Day 139: Tassie Explorer Part 6 – Sarah Island *Spoiler Alert*

Day 6 offered a variation on bus transport, with a boat cruise around Macquarie Harbour and up the Franklin-Gordon River.

Don’t be fooled. This wasn’t going to be a pootle around a small seaside harbour like Filey in Yorkshire.

The total distance of the journey to be covered was around 65 miles.

The Harbour is one of the largest landlocked in the world. It is approximately 180 square miles, and has an average depth of 15m, with deeper places up to 50m

The first settlement at Macquarie Harbour was on Sarah Island, a small island in the harbour. This island was used as a prison for recalcitrant prisoners from other settlements in Tasmania, due to its extreme isolation and extreme climate.

Later the small port of Strahan, where I was staying, was developed on the shores of Macquarie Harbour to support the nearby mining settlements, mainly Queenstown.

Its water is brackish and dolphins and seals can often be spotted in the water.

Which reminds me… did I see a platypus last night?


This morning, someone was successful. I heard the hostel owner enthusiastically congratulating someone on their sharp eyes and for managing to get a photograph.

Maybe early morning is the answer…

Back to the cruise.

We sailed out of Kelly Channel to Hell’s Gates, the entrance to the Harbour, a name given by convicts on their way to the penal colony on Sarah Island.

Approaching the Gate

Hell’s Gate is a narrow and tricky channel to navigate. Over the years many ships were lost if the conditions were rough. The temptingly wide gap on the other side of Entrance Island, where a lighthouse marked the way through the deepest part of the channel, was very shallow – we could see waves breaking, apparently over the waters flowing out of the Harbour.

Entrance Island

We continued along Kelly’s Channel in the sunshine. On either side we were surrounded by mountains and beaches with not a soul in sight.

My seat in the sunshine (indoors, too windy on deck) was very comfortable as we passed down the Western Mountains.

This area is rich in minerals – zinc, aluminium, copper and gold was discovered in this remote part of Tasmania in the 1870s, some 30-40 years after the Victoria boom that saw Melbourne’s rise to prominence.

But no city was established here.

We paused at the fish farms – mostly salmon but also trout – circular farms, netted above and around to keep the fish in and the seabirds out. A flock of seagulls had landed on one and were being hosed to encourage their departure.

It did not appear to be working.

We arrived at Sarah Island at 10.15am, having departed Strahan at 9am. If you’re planning to do this trip, stop reading now for quite a few paragraphs.

Spoiler alert and honestly, the tour of the Island is delivered so well and so engaging that, to continue reading, would spoil the trip for you.

Scroll until you see the ship’s flag.

Have they gone?

Everyone else, grab a mug of tea. This is a great story.

Van Diemen’s Land was a place of transportation. As we know, from Port Arthur, some penal colonies were made even more horrendous for those who reoffended.

Sarah Island preceded Port Arthur and it was hell on earth.

A far cry from how it used to look.

Opened in 1822, it operated for twelve years and 12,000 convicts landed here, but there are a few puzzles here, namely:

Why did it go from being hell on earth to being one of the best and most productive shipyards in Australia?

Why, after six years, did men stop trying to escape?

Why did men start manipulating the prison system to be sent here?

In the early years of Sarah Island, there were repeated escape attempts.

The Island had been cleared of all vegetation, there was no shelter from the wind, the rain, the sun. Punishments were barbaric – the lead lined cat o’nine tails was used frequently. Food was abysmal – convicts were dying of dysentery, malnutrition and cholera. Convicts were killing themselves and each other to escape.

Others were trying to escape but stay alive.

Two noteworthy attempts were by Alexander Pearce who escaped twice.

The first time, with a group of men and an axe. Travelling cross country to Hobart, they tried to gather food and hunt animals to, no avail.

Pearce introduced the other men to the idea of cannibalism.

By the time he reached Hobart, he was last man standing. For reasons unclear, he handed himself in and confessed.

He wasn’t believed and returned to Sarah Island where the commandant was incensed that Pierce had proved the possibility of escape.

Retribution was harsh and Pierce escaped again, taking another man with him… a travelling larder.

He was caught and, this time, found with a hand in his pocket that wasn’t his own.

Pearce was executed.

In 1826, James Goodwin escaped and also made it to Hobart. He made his way to Hobart taking detailed notes of his route and when he arrived…

… and his notes reviewed…

…He was appointed to the Surveyor General’s office.

Later, Matthew Brady, the gentleman bushranger also escaped with ten men, promising the rest that he would return with an army to free the rest.

The Island convicts revolted.

A new commandant had arrived to impose order…unsuccessfully… cancelling the lash (cat o’nine tails) and imposing a prison.

The convicts worked together in many instances – exploiting the poor communication between Hobart and the Island, and the fact that the camp commandant, military and medics answered to different command structures.

They set officers and medics up for punishment and dismissal.

They collaborated with officers in the contraband trade of wood carvings and wallaby skin tanning to earn money and get hold of fresh meat to supplement their diet.

Men were soon trying to be sent to Sarah Island because they could actually profit from their time here.

However, when word of Matthew Brady’s capture and hanging – so much for the rescuing army -reached the Island, the convicts rioted. The commandant resigned.

Meanwhile, throughout all of this, the convicts were profiting because of illicit trading, (though the guards were making more money) but was that enough reason to stop trying to escape, and why did the Island become a shipyard?

Enter Scotsman David Hoy – a self made man of substantial fortune and working in the shipyards of Boston, some of the finest at that time.

He heard about the Huon Pine – a tree that produced wood resistant to rot and insects that would burrow into timbers and destroy them.

Hoy moved to Hobart to establish a shipyard there but the pine wasn’t available there and there wasn’t a workforce.

Answer: Sarah Island

Penal colonies were places of punishment but also places where convicts were producing goods required by society.

Sarah Island had access to the Huon Pine. It had ship yards and was building ships. It had a workforce.

Hoy applied for a job as shipwright.

He arrIslands the commandant left and made a deal with the convicts. Work with him, learn the skills necessary for building ships, build the ships and conditions could improve.


In 1828, the escape attempts ceased.

Sarah Island became the most productive shipyard in Australia. Men were learning skills and working.

Remnants of the shipyards. The huon pine survives.

Surely a satisfactory result?

Not so.

Port Arthur was built with the aim of delivering what Sarah Island was now failing to.

In 1832, escape attempts from Sarah Island began again – this time to avoid being sent to Port Arthur.

In 1834, Sarah Island closed.

Ok, if you were skipping paragraphs, THIS is where you can come back.

After this utterly engaging tour and tale, we returned to the boat and began sailing up the Franklin-Gordon River, while a tasty buffet lunch was served.

The river cuts through the forest and out next stop was Heritage Bay for a guided walk describing the plants and trees growing here.

I did not join this and just strolled along the circular boarded walkway through the woodland.

The cruise back to Strahan took us at a leisurely pace back down the river and once we reached the mouth, opening out into the Harbour, the boat picked up speed.

There are few things nicer than sitting on the sunny deck of a ship watching the world go by.

Within an hour of leaving Heritage Bay, we were slowing to enter Strahan’s bay and dock.

The trip wasn’t quite over as we were shown through the Morrison’s Saw Mill to watch them in action working on the Huon Pine.

It is illegal to cut Huon Pine now and the now fourth-generation family run business can only work with downers and drifters – wood reclaimed after being washed down the river from the hills or washed up from the sea.

There were logs piled up by the harbour and I thought it wasn’t a lot to make the business viable. The actual supply, a huge yard pointed out by Phil after he picked up the boat trippers, was a few kilometres from Strahan… around a million dollars worth of wood.

We were heading for Ocean Beach. The hikers who had gone to Henty Beach and Montezuma Falls, while we were on the boat, were in need of some leisure time.

The River Cruise that I did today is an additional option on the Tassie Tour with Under Down Under Tours and costs 90AUD. This includes the cruise, a highly entertaining tour of Sarah Island, a filling buffet lunch, a guided walk and informative (I’m told) discussion at Heritage Bay on the Huon Pine and a display at the Saw Cutting Mill.

Is it worth it? Yes

This was my penultimate day with Under Down Under Tours and I have two more tasks to complete before I leave Tasmania:

  1. Eat a curried scallop pie.
  2. Spot that bloody platypus.
Categories: Australia, Nature/Landscapes, Tasmania, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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