Today I boarded on a cruise on Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon River. Normally I would probably have stayed away of this kind of mainstream, passive and costly touristic attraction, but since everybody kept saying me that it was really worth it, I did it. Starting at 9:00 AM from Strahan, the bright new giant catamaran took us to the inlet of Macquarie Harbour. The inlet, called Hell’s Gates by the convicts sent to the penal settlement of Sarah Island, is only around 75m bread and the currents are treacherous because of the interaction the Southern Ocean’s waves and the brackish water streaming out of the bay.
It was so difficult to enter the bay that captains had to entrust their boat to a local pilot who knew the waters like the back of his hand.
From there, I could see the powerful waves of the Southern Ocean (called the “Roaring Forties” in reference to the latitude) and the impressive Ocean Beach, a 40km long sand stretch facing the strong westerly winds and waves from the Ocean.
Then, we sailed across Macquarie Harbour to the mouth of the Gordon River. During the crossing we made a first stop to see the salmon farms. Aquaculture has developed a lot in less than two decades: from 40 tons in 1990, the farms have grown to produce 9000 tons of salmon today, which raise some potential environmental issues.
Then, we made a second stop on Sarah Island. This tiny island hosted a penal Tasmania’s harshest penal settlement between 1822 and 1833. Although the ruins are not very spectacular, the visit was really interesting thanks to the excellent storytelling abilities of our guide. She really managed to depict the life of this community, the interactions between convicts, soldiers, the doctor, the pastor, etc. The escape attempts were particularly unsuccessful because of the remoteness of the place. One convict managed to escape and to reach Hobart after a crossing of all the bushy, swampy highlands… but he was caught there by the police! However, instead of sending him back to jail, the authorities had the bright idea to appoint him explorer for the geographical institute (that’s clever Human Ressources management!).
Under the management of a new governor, the fate of Sarah Island changed radically: it became for a while the most productive shipyard of the Australian colonies and the life conditions improved consequently for the convicts. Some of them discovered a passion for shipbuilding and decided to stay after the end of their imprisonment sentence!
Then, the catamaran continued his way upstream on the Gordon River and we had a gorgeous lunch. I probably ate half of my weight in cheese and smoked salmon while enjoying the rainforests on the arms of the Gordon River. After lunch the ship made another stop so that we could do a (too) short hike in the temperate rainforest and admire its most remarkable tree, the Huon pine. This conifer, endemic to Tasmania, grows extremely slowly (1 mm per year!) and can reach lifetimes bigger than 3000 years! The wood is naturally impregnated with a sort of oil that makes it rot resistant. This, combined to the fact that it is a quite easy to work wood, makes it a very popular wood for boat building and furnitures. Cutting Huon pines contributed to Strahan’s prosperity, as did exporting the copper from the mines near Queenstown. The “Piners” rowed their way up the Gordon river and its tributaries in small boats, looking for Huon pine to cut near the water. Once the tree was cut, its bark was cut in smaller pieces and carried to the river that transported it to Macquarie Harbour. As the year passed, the Piners had to row further and further up the river, which was more and more difficult because of the rapids and the gorges.
Today, as the whole area is protected as a World Heritage Area, Huon pines may not be cut anymore and the only source for “new” wood is the salvaged barks from the time when it was still allowed to cut them, more than 70 years ago!
Afterwards the ship came back to Strahan and we had the mandatory stop to the Huon pine sawmill and souvenir shop.
Overall, this was a nice experience, the views were beautiful, the food was very nice and the informative content excellent. However, I was a bit disappointed by the rainforest experience. The walk was too short and I had expected to go further up the river and see something really different of what I had seen so far. Maybe it is because of the grey weather, or because I had already experienced some aspects if the rainforest during the two previous days, or because of the lack of effort required to enjoy it, but I had expected to get more of it.
To digest this half deception, I rode my bike to Hogarth Falls and then to Ocean Beach, where I could enjoy invigorating sea air and fantastic views in this evening.