Strahan is a harbour-side village with a dark and fascinating convict past set on the edge of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Strahan is full of stories from the days of convicts and pioneers toughing it out in Tassie’s wild west. Nearby, in Macquarie Harbour is Sarah Island, once a notorious convict prison and a powerful reminder of the brutal treatment of Tasmania’s convicts.
These days, Strahan is an iconic travel destination with shops selling artisan wares.
There are long stretches of wild ocean beach to explore, massive sand dunes to conquer and forest adventures to be had.
We arrived in Strahan (Straw-n) on a mission. Back in October, yep months earlier we had booked two tours the “World Heritage Cruise” and the “West Coast Wilderness Railway”. Both of these tours book out quickly and with the added restrictions of COVID19 we new these were going to be very hard to schedule. Of the popular tours to take in Tasmania these are on top of the list. And yes if they are popular there are going to be crowds, but sometimes this is the price we pay to see beautiful places. As it turned out we couldn’t organise the tours on conservative days and needed to book for five nights in the caravan park, as there are no free campsites in the area. Wow this is going to put a hole in the budget.
We figured the four actual days in Strahan would be filled easily enough between washing, catching up on vlogging, blogging and to take in all the local sights. We arrived late afternoon set up camp and Rob said it was his turn in “Our Galley” awesome that means we are going out for dinner. After loooong showers we headed downtown to find a suitable eatery.
The beachside caravan park is situated at one end of the bay, the township at the other end, so we had a lovely walk along the waterfront. We’d been told that the Bushmans Thai Restaurant served awesome food, upon arriving at Bushman’s we were asked if we had a booking.
No …. (But there were plenty of seats available). “Well I’m sorry we are not seating anymore guests this evening” really it’s only 7:15pm? ….. Ok spying the takeaway menu we picked it up and said we would settle for takeout “Sorry we close our takeaway orders at 6:30pm”. Mmmmm… Could you suggest somewhere else to dine, “ Hamer’s the hotel, but they can get busy” thank you and we left to find the hotel. “Do you have a booking” ….. no but it seems you have plenty of tables available. “Well no ….. we can put you on our wait list” does that guarantee that we will be fed? “No sorry we close the kitchen at 8pm”. Ok do you think there is somewhere else we could find a meal. Oh yes maybe at Molly’s they serve pizza. Guess what Molly’s closed at 6:30pm …… this seems to be the normal situation in Strahan after talking to locals they say it is the biggest complaint that they get from tourists …… everything closes early. So the food maybe great but make sure you book and eat at toddler hour or you will be hungry. Well of course we didn’t starve that night with a well stocked pantry there is always something that can be whipped up.
One of the reasons we occasionally stay in Marina’s whilst sailing or in a Caravan park whilst vanning is for the convenience of provisioning, cleaning, filling with water, the odd repair job and laundry. At almost all parks we find they have clothesline’s which saves on the washing bill, at $8 on average to dry a load it can certainly add up in a dryer. In a park you can also walk away from your laundry whilst washing and get other jobs completed in the meantime, however at a laundromat you really need to stay with your washing. With a list of things needed to be done our first day in the park was full of activities. One of our major jobs was to look into a water leak we had discovered. More on that later. We must say that the facilities at the park were a little odd and old, the toilets were in a separate amenities block to the showers and separated by about 30 meters. Caravan parks also need to know that shower curtains are really not suitable for communal use 🤮.
The second day of our stay was our trip on the World Heritage Cruise. So after Pizza from Molly’s at 6:30pm …. we hit the pillows early 🙄.
No visit to the west coast of Tasmania is complete without a cruise on Macquarie Harbour and the ancient, mirror like water of Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon River.
Up early we walked the 1.5klms to the dock, we were excited to be doing this cruise and our expectations were high. This is a six hour cruise on the iconic Gordon River, a river that none of us really knew about until 1982. When a group of protesters and environmental activists worked to stop the damming of the Franklin River. Support for the ‘no dams’ campaign exploded across the country in that year. Protests spreading to mainland states, with Dr Bob Brown and other members of the Wilderness Society travelling the country to raise awareness.
They highlighted the potential destruction of habitat for endangered species and the certain loss of important Aboriginal rock art only discovered in 1981. The fight to stop the dam and the devastation to the delicate ecosystem including Gordon River downstream continued until 1983. Where in May 1983 the then newly elected federal government led by Bob Hawke introduced new regulations under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 and passed the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983 that protected the Franklin River, which had been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1982.
But the battle was far from over. The Tasmanian government was determined to build the dam and the federal government then took them to the High Court to force them to stop work, arguing successfully that federal laws were to be sustained in state contexts when they were upholding the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The Tasmanian Government was forced to abandon the Franklin Dam project. One of the worlds most significant wildernesses was saved for future generations.
The cruise boat owners that we are travelling with today have strong links to this area long before the days of the protests, their heritage dating back to 1896. Five generations on, the Grinings continue their century-old family tradition, adding a wealth of local knowledge to the mystery and serenity of this special place. Macquarie Harbour is the second-largest natural harbour in Australia after Port Phillip Bay in Victoria. However, the real glory of Macquarie Harbour is not its size but its setting. The dense, temperate rainforest is dark, gloomy and teeming with life that we were about to discover.
Once onboard, we travel out to Hell’s Gate and thankfully our weather is calm. We can imagine the weather different from this, as this is the West-coast of Tasmania and those roaring 40’s that blow around the Southern Ocean are well known in these parts. The narrow and very shallow 120 metre wide entrance to the huge Macquarie Harbour was discovered in 1815.
Within a year, timber cutters moved in, navigating the narrow entrance and its sandbar was the biggest hazard to getting the timber out to Hobart. A signal station was erected near Cape Sorell in 1822 which indicated conditions entering the harbour. The station was manned by convicts from the newly established penal settlement at Sarah Island.
The Entrance Island light, one of the most photographed lighthouses in Tasmania, guards the notorious entrance to the harbour. The name of the channel relates to the original convicts claim that it was their point of entrance to Hell, their hell being the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station on Sarah Island. Today we were fortunate with the weather and were able to safely transit Hell’s Gate to view the outlying Cape Sorell Lighthouse.
Back safely in the harbour we are now cruising down the majestic Gordon River. Past 1,000-year-old Huon pines growing in one of the world’s last temperate rainforests. This is a true taste of this rugged corner of Australia, something that we will never forget. We are treated to panoramic views from our extremely comfortable seating, apart from our seat we can enjoy a covered aft deck for an up close view of our surroundings.
The staff are well trained providing a personal service from the time we stepped onboard until we stepped off. We took the option of the fully inclusive deck, tasting some of Tasmania’s finest produce, an individually packed lunch, freshly prepared on board was served along with morning tea and freshly brewed coffees of our choosing.
As we cruise we experienced expert commentary from the skipper along with audiovisual presentations from others, experts in their fields which brings the river and its rich history to life. We are certainly pleased we did pay the upgrade to be on this deck as the inclusions along with the more spacious deck (with no children) and with limited passengers was well worth it.
There are so many highlights to this cruise we can’t write of them all, but one of the standouts is the visit to Sarah Island. Tasmania’s first penal settlement was established in 1822 on Sarah Island (Port Arthur was established in 1834, after Sarah Island was declared unsatisfactory). We believe that this part of the tour deserves much more than a few words, so much so, that we have written a separate blog just on this part of the cruise you can read about it here.
Our final stop on the cruise was at the Morrison’s family owned and operated sawmill specialising in Huon Pine and other unique Tasmanian timbers. Operated from this location since the 1940’s it is still a fully functional sawmill. Walking into the sawmill is like going back in time – we saw for ourselves how Huon Pine is transformed from a “salvaged” log to a beautiful piece of craft timber.
The following day we completed the extra chores that were needed to be accomplished and had a look around town. Set on a quiet bay, Strahan is a small, picturesque frontier-style town with an abundance of character and a variety of stories to tell of the West Coast’s pioneering days.
From its beginnings as the location for bushmen seeking precious Huon pine, Strahan became the railway port for a rich copper mine inland. Mining and forestry operations based around the magnificent Huon pine, famous for its oily shipbuilding qualities, commenced in the 1880s, making Strahan, the small fishing village now the centre of activities on Macquarie Harbour, the second-busiest port in Tasmania a century ago. Those days are long gone, and the only reminders of the copper boom days are an impressive post office, steamship offices, a few workers cottages and the restored railway.
Strahan is surrounded by a wild environment, that Australia’s most picturesque tourist rail line, the West Coast Wilderness Railway, winds its way from Strahan to Queenstown. On tracks laid down more than a century ago to carry ore from Queenstown’s mines to port facilities on Macquarie Harbour.
This is our next days tour. We had originally booked for the full day tour taking us on a 9 hour journey to Queenstown. Unfortunately due to Covid and staff shortages, they had to cancel our journey but were able to offer us a half day in the Wilderness Carriage.
Again this is a fully inclusive experience is certainly well worth it, you feel that you are truly experiencing rail travel of a bygone era. Starting with the Car Attendant welcoming you onboard with a glass of champagne. Followed closely by canapés, then morning tea consisting of light fluffy scones and jam. Lunch and dessert were served on our return trip accompanied by a lovely bottle of Tasmanian Champagne that we purchased from the bar.
The Queenstown-based Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company decided to build a railway to link Queenstown to Strahan, so that they could transport the mined copper to the port. They had one problem, though: The terrain here is made up of rainforest and steep mountains.
The company decided to tackle this issue by using what was then a state-of-the-art rack-and-pinion system called the Abt system for the steep sections. This system was designed in the 1880s by Swiss locomotive engineer Roman Abt and the Mount Lyell company’s railway would be the first in Australia to use this technology.
We simply can’t imagine the toughness of the men who built the railway. Through seemingly impenetrable rainforest and across daunting, slippery ravines, between Strahan and Queenstown in the late 1800’s. Covered in leeches and facing daily life-threatening challenges. And the tenacity and devotion of the women who brought up kids and kept home fires burning in the most demanding, inhospitable of situations. The railway officially opened in 1897, and again on 1 November 1899 when the line was extended from Teepookana to Regatta Point and Strahan. The railway was the only way to get copper from the mine at Queenstown to markets. Until 1932, when a road link from Hobart was completed, until then it was the only access through to Queenstown.
On the river cruise you get to see the spectacular eco system that has now become legionary, with the rail journey you get the opportunity to see the rainforest up close as you wend your way through it. The rail journey stops along the way at remote stations where you can take short walks into the beautiful ancient wilderness to gain another understanding of this unique part of the world. Again we were pleased that we spent the extra dollars on the all inclusive Wilderness carriage, not only were we spoilt with scrumptious food but we had a viewing platform where we could step outside to enjoy the rainforest as we traveled. Where we filmed for the upcoming YouTube Episode for you to enjoy.
Tasmania’s west is often only remembered for the conflict between forestry workers, governments and environmentalists to save the flooding of Lake Pedder, but once you have visited you’ll get an idea of what the protest was all about, and thank the environmentalists for their dedication and the federal government at the time, for their foresight to save this precious area.
Oh and that pesky water leak was a hose fitting that had come loose, thankfully we have a separate switch to turn off the water pump otherwise we could of been faced with a very wet van.
Following are a collection of photos from other points of interest that we saw in Strahan we how you enjoy them.
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Join us next time when we free camp in one of the most incredible places on the edge of a cliff…