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A big appeal about taking a trip Tasmania is the island’s wild, remote regions. Of course, these places aren’t always that easy to access, such is their nature. It means you often have approach things a little differently if you want to explore the wilderness of Tasmania. And in the case of west coast of Tasmania, the Macquarie Harbour and Gordon River cruise is the way to go.

Setting out from the gentle town of Strahan, this cruise takes tourists to spots along waterways within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. What makes this such a special day trip is that you get to experience a fascinating assortment of historical and natural attractions that surround Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon River. So, if you’re curious about what to do in Strahan while in western Tasmania, this is what to expect from a Macquarie Harbour cruise.


Why Visit Macquarie Harbour?

Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon River offer the perfect combination of nature and history. Tasmania is famous for its convict history, but most tourists only know about Port Arthur. Truth be told though it pales in comparison to the colonial history of Macquarie Harbour and Sarah Island. Think tales of prison breaks, cannibalism, and corruption. If you’ve read the novel or seen the miniseries of For the Term of His Natural Life, Macquarie Harbour is one of its main settings.

But the natural side to the Gordon River and Macquarie Harbour is just as fascinating. Both places provide the easiest access to the UNESCO-listed Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. There you’ll find incredible rainforests, rugged coastline and picture-perfect landscapes to look at.


Past the Macquarie Heads

After setting out from Strahan, the first destination for the cruise is the Macquarie Heads, also known as Hells Gates. This spot is the entrance to the harbour from the Southern Ocean and is marked by two lighthouses, one on Entrance Island and the other on Cape Sorell. The mouth of the harbour earned the name Hells Gates because convicts passing through considered their end destination, Sarah Island, hell on earth.

Normally, cruises go out as far as Entrance Island and then turn back once they reach the open ocean. The waves are just too choppy most days for it to be worth going beyond that point. Fortunately for me, I visited on one of the rare days where the water was still enough to go out onto the open ocean. The boat’s captain said it happens usually less than 20 days a year and sounded genuinely excited to get the chance.

Port Sorell Lighthouse

Beyond seeing both lighthouses and spying a remote home or two on shore, what really stood out was the impressive sea fog. All to the north along the coastline there was a thick layer of bright white fog covering the ocean, that gave the heads an eerie vibe. I’m sure seeing the harbour covered in that fog would have only added to the dread felt by convicts arriving to the area.


Sarah Island

Sarah Island

Returning to Macquarie Harbour, the first landfall on the cruise is at Sarah Island. Although its name sounds so innocent, there’s some pretty dark history to this small inconspicuous island. You see, Sarah Island was once home to the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, a notorious convict settlement used from 1822 to 1833.

The island still has ruins from buildings built for the settlement, including parts of the bakery, solitary confinement cells and houses. A guided tour during your stop takes you for a lap to see the remains of the settlement and so that you can learn about life here and those that unwillingly called it home.

There’s really no underselling how awful this convict settlement was. Sarah Island was mainly used for convicts caught escaping other penal colonies and the worst of the worst. Murderers and cannibals were in great supply here. But the conditions were equally bad, with food in short supply and little oversight from the Governer.

Macquarie Harbour penal station

The settlement even had its own harsher version of the cat o’ nine tails, used so liberally that in 1823 alone 9,100 lashes were given out. This punishment makes a little more sense given the number of failed escape attempts and munities there were on the island, understandably buoyed by the number of escapees sent there.

There are also aspects of Sarah Island’s history that aren’t too morbid. For instance, it was the first land reclamation project in Australia with the island growing in size thanks to areas being filled out with rock and timber. It was also home to a highly respected shipbuilding initiative that created many skilled convict shipbuilders.

It’s hard to quickly summarize all the stories of Sarah Island, which is another reason why you need to visit yourself.


Gordon River Cruise

Gordon River Cruise, West Coast Tasmania

Having seen the main sights around Macquarie Harbour, our cruise then deviated on to the Gordon River.  The river mouth sits at the very southeast of the harbour, running east into the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. Part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, it’s a place with no roads and no people, just untouched nature. 

Before entering the river, lunch is provided, consisting of a tasty assortment of Tasmanian produce, including cheeses, meats and salmon. It’s so delicious that it’s hard to pay attention to the documentary that they screen during lunch, but it’s really worth watching. The documentary highlights the logging history of the Gordon River, from its crucial early days building the state’s economy, to the landmark conservation efforts that preserved this wilderness. 

Once you get onto the Gordon River though, make sure to immediately head out to the open deck. What makes the Gordon River such a special place to visit is how dead still its surface is. Even as the boat cruises down the river, you get near-perfect reflections of the surrounding wilderness.

And I mean proper wilderness, with just trees and mountains as far as the eye can see. From the Gordon River to the there is no settlement south, west, or anywhere in between, right to the ocean. Gently floating down the river, the scenery and reflections are simply mesmerizing and an absolute highlight of the trip.


Heritage Landing

Gordon River Cruise, Heritage Landing

Along the Gordon River the cruise makes just one stop – Heritage Landing – the last before returning to Strahan. It’s noteworthy as there aren’t many man-made structures in the area, and the rest are used for logging. Off the small dock there is a boardwalk that takes you for a gentle stroll around the pristine primeval rainforest. It’s green as far as the eye can see here.

Again the stop comes with the option of a guided tour, and again it’s definitely worth taking. This time, the guided tour showcases the local flora. The guide explains the habitat’s different types of trees, including the famous Huon Pine, and the plants that make up the ecosystem. You not only learn about the different trees and their use to early European settlers, but also the medicinal properties of plants valued by indigenous Tasmanians.

Like in so many rainforest environments around Tasmania, Heritage Landing is great if you like finding exotic mushrooms and fungi. You find all manner of fungi here, in every shape, size and colour imaginable. I only wish I was better at macro photography to capture these remarkable organisms.


Tips for Visiting Macquarie Harbour

To do the Gordon River and Macquarie Harbour cruise, you have two choices of company, World Heritage Cruises or Gordon River Cruises. World Heritage Cruises was recommended to me and I’m glad I went with them, as it’s a local, family-owned company. But both offer a similar standard tour, so it’s really up to you. 

Aside from who to go with, there are other things you should keep in mind. Most important is to allow a full day for the tour. That’s because you won’t get back to mid-afternoon and won’t want to rush to get elsewhere afterwards. However, Hogarth Falls is a nice small activity to do afterwards if you need something else to do.

On top of that, it’s really best to stay in Strahan to make getting there in the morning easier. I highly recommend staying at Strahan Village, as they have a huge range of accommodation from budget rooms to private cottages and the perfect location. That said, there are a generous number of other options in Strahan if you like to shop around. As for coffee and breakfast, The Coffee Shack is definitely the perfect spot.


Have you visited or experience the cruise along the Gordon River and Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania? Does the nature or the history of the region interest you more? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Gordon River and Macquarie Harbour Cruise in Western Tasmania Gordon River and Macquarie Harbour Cruise in Western Tasmania

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