Our cruise across Macquarie Harbour and up the Gordon River was scheduled to leave from Strahan at 9:00 am and we needed to be there to claim our reservations and pay by 8:30 am. We had arranged to meet at 8:15 but everybody was ready to go before that so we set off. There was a crowd already at the pier and boarding had begun when we arrived. Majella had arranged a group booking so it was a simple process of paying our fares and boarding.
Passengers were allocated seats as they boarded to ensure everybody had a place but we were assured there were no restrictions on moving around the boat to see what might be happening. Our seats were at two six-seater tables by large windows on the starboard side – 6 at one table and 4 at the other. That allowed us very good views of what was happening outside without the need to venture out onto the deck where effect of the cool morning air would be magnified by the 40 km / hr wind generated by the speed of the boat. We discovered during the departure announcements that the vessel was actually a whale watching catamaran from Moreton Island which was leased for the 6 months of peak activity in Strahan which coincides with the off season for whales in Queensland.
Our boat carried about 200 passengers and soon after we boarded, the local boat departed ahead of us with a similar number of passengers. It is clearly a popular tourist activity during the season but we learned later that the numbers in winter are much smaller.
We departed on schedule at 9:00 and eased up the channel out of Strahan until we reached the main channel in Macquarie Harbour. At that point they let loose and we headed for Hells Gates, the name given to the narrow entrance to Macquarie Harbour. It is so narrow that it was long ago abandoned as a route for larger cargo ships and any large freight is moved by rail or road. The major activity in the area now is tourism and aquaculture of salmon and ocean trout. With the boat at full throttle there was a stiff breeze up front and only the hardiest members of our group ventured out to experience that. The rest remained inside where the view from the windows was unobstructed and eyes were less inclined to water.
The Hell Gates channel is marked by twin lighthouses built on islands on either side of the channel. In previous times the houses on the point south of the channel housed personnel who serviced the lighthouses but they are now used as weekenders by locals who enjoy fishing, diving and other nautical activities.
Depending on weather conditions the cruise plan includes a short excursion through Hells Gates and out into the Southern Ocean and the Roaring Forties. We were lucky that the weather was fine, though there was thick smoke from the forest fires obscuring the view, and we were able to venture out into the ocean. It was so calm that the boat captain pressed on further and took us as far as the north side of Cape Sorrel where we could see the tallest lighthouse in Tasmania. We paused for a while out there before heading back through Hells Gates.
Our next stop was by a fish farm. The system in use is one in which large circular structures are moored so that they float in a suitable part of the harbour. When in use they have nets to contain the fish and nets above to keep out marauding birds. The combination of fresh water from the rivers in the top layers and salt water beneath makes it possible to raise both trout, in the fresh, and salmon, in the salt. Fish are bred in hatcheries elsewhere in Tasmania and trucked in as required. Each farm structure contains around 30 000 fish and the cycle is about 3 years from hatching to harvest and sale. We did see some fish breaking the surface in the structure we visited but I also noticed some floating on the surface. Evidently not all of them make it to harvest.
On our way south we stopped for an hour at Sarah Island, location of a notorious convict settlement. It was the site on which For the Term of His Natural Life was based and, prior to Port Arthur, was the most brutal of the penal settlements. We had the option to simply wander on the island or join a guided tour operated for the cruise company by another local group. Fortunately we chose the guided option and thoroughly enjoyed the dramatic presentation provided by our guide, Chris. He was clearly working to a well structured script but made it come to life with a mixture of voice, gesture, and audience involvement. He stepped us around the main part of the island, introducing 7 puzzles based on apparent anomalies in the historical record, and then gave us the solution at the end. Interestingly, what had turned the brutal penal colony into a productive hub of industry that built over 100 boats of various sizes in 12 years was a change to a more humane treatment of the prisoners that brought their cooperation. As is too often the case it seems the authorities learned nothing from that success and instead of extending and replicating it built Port Arthur to be a more brutal operation still. The island still has remnants of some remarkable structures built during that period.
From Sarah Island our boat headed south to the mouth of the Gordon River. Lunch was served along the way. It was an excellent buffet with salads, ham, salmon, cheese, fruit and bread. There was plenty of it and we all enjoyed a filling lunch which finished just in time for our arrival at our rainforest destination.
The cruise does not get as far as the junction of the Franklin and Gordon Rivers, which is about 14 km from the mouth and beyond the point navigable by a boat of the size being used. Instead we went as far as the top of the big horse shoe bend and then came back down a hundred metres or so to a landing maintained for such excursions. It has a boardwalk through the forest with a smattering of explanatory signage supplemented by some commentary by members of the crew. There were examples of various tree species, including the Huon Pines that Majella was keen to see. The ‘piners’ who extracted the logs from the forest took only those that were best suited to their purposes – long straight logs easily extracted – and left trees that were less economically attractive. The location where we stopped had several of those, mostly with bends or growing out of fallen logs. There were other items of interest including one of the largest bracket fungi I’ve ever seen.
We had about 30 minutes ashore at that point but the captain was keen to get away promptly because we were already late on account of the extra time out on the ocean in the morning. We motored slowly down to the mouth of the river. We had come up slowly too in order to avoid damage to banks from the wash. Once we reached open water the boat took off again and went as quickly as possible back to Strahan, arriving at about 3:20, 20 minutes later than scheduled.
The last part of the excursion, after landing, was a visit to the Huon Pine sawmill on the docks. We watched that for a bit and then visited the store. Majella was keen to own a piece of pine as a breadboard or platter so we bought a large piece with a hint of bark along one edge and carved recesses for handles. It should serve her purpose well.
Then it was back to our accommodation for a rest before venturing out for a drive around town at 5:30 pm. That took us to the station from which the rack and pinion train runs and a few other locations around town, including a lookout by the water tower. We took the opportunity to do some shopping for tomorrow and to fill up with fuel before heading back to buy dinner from Molly’s takeaway across the street.
Majella had discovered last night that the creek near our accommodation had platypus but a quick look had not found any action. During our rest time this afternoon she had bumped into a young man who was working in the garden and asked if there were platypus to be seen in the creek. He also worked as a guide and provided some details of where he and friends had seen platypus in the nearby creek. We took his advice and went out at 5:00 pm for a look in several locations but found nothing. When we returned for dinner, Majella went for another look without success but Russell and others reported seeing some action in the creek. After dinner and before walking down to the foreshore to watch the sunset we tried again. On that occasion we met two Swiss visitors who had seen platypus in the creek and had a clear photo to prove it but we still saw nothing. On the way back from watching the sunset, a non-event because of the smoke still hanging around, Warwick led us across a bridge near where the creek enters the harbour. As he crossed ahead of us he spotted a platypus. Most of us managed to see it clearly, though it was too dark for photos by then, and some of us thought we saw a second one. I think that ticks Majella’s box so we won’t have to be up at 6:00 am to look again.