From cannibals to cappuccinos - times have changed on Tasmania's Macquarie Harbour.

Wednesday, 19th Dec 2012 by John Pedler
Categories: Tasmania

Sarah Island

The entrance to Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast is known as Hell’s Gates. Not because it’s a particularly treacherous stretch of water – which it is – but because the convicts en route to the Harbour’s penal settlement at Sarah Island knew they were entering a living hell. Their new home had a terrible reputation for harsh working conditions, cruel punishment and all-round unpleasantness.

But if you happen to be cruising out through the gates of hell on a sunny spring day, while nursing a cappuccino and a blueberry muffin, it’s difficult to truly appreciate the hardships that awaited inbound convicts nearly 200 years ago. Though I imagine it’s much easier to relax and enjoy yourself when you’re not facing scurvy, solitary confinement and the occasional flogging. A well stocked cafeteria and an on-board flush toilet are winners too.

Hell's GatesIn fact, this is one of the most enjoyable day cruises I’ve ever experienced. Admittedly we were blessed with superb weather, but even a grubby day would struggle to spoil the beauty of this place.

Beyond the entrance to the harbour we could make out the high dunes of Ocean Beach through the seaspray, set against the silhouettes of distant mountains.

Back inside we skirted the southern shore of the harbour where craggy bluffs reared up above the lower hills.

We paused at the local fish farms where 4,000 tonnes of ocean trout and Atlantic salmon are harvested annually. At one enclosure a giant hose squirted food mixture into the seething mass, while at another, a huge bucket-like net hauled out whopping loads of fish with each scoop.

Fish FarmApparently night watchmen keep poachers at bay but little can be done to prevent seals finding their way into fishy heaven. Once a week, divers are called upon to repair the netting.

We then stopped off at Sarah Island. It’s hard to believe that there were more than 400 people living on this tiny speck of land. Ship building was a major industry and the Island produced over a 130 vessels, making it the colony’s most productive shipyard. Remnants of the docks are still visible along the shoreline.   

There’s plenty to see here, including the ruins of the bakehouse, the penitentiary and a number of other buildings. The interpretive signage is excellent and our guide for the day, Morwenna, entertained us with a lively narrative.

Sarah IslandSarah Island ruins

Sarah Island’s history is not short on bizarre escape yarns; like the tale of Alexander Pearce who found sustenance by eating his fellow escapees, or James Goodwin, who became so familiar with the area during his escape attempt he was offered a job working with the Surveyor General. The last boat to be built on the Island was stolen by a group of convicts and sailed 10,000 miles to Chile.

Food supplies were always a problem at such a far flung outpost so the locals couldn’t afford to be fussy. “The echidnas often formed a favourite dish on the tables of the officers and when properly stuffed with sage and onion and roasted, had all the taste and flavour of goose.” Now we know.

Near the end of its time, the harsh conditions on the Island eased. Life became less about mindless brutality and more about education, rehabilitation and relatively comfortable hammocks...and then Port Arthur opened.

Sarah Island's most difficult prisoners were sent up the Gordon River to undertake the backbreaking job of collecting timber. And we followed them, albeit aboard a comfortable catamaran while enjoying a tasty buffet lunch and a wedge or two of camembert.

Heading upriver means entering instant wilderness. The channel soon narrowed and the thick carpet of rainforest covering the hills ran unbroken to the water’s edge on both sides.

Gordon River

Several kilometres upstream we docked at Heritage Landing, the start of a boardwalk that meanders a short distance inland, allowing a peek into an ancient world.

In these parts a 500 year old myrtle beech tree is quite literally a babe in the woods. In the days of the convict timber-getters the prize was Huon pine. An unremarkable tree at first glance, it has properties so unique that its existence in this area was a major reason for the establishment of the Sarah Island Heritage Landing boardwalksettlement. The tree contains an oil that makes it resistant to rotting, fungus and other timber pests. In an age when wooden ships were the only means of long distance transport, here was the holy grail of timbers. To add to the mystique, some trees have been dated at more than 2,000 years old.

Unfortunately Huon pine only grows around one millimetre in width per year, making it a little sluggish for plantations. The remaining stands are completely protected but enough fallen trees are discovered to keep a limited milling industry on the go.       

The walk at Heritage landing introduces visitors to a who’s who of temperate rainforest plants including Huon Pine.

Heading back towards Strahan we could see the mountains of the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park rising up from the wilderness, and way off in the distance we could make out the bald crown of Frenchmans Cap. Escaping convicts heading east would often make for this peak, usually on their way to becoming hopelessly lost. These days a walking trail leads hikers to Frenchmans Cap, modern tour boats cruise the Gordon River and Hells Gates heralds the entrance to a much happier place. 
Mountain views

Nuts and Bolts

  • Macquarie Harbour/Gordon River Cruises leave from Strahan
  • RAA Members receive 10% dicount on cruises with World Heritage Cruises. For more information click here.
  • Morning cruises depart at 9am, returning at 2.45pm (daily). Afternoon cruises depart at 3pm, returning at 8.30pm.
  • All cruises include buffet lunch.

Useful Links
RAA Member savings - World Heritage Cruises
Maui Motorhomes - RAA Member savings
RAA Star-rated accommodation - Tasmanian Tourist Parks
RAA Travel Planner
World Heritage Cruises

There'll be no blog posted on Christmas week but we'll return in the new year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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