track crosses the Ross River just near the camp ground. I am not confident with water crossings and found later that this one was OK, but by that time it was too late in the day. Arltunga was a different matter.

Arltunga Visitor Information Centre

Arltunga Visitor Information Center

The old gold town of Arltunga was the first European settlement in Central Australia. Explorers found what they thought were rubies so a ruby rush started. But the gems were almost worthless garnets. Two of the disappointed miners decided to look for other minerals and found gold. South Australia now had its very own gold rush. South Australia had responsibility

Restored managers residence at Government gold processing facility

Restored managers residence at Government gold processing facility

for Northern Territory at that time. The gold find and subsequent development of the town of Arltunga lead to the SA government deciding to commit to Central Australia. They established the town of Stuart the name of which was later changed to Alice Springs.

Arltunga was 800 km from the rail head at Oodnadatta. Miners had to find their own way along the route of the overland telegraph line to

Restored police station and lockup

Restored police station and lockup

Alice Springs and then travel through the East MacDonnell Ranges to Arltunga, a further 100 km or so, often pushing their meager belongings in a wheelbarrow.

Because the area is so isolated, when the gold ran out the residents simply left and the process of deterioration commenced. Nothing was built in its place. Buildings were constructed from the stone of the surrounding countryside so have been easy to rebuild. There is an information center that does an excellent job of telling the story and also supplies excellent maps and other material.

The now closed Arltunga pub

The now closed Arltunga pub

Buildings have been restored at the site of the government ore processing battery while the police station and lockup look ready for the return of officers and miscreants. Gold mining was both alluvial and underground. Two underground mines are available for inspection by those who remember to bring a torch.

Another roadside mountain range

Another roadside mountain range

The drive from Ross River to Arltunga is superb. The road goes through a pass that follows the course of the dry Bitter Springs Creek and then runs along adjacent to the northern face of a most picturesque red mountain range. Turning northeast it parallels another range of a different hue, crosses a plain and reaches Arltunga at the foot of the next range of hills. The gravel road varies from a few areas of vehicle destroying corrugations to smooth surfaces, but most of the way it was like most gravel roads – light corrugations that can comfortably be taken at 60 mph.

The Binns Track south towards D'Halia Gorge.

The Binns Track south towards N’Dhalia Gorge.

The East MacDonnell Ranges tend to be overshadowed by their Western counterparts, probably because the latter have more marketable features that attract the “been there done that” and the “bucket list” people. But I am more an ambiance person. I like just being in the East MacDonnell Ranges, because of the atmosphere that results from the colour, form and variety of scenery that makes the place so unique.