About a 15-minute walk from Launceston’s centre to the southwest lies the city’s most famous attraction, Cataract Gorge. This location is a stunning piece of nature where you can escape the traffic and find yourself again.
The Gorge, as the locals call it, began forming around 15 million years ago when the South Esk River cut through faults in the hard dolerite of the area to join the Tamar River. It stretches over about 5 km from Kings Bridge at the mouth of the South Esk to the Trevallyn Dam, although the main part is the 1 km or so to the First Basin.
When you stroll along one of the hiking trails here, you’ll realise that it’s no wonder really that for the descendants of the Palawa, the Aboriginal people who lived in Tasmania for thousands of years before European colonisation, the Gorge holds special spiritual significance. In fact, when in 1847 a Palawa chief briefly returned to the Launceston area after having lived in exile at the place of sadness known as Wybalenna, he was overjoyed at finally being able to visit the Gorge.
Not much is known about the original inhabitants’ special relationship with Cataract Gorge. However, we know how the earliest known European visitor experienced this magnificent place. William Collins, who was one of the first settlers in Tasmania, explored Port Dalrympie in 1804 and wrote about seeing the Gorge, ‘The beauty of the scene is probably not surpassed in the world.’
Early colonial women would use the Gorge as a place to do their laundry and the Kings Bridge was constructed in 1867, but it was only in the late 19th century that the area’s potential for recreation began to be recognised, with the formation of the Launceston City and Suburbs Improvement Association. They were responsible for building the Caretaker’s Residence, the First Basin Suspension Bridge and the main track from Kings Bridge. They also oversaw the establishment of the Victorian garden at the Cliff Grounds, the bandstand and the refreshment area.
At Duck Reach a little upstream, a power station was built and in 1895 Launceston became the first city in the Southern Hemisphere to have hydroelectric power. In 1955 the Trevallyn Dam Power Station even further upstream was opened and the Duck Reach facility was closed down. Today it’s a museum known as the Interpretation Centre.
One of the great things about Cataract Gorge is the range of experiences it offers. For example, on the southern side, at First Basin, there’s a swimming pool and picnic area where peacocks wander around, showing off their magnificent plumage. Surrounding this area is bushland that is home to many native animals. On the northern side of the Gorge is the Cliff Grounds with its shady Victorian garden.
The highlight at the Gorge is the First Basin Chairlift which spans over 457 m. Its central span of 308 m makes it the world’s longest single chairlift span. The chairlift moves at only about 40 m per minute, so you have plenty of time to admire the views.
Foodies flock to The Gorge Restaurant to sample local fare in a fine-dining atmosphere. The Basin Cafe offers breakfast, lunch and morning and afternoon tea in more casual surrounds. There is a kiosk too, where you can pick up snacks and a drink.
You can get to Cataract Gorge by car, with the main car park located at First Basin. However, you can also walk from Kings Bridge. The main trail is known as the Cataract Walk and follows the northern side of the Gorge. A steeper, more difficult track is the Zig Zag Track on the southern side.
Cataract Gorge is open from 9:00 every day, including public holidays. Closing times depend on the season and entry is free.