The Gordon River Road


Six degrees of acceleration

Getting acquainted on a first date can be awkward, but this one went quite smoothly

Words & photos: Elspeth ‘Gillian’ Callender

I was beginning to feel out of place. I work for a guy called Bear who recently asked me to pick up a bike called Griso from a bloke named Bomber. Of course, I’ve always been aware that, visually, the name Elspeth Gillian Callender is the letter-ary equivalent of a well-ordered bookshelf, but this latest situation was making me self-conscious. Perhaps it was time for a name change. I suggested Snakebite.

Or Ratsac. He just looked at me.

As it turned out, Griso had made other arrangements between the time we’d set plans and my arrival at our rainy rendezvous point of Shearwater Motorcycles in far north Tasmania, but Bellagio was free, so I took him instead. It was to be our first time out together and I listened to what his last date had to say: handles well on the corners and has a lot of torque. I came to think about torque in a new way while Bellagio and I were getting to know each other: that if you don’t select a low enough gear before a corner you end up feeling as though Grandma’s just given your BMX a good helpful shove from behind when you were least expecting it.

Bellagio was undeniably attractive on first impressions — handsomely stocky and compact with a naked look I find most appealing in a two-wheeled companion — and was definitely affecting the locals. Filling up near a busy corner just out of Launceston, we were thrown several appreciative smiles of a blatant shamelessness not seen since last I holidayed in Florence.

Pigeon-packed piazza?
So where were we off to, Bellagio was keen to know. To a pigeon-packed piazza for espresso? A leisurely roll across the Ponte Vecchio? I put a reassuring hand on his retro-styled matt-finished fuel tank and told him my plans: straight back to Hobart for a good night’s sleep then an early start for a day ride out to the Gordon Dam. Bellagio raised his side mirrors in surprise and I knew what he was thinking. It was September — barely spring as far as the Tasmanian weather gods are concerned, and unseasonably cold at that. I told him not to worry his pretty little pulled-back handlebars about it and we rode through the rain to Hobart that afternoon so I could relearn the lesson that wet weather gear is only useful when it’s put on as it starts to rain as opposed to after I’ve ridden for half an hour hoping it’ll clear. Especially in a cold climate.

And where was the photographer in all this? Well, I’d left him squid jigging up north, calling after me to not, under any circumstances, forget that I had a big machine to run and must remember to eat throughout the day. And not just pies and chocolate milk. I know what you’re like! OK, OK. So it was just Bellagio and me that left Hobart early on a clear, crisp morning and followed the Brooker Hwy (1) in a northerly direction from the city and took a left turn onto the Lyell Hwy (A10) at the point where the Brooker becomes the Midland Hwy (just before the Bridgewater Cswy). At Norfolk, there was a series of signs to Mt Field National Park that took us in the right direction through the town of Plenty. Alternatively, I could have stayed on the A10 a little longer and got onto the Gordon River Rd (B61) after Rosegarland, but didn’t. I just took the photo of the sign on the way out so it looked like I did. Did I write that out loud?

Anyway, awkward shifts in narrative style aside, three things happened at the A10 turnoff. First, the scenery began rapidly morphing into green-rolling-Englishy-agricultural-terrain or GREAT as we like to say in the Tragic Acronym Club. Second, the road took on a certain twisty feel — the type that makes you smile smugly beneath your visor because you know this is just the beginning. Third, it started to rain. As a consequence, another three things happened: I smiled smugly beneath my visor, pulled over to get into wet weather gear and fell over trying to get my left pant-leg over my right boot. Bellagio was right. It was time for a coffee.

Nowhere caught my eye — and I happen to be very good at finding good coffee, repetition intended — until I spotted the Possum Shed after the left-hand turn at Westerway. I guess they open at 9am this time of year because after I’d marched in demanding coffee without looking at my watch, a lovely, obliging woman made me one and then turned the inside lights on and put an OPEN sign outside the door.

The blueberry crumbles
The place was once a butcher shop (the old floor has been left as it was) and has since been converted into a café but has been the Possum Shed for only about a year. I didn’t spot any possums but did discover there’s a platypus nest in the bank of the Tyenna River, which the back veranda of the café overhangs. I’d already had breakfast in Hobart, but the photographer’s words were tap-tapping on my brain, so I ordered morning tea and enjoyed a delicious, albeit time-of-day-and-weather-inappropriate, blueberry crumble with cream and icecream.

The sun came out again for the short ride from Westerway to National Park (yes, don’t stare, dear — that’s its name). However, by the time I’d parked Bellagio outside the Mt Field National Park visitor centre so he could crowd-watch, had my helmet and backpack taken off my hands by the woman at the desk who, let it be known, offered to mind them AND believed me when I said my national parks annual pass was up north with a squid jigging photographer, and had walked out the back door to find I was on a bushwalk, it was pouring.

Luckily, I’d put my wet weather gear back on after coffee as an insurance policy and it was the ideal hiking outfit for the cold, wet conditions. Other walkers in soggy sandshoes and cotton hoodies were giving me envious sideways glances as we passed each other on the path that wound through the ferny bushland interspersed with Tasmanian swamp gums and into the spray of the gorgeous Russell Falls (Tassie’s first nature reserve, 1885) and around the Tall Trees walk. It wasn’t until I was on my way back past Horseshoe Falls that I felt a blister forming on one heel. Not bad.

I fuelled up in Maydena as advised and was glad I did because Bellagio was fuel-light-flashingly empty on our return (though there is fuel in Strathgordon at inflated prices). As we rode into town, Bellagio was keeping an eye out for a big servo offering disco and limoncello and we zipped straight past a small place with limited pumps and then another with a faded sign and then passed a hand-written board propped up outside a house on which was written, “Yes you’ve missed Maydena”. We returned to the faded sign for fuel, a pie and chocolate milk (OK, OK, I know, I know) and Bellagio wondered aloud if there might be an issue with the snow being down to 600 metres when the highest point of the road ahead was 651 metres. I told him not to worry his pretty little coal-black colour scheme about it and we set off.

“The motorcycles love it!” the woman at the Possum Shed had said of the Gordon River Rd in a way that was, unbeknown to her, most fitting to the anthropomorphic approach of this story. And I’m sure she was particularly referring to the bit from Maydena where it’s just you, the view, the bike, and the forests, scrub and moorlands you pass through. The scenery, regardless of the clouds sometimes obscuring the view, was positively magnificent, with snow-covered mountains ahead and to either side of us for much of the ride.

Newspaper shortage
Despite the signs warning of sharp corners ahead, wet when raining, slippery when wet, slipperier when icy, the chance of animals cavorting on the road to really throw a spanner in the works and that you might meet a logging truck, there weren’t warning signs for the cold. According to Bellagio’s gauge, the temperature range on this late-September day was 6–9°C. Bellagio thought about childhood summers on Lake Como to keep warm while I contemplated doing Dad’s old trick of shoving a newspaper up the jacket back when he was getting around Condobolin (NSW) on a 90cc bike in mid-winter. Then I remembered I didn’t have a newspaper.

A permanent sign at the highest point of the Gordon River Rd reports that the annual rainfall at that spot is 190cm. The highest rainfall in Tasmania is generally in the winter months and it rains, literally, 300 days of the year in Strathgordon, the town we were fast approaching. In 1969, the year Strathgordon was built, it rained every day for six weeks over August and September and legend has it that when the sun eventually showed its bright, smiley face, the glare off the quartzite gravel of the area was so strong that the Hydro felt compelled to issue the village children with sunglasses for their outdoor playtime.

Power to the people
Regardless of the weather, however, “You must ride this road. Quite apart from anything else, you’ll get a chance to see one of the most pristine wilderness areas in the world, right alongside one of the most egregious acts of environmental vandalism ever perpetrated,” The Bear wrote a few years ago before coffee abuse stole his eloquence. The Gordon River Rd takes you into the Southwest National Park and alongside Lake Gordon and Lake Pedder, but from the road you see only a tiny portion of the 500 square kilometres they expand over, under which lies this ex-pristine wilderness. Once upon a time, these lakes were a fraction of the size until the Gordon River Power Development created the largest freshwater storage in Australia and they now hold 27 times the volume of water in Sydney Harbour. Today, the Gordon Power Station provides around 13 per cent of Tasmania’s total power supply. So we can be glad of that, can’t we, Aunt Polly!?

Strathgordon itself is 161km from Hobart and was built as a construction village for workers on the HEC damming projects, though these days it’s a far smaller settlement made up of Hydro employees and chalet staff and, in some cases, their families. Hydro Tasmania has developed the area for fishing, picnics, barbecues, camping and bushwalking. After dropping in to the Lake Pedder Chalet for some tomato soup, a cup of tea, a scotch finger biscuit and an introduction to the resident pademelon, Frank, I travelled the remaining 12km of the sealed road to the huge concrete arch of the Gordon Dam.

The tomato soup and tea kept me warm until I walked the dam wall, then I was pretty much back to square numb with the return ride ahead. My level of concern about slipping off icy corners had seemingly been enough to keep us from crashing up to this point, so I resolved to maintain that minor fear, while Bellagio’s only worry was returning to civilisation half-caked in mud. I told him not to worry his pretty little twin overlapping silencers about it and, before you could say I’ve never been quite so cold nor so happy in my life, we were back where we began.

Well, that’s not quite true, either, but this is an account of a daytrip from Hobart and what really happened is behind-the-scenes need-to-know-basis detail. All I can say is it involved a well-heated inn halfway up the state, warm hospitality, the kitchen being kept open, fettuccine and green-lipped mussels, fine Tasmanian Pinot Noir, a good book and a great night’s sleep. Perhaps the name Elspeth does suit me after all.