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The awesome Gordon River voyage

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Walking out to Hells Gate at the start of the Gordon River

Today we discovered the awesome Gordon River, Sarah Island penal colony and Hells gate. We very rarely pay for Tourist Attractions but we bought a special voucher when coming to Tasmania that allowed us to take 5 of Tasmania’s best tourist attractions at a large cost saving. The Gordon River cruise from Strahan was one of these attractions we planned to partake in. I’m very glad we did.

After leaving about 8:30 am aboard the vessel the Lady Jane Franklin 2 we crossed Macquarie Harbour and headed toward Hells Gate which is the narrow entrance to the harbour so named by the convicts sentenced to be detained at the penal settlement of Sarah Island. The stories and the reputation of this place made the convicts believe they were entering Hell. For many they were.

Hells Gate opens out to the Great Southern Ocean and the notorious roaring forties where the gales have 8000 miles between here and Argentina to gather the forces that lash this coastline with 60-knot winds and up to 18 metre high waves recorded from wave buoys in the vicinity. After nudging out into the Southern Ocean the vessel turned tail and headed back through Hell’s Gate and on toward the huge salmon farms that my young Skipper friend told me about yesterday. We steamed close to the salmon pens where the feeding operation was in full swing. Using pumps mounted on small boats they are able to distribute the feed pellets across the entire holding pen.

It was then on to the entrance to the World Heritage-listed Gordon River. What a breathtakingly beautiful river system this is. The towering trees and dense cool temperate rainforest vegetation will render even the most disinterested chatterbox speechless. A walk through the forest is an experience that will stay indelibly marked in our memories. To look upon trees hundreds, even thousands of years old staggers the imagination. The great Huon Pines, the prized boatbuilding timber found in these parts have a growth of just 1mm per year making one of these trees we saw lying on the forest floor over 2000 years old. It has probably been lying in this position for a hundred years as well and it is remarkable to think that if it was salvaged it would still yield perfect timber planks that would still be around long after all of us have passed away.

A delicious lunch was served on the trip back down the Gordon, part of which was salmon from the farm we visited. After lunch, we arrived at the infamous Sarah Island and the remains of the convict settlement that existed here between 1822 and 1833. Only secondary offenders came here, supposedly the worst of the worst. Stories of hangings, murder, lashings, cannibalism and many other depravations abound and coupled with the harsh climate and the even harsher workloads were what made this island one of the most feared places in Australia. Yet there are a number of puzzles about this place.

The early work of the Settlement was timber-cutting and hauling, of the immensely valuable Huon Pine timber but in order to get this timber out ships were needed. Shipbuilding then began at the settlement and Sarah Island became more than just a prison. It was also an industrial centre where resided: gardeners, timber cutters, saw men, boatmen, tanners, bootmakers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, boat builders and shipwrights, fencers, bakers, cooks, medical orderlies, quarrymen and stonemasons, brick makers, lime-burners, coal miners, clerks, accountants, artists and draughtsmen. In fact, Sarah island became the most productive boat-building centre in Australia producing over 120 ships in its short history.

Since no community has ever been able to build ships with slave labour, (it takes willing, intelligent design and highly motivated innovation to build ships), it casts doubts over the pall of infamy that hangs over this fascinating place. Other accounts such as the “comfort” of the substantial dormitory mix with the detailed record of punishments on the island. Here also there is a puzzle such as the cruel solitary confinement cells that were seldom used and the cat o nine tails lashings that were dramatically reduced. The ruins of large breadmaking ovens and a wine pit add to the puzzle.

There are also accounts of prisoners from other settlements trying to get IN to Sarah Island. The last ship to be built at the settlement was the “Frederick” which was captured by 10 shipwrights who successfully sailed the vessel the 8000 miles to Chile where they lived for a year until 4 of them were captured, sentenced to hang and then by using a technicality were reprieved to be given their freedom a year later.

Our journey finished back at Strahan where we were just in time to see the breaking down of Huon pine logs salvaged from the forest floors at the Morrison’s timber mill. It was fascinating watching this old sawmill still cutting through the massive logs just as it has for many decades. The wonderful smell of the Huon pine was rich in the air and again the imagination was stirred to try and capture the hardships and the challenges that needed to be overcome by the pioneers of the logging industry.

On returning to our little home we found that I was to go back to Brisbane on Monday to try to fix the network problem at the university so we needed to shorten our stay in Strahan and head to Hobart tomorrow so I can catch the plane to Brissy on Sunday afternoon. This meant our only opportunity to visit Macquarie Head and see Hell’s Gate from the land was right now!

Off we headed for the 13 km drive and we discovered a magic place of wild and rugged beauty. We walked along the deserted beach which the Great Southern Ocean ruthlessly pounds, although our visit found this place of howling winds and mountainous seas flat calm with the cold ocean breeze but a will o’ the wisp.

Kerrie looked beautiful with her heavy jacket bought in Sheffield as she excitedly collected the dark but brilliantly coloured shells from the shore. On the way back we discovered more caravans free camping in this area or paying the $6.00 per day fee than there were at the van park. What a magnificent place to stay just metres away from the best fishing on the West Coast and still only 10 mins from the town. How we look forward to getting our generator and a few other items at which time we will also do this.

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