Life on the edge of the wild north-west Tassie frontier.
Words and Images Jan Hawkins
Strahan is the last bastion of civilisation on the west coast of Tasmania. This remote fishing port sits sheltered in a bay by the vast, dark tannin depths of Macquarie Harbour; those waters that empty into the icy expanse of the Great Southern Ocean. Here waves are commonly whipped and foaming from the winds of the great Roaring Forties and the next land stop is west to the South African coastline, or south to Antarctica. Both are an ocean and a world away.
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In Strahan, you are living in remote wilderness and it’s breathtaking. Given the time, you will also find that the locals are as unique as their environment. Most people approach Strahan via the relatively new Murchison Highway from the north. It was built in 1963 and is now a main artery for the frontier town. Or you can drive up from Hobart in the south on the windy Lyell Highway as it weaves its way through the World Heritage wilderness.
The more adventurous 4X4 tourer will take the dirt track down from Arthur River in the remote north-west corner of the island; it leads you down through the Arthur Pieman Conservation Reserve, skirting inland from the wild west coast. But all in all, Strahan is a favoured destination for most people who have made their way onto the Apple Isle.
Often referred to as the northern gateway to the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, Strahan offers some wonderful experiences.
WEST COAST WILDERNESS RAILWAY
Everyone who has ever had the privilege of visiting this wonderfully remote outpost of civilisation will tell you about the West Coast Wilderness Railway. Of how they managed to secure a ticket or of how they sadly missed it. The railway, running 35km from Strahan to Queenstown, is a feat of engineering. It travels some of the steepest grades in the world and incorporates the ingenious rack and pinion system that hauls the train up those grades while you sit in comfort and intrigue. It is even more remarkable that this amazing system is still in use.
The railway was closed for nearly 50 years, and then for another stint as it underwent major upgrades. It now operates as a tourist attraction and it’s a journey not to be missed. You travel deep into the colonial history and the rugged mountain wilderness of the wild western forests; and as with the tale of the Tanglefoot tea (as told on the Wilderness Rail from Strahan to Queenstown – see video above), your experience will without doubt be unique.
The Wilderness Railway brings alive the stories of the region and the service is exceptional while you move along the rails in the most wonderfully comfortable and truly historic carriages. It’s an epic journey and we were more than pleased to secure our place on one of the full-day tours, for our adventure into the wild World Heritage region.
The service runs throughout the year with a range of full-day and half-day tours where you are drawn though the Gondwana forests – those unique cool temperate rainforests that can be buried deep in snow in winter, or dripping with rains as in a rainforest in the milder seasons. You are within reach of towering, hand-hewn rock walls and crossing deep gorges on rail bridges, hand-crafted and carefully built, on this truly iconic journey. Booking ahead is strongly recommended for this first-class experience.
For us, it was truly everything it ever promised to be. It was a simply unforgettable experience, from the honey tasting through to turning our hand to gold panning. A pinnacle point in our tour of Tassie.
Next on the conversation list with visitors: The boat tours deep into the World Heritage National Park. The cruise vessels venture out through Hells Gate, the feared path of the convict ships and traders from 150 years ago. These were the harbour gates to Sarah Island, which witnessed so many ships of sail broken up against the rocks of the narrow entrance while negotiating their way through into the magnificent Macquarie Harbour… so much so that now they have a ‘training wall’ for mariners to practice on when braving the incredibly dangerous and narrow entrance.
Sarah Island was the most notorious of the convict settlements and yet, in the end, one of the most successful in its short 11 years of operation. It was abandoned in favour of development of the historic Port Arthur Penal Settlement being built closer to Hobart.
The stories surrounding Sarah Island range from true barbarism including cannibalism to wonderfully remarkable feats such as the daring escape of Matthew Brady, the infamous bushranger who used the hazardous escape route along the coastline.
They are tales of incredible depravity and yet there is a tale that also ends in a magnificent success. Here you will discover the birth of the shipbuilding industry on the western coast – using convict slavery and the legendary timber Huon pine.
The cruise ships will also take you high into the Gordon River, along the same early path that the Huon pine axemen travelled. It was the Pinners who ventured into the ancient forests, who opened up the beauty of this wilderness and carefully harvested these unique trees along the still-wild rivers. These rivers remain the only reasonable access to the vast Wilderness Area; access that doesn’t involve some serious hiking or a set of wings.
Macquarie Harbour, part of this World Heritage wilderness, holds many secrets… not the least of which are the vast salmon farms that produce some of the world’s best salmon in the dark tannin-stained waters of the deep harbour.
Huon pine is the true story of Strahan and the Wild Western Rivers. It was the descendants of the axemen and their families, the like of the six-year-old Lindon Hubbard, along with those other descendants of colonial miners, who fought for the survival and protection of these ancient forests and their preservation as World Heritage treasures. Visiting Strahan is a wonderful journey into our history and heritage; and a real adventure. It is a journey that will stay with you for a long time and gift you with memories which are a delight to revisit. In fact it is an experience that would be very hard to forget.
THE SHIP THAT NEVER WAS
One of the best highlights in your visit to Strahan can be experienced for a few dollars near the Information Centre where they tell the tale of The Ship That Never Was – presented from September to May. This is a really hilarious and enjoyable melodrama about the brutal convict era. It is a true story as experienced at Sarah Island. It’s definitely a performance not to be missed, and one of the gems of the town… performed by locals in true wilderness fashion.
At Strahan Port, you can also still visit one of the old wood mills at work. You can smell the magnificent oils of the Huon pine being worked and crafted as this rich scent wafts across the incredibly dark waters of Macquarie Harbour and the harbourside streets of Strahan.
TOUR DETAILS AND COSTS
The Wilderness Railway leaves from Queenstown and Strahan. It offers a tier of services from full service in the Wilderness balcony carriages, down to the central Heritage carriages. Prices range from $100 per adult (bottom tier) to full service including lunch, snacks and a lovely glass of champers or juice with the price including all entertainment. Senior discounts are available. There is a family fare (two adults and three kids) for $240, with infants under two travelling free. There are full-day and half-day tour options.
There are two cruise companies operating cruise ships out of Strahan Harbour which offer varying levels of service on well-appointed crafts. There are half-day and full-day tours starting from around $80. Full-day tours include a delicious buffet lunch and all fares are complemented with bar service; also offering drinks, snacks, tea and coffee. The difference between the price tiers is in the seating (and the crowds); top tier being on the upper decks with window seating.
The Ship That Never Was theatre production has been running for 23 years and is something not to be missed. It is performed near the Information Centre at Strahan Harbour at 5.30pm nightly during the tourist season, September to May. Adult prices are $20, with concessions at $15. I highly recommend it. If you are going to stay overnight in Strahan get yourself along to this pantomime and enjoy a truly great experience!