Cruising a Tasmanian treasure

The minute I walk through the glass doors of the Gordon River Cruises reception building, I know I’m going to be looked after. I’m greeted with a “Good Morning” and a smile, the day ahead mapped out for me and a warm feeling that I’m in for a real treat.

Boarding the beautiful brand-new Spirit of the Wild – Gordon River Cruises’ stunning 33.8m catamaran, purpose-built for cruising in the UNESCO Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area – that feeling remains.

Welcomed and led up to the Upper Deck, I sit to look out at the majestic Macquarie Harbour sunrise. Coffees are ordered (free) and pastries are piled onto a plate. The breakfast platters are most enticing: French pastries, tarts and Danishes, fruit salad and yoghurt cups.

The group of fellows who’ve just boarded take another tack.

“Three Cascade Lagers, please!”

It’s 8.45am and we’re about to pull away from the pier. All food and drinks, including alcohol are included in the price of the Premier Upper Deck fare. These guys look as though they’re going to make sure they get their money’s worth. Well played boys.

We head out along the, so far, tranquil harbour waters. Macquarie Harbour is a huge, shallow inlet on Tasmania’s west coast. It has an average depth of 15m, so is perfect for shallow-draft vessels. As we head towards Hells Gates (what am I in for here?) we’re treated to the first in a series of informative – and entertaining – videos explaining the history of the area and its people.

The route we are taking is the one convicts would have first travelled when being shipped to what was known as ‘Hell on Earth’ – Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, located on Sarah Island. Hells Gates were so called because that was the entrance to the harbour that led, you guessed it, straight to ‘hell’.

We sail alongside the ingenious ‘training wall’ – designed by William Napier Bell, made in 1900 by 300 men who laid, by hand, an underwater boulder wall that to this day directs the current to ‘scour’ sand and maintain a deep channel to ease passage for larger vessels.

Passing lighthouses and hearing the tales of the families who lived there, we head through Hells Gates in to the roaring Southern Ocean. The weather turns but the rain and the whipping winds just add to the ambience.

Looking out to the furious Southern Ocean, you can see how difficult it would have been for old wood ships to navigate these treacherous waters, but the luxury catamaran in which I stand today barely registers the chop.

Back inside the cabin and it’s time for a beer and a pepperberry tart. It’s one of two tasty treats that come out as mid-morning snacks. The other is a super tasty potato and leek soup – so good that I’m annoyed that my tongue can’t reach the bottom of the cup in which it’s served to soak up the moreish remains.

Trekking now towards the Gordon River, we pass many salmon farms – each ‘pod’ containing up to 40,000 fish that grow up to be served on plates around the world – before entering the mouth of the river passage that will take us deep into the Tasmanian rainforest wilderness.

Just think: we may not even have had the opportunity to see this pristine area should the State Government have dammed the river to suit hydro interests. While the protests may not have been popular at the time, we’re now reaping the rewards of the bravery and work of those environmental warriors.

Lush, green forests bleed into the water, rich with wildlife and oh-so-dense vegetation that looks almost prehistoric. Indeed, some of it is. While photographs can barely do it justice, nonetheless, I snap away furiously from the top deck in an effort to capture the scene.

I also take the opportunity to have a chat with the captain on what I find out is his maiden voyage. I ask him if an office could be any more picturesque. His response is as you would expect. His mission today is to steer us clear of the logs and fallen trees that have been washed down the mountains after what many locals were calling a hundred-year storm that occurred the week before. Still, it must be difficult to watch the waters so intently when the surrounding landscape is so mind-blowingly beautiful. I’m glad I’m a passenger.

As we sail along the Gordon River in virtual silence – the vessel’s unique hybrid drive system has switched to electric engines that barely make a sound and really remove any distractions from the panorama – we’re appraised of the types of trees we’re viewing, some of which are hundreds if not thousands of years old.

Next stop: Heritage Landing, where we take a quick walk through the heart of Tasmania’s heritage-listed rainforest. We stop at a 2300-year-old Huon Pine which has fallen but has 141 trees growing from its trunk and branches. Our guide, Jock, points out the different species and their uses. Some were used for ship masts, others for construction and special purposes, but the really special species is the Huon, once so highly sought after for its magnificent marine properties, being the most preferred wood for making ships that were the envy of the world. Cutting live Huon pines is now illegal, as there are barely any large trees left. It’s a slow-growing species: a tree with a 20cm diameter trunk would be around 600 years old.

Back onboard and we’re greeted by a sumptuous buffet lunch: fresh and smoked Petuna Seafoods salmon from one of the farms we passed earlier (both so tasty!); local ocean trout fillets, warm Asian chicken salad, an amazing array of healthy mixed grain, bean, legume and vegetable salads – all Tasmanian produce – that has my mouth watering. I pile it high and sit with a Josef Chromy Sav Blanc and stare out the window at natural beauty we pass. 

On the way back to ‘port’, we visit Sarah Island, where we’re taken on a riveting tour by our guide Kiah Davey from The Round Earth Company. Once home to Australia’s most brutal penal colony, the island actually became quite the respected shipyard.

Stocks of Huon pine were difficult to ferry out through the treacherous heads, so Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell – the man who founded ‘Hell’ – realised that the penal colony could be made economically viable by building ships on site instead of elsewhere. So, the convicts were trained as shipwrights and they churned out over 131 ships in 12 years.

The Sarah Island tour is truly fascinating and for me is the highlight of the cruise. So much history, so many stories, all told by master storyteller Kiah Davey, whose father Richard, literally wrote the book on Sarah Island, as well as Australia’s longest running play The Ship That Never Was, which hilariously documents the great final escape from the colony.

As we sail quietly back to Strahan I take in one last mental snapshot (and a few physical ones as well) of the rainforest and the river. The Gordon River Cruise is one river journey all Australians can afford to take. Main deck tickets start at $135, where you’ll have access to buffets, drinks and snacks for a cost. But take it from me, upgrading to the Premier Upper Deck will have you spoiled all day long. All food and drinks are included, and the views are the best on board. It’s a luxury river cruise in a day and a highlight of any west coast visit.

Leon travelled as a guest of Tourism Tasmania and Gordon River Cruises.

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The hangman of Hobart Town

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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