The alarm went off reliably this morning and we were down at the wharf in plenty of time for our cruise on the Eagle, the red boat run by World Heritage Cruises, an outfit that boasts five generations in the business. Today there were just eighty passengers, a much more pleasant number than a full contingent of two hundred and twenty two would be, a sentiment confirmed by one of the hostesses.
We were most impressed with the very smart and modern Eagle, an aluminium catamaran of 35 metres, a beam of nine metres and a draft of two. It was launched in 2007 and stacks up well against its competitor, the Lady Jane II. By all accounts there is little between the two services, offering the same route for the same price, but the Lady Jane sets off half an hour earlier and offers more exclusivity to the clientele in the top echelon, the plebs do not have access to the captain as do those who travel on the Eagle. We were however very well satisfied with our day on the red boat.
We set off down the harbour to Hells Gate, the aptly named entrance in from the wild western seas. Explorers Bass and Flinders failed to identify this as any more than a river mouth. The entrance is just seventy five metres wide and requires some negotiation. In 1900 William Napier Bell designed a massive wall, three kilometres long, five metres deep and the same wide, to maintain the channel in the same place and deepen it at the same time. A breakwater was built at the same time, and all of this remains today allowing boats like the Eagle and the Lady Jane to exit and re-enter to thrill the tourists. We were treated to many stories all about the entrance, the disasters and the natural wonders of the place, but I would be doing the companies a disservice to repeat them all here.
|A trout fish farm|
Today as our boat nudged up to one such pen, we saw many fish jumping about, apparently happy and healthy, and obviously ignorant of their future status on a plate. The aquacultural operations undergo all sorts of controls for quality, density and a number of other tests, and then there are the licences and permits and other red tape. A desire to expand operations and production is no easy matter, even if enhanced employment and economic output are no-brainers.
Our next stop was Sarah Island, which was the precursor to Port Arthur, operating from 1822 through to 1833, although this very small island, just 2 miles in circumference housed 380 convicts, up to 95 military personnel, and forty civilians including women and children during its heyday. The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station’s reputation as the bloodiest and most brutal penal has been immortalised in Marcus Clarke’s For The Term of His Natural Life and many subsequent publications, as well as this now celebrated cruise and a nightly play staged in the Strahan Amphitheatre, a performance that has been running for twenty years and 5,000 performances. Again I could say much more but would spoil the punch lines for those who want to follow in our footsteps. I will say however that it was here that Scotsman David Hoy was one of the “goodies”, providing guidance and training in boat building, one of the more positive outcomes to emminate from Sarah Island, and this activity was continued at Port Arthur.
|Janelle, our story-teller on Sarah Island|
We considered seriously attending the play tonight but in the end settled for buying a couple of little books which tell the stories in a more factual way than Marcus Clarke’s historical fiction Chris is currently reading.
On the island itself, we all followed guide Janelle as she took us from place to place and filled our head with stories, amusing, shocking, educating and entertaining us. Janelle is part of The Round Earth Company, and while she personally is not involved in the long playing “The Ship That Never Was”, is an amazing entertainer. As wide as she is tall, a most unimpressive person in a crowd, she emerges on the “stage” like a butterfly from a chrysalis; confident, dazzling, mesmerising.
|Reboarding on the Gordon River|
The Gordon River has the largest flow of all Tasmanian Rivers, rising at Lake Richmond not far from Derwent Bridge, passing through Lake Gordon and the Strathgordon Dam. Its largest tributary is the famous Franklin River.
We travelled about fourteen kilometres up the river, learning about the Piners and the Huon Pines as we went. A jetty seeming to jut out from nowhere led us onto a short walkway built in 1989 through river-flat rainforest. This is far as commercial boats are permitted to travel upstream in the river. Further downriver we had passed the Boom Camp, now a fishing hut, originally a piners’ camp. Huon Pine logs were floated from upstream and collected there at the boom, a wire rope attached to logs and anchored near the far bank allowing access by boat. The logs were formed into rafts and towed back to Strahan by small steamers, when there were about five sawmills in operation.
Huon Pines were milled by the convicts during the Sarah Island years; in fact the whole point of locating the station here was to provide timber for the mushrooming Hobart, however transport of that timber proved problematic. The timber was of particular value to boat-builders because it resisted the marine worm, terrido navalis, which turned good oak into rotten sponge. Logging was resumed during the years from 1860 until 1964, the reign of the Piners, until cutting of the timber was prohibited.
Since then it is only the cut logs retrieved from the forest or those caught up in the rivers that are allowed to be collected and processed. Despite the fact that many of these have sat about on forest floor or buried in mud, the oil in the pine has preserved the timber in excellent condition. At the Heritage Landing Nature Walk, we learned much about the special features of the Huon Pine from pretty young Katie, who probably had a doctorate in biology, but works as one of the hostesses on board. The Huon pines only grow to about thirty metres tall but to a very great age. Many of those still living in the forest are over 2,000 years old, one even having been dated at 2,500 years old. Needless to say, they grow very slowly, taking at least three to four hundred years to reach maturity. They have no capacity to recover from fire, however fortunately grow in places that have heavy rainfall so fire is not as likely as occur as it does in other parts of Australia. Only 10,500 hectares of Huon pine remain, of which 7,666 hectares lie in the World Heritage Area, nearly all of it concentrated in the rainforest lined valleys of the Franklin and Gordon rivers and their tributaries.
|Salvaged Huon Pine awaiting their demise|
Today it is on the South Coast walking route and passed through by those crazy folk who undertake the sixteen day trek. The nearest road access to this place is here at Strahan or that down south of Southport, which if you check the map, is no road access at all.
On board our luxury cruise, we were fed well as we travelled up the river, on ham, corned beef and smoked salmon, Tasmanian cheeses and a wonderful assortment of salads. Many took advantage of the bar and by the time we headed back down the harbour for Strahan, the full bellies and midday alcohol took its toll on many; heads nodded and mouths fell open. Fortunately we had not indulged on anything other than coffee so remained awake sufficiently to enjoy every moment of the cruise, the commentary, the DVDs that were played to inform and entertain, and of course our sleepy fellow passengers.
We docked beside the Morrisons’s Huon pine working mill where we were treated to an exhibition of a Huon log being sawn up, various Tasmanian timber samples were handed about and we were urged by the talented and versatile Janelle to view the array of turned and carved trinkets in the adjoining shop.
This we did, sniffing and enjoying the wonderful aroma of Huon pine, marvelling at the weird and wonderful objects for sale and then escaped without adding any more objects to our hoard of possessions we are already towing about.
After five and a half hours on tour, we were ready to settle down for a quiet evening, without further entertainment, and to ready ourselves for our departure from yet another marvellous Tasmanian destination.
And a confession, a rather sad, or perhaps, pathetic, confession: I popped out to the local store a little while ago and realised as I was driving all alone on this short stretch of road, this was the first time since February this year I had been behind the wheel, alone in the vehicle, and even worse, probably the first time I had been alone, apart from when I go off to the amenities or laundry, since then as well. This is indicative of the togetherness one enjoys travelling and living as we are. It is just as well that my husband and I are best mates.