White Australia began as a penal settlement, a way for the English to clear out their overloaded gaols and to rid themselves of what they called the “criminal classes”. Many of the convicts were sent to Tasmania, around 76,000 between 1804 and 1853. We were taught at school about the colourful and fascinating history surrounding this time but I wanted to learn more.
I also wanted to experience Tassie’s forests, considered so precious they are World Heritage Listed. Strahan, on the central-west coast, was my starting point and the perfect spot for both.
I boarded a sleek, white catamaran to fulfil my dream of sailing up the Gordon River and, while there, visiting Sarah Island, the most notorious of Australia’s early penal settlements. The engines revved, the gangplank was drawn back and we slid into Macquarie Harbour.
The harbour is just over 110 square miles of protected water, and the only way in or out is a narrow gap, only 50 feet wide. With the raging winds of the ‘Roaring Forties’, and the tide meeting the waves crashing in from the Southern Ocean, the passage into the harbour was a terrifying ordeal for those in sailing ships.
Worse, there’s a sandbank dead across the entrance and so, at Spring tide, the depth of the water shrinks to just 11 feet. The passage was named, reasonably enough, ‘Hell’s Gates’. Ships would often wait for a chance to get in and then many were still lost. I hoped our skipper knew what he was doing.
A salmon and trout farm sits in the middle of the harbour. The skipper’s voice echoed through the speakers. ‘It’s feeding time. If you look back, you may see a few leaping up for their breakfast.’ The engines lulled and we bobbed on the water for a few minutes. No trout or salmon made the effort. I guess they’ve learnt they don’t need to – probably just lying back with their mouths open. We passed through ‘Hell’s Gates’ easily, did a U-turn in the Southern Ocean, and safely returned to the quiet waters of the harbour.
I’d seen photos of the Gordon River, winding its way from its source in the Central Highlands, its waters dark and so serene they create a mirror, reflecting the rainforest through which it travels. ‘Now,’ said the skipper, ‘get your cameras ready. It’s clear today. With a bit of luck we’ll have great reflections.’ I did as he said and there it was – a perfect mirror. Dark green, forest-covered mountains, with veils of white cloud drifting across the pale blue of the sky.
The cruise companies have been given permission to create a small landing with an elevated walkway in a loop through the forest.
We filed off the ship and entered an ancient realm. Trees soared toward the sky, so tall I could hardly see their tops. ‘Huon Pines have been known to live up to 3000 years,’ said our guide, ‘and there is a known stand who’s root base has been in existence for 10,000 years. As you go along you will pass a 2000-year-old pine. That is, it was growing before Christ was born.’ I tried to get my head around that but gave it away. ‘It has fallen but its roots are still alive and so saplings are growing from it.’
The tree is massive; 2000 years old, unable to stand but still a support to others coming on. Not unlike humans, I guess. Just because our legs can’t carry us in our old age doesn’t mean we can’t still offer support to those coming on, though, on the whole, they don’t realise it’s available till it’s too late. I communed with the tree as others glanced at it and faded away. The forest was quiet, with only the whisper of ferns and the occasional fluttering of sparse leaves that had been able to survive in the dim light.
A half an hour disappeared and I rushed back to the ship. We were served lunched as we glided back down the river to the harbour.