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.

A Short Northern Safari – The Last of the Dinosaurs & Rivers Through Parched Lands

Australian Age of Dinosaus sign at the Dinosaur museum and laboratory

Australian Age of Dinosaurs sign at the Dinosaur museum and laboratory

We made an early start from Porcupine Gorge. Squally winds had roared through the trees all night so we were awake early and took advantage of the situation. The road back to Hughenden was a downhill run most of the way assisted by a brisk following wind. Refuelling in Hughenden took only a few minutes and we departed this pleasant town for Winton, the remaining corner of the Dinosaur Triangle. From Hughenden it is a run of 212 kilometres over flat grazing land on a single lane sealed road with some wider passing sections. We made two stops, the second of them at a place called Corfield pronounced the same as Caulfield in Victoria. And like its differently spelled namesake it runs, annually, a race meeting with – you guessed it – a Corfield Cup. The town contains a pub, two houses, a rest stop and, of course, a race track.

We had spent time at Winton in 2009 during our Big Lap and although there are still things that we want to do they could not be fitted into this trip. However, we did fill one gap by dining in Banjo’s Bar where the park offers a nightly three course dinner and then enjoyed the entertainment of Suzie the resident comedian bush poet. A great night’s entertainment provided by a very funny lady.

Ruth meets a dinosaur

Ruth meets a dinosaur

The third corner of the Dinosaur Triangle is provided in part by the Australian Age of Dinosaur Centre located about 20 kilometres out of Winton. The other dinosaur highlight is Lark Quarry, the sight of the dinosaur stampede. But we saw that in 2009 and a repeat was not a possibility, or of interest for that matter. The turn to the Age of Dinosaur is on top of a mesa, or jump up, just 13 kilometres on the road to Longreach. Gravel starts immediately you leave the highway, so we followed the dusty road across the flat lands and up the jump up to the very adequate parking area. The facility was quite new and very modern. There is a shop, coffee shop and display at this sight. About 500 metres away there is a laboratory where restoration work is done.

Pastures toward Winton viewed from the dinosaur centre

Pastures toward Winton viewed from the dinosaur centre

The tour covers both locations but takes about 90 minutes and costs $28 each for seniors. This tested the level of our interest in pre-historic creatures. Coffee and cake won out. After partaking we returned to the low lands and made our way to Longreach. It is an easy drive. The road is reasonably wide and quite flat, although we initially climbed slowly from the Diamantina and then descended to the Thomson.

The road from the highway to the "Jump Up"

The road from the highway to the “Jump Up”

At a couple of locations quality facilities have been provided including regularly maintained toilets, spacious picnic shelters and enough space for overnight campers to keep out of each others hair. We arrived to find the caravan park in which we had  stayed last time greatly enlarged. We had a site with the caravan between ourselves and the sun. This was most welcome as the temperature was around the mid 30s by mid-afternoon.

Goos water levels in the Thompson River at Longreach

Good water levels in the Thomson River at Longreach

Our original intention had been to continue along the Landsborough Highway until it became the Capricorn Highway at Barcauldine. From there we had intended to visit the gem fields of Sapphire and Rubyvale before turning for home. But back along the road a bit we had changed our minds and decided to continue south. Well, south west actually. So on departure next morning, after a brief shopping excursion, we called to look at the well known, among its adherents, free camping area beside the Thomson River.

We found a few vans in a spacious area beside a river that contained much more water than we had expected. This is, of course, one of the wonders of the main waterways in the Channel Country. They have an ability to hold large pools of water for very long periods during hot weather.

Only one sealed lane but wilh well maintained shoulders

Only one sealed lane but with well maintained shoulders

The Longreach Windorah Road follows the Thomson River between these towns, although most of the journey the river is out of sight. This is grazing country, mostly cattle but with some sheep for wool and meat production. The road is mostly unfenced and there are numerous cattle grids across the road. We saw some stock but not much as conditions are dry out there and areas of pasture are rested regularly and for long periods, so the stock could be somewhere else on the property. Of the 314 kilometres length of this road, most runs through the Barcoo Shire. This remote municipality of just 460 people covers 62,000 km2. The Thomson River runs through its length and is joined by the Barcoo in the south. Jointly they become Cooper Creek which flows, sometimes, into Lake Eyre.

Stonehenge - the entrance to and a large part of the town

Stonehenge – the entrance to and a large part of the town

We paused for morning tea at the roadside and then continued to the mini town of Stonehenge. This tiny community of about 100 people has, of course, a pub but no store, and it has a caravan park. The council has installed power heads, an amenities block with toilets, showers and a washing machine. Visitors may stay by paying, by an honesty system, $10 per night.

Long term Indigenous water supply

Long term Indigenous water supply

Soon after leaving Stonehenge the road rose steeply and levelled to a plateau. There, by the side of the road, is a well that indigenous people used as a water supply for who knows how long. Water is visible about 25 cm below the ground.

Jundah Store with unknown photographer

Jundah Store with unknown photographer

All passengers need a drink

All passengers need a drink

The next town is along this road is Jundah, the adinistrative centre of the Shire. It has about the same population as Stonehenge but appears to be a bit more substantial. It has a small store but no obvious fuel supply. There is a school and a police station. A small caravan park operates providing an alternative to the free camping areas on the banks of the Thomson. Beside the park, which is also the war memorial, the council has built a quality amenities block for the use of campers and other members of the travelling public.

Vans at Windorah. Most are bound for Birdsville races.

Vans at Windorah. Most are bound for Birdsville races.

The road crosses the Thomson River at Jundah and continues through flat riverplains until the Diamantina Developmental Road is reached just east of Windorah. Which, of course, brings us to  the third of the three towns that comprise the urban areas of the Barcoo Shire.

The road out of Windorah to Birdsville. There is 388 Km of it.

The road out of Windorah to Birdsville. There is 388 Km of it.

Windorah is the last town before Birdsville which is 388 kilometres further along the Diamantina Develpmental Road and the Birdsville Developmental Road. The greater part of the 200 kilometres of the Birdsville Developmental Road is sand, dirt and gravel. Consequently Windorah has businesses that offer succor to both traveller and vehicle. Long term blog readers will remember our failed attempt to reach Birdsville via the Birdsville Track in 2011 when we were thwarted by rain. We have not had the opportunity to try again so you can imagine my feelings as I gazed along that part of the road out of town that I could see from the gate of the caravan park.

The caravan park is operated by the council and it is another low cost park. Just turn up and sellect a site and a council employee will find you and collect $10 per van or tent. The amenitius were solid but very useable. Surprisingly it was possible to produce a lather under the shower. Our visit coincided with the annual pilgrimage to the Birdsville cup. Most of our fellow campers were headed there together with most of the several hundred vehicles that we met as we travelled east over the next couple of days. We heard estimates of 8,000 to 10,000 revellers at Birdsville for the Cup. In a town with a permanent population of less than 300 this is not the time of the year that I would want to visit.

Windorah Hotel with parking meters

Windorah Hotel with parking meters

Windorah does not look to be a prosperous town but it must be. Every person who passes through spends money there. Most vehicles would need to refuel and many would top up supplies. The hotel offers rooms and cabins and there is another establishment that offers cabin accommodation.

Windorah shop with fuel pumps

Windorah shop with fuel pumps

The normal flow of travellers south on the Birdsville Track and west over the Simpson Desert grows annually. In addition, increasing numbers are travelling this way to the Red Centre through Windorah to Bedourie and Boulia and then over the Donohue and Plenty Highways to Alice Springs. Councils, understanding the value of the tourist dollar, are putting more effort into road maintenance which means more regular grading. The dust is much easier to take if it doesn’t have bumps under it.

Windorah has a handy information centre

Windorah has a handy information centre

We were were much impressed by the effort by the Barcoo Council to encourage tourism. Not only are the caravan parks inexpensive, adequate and well maintained but the roads are in much better condition than in the neighbouring shires of Longreach and Quilpie. The quality of the roads literally change at the boundary. Barcoo puts great effort into keeping the shoulders graded with soil packed right to the edge of the single lane sealed strip. This reduces the risk of damage to tyres significantly.The only thing missing from the three Barcoo towns that would be useful is mobile phone coverage. With this service available we would return and spend a while. The camping places along the Thomson and Cooper looked quite attractive.

This was to have been the last blog in this series but I have too much material that won’t fit in. So watch out for the final part of the story as we share our trip home from Windorah.