Convict Island

In the farthest corner of an island almost at the very bottom of the world, on the fringes of a vast wilderness and accessible only by a tempestuous ocean are the crumbling ruins of a convict settlement. Between 1822 and 1834 Tasmania’s Sarah Island housed many of Britain’s most dangerous and troublesome convicts. The site was a natural prison and was the most notorious of the penal settlements. If you managed to escape the island you still had to navigate the massive Macquarie Harbour and traverse through hundreds of kilometres of thick, impenetrable and mountainous rainforest for any chance of freedom. Some escapees even surrendered when they realised they couldn’t survive in the wilderness while some ate (!) their fellow escapees to sustain their arduous journeys.

'Hells Gates' the only way into Sarah Island

‘Hells Gates’ the only way into Sarah Island

Our convict experience was a little less dramatic as we jumped on a lovely cruise boat and meandered around Macquarie Harbour in drizzly rain, drinking cups of tea and eating fresh Tasmanian salmon farmed locally in the harbour waters. Macquarie Harbour is six times bigger than Sydney Harbour. The only seaward access is/was through a treacherous narrow channel known as Hells Gates which spills out into the legendary ‘Roaring Forties’. The next stop across the ocean is South America. Due to the calm weather our boat was able to exit Hells Gates and take a little journey along the coast and back before crossing the Harbour again and heading up the Gordon River. The Gordon River is now World Heritage rainforest following a lengthy battle to stop it being dammed in the 1980s. It is a spectacular and peaceful river flanked by thick rainforest which is hard to even see through let alone walk through. This was tough country for the convicts and loggers who came here to find Huon Pine.

The Sarah Island Ruins - this is the old bake house

The Sarah Island Ruins – this is the old bake house

The pictures tell a better story…

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Calm waters near Strahan in Macquarie Harbour. Don’t be fooled – this is rarely as calm as this.

 

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Leaving Strahan

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I can drive a boat

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Lighthouse at Hell’s Gates, the entrance point to Macquarie Harbour and Sarah Island

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The not-so ‘Roaring Forties’. This is usually a wild ocean. There are many boats which were ship wrecked here in big waves in the early settlement days.

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Sarah Island’s penitentiary. Before the area was classed as World Heritage locals and visitors weren’t shy in stealing the odd brick or ten to help them build their own houses in nearby Strahan. Sadly this means a lot of the old buildings are no longer visible. Hefty fined are in place nowadays for anyone wanting their own piece of this violent history.

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Sarah Island ruins. When the convicts were here all the trees on the island were cleared, resulting in the wind howling through the complex and making it impossible to even plant a cabbage. A wind break had to be erected around the island to stop the storms blasting through.

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Gordon River rainforest and mushrooms.

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Doing it tough in Macquarie Harbour

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The calm and pristine waters of the Gordon River. Convicts would row up here to log Huon Pine trees which were used in the new colony to build boats.

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