A day at the museum

On my first day in Launceston, I did the most important thing everyone should do in the city: I visited Cataract Gorge. But being the wayward loner, I took the path that few people take—the Zig Zag Trail. It’s a short 20-30 minute hike from the heart of the city deep into the gorge, except that it’s not plain or mild as the normal, more accessible route (Cataract Walk). The Zig Zag Trail is an adrenaline-secreting, heart thumping, mind-refreshing hike. It’s just the right amount of challenging. I couldn’t help but write an entire post about it—go check it out. There’s also pictures.

When I came out of the gorge and back into the city, I was so full of energy and itching to explore more. As if I hadn’t walked enough that day, I decided to walk a handful of kilometres away from the city centre, across the North Esk river and into a small suburban-style precinct called Inverserk—not to be confused with its neighbour, the actual suburb of Invermay.

While wandering around the gorge, I saw references to the Queen Victoria Museum and Gallery. As much as I like history, when I travel, I prefer to be outdoors, gawking up at tree tops from below or lying down mountain-top rocks looking down at the trees.

However, at the Duck Reach Power Station, which is a good 45-minute hike from the gorge, I realised that Launceston’s history runs deeper than most other towns in Australia. And somehow, it seemed like the museum might be the answer to all the questions popping into my head. So I went to the museum.

Walking through the city couldn’t have been more distinct from walking in the gorge. You see, Launceston is a creature with a small belly and a big mouth. Which means that it gets a lot of traffic flowing in and out, but only a few remain. The city itself is smaller than Canberra in population—and Canberra is possibly the smallest capital city in the world. (Yes, Australia’s capital is Canberra—not Sydney. And it’s totally fine if you didn’t know that already.)

Every building I walked past was like a postcard from the 1800s. From the shape of the facades and writing on the walls, to the exact shade of paint between bright yellow and pale yellow —everything reeks of colonial times. Perhaps the most quirky thing of it all is that some of the street names are etched in buildings that stand as landmarks in intersections. That took me right back to my small village in a hidden pocket of south India where the population is fewer than 50 and the houses are at least a 150 years old. The only difference, though, is that I now stood in a first-world city where they used proper paint instead of cheap charcoal ash to distinguish the roads.

Taking it all in, I arrived at the great gates of the museum. Naturally, my feet dragged me towards the cafe, but I turned away when I saw the high-energy crowds. The result of spending a whole morning walking beside trees and running with the water is that I didn’t want to talk to people. I went into the museum—staring at things was a more alluring prospect.

poster at the railway workshop, QVM, Launceston

The main thing to know about Launceston is that it’s an old town. Like, really old. The first white people arrived in 1798 and the first colonist settlement was in 1804. But even before the white-person history, the land had been used and lived on for as far back as 35,000 years ago.

Launceston had one of the most comprehensive railway/tramway systems in Australia (thanks, British!) with tracks leading to and from all over the state. It was discontinued in 1950s because they didn’t have enough demand. This I learnt when I wandered around the tramway workshop—the original building in which workmen forged train tools and metal things (spare parts as we’d call them nowadays.) I stared at big, old engine systems, carriages, and even a full length tram with its old seats with holes in them and wall with scribbles. An entire section of the museum was carved out in memoriam of that once-great vehicles of dreams and cargo.

Moving right along, I came across the blacksmith’s workshop.

It was completely operational until the 1940s. Now, the whole building is bustling with sooty tools, twisted metal, and spider homes. It was like standing in the middle of a photograph—a worker’s jacket was on the chair apparently still waiting for them, there were iron rods and hammer heads by the vacant fire pit, resting until the heat engulfs them again. The more I looked around, the more I felt as if time had stood still for a moment, and that by some freak accident, I had been thrust into this scene and left to take in the incredible history that’s part of the city that tourists usually just drive right past. Here I stood, looking at everything that contributed to the city’s thriving and industrial past, and yet, there was not a single sign anywhere to indicate that there had been humans walking the same ground before the great white man’s arrival.

It was deeply unsettling.

And then it hit me: I’d spent two whole days wandering the heart of Launceston. Every building was a ghost of colonial past and British architecture. Every street reflected the settlement history that’s so significant to Australia. However, there was almost nothing even to acknowledge the aboriginal people who got here first.

I left the museum with a bitter taste in my mouth. It was hard to process how artfully we have ignored the oversized elephant in the room as if there’s no elephant at all. It’s as if they weren’t even there at all. And I realised that Australia has had years of practice making people feel like they didn’t exist.

As I walked back to my hostel, I stopped for coffee.

Important: A couple of days later, I went to the Queen Victoria Art Gallery, a few kilometres away from this one. It’s just another museum, really. And that one makes up for all the ignoring that this one does. I learnt so much about the Tasmanian aboriginal history there and felt immensely better after I’d been there. If you’re visiting Launceston, I definitely recommend visiting both sites. Separate post on the gallery coming soon. With pictures, of course.

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