In the southwestern corner of Tasmania – the smallest and most southern of Australia’s states – there lies a stretch of road that, after making a left to continue along the B61 at Westerway, culminates in a complete dead-end after a not insubstantial 103km.
Many who visit Tassie no doubt will have driven the initial stage of this road as it leads to the beautiful Mount Field National Park which is well worth stopping in at to take a quick walk around the loop past the Russell Falls – something we did before taking on the next few hundred kilometres of demanding driving.
Making the drive easier, at least, was my chariot of choice for this Tasmanian trip – the 2021 BMW 128ti. I’ve already reviewed it in detail in a separate article, but it’s worth mentioning that a car like this little hot hatch was ideal for such a punishing drive.
With incredibly supportive and comfortable front bucket seats – although the rear pew was slightly less comfortable for whoever got stuck back there – and very impressive sound insulation that meant we could have a conversation at normal volumes while pounding the pavement, it made the drive that bit less arduous. With a 180kW turbocharged engine and a limited-slip differential for the front axle, it also meant we could really exploit its full potential on a road like this.
Once you’re past the National Park, the road really starts to open up – the long straights that see you fly past endless forestation are just open-enough that you’ve got a decent view ahead to watch for the occasional truck, and the further along the road you get, the more the straights become punctuated by more technical sections with beautifully-cambered corners that allow you to really hold your speed well before shooting into the next straight.
Aside from the rare forestry truck, though, there’s every chance that in the off-season you will have the whole place to yourself – obviously, being a dead-end road means that there’s little reason for people to come down here.
However, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to come along here as at the end likes a very big surprise – Gordon Dam, the tallest dam in Tasmania, fifth-tallest in the country, and one of only nine arch dams with double curvature here as well.
Constructed between 1974 and 1978, the 140m tall dam gave birth to Australia’s largest lake – Lake Gordon, the reservoir it impounds, comprises 12,359,040m3 of water at full capacity. The water from it descends 183m underground to a hydroelectric power station that generates 432MW of electricity – enough to power 13 percent of Tasmania’s grid alone.
It’s solely the construction of this dam, then, that gave birth to this lengthy dead-end road that leads to it, and with the dam’s former supporting town of Strathgordon now uninhabited as the dam can be controlled remotely from back in Hobart, it’s why it’s now the driver’s playground that it currently exists as.
The damming itself is a tense topic, though, as a second proposed dam further down the road – the Franklin Dam – formed the basis for the most influential environmental law case in Australian History. This dam was set to flood a large section of the Franklin River – which, for a bit of family history, my great uncle Johnson Dean famously canoed along in the late 1930s and early 1940s as documented in his book Shooting the Franklin – which was World Heritage listed in 1982.
The listing alone – which came after the dam’s first proposal in 1978 after the completion of the Gordon Dam – wouldn’t have prevented its construction. What was necessary was for its protection under international law to be introduced into Australian law, and this was what saw the landmark case Commonwealth v Tasmania take place, as the newly-elected Bob Hawke-led Commonwealth government that was opposed to the dam’s construction challenged the Tasmanian government’s plans to continue with it, arguing that the constitution did not give the Commonwealth government the power to overrule the decision.
A decade of legal debates surrounding the extent of “external affairs” powers continued following this challenge, and with changes being made to section 51 of the Australian Constitution along with the incorporation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the decisions from this case have immense importance still to this day.
The Franklin Dam never being built no doubt preserved some of the stunning landscapes you see along this amazing drive. With yellow and purple-tinged mountains all around and vast bodies of water to look out over in Lake Pedder and Lake Gordon, navigating through this picturesque landscape along twisty roads with the sound of turbo whistles and exhaust pops in accompaniment feels like driving through a movie set. It’s breathtaking stuff.
Its existence might be shrouded in controversy due to its existence relying on damming, but with an appreciation for what role that plays in Tasmania’s electricity grid and more importantly in Australian environmental law, let’s enjoy Gordon River Road for what it is – an incredible stretch of deserted tarmac leading to staggering views that’s essential driving for any enthusiast. Is this the best dead-end road in Australia, let alone the world? From a drivers’ perspective, quite possibly.