Michael Williams

The Wilderness railway on the edge of the planet


December 3, 2008 Independent on Sunday

Forget the Orient Express. Never mind the Trans-Siberian. The Bullet Train? Old hat, I’m afraid.

Here, in as remote a location as it is possible to find on the planet, is one of the truly great train journeys of the world. In a virgin rainforest, 9,000 miles from home, the British-built steam locos of Tasmania’s West Coast Wilderness Railway will take you on a 20-mile journey through the mountains to edge of the world – where the next stop is Antarctica.

Never heard of it? Well, why should you? Savage weather defines this lonely part of Tasmania. You must take a spine-juddering drive through rain-swept mountains from Hobart to the outpost of Queenstown – a bleak little copper mining town whose hard-bitten bars even Crocodile Dundee might be hesitant to negotiate.

But this is where surrealism kicks in. On the edge of town is what looks like a replica of the Victorian arched roof of Manchester Central station. And simmering in a hiss of steam is a spotless little tank loco looking for the entire world like something from a 1950s British childhood – a cross between Oliver the Engine and one of the more eccentric creations of Rowland Emmett.

But the little train with its claret wooden carriages is no toy. The line ranks among the world’s great masterpieces of Victorian engineering, sweeping up gradients of one in four, rounding vertiginous ledges and rumbling over scary trestle bridges past giant trees older than Jesus Christ. The locos, sent in a box from Glasgow as a kit of parts in 1897, are still going strong today.

Giant “man-ferns” clutch at the carriage windows as the forests of this World Heritage Area sweep across the hillsides into a remoteness literally untrodden by humans. But you can calm your nerves on the five-hour journey with a glass of champagne and some fairy cakes served at your seat. And muse on the work of Dr Roman Abt, who was not – as he might sound ­– a Ruritanian surgical appliance manufacturer, but the engineering genius who designed the cog system that allows the train to grip the rails.

Three promises. You’ll amaze even the most hardened gricer by having been there at all. Where else might you spot a rare Tasmanian Devil from a carriage window? And best of all, you can score points off Michael Palin when you get home.

There is one train a day each way for the five-hour journey between Queenstown and Strahan. Services run every day, except Christmas Day. Bookings can be made through www.westcoastwildernessrailway.com.au

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December 3, 2008 Independent on Sunday

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