Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tasmania Part 4: in which there is a river, a forest, an island and rain

The day dawned clear and we decided that the best option would be to try and get on the afternoon Gordon River Cruise. During October they generally only run a morning cruise, but the girl on reception the previous night had informed us that due to demand they were running an afternoon one as well on Monday.

Because we had the morning free we did some exploring. We drove out to Ocean Beach, a windswept stretch of sand from which whales are often seen. Tasmania doesn’t have the weather for it, but it was a great surf beach. If you set sail from there then the next land you see will be Chile. Shearwaters also nest there during their annual migration.

We then went out towards the mining town of Zeehan. It’s a mining area and the two major towns are Zeehan and Queenstown. I get the impression that Zeehan is dying these days. They’ve pretty much mined the area out. There’s still plenty in Mt Lyell at Queenstown, but not enough to support 2 towns. Driving through Zeehan you can tell that many years ago it was a thriving town, but those days are long gone. In fact the whole area: Strahan, Zeehan and Queenstown were all very prosperous 100 or so years ago. They accounted for most of Tasmania’s exports in fish, minerals and timber.

On the way to Zeehan we stopped off at a lookout just off the road. It had a view right across the button grass plains to the beach we had driven to earlier. We also drove some of the way that the West Coast Wilderness Railway (another tour we had booked for the next day) would take us.

Back at Strahan we were able to get a better look at the town. The village isn’t the major part of town, not anymore. It obviously once was a century ago when Strahan was a big port that exported copper, timber and fish out to Hobart and then to the mainland, but today it’s been restored for the tourist trade. In fact we were staying in one of a collection of restored cottages for tourists. Beautiful spot and with great views of the water. You almost felt at times as if you’d stepped back to turn of the 20th century.

The Lady Jane Franklin II is a big cruise boat that takes people out of Macquarie Harbour, through Hells Gates, into the Gordon River and the rainforest, then brings them back via the convict prison of Sarah Island.

Unfortunately the expected showers had materialised by the time we boarded the Lady Jane Franklin II so vision was somewhat restricted as the boat cruised through Macquarie Harbour, which is significantly larger than Sydney Harbour, but only has 1,000 permanent residents around it. There’s an interesting and informative commentary provided by the captain as the tour continues. The first attraction are the fish farms. They farm atlantic salmon and rainbow trout in Macquarie Harbour, they also catch a lot of crayfish and abalone. The salmon and trout are farmed extensively and grow to good sizes in the harbours waters. The farms are protected from the cormorants, who will feed on the young fish if they can, by nets, however they don’t necessarily work with seals. Recently a seal got into one of the farms and managed to release 80,000 atlantic salmon before they could close the farm again. There was some good fishing had for a bit there.

The crossing through Hells Gates is a another highlight. Although the crossing is narrow and treacherous and a number of ships have come to grief getting in and out it is not mariners who named the gap. This name comes from the convicts who considered the opening to Macquarie Harbour the gates of Hell as it was the entrance to the notorious prison camp Sarah’s Island, known to the inmates as Devil’s Island.

A change of pace is the Gordon River, it’s a world heritage area and it is beautiful. It’s a deep still river and the brown colour of the river comes from the button grass plains, despite the colour the water is perfectly safe to drink. Despite the river having dense, healthy forest all around it there is remarkably little bird life. The reason for this is that the fish are too deep to be easily caught by fishing birds and the rain forest trees don’t support enough insect life or produce enough seeds or fruit for the birds. The forest is however inhabited by possums, tasmanian devils, quolls (native cats) and platypus in the river.

The Gordon River rainforest actually satisfied 7 of the World Heritage Organisation’s 10 reasons for being protected, it is one of only 2 areas in the world to achieve that high a rating.

We got the opportunity to have a brief walk through the forest. We went along a circular boarded walkway. Even though it was a wet day there had been enough sun during the day that it shouldn’t have still been damp in there, but it’s never dry in a rain forest, they’re dark, damp places. The forest is so incredibly thick that I’m in no doubt that it could easily support a number of extinct or nearly extinct animal species with no one being any the wiser as to their existence. Some of the convicts tried to escape through it, hardly any of them were ever seen again and I’m not at all surprised. If someone went off the marked track they would be hopelessly lost in a matter of minutes.

The final stop was Sarah Island. The camp was initially started as a place to make the convicts pay for their sins using serious hard labour and severe physical punishment for any infractions of the rules. The original idea was to have the convicts gather the Huon pine wood for transportation to Hobart to build boats, but they discovered that it was easier to have the convicts actually build the boats, so Sarah Island became a boat building hub for it’s 12 years of operation.

Our guide: Jenelle, gleefully told stories of the brutality of commandants like Lieutenant Cuthbertson who met a swift and unlamented end. We heard of convicts who escaped successfully (not many), some who managed a lovely little racket on the island during their time there and about corrupt guards and doctors who were all part of the island’s colourful past. The island was eventually wound up as being unprofitable and the inmates were sent to the better known Port Arthur closer to Hobart, although just as hard to escape from and at times every bit as brutal. There were a handful of convicts left there to complete a partially built ship, along with some guards. They finished the ship and mutinied, leaving their guards on the coast with some food, they sailed until they reached Chile. A number of them became successful and built lives for themselves in Chile. Some were later turned over to British authorities by the Spanish governor of Chile. They escaped the noose and the charge of piracy by arguing that as the ship was incomplete and had not been named then they were guilty of nothing more than taking a pile of Huon logs.

We arrived back late and exhausted, but also well fed and thoroughly entertained with a new appreciation of the area and little known episodes of Australian history.

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