King River Kayak February 2015

Delightful excursion to a carpeted camp

“Hey babe, let’s do that kayak trip we planned,” I said reaching across the bed, giving Jude’s toes a tweak. “The four day forecast is looking good, a high’s coming right over Tasmania.” Sleep slow she moved across our bed and put her head in my lap then squinted up at our netbook. Stroking her hair, I continued my thoughts. “Trev’s got rafter pickups back to back, so he’ll be out of town and Megs will be flat out with her units full. Storm Bay and The Jane are going up river, so there’s nothing going on here and with Banyandah tied alongside the Wilson Pride, she’s perfectly safe.

Stretching slowly under the covers, Jude purred then simply asked, “How many days?”

“Let’s see – A day to Teepookana followed next morning by a walk to the plateau and forestry lookout, then a paddle up to the Quarter Mile Bridge. And I’d love to try reaching the gorge. Say four days, three nights. Megs might be able to drive us over to the river mouth tomorrow early. What’d you say?”

Throwing back the bed clothes, Jude jumped from bed. “Best get going then. I’ve a ton to do.”

glistening yellow slime

glistening yellow slime

In 2010 we filmed the King River, locally known as the world’s most polluted river thanks to a century of dumping mine tailings, sulphides, and heavy metal into what had been a pristine rainforest river. We captured macabre scenes of glistening yellow slime under lime green baby Huon Pines and silver grey acacias. But since that time the mine has changed hands and new regulations have come into effect, and now we wanted to see if the river had improved.

Local knowledge said the King River dam was releasing winter water to generate power for Victorian factories, and we were told the King sometimes flowed at 3 to 4 knots (6/8 kph). Too fast for us in our double kayak. Therefore I phoned Trev to ask if he had time to drive me over to Lowana for a look. Instead, Trevor said, “I won’t need the car till noon tomorrow,” and came over in his Patrol just before casting off. So as Stormbreaker headed across Risby Cove, I drove around the bay following the rail line and sighted him as he passed Letts Bay, and then again from the launch site at Lowana when Stormbreaker passed the King River mouth as I watched frothy bubbles pass at a leisurely couple of knots. “It’s doable,” I thought and raced back to start making it happen.

Next morning early, with mist still clinging to the forest and water, Megs dropped us off, the Patrol full with our gear and unassembled Green Machine kayak. So much stuff none of us thought it all would fit. A quick hug and group photos sent Megs off to work making beds while Jude and I stood alone hoping we’d not forgotten something hugely important. To Jude’s silent question, I mumbled something like, “I’ll walk back if I have to.” But we hadn’t.

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In a mere thirty minutes the Green Machine had taken form, bursting into life on the river mud flats. Another thirty to wiggle and cajole our tent, sleeping bags, kitchen and food into the vacant hull, putting our sleeping mats and water alongside our seats. One last smiling photo sent us on our way upon the cool river with thickly forested slopes before us.

Having not paddled for more than six months we were straightaway out of sync and dribbling cold water off the paddles onto our legs. “Right, Left,” I began to call from the back while Jude alerted me to snags and deadheads. Settling quickly into a routine, the river mouth disappeared, replaced by serene green and silence.

Glorious conditions - not too hot & not too cool

Glorious conditions – not too hot & not too cool

The drooping Huon Pine loves to drag in the water. River quality has improved from our visit in 2010

The drooping Huon Pine loves to drag in the water. River quality has improved since our visit in 2010

Once the hard work began, our river knowledge started to return and we found ourselves searching for back eddies and remembering to take the inside of bends and track up the whirls off sunken logs. As the forest grew thicker, drooping Huon Pines seemed to pop up everywhere, their needles dragging in the current.

It was nearly seven kilometres upstream to The Iron Bridge, where we had camped in 2010. I had recorded its GPS position on a map I’d prepared and could track our progress that morning. Halfway and weary with sore hands and aching shoulders we took a fairly long break on a sand spit that jutted out. Jude got out her sketch pad so I pushed through the shore bush and found easy walking flats under the forest of myrtles. Amazed by the collage made by its small fallen leaves, pure bliss set my soul free to soar like a wild creature, my fatigue soon forgotten.

Further up where the river narrowed we had to heave even harder on the paddles and suddenly something let go in my left hand. Every stroke brought intense pain and the fun turned to worry. I stroked hard with my right, but could only return the paddle with my left and Jude had to make up for our loss.

By the time the Iron Bridge hove into view, appearing even more faded and a strange shade of pink from around a green forested bend, my left hand had a noticeable swelling on its topside.

Our old camp didn’t look as appealing as it had in 2010. It seemed far more slippery with yucky mud and it was deep in shadow making it feel rather sinister. The small creek still flowed with tannin stained water that was sweet, so after refilling our water bottles we shoved off to reconnoitre the sandbank across the river next to the bridge. It was maybe fifty metres in length and a good three to four deep before the forest claimed the clearing, and would do, but did not impress. So we decided to push on up river, having to negotiate a small shale bed and rapids at that corner. Not much of a problem. Halfway along that straight, on the bank opposite the rail tracks I could see an open area golden in colour. Below it ran a tan sand beach that rose steeply from the dark molasses coloured water. Beaching our craft and climbing the bank I beheld a wonderful carpeted campsite. Open to the sun and stars, free of stones and rock with a few myrtles and acacias offering sufficient shade from the noontime heat (S42.19048 E145.43118). We knew upstream on the opposite shore and around the corner lay the Lower Landing Train Station, and from there back to the Iron Bridge used to be the Teepookana Township.

First sight of our carpeted campsite. Wonderful sunny location. Dry, easy access

First sight of our carpeted campsite. Wonderful sunny location. Dry, easy access.

Iron Bridge being positioned 1896 - National Library of Australia

Iron Bridge being positioned 1898 –
National Library of Australia

The history of the Teepookana Township and the railway line that once joined it to the outside world is tied to the mineral boom of the turn of the last century. The discovery of rich deposits of copper at Mt Lyell led to the establishment of the Mt Lyell Mining Company in 1892. Yet transport of ore from the Mt Lyell mines posed a major problem. Between the mine and the nearest potential port lay an expanse of rugged and steep terrain cloaked in thick rainforest. In the minds of many, such terrain seemed impossible to traverse. The German-patented ABT railway system was selected as the best alternative to overcome the difficult terrain of the King River Valley. A central cog on the engine engaged the teeth of a third rail known as the ‘rack’ which was positioned midway between the two outside rails. This allowed locomotives to haul loads over sections two and a half times steeper than was possible for conventional lines. In 1894, work commenced on the ambitious project. Four hundred men, many from Victoria, laboured under the harsh conditions. Morale was often low among the workers. In mid-winter of 1895, a stop-work meeting forced the contractors to offer reduced work hours and slightly improved wages of six shillings and sixpence for an eight hour day. The line was completed as far as Teepookana by 1896.

National Library of Australia

National Library of Australia

From the time that work commenced in 1894 until 1899 when the track was extended to Regatta Point in Strahan, Teepookana was a hive of activity. During the last years of the nineteenth century it was the fourth busiest port in Tasmania. At its peak, Teepookana was home to about 200 people. Most were railway workers.

Situated at the highest navigable point of the river, the township acted as a port facility for the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company. Two steamers, the Pioneer and Eagle, and over a dozen barges, or ‘lighters’, plied the King River, carrying copper for shipment from the Strahan port facilities and coal, passengers, goods and mail for shipment by rail to the copper mines. Buildings comprised a two story Royal Hotel, bakery, butcher, a police barracks, school, Mt Lyell workshops, stores and goods sheds. Today the remains of the once busy wharf can be seen along the bank near the Iron Bridge, while the six ton steam crane that once hauled copper onto barges now stands outside the Regatta Point Railway Station.

Iron Bridge and Teepookana wharfs 1899 Iron Bridge being positioned 1896 - National Library of Australia

Iron Bridge and Teepookana wharfs 1899
National Library of Australia

The Iron Bridge at Teepookana is one of only two pieces of the original railway track. The rock wall after Teepookana was the other original part. Teepookana is just one of a number of West Coast towns that never survived after the railway and mining boom. In 1963, after 66 years in operation, the Mt Lyell railway made its final trip.

Queenstown is a survivor like the Mt Lyell mine, which is now called Copper Mines of Tasmania. In its prime, Queenstown had a population of 5,000 people and the mine employed half of them. It was regarded as the biggest copper mine in the British Empire. Today, Queenstown’s population is around 2,000 and the mine is closed due to recent accidental deaths and employs only about 50 on maintenance.

More than an acre of open ground all covered in soft moss with Acacia and Myrtles.

More than an acre of open ground covered in soft moss with acacia and myrtles.

Our camp opposite of what had once been the Teepookana Township stood on a flood plain of mine overburden overgrown with soft downy moss. Straightaway we could see that the river water quality had improved. The yellow slime was far less. The forest touched the running stream. Moss flourished on the mine spoils. In 2010 we had walked with caution fearing the pollution, today we relaxed when strolling around the couple of acres of park like flat land and through the surrounding forest.

Sleeping heavenly upon a bed of soft moss, in the early morning the horn of the work train crossing the Iron Bridge evoked visions of Teepookana coming to life. Looking out our tent, mist clung to the slopes and shifted upon the ever moving river. Turning over in our sleeping bags we let the train clatter on into Lower Landing where Forestry loaded Huon Pine salvaged from the Teepookana Plateau. Much later, when the train tooted twice before starting its diesel for the return journey, I got up to boil water for coffee as the clatter of iron wheels upon narrow gauge rails echoed off the steep valley sides.

Lower Landing at Teepookana

Lower Landing at Teepookana. The track leads up to the forestry lookout, about a medium hard hour walk.

Originally our plans after hiking up to the forestry lookout on the plateau were to break camp then paddle up to the Quarter Mile Bridge. But in the wet, steep forested terrain, this carpeted campsite, too good to leave, decided us to use it as a base and just make sorties upstream. My hand still remained swollen and Jude was sure I should seek medical advice, but a few Panadol put it right so we set off paddling around the corner to a little landing sighted the day before. Changing into walking garb, putting on our boots, within a few dozen steps we came out into an opening in front of the Lower Landing Train Station just as the work train rattled in again, tooting to a stop with two flat bed trucks, now unloaded, on its two flat carriages. Blimey, what good fortune I thought. We’ll hitch a ride up the hill and not have to raise a sweat. But, alas, first one then the other waved us off as the trucks groaned up the rocky track leading to the Teepookana Plateau.

The work train takes two trucks out with loads of salvage Huon Pine.

The work train takes two trucks out with loads of salvage Huon Pine.

Oh, well. Off we trudged carrying our cameras, water, and lunch. From 2010, I remembered this hike as an hour’s heavy going with few photo opportunities until the lookout, so I set off to make it a workout. Passing the two apiary sites buzzing nosily, suddenly a laden truck lurched round a bend carrying a dozen dirty blond logs, followed shortly by a second one that stopped beside us.

A middle-aged man rolled down his window to apologise for not picking us saying today’s regulations made that impossible. “No worries,” I replied, and Jude piped in with her cute little grin that we knew that, but it’s always worth a try. It seems he was the forestry manager, sitting in for a sick worker, and that they hoped to do three trips that day. Only possible if they got out before the afternoon passenger train. And with that, he roared off down the hill leaving us to calculate the numbers of logs taken out. Each truck carried about 10 or 12 logs. Trudging uphill further our thinking concluded Forestry probably got a bit worried when the train operator pulled out in 2013, and now that a new operator had taken over, Forestry probably wanted to quickly get the remaining salvaged logs out.

Forestry Lookout atop Teepookana Plateau

Forestry Lookout atop Teepookana Plateau

It became overcast by the time we’d climbed the rather insecure stairs up the lookout for what is a magical view over the forested plateau to as far as Macquarie Harbour and inland to the grandeur of Mount Sorell and Mount Darwin. The different trees differentiated by various shades of green. From the top step of the platform we even found a weak phone signal to receive a few messages and a new weather report.

Dubbil Barril is the final train stop before the King River Gorge where the steep section begins. When two trains ran the tourist runs, one started from Strahan, the other came down from Queenstown. Meeting at Dubbil Barril, the special ABT locomotive was turned around to take the Strahan carriages up to Queenstown. We’ve been told that many years ago a young man living in the area ordered a double barrel shotgun from the mainland, forgetting to put his full address on the paperwork. Each day the excited young man would come out to meet the train, hoping for the delivery of his gun. As the months went by he kept checking, but became increasingly dejected. Finally, a guard recognised a package at the Strahan Post Office with ‘Dubbil Barril’ written on it and he was able to deliver it. After this the railway stop was christened Dubbil Barril.

 One of the ABT Steam locomotives of the former Mount Lyell railway on the West Coast Wilderness Railway,

One of the ABT Steam locomotives at Dubbil Barril on the West Coast Wilderness Railway,

Battling the current on our way to the Quarter Mile Bridge

Battling the current on our way to the Quarter Mile Bridge

From our camp to the next bridge is a three kilometre paddle through narrowing valleys and increased river speeds. And from that Quarter Mile Bridge, it is nearly seven kilometres to Dubbil Barril through some of the prettiest mountain terrain and also past some of the fastest river water. In a furious paddle our third morning, we worked hard reaching the Quarter Mile Bridge where just one look ahead told us we’d not get any further afloat. So saddling up and in walking gear we set off knowing the next train wouldn’t come for several hours.

Quarter Mile Bridge

Restricted flow increases the river speed. We paddled up to the fallen old bridge then went helter-skelter to get around it.

Still keenly checking out the river quality whenever a viewpoint looked down upon the riverbank, we stopped to record it on film to later compare with footage taken five years ago. It was pleasing to see obvious improvements in the vegetation. Even though the river may never fully be pristine again, at least Nature is returning.

  • Quarter Mile Bridge
    Current raged upstream of Quarter Mile Bridge - We secured kayak and walked.
  • Geared up for our 7 km jaunt to Dubbil Barril
  • No railing - certain death
    Bridges have safety grate, but no rails. It is a long fall to certain death.
  • West Coast Railway cutting
    Cut in 1895 by hundreds of hard working men in conditions that would make its cost prohibitive today.
  • Dubbil Barril station
    Dubbil Barril Station. The man on the poster at left, Mr Abt, designed the unique clog system for taking the train up the steep incline to Queenstown.
  • Puffing Billy blowing its whistle crossing the Quarter Mile Bridge.
    Puffing Billy blowing its whistle crossing the Quarter Mile Bridge.
  • Packing up our last morning
    Packing up our last morning
  • Packing the Green Machine
    Packing up the Green Machine to go home.
Hot and still at the King River mouth.

Hot and still at the King River mouth.

The King River runs into Macquarie Harbour, reputedly the second largest harbour in Australia at six and a half times bigger than Sydney Harbour (Port Phillip Bay is the largest). From our campsite to the river mouth was seven clicks current assist. From the river mouth back to Banyandah was another five of open water. Our last morning became increasingly glorious. Still airs and picture perfect blue sky highlighted the changing nuances of the forested slopes ending in the strangely golden sand and tannin water of the river, so we lingered and stretched out our departure till after lunch. What had taken four hours of paddling going up took only an hour and a half of easy leisure going back. By which time even the few hints of breeze had evaporated leaving the full expanse of Macquarie Harbour shiny and flat, easy to stroke across, except for the heat and our aching muscles. Every time Jude stopped her strokes, I quit too and we drifted, cutting a wedged wake through the flat shining water. I don’t think either of us wanted the delightful excursion to end.

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