A West Coast Odyssey | Exploring Queenstown, Zeehan and Strahan

A West Coast Odyssey

We believe there are few places in the world better to set out on a road trip than the Apple Isle and its criminally underrated West Coast. So, Lucy, Ryan and Chris loaded up their ute with bikes and snacks to provide you with tasting notes on the best trails and must-sees in the region.

The odyssey begins

If Tasmania is still seen as some hidden gem, its West Coast might be the rough cut diamond in the proverbial crown. Just a few hours geographically from the eastern seaboard, it feels lightyears away, like flicking through otherworldly scenes in a VR headset, but with crisp mountain air filling each nostril. The few roads that weave through the vast area that make up Western Tassie seem partly repossessed by nature — moss and dank foliage hugging the million curves through thick woodland and wide-open button grass plains. Moisture looms in strange clusters around hillsides as if the rain clouds themselves got lost admiring the view, and you’d be forgiven for assuming a short walk into the forest might put you face to face with a confused elf.

Explore West Coast TAS with Lucy, Ryan and Chris

West Coast Tasmania
We totally understand how rain clouds could get distracted when this is the view they have from above.
West Coast Tasmania
It’s hard to believe that dramatic mountainscapes like this exist in Australia, the flattest continent in the world.

Lake Burbury seemed a fitting place to stretch our legs as we neared Queenstown —a journey of about 4.5 hours from Hobart, assuming you aren’t constantly pausing to ogle landscapes along the way. You absolutely should, though. We pulled up at a boat ramp to watch light blaze through clouds over Mt Owen, casting its reflection across the lake’s shoreline. A warm West Coast welcome to the first stop on our journey, setting the tone for some genuinely outrageous sunset and sunrise action.

Queenstown, but not the one in New Zealand

There are no prizes for guessing where you are with a cheery ‘QUEENSTOWN’ emblazoned on the hill across the valley on approach to town — the ex-mining wilderness town equivalent of the iconic Hollywood sign.

We’d spoken with Anthony Coulson, one half of the RoamWild tour team ahead of our trip, about catching a ride to Mt Owen spur for sunrise the following day.

“Get to the Paragon at 5:30 am to see the pre-dawn colours.”

West Coast Tasmania
The Paragon Theatre is an old school ‘talkie theatre’ that’s been turned into a cinema/restaurant and the hub for RoamWild, your shuttle guides.
West Coast Tasmania
Welcome to Hollywood — wait, no. Welcome to Queenstown.

This was blasphemy to a group of night owls, but there was a feeling Anthony knew his stuff. RoamWild operates out of the incredible Paragon Theatre in the centre of town, a refurbished art deco beauty with a rich history and worth taking the time to stroll around if you get the chance. The team can accommodate special bookings for tours. If you ask very nicely, this may include a pre-dawn mountain mission like our intrepid group — or perhaps a civilised evening affair for an ethereal sundown.

Climbing the ’99 Bends’ in morning darkness as we left town, it was hard to know what awaited at the spur, with every possibility of gale-force wind and bone-chilling temperatures. Turning onto the private shuttle road is where things get unnervingly steep, pinning you to the seats like astronauts at launch. It’s more gondola than shuttle as you rack up altitude through Col-like bends. We hopped out at the top to a balmy and mostly windless mountain, though – with a crazy cloud inversion over where we’d stood the evening prior at Lake Burbury. Our man Anthony wasn’t kidding about the light show.

West Coast Tasmania
The early morning car sickness is worth it, trust us.

As we watched on, he explained RoamWild had been running tours here long before the multi-million dollar cash injection for MTB trails.

“We knew what was up there and how special it was, and after a lot of back and forth, finally managed to get permission to bring tours up here to take photos,” he said.

Unsurprisingly the business won the tender to run dedicated shuttles when the long-awaited MTB trails opened. The company quickly embraced the necessary diversification with a fleet of Shingleback Rack armed Landcruisers. The legends at RoamWild also offer rafting charters, taking in the stunning Franklin River and Mt McCall.

This was a day for bikes, though, and it was time for our overstimulated brains to figure out how best to get down this fantastic mountain. The Chamouni Traverse (so-called for its likeness to the French Alps, the ‘X’ conspicuous in its absence) takes riders across a stunning saddle to the flowy Long Spur (blue) or the white knuckle North Owen descent (black) — both of which descend the Linda side of the hill.

West Coast Tasmania
Descending Waterfall into the sea of clouds.

We opted for the Waterfall trail, a near 10km masterpiece typifying the riding experience in Queenstown: rocky, rugged and entirely remarkable. Its initial section of handbuilt goodness is a testament to trail builder patience of the highest order, with only boulders and handfuls of gravel as construction materials. Dirt Art has created something you won’t find anywhere else on the continent. Choose lines carefully, and you’re rewarded with a surprisingly flowy ride over an avalanche of expertly placed rock. We saw riders on hardtails pick their way down slowly, but a full-squish bike would help beginners unlock the best this type of trail offers.

It’s no secret to those here that Queenstown is a rainy place, so, fortunately, the mountains are composed of grainy, fast-draining rock and sediment often coloured with unreal tinges of pink and green. Where that little moisture remains, fragments of rock tack together to provide surprising pockets of grip as you lean into a turn, slapping a massive grin across your mug in the process. This could be termed ‘big mountain’ riding, meaning you can anticipate at least a little climbing. Though mostly downward in its trajectory, a notable switchback ascent on Waterfall will get the plasma pumping before the last, fast-flowing descent back into town.

QT (we’re short-handing now) is a bucket list place to ride a bike and a worthy addition to the fast-growing circuit of MTB townships across the tiny powerhouse of Tasmania. We have heard that a recent scientific report confirms there are more ‘YEWWWWS’ per capita here than in any other state in Australia.

West Coast Tasmania
Just looking at this photo has our heart rate at a solid 169bpm, how bout you?

It’s hard to imagine the conditions experienced by the town’s early settlers travelling through and working the surrounding mountains. Still, the allure of gold at Mt Lyell was enough to bring prospectors there in droves in the late 1800s. Where there’s gold, you’ll usually find copper, and mining became the key reason for the town’s lightning-fast expansion. If history’s your jam, you’ll want to stop by the Galley Museum — a dizzying collection of memorabilia and archival oddities spanning the town’s long history, from prosperity to hardship on seemingly infinite repeat.

Like miners of old plundering its hills for riches, you’ll find something should you dig below the surface in Queenstown. Namely, a world-renowned arts scene with artist-in-residence driven galleries like Q Bank or the biennially produced Unconformity Festival. Keep your eyes peeled for the vast murals emblazoned across disused walls when wandering the eclectic township.

We stayed at Mountain View Motel, one business evolving to meet the needs of the new tourism gold rush for Queenstown. With 86 rooms, it was once a stopover for weary miners. However, these days, you’re more likely to find jolly groups of touring motorcyclists or mountain bikers to whom the motel is increasingly catering. Rider and owner Toby explained:

“The plan is to build a pump track at the motel and accommodate mountain bikers better with a dedicated bike washing station and bike storage.”

West Coast Tasmania
The Unconformity is a contemporary arts festival in Queenstown, not what you’d expect to find in a remote mining town

Zeehan: home of the West Coast’s first MTB trail

You can structure your West Coast adventure in a million combinations, but our chosen trifecta took in Queenstown, Zeehan and Strahan —each decidedly different in feel. On to sleepy Zeehan for day two, suitably full of bacon and ready to sweat it out on the bike. Oonah Hill sits only five minutes out of the town and was the first purpose-built MTB trail constructed on the West Coast.

West Coast Tasmania
Fueled with a mountain of bacon, our fearless explorers are ready to ride.

A short climb from the car park lifts you to an impossibly picturesque ridgeline — button grass hills stretching to the base of the Heemskirk Range across the valley and a perfect white ribbon of gravelly singletrack off ahead. It feels like a trail created for a movie with clusters of vapour floating around a painted scene. Standing admiring the view, Lucy and I bumped into a seriously excited man on an e-MTB. Geoff was keen to learn what we were up to, and likewise, we asked what brought him here.

“I’m just doing laps of the trail and coming back up the fire road. You can do the whole thing on repeat with a motor,” he said, sweating somewhat in the 27-degree heat.

We saw him three times at various stages of the trail, each time buzzing that bit more. Livin’ the dream, Geoff!

West Coast Tasmania
There are more trails in the works up in them thar hill, and we hear they will be full of glorious techy goodness.

Unlike our new mate we were riding acoustic bikes, but the trail’s gradual climb and generous traverse capitalises on every metre of elevation, and makes for an approachable outing for any level of rider. It was completed three years ago in conjunction with Parks and Wildlife to provide Zeehan with riding on its doorstep. Huge plans are in motion, which includes joining it with another climb to allow riders to complete an entire loop, rather than the current point-to-point configuration.

We snagged a chat with Marcelo Cardona, head honcho at Next Level MTB and the team responsible for the extensive new works here, to hear about the outlandish plans for Heemskirk Range.

“We’ve been working on a trail to the summit of Mt Agnew (sister peak to Mt Heemskirk), which is a massively challenging place to build thanks to the huge boulders, vegetation and general layout of the mountains,” says Cardona.

‘Challenge’ might be understating things, given it includes a daily 12-kilometre slog of a commute by ATV for the machine operators flipping boulders at the top of the world. Building here is a triumph of logistics when you consider each digger’s fueling and service requirements and the million other things needed to safely build a trail on the exposed side of a Tasmanian mountain.

“The first of four pre-built bridges will be helicoptered in soon to connect hard-to-reach mountain areas”, says Cardona.

Evidence enough, this is no ordinary project, with a huge payoff in store for riders happy to grind up to look out from Mt Agnew’s 727m peak. They won’t be compromising on the descents either, with a stacked trio of options including a Green, Blue and Black returning all the way across the ridgeline to Piney Creek below.

When finished sometime in July 2022 (to avoid possible trail builder frostbite occurrences, according to Marcelo), the million-dollar project will mean access to wild loop rides ranging across 6km, 16km and a 30km backcountry epic.

We. Cannot. Wait.

It’s worth noting our visit to the region coincided with one of the hottest summers seen in living memory, a quirk of the La Nina weather pattern, which is responsible for drying Australia’s westernmost points while the east cops the wet stuff. All the reason the gang needed to hop back in the ute and head for the coast only 35 minutes away.

Spend the afternoon at Ocean Beach

West Coast Tasmania
Pretty busy today, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to find somewhere to sit?”

At a supremely chill 4km return, the newly cut Ocean Beach trail meanders through beautiful coastal trees and bushland, popping out at a postcard-worthy, almost deserted beach. It’s easily walkable, rideable for the beginner mountain biker — or as the West Coast TAS website suggests, you might want to bring your horse. Another example of Tasmania’s uncanny ability to blend riding bikes and world-class beaches once the pedalling ends.

Set out across the sea from here, you’d find a whole lot of nothin’ before you hit South Africa. But why do that when you can wade in a few metres and let the Southern Ocean soothe your poor sweaty legs?

Whisky and a painted sky in Strahan

Roadtripping can’t all be fun and games. There are sobering realities to life on the run, like deliberating which whisky is most delicious at Wilderness Whisky and Spirits in the heart of historic Strahan. I drew the short Strahan and selflessly offered up my taste buds in the name of science, helped along by the charismatic owner Roger as a guide.

“We travel around the state running our whisky and beer tastings when we’re not here in Strahan,” said Roger of their demanding lifestyle.

West Coast Tasmania
Yes those colours are real, how good is a sunset at Macquarie Heads!

A quick stop at our motel, and we were more ready than you could imagine for the seafood buffet with a vista at View 42 restaurant. Dessert and beer are best experienced from their picturesque viewing area, the absolute best place in town to digest a mound of delicious prawns.

Suitably sated, the sky had all the hallmarks of a sunset worthy of the quick drive out to Macquarie Heads. So, decision made, we shovelled the remaining chocolate mousse cake into our respective faces and headed for the coast.

“Tassie turns it on. Every. Single. Time” — My wistful take on Macquarie Heads.

West Coast Tasmania
Across the water, you can see part of the West Coast Regional Reserve, which contains peaks like Mount Darwin, Mount Huxley, Mount Jukes, Mount Lyell, Mount Sedgwick and of course Mount Owen — all named by Surveyor Charles Gould in the 1800’s. Each is named for a scientist who had contributed to the great scientific debate of the day, natural selection — which is also the name of the double black descent in Queenstown. Gould diplomatically honoured three scientists from each side of the argument.

All aboard The Big Red Boat

Pass through beautiful Strahan on a given day, and it’s hard not to notice ‘The Big Red Boat’ moored in the small marina. It’s a mainstay of the town’s tourism offering. The luxurious cruiser delivers you to Hell’s Gates, Sarah Island Penal Colony, and through the glassy dark waters of the Gordon River.

The World Heritage Cruises company has been proudly owned and operated by the Grining family for decades. Our tour was captained by the sixth generation Grining Sailor — a man of encyclopaedic knowledge of the town, its waterways and the mind-boggling history that defines it.

West Coast Tasmania
Land Ho! Captain, bring us into the dock.

Keen for a change of pace, and after some early morning storms, we decided to exchange our bike legs for seafaring ones on the cruise. First stop; the cheerily named Hell’s Gates at the mouth of Macquarie Harbour, termed for its narrowness and propensity for destroying the boats of poor sailors from yesteryear. Heritage-listed lighthouses hold sentry on both sides, and favourable conditions on the day of our cruise meant we were able to pass through as intrepid seafarers would have a hundred years ago. Yar matey!

Probably a bit late for Lucy to announce, “I get seasick surfing”.

The Sarah Island stopover up next is highly recommended for history fans, the morbidly curious, or indeed anyone wanting to hear more of the ungodly conditions endured by convicts when active as a penal colony. It’s beautiful now but certainly not a place you’d want to live in the 1820s — famous for hunger, freezing temperatures and ill-treatment endured by those accused of even the pettiest crimes. Expert guides provided by the tour are on hand to walk you through the various settlements and ruins of the island and to bring its grim past to light in vivid detail.

West Coast Tasmania
Exploring Sarah Island, a former penal colony that was best known for its brutal conditions.

Glad to be leaving the island on a cruise ship rather than a convict-built clunker, we made for the Gordon River at full tilt. The boat slowed to a calming pace as we cruised into the river’s opening and chugged peacefully along. Steep riverbanks of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area are thickly covered with ancient Huon and King William pine, often with a shroud of fog shimmering about the water’s edge. This is a special place, made even more so by the pod of dolphins who swam along the ship at times. Wildlife gold.

The final stop on tour is for a guided sticky beak around the Gondwanan rainforest that lines the valley, where guides are again on hand to pass on their generous knowledge of flora and fauna.

On returning to Strahan, the Big Red Boat drops daytrippers at another family-owned business, Morrison’s Huon Pine Sawmill, home to an almost mediaeval looking timber saw that chugs its way through salvaged hunks of hardwood with mesmerising precision.

West Coast Tasmania
Off The Big Red Boat, Lucy didn’t even spill her guts! A successful storm day.

Sand everywhere

Drive ten minutes north from Strahan itself, and you’ll find an anomaly — that is, if you’re not expecting a giant network of 30m tall inland sand dunes. We were here because someone had recommended Henty Dunes, but pulling into the car park was nonetheless surprising. Formed by the ferocious winds of the Roaring Forties lashing the West Coast, mammoth mounds of sand have blown in (and up), creating an alien landscape of sand and with the ocean glimmering far off in the distance.

Natural beauty aside, we embraced our human nature by hurling ourselves off the dunes and using our highly technical recycled signage as makeshift sandboards. If you have an enormous sand dune at your residence, we’re obligated to tell you not to try this at home.

West Coast Tasmania
A different kind of gravity-fueled fun, sandboarding on the Henty Dunes.

Just Can’t Get Enough — back to Mount Owen.

After a full day of classic touristing and almost entirely covered in sand, we opted for one last night in Queenstown before hitting the road back to Hobart. Admittedly it was no accident that it meant the possibility of a quick blast on the lower Mt Owen green trails. Conglomerate Creek is a meandering two-way link trail, while Ready Orr Not proved to be the perfect leg-stretcher with a brief climb and cruisey descent.

Why make the trip to the West Coast?

There is literally nowhere else in the world like Tasmania’s West Coast. You could spend a month climbing its many peaks, riding the jaw-dropping trails or paddling its mesmerising waterways and still come away with the feeling you’ve barely scratched the surface. From a chilling early history preserved by the many amazing colonial buildings and ruins of its convict past to an infinitely bright future as it welcomes new visitors with a hankering for something completely different – this is a wild place you’re going to want to see.

West Coast Tasmania
The West Coast may seem like a faraway place — because it is — but it’s absolutely worth the effort to get there.

West Coast Flow-itinerary

The sprawling remote nature of the West Coast at times meant unexpectedly long drives between places we hit on our road trip. We’d hate for you to make the journey and miss out on something because you underestimated the drive times between Queenstown and Zeehan or Strahan or the airport.

So, say you have a spare long weekend, here’s what we might try to fit into four days on the West Coast.

Day 1 Getting there

It will take you 3.45-hours, without stops, to get from Hobart to Queenstown or 2.5-hours from Devonport. Keeping in mind that the first shuttle off the rank up Mt Owen leaves from The Paragon Theatre at 8:30 am, it’s a slim chance you’ll be able to drive from the airport to Queenstown in time and still possess a valid driver’s licence. The same goes for if you take the ferry from Devonport, with its 8:30 am arrival.

So we say, take your time and enjoy the scenery getting out to Queenstown. Stop and do the 40min (return) walk up Donaghys Hill, Franklin River Nature Trail or Horsetail Falls. Check out The Wall, Lake St Clair National Park or the Geographical Centre of Tasmania, or stop at the Welcome Swallow Brewery or Two Metre Tall Farmhouse for lunch and a drink. There is so much to explore on this end of Tasmania; you’d be remiss not to make some time for it.

West Coast Tasmania
The West Coast is big, and there is a lot to pack into however much time you have in the region. Here’s how we would do it over a long weekend

Day 2 Queenstown

Day 3 Strahan — 45min drive from Queenstown

Day 4 Zeehan — 36min from Queenstown

West Coast Tasmania
Beers, a bench and waterfront views at the View 42 Restaurant — not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Wet weather options

The weather can be volatile on the West Coast, and there is a high percentage that it’s going to rain while you’re there — so don’t forget your rain gear. That said, not everyone wants to be drenched to the bone, so here are a few things to do if the weather throws you a curveball.

Extra credit adventures

If you haven’t worked it out already, the West Coast is pretty spectacular, and there’s no shortage of natural beauty. If you find yourself with some downtime, here are a few outdoor adventures things to check out.

West Coast Tasmania
Remember Charles Gould from earlier, you know the guy who named the mountains after scientists. He’s also responsible for the Chamouni Traverse. Gould originally named what’s now known as the Linda Valley the Chamouni Valley or Vale of Chamouni, of which the traverse from Mount Owen to North Owen lays on the eastern edge.

Producer, photographer, videographer, and drone pilot extraordinaire – Ryan Finlay

Host, writer, tour guide and not a kook on a mountain bike – Chris Sansom

Co-host, and a much better mountain biker than Chris — Lucy Mackie

This Flow MTB project was made possible with support from Tourism Tasmania.

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