A trip into some fascinating Maritime History in Devonport – Tasmania

Entering the Mersey River on the Spirit of Tasmania 1, through the very narrow headlands that didn’t seem wide enough for a ship to pass through is how we start our exploration of Tasmania this beautiful southern island full of history, spectacular vistas and adventures to be found.  After 9 hours crossing the Bass Strait we were pleased to leave the rolling Spirit of Tasmania 1 at her dock and head for our first campsite in Devonport.

Set-up for a couple of nights at Horsehead Creek.

The City of Devonport is ideally located on the Mersey River in the heart of the beautiful North West Coast of Tasmania.  This unique location opens up the City to the river, ocean and mountain views. It is the major sea gateway to Tasmania and its thriving port is the home for the two passenger ferries, Spirit of Tasmania 1 & 2, connecting Devonport with Melbourne, offering daily sailings. 

Devonport is particularly well known for its reserves and recreational facilities.  From the kilometres of walking and cycling tracks, beautiful beaches, a river suitable for a number of water sports, great fishing and numerous parklands. 

Cultural facilities include the Devonport Regional Gallery, which has a collection of Tasmanian art works, ceramics, prints and photographs; the Bass Strait Maritime Centre, with a collection relating to early shipping activities; and the Devonport Entertainment & Convention Centre, which is the premier entertainment facility on the North  West Coast.

The city of Devonport.

Although the municipal area is small in size for Tasmania, at only 114 square kilometres, it is the centre for a rich agricultural district which produces a significant amount of Tasmania’s vegetable crops (beans, onions, peas and potatoes), as well as cereals, oil poppies, pyrethrum and other crops.  Dairy production and processing is also significant.

We awoke after a beautiful nights sleep at the Horsecreek Reserve and no sooner had we opened the door did we have a friendly ranger knocking with receipt book in hand. The reserve is open to all self-contained motor homes, caravans and RV’s for a maximum of 3 nights. The cost for this conveniently located reserve is $10 per night. All they ask is that you park on the grassed areas, not the paved areas marked for boat trailers, that you take all rubbish and be considerate of others regarding noice. We paid for two nights upfront.

Our first activity for the day is to visit, the Mersey Lighthouse. But first we had to workout how to unhook the van from the annex. We hadn’t actually done so before and with stormy weather about we wanted to make sure that it was secure and waterproof. Well that was a lot of worry over nothing, the only scary bit was watching Rob climb onto “Froggies” wet roof.

As easy as that our campsite is reserved and we were able to store things in the annex whilst away touring for the day.

We must workout something safer. Once sorted we punched the address into “Waze” and we were off to see a lighthouse. It was an easy drive through town along the Mersey River and out onto the bluff. The carpark is only meters from the Lighthouse with plenty of room for RV’s. 

To the weary sailors of yesteryear, the Lighthouse represents the final stretch …. and perhaps the most hazardous portion … of a long voyage. To modern-day aficionados, it is a glimmering monument to the history of a maritime community. But whatever meaning gets attached to it, a lighthouse is something far simpler: a tower and a beacon. 

In an era before GPS and other navigational apparatuses, lighthouses served two primary purposes. The first was illuminating waterways made treacherous by shoals, reefs, rocks and other hazards as ships left the open ocean and pulled into port. Most lighthouses also included fog signals such as horns, bells or cannons, which sound to warn ships of hazards during periods of low visibility. The second purpose is to serve as a reference to mariners. 

An individual lighthouse distinguished itself with its day mark …. the color schemes and patterns on the tower … and its light signature. For example, a lighthouse might emit two flashes every three seconds to distinguish it from a lighthouse that emits four flashes every three seconds. Even today, if the GPS goes on the fritz, crews reference light lists to plot a course …. those regional indices of lighthouses and their distinguishing traits.

Vertical stripes is quite unusual.

The Mersey Bluff Lighthouse standing at the mouth of the Mersey River near Devonport is unusual in Australia with its distinctive vertical red striped day mark. The Mersey Bluff Lighthouse was constructed in 1889 by P Davern under contract to the Hobart Marine Board. It is of brick construction on a stone base. 

Photo from Devonport History Tasmania Government.

The lightstation originally included two brick houses, a signal shed, tide house and flagpole. Following conversion to automatic operation in 1920 and demanning the houses were sold to the Devonport Municipality in 1922. The houses were demolished in 1958 and 1961 respectively.

As we took in the amazing outlook, we watched a number squalls pass on by and enjoyed the ever changing expansive view of the Northwest coastline. There are a number of walks available along the bluff, but caution is required and in wet stormy weather it wasn’t wise to venture further.

Rob capturing some of the squalls passing by.

Next on our list of to do was the Bass Strait Maritime Museum. Built in the 1920s as a permanent residence for the Harbour Master, the house was a double brick ‘villa’ built on ‘a slight rise in a park about 200 metres from the shoreline and at the entrance to the Mersey River’. 

Well worth the visit, open 10am – 3pm each day.

The Centre builds on the objects, models and photographs of the former Devonport Maritime Museum. The focus of course is Bass Strait, and Devonport’s connection to this notorious stretch of water. At $8 each to enter it was well worth the visit, we enjoyed the many historical stories and the surprising amount of beautiful scale models of ships.

One in particular was that of “Spray” skippered by a former sailing ship captain named Joshua Slocum. Slocum cast off his dock lines on April 24, 1895, in East Boston and set out to sail alone around the world in the 37’ sloop Spray.

Joshua Slocum

More than once during his 38-month circumnavigation, Slocum was reported as having gone missing. There were times when it was presumed he had been lost. But when Slocum ghosted into Newport, Rhode Island, at 1 A.M. on June 27, 1898, he proved all the doubters wrong. Slocum and his beloved Spray had sailed into history.

Model of Spray

Karen rounded out our visit to the museum with a trip through the gift store, purchasing some beautiful “useable and necessary” brass hooks for Our Dreamtime. Now that it was late afternoon we needed to provision for the next part of our trip, as no fruit and vegetables can enter Tasmania from the mainland, our cupboard was quite bare. However during Karen’s planning she had of course looked up all of the local produce haunts. So Petunia’s Seafood and Gourmet Deli was where we were headed ….. no Coles supermarket for us. 

Rob cooking our Tasmanian Blue Fin Tuna Steaks
Now thats a camping dinner!

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