On November 25th, I turned the ripe old age of 27 and thought what better way to celebrate than jump on a boat mostly filled with pensioners and cruise up a river. Something about it just felt… right.
Coincidentally, exactly one year before I celebrated my 26th birthday over on Bruny Island followed by some horse riding in the Huon Valley. So to be back on Tasmanian soil one year on almost felt like fate.
That morning, Yasmin woke me up early with a cup of tea and the promise of pancakes. As she stood there impressively flipping away and doing her best Nigella impressions, the wind and rain hammered our little house and I couldn’t help but envisage raging waters and let out a little groan of dread.
To quote my ex-housemate, Maddie just days before: “Are you trying to make yourself so sick you forget it’s your birthday?” She had a point, why do I always put myself in these positions!?
Outside, it was cold. We layered up and drove down to the harbour, ready to board the Lady Jane Franklin II. Inside, the stylish 32 meter catamaran has an abundance of comfy seating and big, glass windows perfect for taking in the views. Being staff at Strahan Village, we were given a free trip, with the condition that we filled out a short questionnaire about the boat and our journey.
We made ourselves comfortable right at the front, travel sickness pills and pens at the ready. After a short safety announcement, not unlike the one’s you experience before take-off on a plane, we were off, gliding smoothly across Macquarie Harbour.
The harbour itself is enormous in size. It is the second largest natural harbour in Australia, after Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay and six times the size of Sydney Harbour.
Our first port of call was Hells Gates (please refer to my expertly edited map). This is the notoriously shallow and dangerously narrow entrance where the harbour meets the Southern Ocean and my God, as you hit the open water, you certainly know about it. The boat was practically bouncing. All the oldies on the front deck were completely caught off guard and were blowing around all over the place. I’m pretty sure one poor old dear went overboard. Saying that, me and Yas were already fully tripping on my super-strong travel sickness pills so were having the time of our lives. I was clinging onto the railings flailing around and shrieking “wahooo!” like a deranged Kate Winslet on the Titanic.
In all seriousness though, the name Hells Gates was coined by the convicts who had to pass through this entrance to be sent to Macquarie Harbour Penal Station on Sarah Island, infamously known as one of the harshest, most brutal convict settlements in Australia (more on that later).
After that brief excitement, the boat turned around and headed back down the harbour towards the Gordon River, passing salmon and ocean trout fish farms along the way.
The rain was relentless, but at least the rocking had stopped, all were accounted for and the initial strength of the tablets was easing off so I could once again function like a normal human being. As we entered the Gordon River, the boat’s speed dropped and we began our gentle cruise upstream. On either side of the riverbanks stood lush, green rainforest and although it was a miserable, grey day, it only complemented the waterway wilderness and made me appreciate it even more.
At Heritage Landing, the boat moored and we disembarked for a short, soggy boardwalk through the largest expanse of surviving temperate rainforest in the world. Some of the pine trees are thought to be over 2,000 years old.
Once back on the boat we stuffed our faces with a tasty chef-prepared buffet lunch as we headed back down the river and towards Sarah Island for a morbid history lesson. Sadly, due to the horrendous weather, my camera mostly stayed in my pocket throughout the Sarah Island tour, so I will try to be as descriptive as possible.
As we disembarked the boat once more and onto the creaky jetty, the ‘roaring forties’ wind and rain absolutely battered us. You know the kind – when you have to cover your face, half shut your eyes and can only hear people when you turn your head to the side. We wobbled across to the island and huddled in a group until everyone had made it safely across, then were greeted by our tour guide, who didn’t seem at all phased by the conditions, or the mass of ugly plastic ponchos flapping violently in the wind.
My hood was up and wrapped over half my face as me and Yas clung onto each other for warmth and stability. Our coats and trainers were soaked through and our hands were like ice. Although this was pretty damn horrid, I couldn’t help but think that at the end of it, I could go home, have a hot shower and dry off. Then I imagined being one of the convicts fresh off the boat; this was now their life – basic clothing, minimal shelter, limited food and worked to the bone with no relief from these conditions.
The penal settlement was operated between 1822 and 1833. It housed up to 385 convicts, most of whom were male and considered the worst of the worst and a few women (who were later moved, for obvious reasons).
The island was considered an ideal location for these men, you could even say it was naturally purpose built – separated from the mainland which, was a mountainous wilderness anyway, surrounded by treacherous waters and the only access to the ocean was through Hells Gates – and we all know what that’s bloody like. So generally escape attempts were not the best idea and many of those who tried, perished. Nonetheless, over 180 attempts were made and there were a few fellows who did actually make it (sort of).
Manchester born Matthew Brady (b. 1799) was part of a group of escapees who somehow managed to steal a small boat, sail up the River Derwent and then spend the next two years as bushrangers. He was considered a gentleman because he only robbed people in a ‘polite manner’ and rarely stole from or insulted the ladies. After 22 months of freedom, he was betrayed by a fellow gang member leading to his capture and was hanged in Hobart in 1826. R.I.P Brady, you suave thing, you.
Then there was Irishman Alexander Pearce (b. 1790), the casual cannibal. He escaped twice, both times snacking on his comrades. On his first attempt, he escaped with seven other men, who all soon began to starve out in the wild bush. Straws were drawn to see who would be eaten first and ultimately, Pearce was the last man standing. After escaping and being caught for a second time, his captors reported finding pieces of his fellow escapee in his pockets – even though he still had food provisions. Just before he was hanged in Hobart in 1824, it was reported he said; “Man’s flesh is delicious. It tastes far better than fish or pork.” NICE ONE MATE!
So along with there being some pretty fucking creepy dudes on the island, there was also malnutrition, dysentery and scurvy running rife, as well as daily floggings with the infamous ‘Macquarie cat’, a cat-o-nine tails much heavier and larger than normal, solitary confinement and even hangings. In fact, it was so bad that some convicts welcomed the threat of execution as a way of ending their suffering.
If that wasn’t enough, prisoners were also worked to death. Often chained together, gangs of labourers would fell Huon pine trees and raft them down the freezing river to the shipyard. At one period, Sarah Island was known as the largest shipbuilding yard in Australia, producing over 100 ships. Tanning, shoe-making and brick making was also successfully developed.
Access and security problems, as well as the opening of Port Arthur led to the closure of Sarah Island in 1833. Today, ruins still stand and the place has an incredibly eerie feel to it.
And that was that. Absolutely drenched and filled with new knowledge, we hopped back on the boat and cruised back to Strahan. For anyone visiting Strahan and interested in doing the cruise which, I highly recommend, click here for more info.
That night, I headed to the pub with a bunch of fellow staff members. It was a merry, rum-filled night and a great way of getting to know folks a little better. At around 1:30am I drunkenly led the troops up the hill in an attempt to start a house party. I say led, my friend Nico actually had to lead me as I was incapable. That’s when the police decided to investigate why a large group of people were staggering up towards staff accommodation and I ended up running through people’s bushes with a coat on my head like an absolute ninja. After evading the law and back in the house, the party was in full swing, music blaring, people dancing… for about 5 minutes. Then our neighbours shut it down. The rest is a blur, but I did wake up bruised and lay on an empty plastic bottle that had obviously once been full because there was a puddle of water underneath me. Outside there were bottles and glasses everywhere, a t-shirt, socks, a phone… the list goes on.
All in all, a fun start to my 27th year and a great temporary distraction from thinking about how damn old I am getting and how fast time here is Australia is flying.