Today we’re back in luxury mode as we take a cruise on a catamaran, first exploring Macquarie Harbour, which is the second largest in Australia and therefore much bigger than the more famous Sydney Harbour, before heading past the old penal colony of Sarah Island and up the Gordon River into a UNESCO World Heritage Area of temperate rainforest.
Luxury is not an exaggeration. Sparkling wine is available on tap, and they seem to feed us at least once an hour. No such luxury for the skipper however. We are seated on the captain’s deck and if we get bored with the view outside we can turn our attention to him instead and watch him drive the catamaran, constantly fiddling with knobs and dials while gazing at a bank of VDU screens.
The captain obviously knows where he’s going, which in the first instance is out past Bonnet Island, where we watched penguins yesterday evening. From there a narrow channel, marked by a lighthouse, gives access from the Harbour to the Southern Ocean through Hell’s Gates:
However it is not the narrowness of the channel, the risk of running aground or the savagery of the waves on the Southern Ocean that led to this place being called Hell’s Gate. Rather, this was the name conferred on it by convicts on their way to Sarah Island.
The Sarah Island penal colony was established partly because it was very difficult to escape from, but the determining factor was the British navy’s need, in the years after the Napoleonic War, to access high quality Huon Pine timber to build new warships, usable oak currently being in short supply in England. And who better to undertake the back-breaking and dangerous work of felling the timber in the dark, impenetrable rainforest than a bunch of convicts? Not only did they work for free, but the convicts were not protected by health and safety legislation, or indeed any legislation at all.
Our cruise drops us off at Sarah Island for an hour. Although convicts were forced to work on number of trades on behalf of their masters, most notably the building of ships with the timber they had felled, there’s not much to show that they were ever here, just scattered ruins:
But in the hands of a guide the stories live on, stories of a brutal and sadistic regime, of desperate prisoners and corrupt guards, of failed escape attempts and of cannibalism amongst men who did manage to flee the island only to find that there was nothing to eat on the nearby mainland except each other (see my review of the movie Van Dieman’s Land earlier in this blog, which tells the story of infamous cannibal convict Alexander Pearce.)
Later that day, back in Strahan, we attend a theatrical performance that dramatises a remarkable event from Sarah Island’s dark and shameful history, the escape to Chile of some convicts who stole a boat they were being made to build. It’s been running for some 23 years, which makes it Australia’s longest running play. The Ship That Never Was is great fun, with lots of laughs and plenty of audience participation. Julie and I find ourselves called upon to play a pair of disreputable scoundrels, so absolutely no type-casting there.
The cruise also takes us up the Gordon River into virgin rainforest. Well not quite virgin if truth be told, as the forest was systematically ravaged by the convicts searching for Huon Pine on behalf of their guards. Now the forest is fully protected and is recovering but as the diameter of a Huon Pine trunk grows by just one millimetre per year and a decent specimen can be more than 2,000 years old it will be many generations before the impact of the convicts is fully eradicated. Nevertheless to the untrained eye the forest looks in good shape, and it’s great to spend time in such a special place that is a million miles away from our everyday existence in the UK.