As I change down a gear and ease my way into the steep curves leading up towards Tarraleah, I’m not quite halfway along the most interesting, scenic and varied day’s drive between Hobart and Strahan on Tasmania’s west coast.
Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace’ concert recording makes terrific road music, full of bounce, energy and (dare I say it) drive, it keeps me company as I follow the route that Hydro Electric Commission workers forged into the highlands to build their dams and harness the waters of the Derwent.
Cruising past Ticklebelly Flats, where Tarraleah’s married men built their timber huts back in the 1930s, I have almost the whole Derwent River running alongside me, confined in thick silver pipelines. At the crest of the gorge, the water splits into six penstocks and plummets downhill, hissing through the power station turbines on its way south to Hobart.
Two hours earlier, I’d driven alongside the willow-lined banks of the same river – and in half an hour’s time, I’ll reach the shores of Lake St Clair, the ice-carved source of the Derwent.
Tasmania is an island of lakes and rivers, so it’s fitting that my drive is so closely linked to its two great river systems, the Derwent and the Gordon. The journey begins in Hobart, where the Derwent meets the sea; and ends in Strahan, a cruise-boat ride away from where the Gordon, stained amber by tannins, mingles with the salty waters of Macquarie Harbour.
What I love about this trip is the way it captures so many of Tasmania’s defining characteristics. There’s the richness of the island’s colonial history, seen in the convict-built sandstone cottages of Hamilton; the industrial heritage left by the workers who laboured through harsh winters to build power schemes in the mountains; the glacier-scoured Central Plateau and World Heritage Area wilderness; the contrasts of Queenstown, where boom-and-bust mining stories jostle with contemporary art and culture; and the rollicking past of Strahan, harbourside town of piners, miners and fishermen.
But back to the journey – at Lake St Clair, I’m only half-way to my destination. Now the road plunges deep into wild country, running through plains of tawny buttongrass, descending into Surprise Valley through the section that the first road surveyor described as ‘damned nasty little hills’ and crossing the wind-ruffled Lake Burbury.
There’s a lofty mountain range ahead and the highway itself is sealed but there are rocks aplenty on either side during the bleak and dramatic approach to Queenstown.
MORE STORIES YOU’LL LOVE …
- Tasmania by motorhome
- History, hikes and wineries of Tasmania
- Australia’s marvellous national parks
- Classic must-do Australian road trips
The Mt Lyell copper mine has long been the town’s lifeblood, but in the early days the wealth took a toll – the rainforest was cleared to fire the smelters and their toxic fumes killed the rest of the vegetation. Ninety-nine amazing hairpins descend past the mine through a moonscape of rocky red hills, splashed with spreading patches of green.
Beyond Queenstown, the route winds towards the West Coast and the port of Strahan. The wharf is a jumble of cruise boats, cray boats, seaplanes and schooners.
How to get there
Without taking any breaks (and that’s definitely not the way to go), it’s a four-hour, 288-kilometre drive from Hobart to Strahan. The Lyell Highway is sealed all the way. There are some steep and winding sections, particularly the spectacular descent into Queenstown. Snow and ice occasionally close the road.
Don’t make the mistake of spending most of the day at Hobart’s Salamanca Market, then leaving for Strahan in mid-afternoon. Ideally, plan to make it a full day’s journey, allowing plenty of time to stop at places of interest – the Wall in the Wilderness at Derwent Bridge and Lake St Clair are two essentials.
There are also several clearly-marked, short and easy roadside walks in the World Heritage Area – highly recommended as a chance to stretch your legs and experience a close encounter with the wilderness.