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21 October 2012

THE WILD WEST - Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival 2012

Last weekend I went to Queenstown for the 2012 Heritage and Arts Festival. 

This year is the centenary of Tasmania's worst mine disaster. Forty two miners lost their lives when a pump house fire in the North Lyell copper mine filled the shafts with toxic carbon monoxide. More than fifty men were trapped a thousand feet underground for more than a hundred days before they could be rescued, and there are many tales of tragedy and heroism to be commemorated.

The first event I attended was the unveiling of a memorial plaque to Albert Gadd. He was one of the lucky ones able to get to the surface when the mine filled with toxic fumes. Then he turned round again and went back down in vain attempts to rescue his workmates.

Crowd at the unveiling; a typical Queenstown day. Why did I leave my umbrella at home?

Tim interviews members of the Gadd family for the ABC

The only transport to and from Queenstown in 1912 was by rail. Experts and rescue equipment, including emergency breathing apparatus, were rushed from Strahan and Burnie by train, some having first to come by steamship from Melbourne. This weekend the West Coast Wilderness Railway was busy re-enacting events and taking visitors to Rinadeena for Devonshire Tea.  

On Friday morning the train took a specially reconstructed funeral car to the cemetery for a memorial service. This stone marks the mass grave of the forty two miners who died.

On Friday evening stallholders set up bain-maries under the wide verandahs in Orr St and the huge marquee covering the street was packed with happy diners. Later, after a very moving lantern parade down Orr St to the station, bands performed.

The Hobart-based Grass Roots Trade Union Choir cheered everyone up with an enthusiastic performance accompanied as required by piano accordion, harmonica and guitar played by choir members and ending with a good, rousing version of Solidarity – The Union Makes Us Strong, with the audience joining in the chorus.

There really wasn't enough light to photograph the
Grass Roots Trade Union Choir, but I tried anyway.
They were followed by Alma de Vida, a Flamenco/jazz group, and I have been told a very prominent politician was seen dancing with some of the artists exhibiting in the festival. Of course, this is only hearsay and should not under any circumstances be repeated.

Saturday evening was far more refined, with everyone getting all tarted up in their formal attire for the Festival Gala Evening at the Queenstown Memorial Hall. As an impoverished artist, I do not own formal attire and baulked at the ticket price so have to rely on the word of somebody who did attend and said it was great fun. There was an art auction, and one or two people sobered up next morning to find themselves owning a fine painting they hadn't intended buying. Not that I mind, one hastened to assure me – it's lovely. Just didn't mean to . . .

Mt Lyell Heritage Centre
You'd have to try very, very hard not to find something to do, see or hear over the weekend.
There were extensive exhibitions of historic photographs, at the local library – sorry, Community Hub – more photographs, artefacts and movie footage at the railway station, and art installations among the desks and mining memorabilia at the Mt Lyell Heritage Centre and in the old West Coast District Hospital.

 Helicopter rides, underground mine tours and visits to historic sites were on offer. Children of all ages enjoyed free movies in the marvelous art deco Paragon Theatre and a student circus while art-lovers crammed exhibition openings at LARQ (Landscape Art Research Queenstown) and Art Frontier galleries. IHOS opera performed in an old transport warehouse; folk singers performed at a sawmill, books and a new Memorial Park project were launched, and so it went on.

Things were beginning to wind down by Sunday, but the street market still drew a crowd.

On Monday morning it was all over. Queenstown reverted overnight to a sleepy, shabby, damp mining town as the last of the artists, performers and visitors packed up and went home. But, by golly, the little community put on a damned good show! I'll be back.

You can find out about some of the art I saw here:

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