A Weekend in Strahan
Western Tasmania is a unique and globally significant region renowned for its wildernesses, remarkable geology and gondwanan plants found nowhere else on the planet. It is defined by rich histories over tens of thousands of years, home to a southern civilisation isolated from the world longer than any other after the last ice age, who shaped and stewarded this wild landscape as it was sculpted by the southern ocean and crisp Antarctic winds bringing the world’s freshest air. In many ways the west coast is a place seemingly frozen in time as other parts of the world tame the elements and lose sight of fundamental connections with land and sea.
We recently spent a weekend celebrating Madeleine’s birthday in Strahan, a small fishing port situated on Macquarie Harbour and a gateway to some of the more accessible nature-based experiences that provide an introduction to the natural and human history of the west coast.
Being the middle of winter the town was incredibly quiet, the chatter of a small flock of ducks audible over the breeze, and a handful of visitors mixing with locals in the only open pub in town for a soul-warming meal. Accomodation is easy to find and relatively affordable at this time of year, we stayed right by the waterfront and had some wonderful views out our front window as we played board games and watched time go by.
One of the highlights of our visit was the Gordon River Cruise, an excellent all-day journey that crosses Macquarie Harbour and the pristine lower Gordon River in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Setting out early in the morning, the cruise visits Hells Gates, the narrow entry to Macquarie Harbour which has seen the demise site of at least 16 ships since European settlement, as sailors attempted to navigate the hazardous waters that provided a gateway for piners and miners to send their products to the world. A White-Bellied Sea Eagle watched over us as we briefly left the harbour for the southern ocean and views along the expansive Ocean Beach.
After Hell’s Gates, we travelled across Macquarie Harbour, past many of the salmon farms which provide a lifeblood for the local economy but have also had significant effects on the harbour ecosystem and threatened species such as the Maugean Skate, a prehistoric creature which has only ever been found in Macquarie and Bathurst Harbours on the west coast, teetering on the edge of being lost forever. Before too long we were entering the Gordon River, a mighty waterway that has an incredibly peaceful presence as it meanders around dense temperate rainforest and mist covered hills toward the coastline.
The Sprit of the Wild is a relatively new boat which has been purpose built specifically for cruising in the sensitive environment of the UNESCO Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Shoreline erosion created by the wake of commercial vessels has been recognised as a conservation challenge in this area over recent years and one hopes the design of the new vessel goes some way to minimising these impacts. The vessel also has electric motors which operate in near silence along the river, allowing full appreciation of the natural beauty and sounds of a dynamic and wild river system rarely found in many parts of the world.
After a short stop at Heritage Landing along the river for a rainforest walk, we headed toward Sarah Island, one of the most feared penal colonies in the entire British Empire when it was first established. What was once a thriving settlement and shipbuilding yard powered by convict labour is now a series of ruins in a state of arrested decay, which over decades have slowly been reclaimed and consumed by the vegetation which thrives in this cold and wet environment. The settlement was brought to life by an excellent guide from the Round Earth Company who told stories of convict escapes and the harsh living conditions encountered during the 1820s, and of the opportunities many convicts received to learn skills and later build a new life when their time had been served.
After six hours on the water we made our way back toward Strahan, passing a pod of dolphins along the way before disembarking and heading back to our accomodation for the evening. The remainder of our weekend away was very relaxing, consisting of short walks and a long drive back to Hobart punctuated by stops at Nelson Falls and the Franklin River, opportunities to appreciate and learn more about the people, places and environment that make the west coast such a special place.