Surrounded by mountain peaks almost completely devoid of vegetation – the result of more than a century of copper mining in the region – the town’s period architectural gems like the Empire Hotel hark back to the pioneering era, while the infamous gravel football field is proof that Queenstown continues to breed them tough. Those in search of Tasmania adventure will certainly find it in this corner. Here’s a checklist of six top things to do in and around Queenstown to get you started.
1. Take a mining tour
Queenstown’s mining history dates back to the 1880s when prospectors came in search of gold. When that proved elusive, attention turned to copper, and the desecration of the landscape began in earnest. Trees were felled in record numbers to fuel the copper smelters and acid rain and severe erosion bleached the ranges around the town. Today the damage is seen by some as a tourist attraction in itself, while others believe attempts should be made to rehabilitate the environment. RoamWild Tasmania’s half day Lost Mines-Ancient Pines tour is a chance to get a local’s perspective and learn more about the town’s mining and timber milling heritage.
2. Navigate the lunar-like landscape to Horsetail Falls
The barren slopes of Mount Lyell and Mount Owen that soar above Queenstown are strangely fascinating, and you can now get an up-close look at the landscape by taking the newly opened Horsetail Falls Walk. The carpark is located just before you reach the town of Gormanston. The two-kilometre return trek along a winding gangway offers plenty of time for reflection on the kind of damage mankind is capable of inflicting on the environment. It’s a confronting experience. The view of the falls during full flow is spectacular.
3. Go green on the Nelson Falls Nature Trail
If the Horsetail Falls Walk has left you yearning to admire something green, continue on through Gormanston and along the Lyell Highway, before pulling off just before the Nelson River. This is the start of the Nelson Falls Nature Trail. The walk to the falls through verdant rainforest that dates back to the Gondwana era only takes about half an hour, but it will sooth your soul and restore your faith in our ability to preserve pristine natural beauty. Remember that a pass is required to enter Tasmania’s national parks. Passes can be purchased online or from most tourist information centres.
4. Ride the rails on the West Coast Wilderness Railway
As the mining industry flourished in the late 19th century, a rail line was constructed between Queenstown and the coastal port of Strahan to carry the smelted copper to the outside world. To conquer the steep mountain gradients involved, the steam railway utilised an Abt rack and pinion system. The line fell into disrepair in the second half of the 20th century but was reopened in 2002 when tourist services hauled by some of the original locomotives began to operate. The half-day return Rack and Gorge tour from Queenstown to Dubbil Barril and the King River Gorge is a fabulous experience and shouldn’t be missed.
5. Raft on a river that’s returning from the brink
White water rafting on what was once regarded as Australia’s most polluted waterway may not sound all that appealing, but read on. It’s estimated that during the first half of the 20th century, some 100 million tonnes of Queenstown mine tailings were pumped into the Queen River, which flowed into the King River and out towards Macquarie Harbour. Aquatic wildlife was wiped out and the future looked seriously bleak. However, nature has a way of somehow healing even the worst of human-inflicted wounds, and a rafting trip with King River Rafting is a chance to see and learn about the very gradual regeneration of the King. Full day tours operate from Queenstown four times a week in summer.
6. Cruise the Gordon Wild River
Most visitors to Queenstown are either on an organised tour or a self-drive holiday. If it’s the former, you’ll almost certainly be visiting the former port of Strahan as part of your itinerary; if it’s the latter, Strahan is a 45-minute-or-so drive from Queenstown. Now largely a tourist enclave, Strahan is the gateway to the magnificent World Heritage-listed Franklin–Gordon Wild Rivers National Park and a cruise on the Gordon River is an absolute must-do. The cruise meanders gently through some of Australia’s most incredible untouched wilderness. The morning mist rising from the thick forest is something truly special to behold. A buffet lunch is included.
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has previously had the opportunity to travel the world as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten.