Launceston has evolved and spread out over the years from the intersection of three waterways. The North and South Esk Rivers unite and their combined waters form the Tamar River which winds northward, for over seventy kilometres, to Port Dalrymple and the open waters of Bass Strait. The South Esk offers one of Launceston’s most visited tourist destinations, The Cataract Gorge Reserve, most often called ‘The Basin’ or ‘The Gorge’ by locals. Can the river offer further adventure, beyond The Basin, without the need to leave the suburbs that form the City of Launceston?
The South Esk River, between Trevallyn Dam and the Cataract Gorge, has for much of my life been a destination for fun and exploration. I grew up within walking distance of a section known as Duck Reach. In my youth it was my swimming hole, adventure playground and escape from suburban boredom. It was an ideal location to bunk off school… allegedly. Further up river the Trevallyn Nature Recreation Area was a regular site for family picnics. A portable gas barbecue lived permanently in the cavernous boot of our old Holden Kingswood.
It had been my plan to complete the walk from Trevallyn Dam into town later this year, when the days grew longer and warmer. Then, with torrential winter rain, came the biggest floodwaters seen in Launceston since 1929 so I hastily threw some gear into my back-pack and set out to survey the scene of the dramatically rising waters. As it was not to be a return walk my first task was to drive into Launceston, from my home in Trevallyn, leave my car and hail a taxi to take me back up the hill to Trevallyn Dam.
(It is a 10-12 minute taxi journey from central accommodation providers with a fare of about Aus$15.00)
Since colonisation, the South Esk has been an important river for Launceston. There is plenty of historical evidence along the walk, of human endeavour to engineer the river for trade and public utilities. The most obvious is Trevallyn Dam, the starting point for my walk. The dam makes a small contribution to the state’s power supply by diverting water via underground pipeline to the Trevallyn Power Station. I have seen the dam overflowing on many occasions over the years but never with the fury of this day. Not just floating logs but entire trees were being drawn over and smashed into the rapids below. Rain was still falling so I did not linger for too long. The walking track begins at the entrance gates to the dam and the first leg is to the Trevallyn Nature Recreation Area, marked as the South Esk Track.
The river raging below could be seen intermittently and the path meandered through classic Tasmanian bushland of wattle, eucalypt, blackwood and sheoak. After an easy half an hour stroll the path enters the Trevallyn Nature Recreation Area. This is a multi-use area for mountain bike riding, horse riding, dog walking and general recreation. There is a large open A-framed shelter known as the Hoo Hoo Hut and viewing platforms situated to take in the view back up the river. Because of the activities within the area there are tracks heading in many directions. I cannot find any information on the origin of the name but the path to follow is Dead Man’s Knob track, yes really! My next stop was the long abandoned Duck Reach Power Station.
(Look out for mountain bike riders as it is a shared track.)
Operating from 1895 – 1955 Duck Reach Power Station was the first publicly owned hydro-electric scheme in Australia and with the introduction of electric street lights Launceston was considered one of the best illuminated cities in the country. The old power station still stands, it was retired at the commencement of the Trevallyn Dam, a monument to the engineering skills of Charles St. John David. In 1995, 100 years after it opened, the power station was partially renovated and the doors opened to offer an insight into its historical importance to Launceston. The footbridge across the river was also reinstated having been washed away in 1969, and previously in the great flood of 1929. As I stood alongside the old power station and watched this most recent flood of June 2016, lapping at the underside of the bridge, I was left wondering if it would not have to be rebuilt a fourth time!
The river had not peaked, and sensibly the footbridge had been closed, so I trekked back up the hillside to the Reedy Gully Fire Trail destined for The Basin. The fire trail meets up with the narrower Snake Gully track (there’s a clue in the name if visiting in the summer months) which leads directly into the top side of The Basin. Originally referred to as The Cliff Grounds, the top side of The Basin has the feel of an arboretum. There is an impressive American redwood and many mature conifers which were once seedlings sourced from Hobart’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Development of the area began in the late 1800s and records kept by the Launceston City Council show visitor numbers of 63,500 for 1904!
During the summer months the Cataract Gorge is a popular destination for tourists and locals. The lower side has a public swimming pool, first constructed in 1937, café, playground and an extensive grass area to relax and laze about on. Once-upon-a-time, 1969-94(?), there was an annual Basin Concert which would fill the area with thousands of music fans, so much so, people would dance the afternoon away knee deep in the paddling pool. On this occasion though the flood waters had inundated the entire area, pool and playground. Water levels peaked at just over ten metres above the usual flow! The volume of water fuming through The Basin was hard to comprehend. One of the best views of The Basin is from the Alexandra Lookout located above the Alexandra Suspension Bridge which, under normal conditions, provides a walkway across the South Esk to the lower southern side. The original bridge was opened in 1904 but it too was overcome by the 1929 floods. It was soon rebuilt and has remained in place ever since.
There was only one path available to follow the river from here on in. The Alexandra Bridge was closed and the chairlift which traverses The Basin was also out of action. The chairlift is touted as the longest single span chairlift in the world. There is 308 metres between pylons as you gently sway above the gorge while taking in the vista. Located within The Cliff Grounds is the Gorge Restaurant and Kiosk built in 1900. It first operated as a tearoom and was a more permanent solution to the ‘refreshments tent’ of the late 1890s. Nearby, built in the same year, the bandstand now houses some historical information of the area and below it are public toilets. From here the last section of the walk follows the earliest route into The Cliff Grounds for visitors. Along the way, and when the river is not so turbulent, there are several signs of the first attempts to make the waterway work for the then developing township. Remnants of the mill dam can be seen and on the far side of the river rusted metal framework still lingers, bolted into the rock face. The frames held in place wooden flumes which funnelled water from the mill dam downstream to Ritchies Flour Mill. The water ran the waterwheel, and because it was fresh, was a lucrative commodity supplying the town for many years.
It is not long before Kings Bridge comes into view, officially opened in February 1864 and widened with a second arch in 1904, the bridge connects the many households of Trevallyn to central Launceston. The very photogenic Caretaker’s Cottage overlooks the bridge and the now disused toll booth still stands at the entrance. The eyebolts, which held rope to guide the punt across the river before the bridge was in place, are still firmly lodged in the rocks below. Kings Bridge also signals the end of the South Esk River and the beginning of the Tamar. Across the bridge Ritchies Mill has been converted into an art gallery, providore and the highly regarded Stillwater Restaurant. The attached millers cottage is now a hairdresser. Opposite the mill is Penny Royal World, a recently rejuvenated tourist attraction of sorts, built within a large quarry which was integral to the development of Launceston. The quarried dolomite stone was used for road building and over 150 years later can still be found around town.
From Kings Bridge I made my way over to Royal Park and the Seaport, a restaurant and accommodation precinct built along the point where the North Esk River also meets the Tamar. The boardwalk path began to go under not long after I had walked it. This was the first real test of the flood levees erected over the years to prevent a flood such as this becoming a disaster. The good news is they were incredibly effective! It was time now to make my way back to the car and think about picking up my kids from school. With many stops for photos and time spent watching the torrents of water pass by it was a journey of about 4.5 hours. On a summer’s day though it could easily become a day adventure taking a break to swim, either in the river or pool, or enjoying a long lunch. The South Esk is an impressive river and there certainly is plenty more to see beyond The Basin. It begins on the south eastern side of the Ben Lomond plateau and wanders past the country towns of Longford, Evandale, Hadspen, Avoca and Fingal. The longest river in the state, Tasmanian Aborigines know it as, Mangana lienta, large stream with fresh water. It is certainly that and more.
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Map of Trevallyn Nature Recreation Area walking tracks. The history of Duck Reach Power Station and the engineering feat of Charles St. John David. There is an alternate route from Duck Reach into The Basin and on to Kings Bridge: Cross the foot bridge at Duck Reach to the southern side of the river and follow the Duck Reach Track into The Basin. Explore the area before setting out on The Zig Zag Track to Kings Bridge, Ritchies Mill and central Launceston. A guide to parks and reserves in Launceston. Historical references and dates were sourced from the book Health, Wealth and Tribulation Launceston’s Cataract Gorge by Paul A.C. Richards & Murray Johnson.
Dining and food options along the journey:
The June 2016 floods were some of the most destructive Tasmania has ever seen. Several lives were lost and while Launceston’s flood levees kept the floodwaters at bay the impact for rural communities has been devastating. This winter has been one of the wettest on record and the clean up will be ongoing for quite some time.