An April 2002 trip
to Tasmania by Ozzy-Dave
Quote: The Great Southern Land has a Great Southern Island. Tasmania is Australia’s island state, as geographically diverse and unspoilt as any settled land. And with just 500,000 people sharing a space the size of Ireland there’s plenty to explore. The Wild West is a heady mix of wilderness and history.
1. Walk on the Wild Side; indulge in some of Australia’s most awe-inspiring wilderness on walks and hikes to suit all ages.
2. A Western Oasis; revel in the civilised splendour of Strahan, where history and modern-day tourism have conspired to create the "Best Little Town in the World."
3. Up the River, Back in Time; travel through history with the convicts and explore primeval World Heritage rainforest with a cruise on one of Australia’s most legendary rivers.
4. Penitentiaries, Pollution, and Politicians; relive some of Australia’s colourful past with a visit to the award-winning Strahan Visitor Centre.
5. Sand, Sky and South America; stand on a deserted, 33-kilometre beach or atop 150-foot sand dunes and ponder your next stop due west; South America – 10,000 miles away!
This is Chapter Three in a series dedicated to exploring this unique island. It follows the Northbound journal and can be read in isolation or as a continuing story. The regional map provided here illustrates the area visited by this journal and each destination covered by the entries is identified in BLUE.
Enjoy the virtual tour...
HOW TO GET THERE: Fly to Launceston from any Australian capital or catch the overnight ferry from Melbourne to Devonport, an hour northwest of Launceston. It’s then a three-hour drive on good roads to Strahan.
ACCOMMODATION: Base yourself in Strahan, the hub of the west. Bed and Breakfast or self catering options offer the best value – around A for a comfortable double. The pub has marginally cheaper rooms and there are grand, historic houses for A-250.
Don’t be fooled by thinking the region is small and you won’t need much time. The abundance of attractions and narrow, winding roads gobble up the hours. Be prepared for all seasons too, sometimes on the same day! In mountain areas weather conditions can change quickly.
Car hire rates are low, starting at less than A a day for a new, mid-range four cylinder vehicle, including all insurances and taxes. Good maps are provided and Tasmanian roads are well signposted. Petrol costs around AU a litre. The good news is that traffic is light, so driving on the "wrong side of the road" won’t be stressful.
Some regions of Tasmania are quite compact and people sometimes hire (or buy) a bicycle. This is not a good idea in the west; long, steep, mountain climbs and narrow, winding roads make this remote region a hard slog for cyclists and often quite dangerous.
TIP: Tasmania’s car hire industry is very competitive. Regular specials are offered, especially outside peak season. Don’t be tempted by companies offering older vehicles at reduced rates – these cars are often unreliable and it’s false economics when new-car rates cost little more.
To the south, around Risby Cove and only a kilometre from town, a tangle of streets access a bushland ridge that overlooks the harbour, catching the sun for most of the day and providing unobscured sunset views when the weather obliges. It’s here you’ll find some of the best accommodation options, including the award-winning, self contained units of Gordon Gateway Chalet.
All the Comfy Details…
We arrived in town without a reservation and, after an espresso in the local café, headed for the Visitor Centre. Of our four preferred options, none were available.
"Is it always this busy? It’s the end of April, isn’t this low season?" I ask Rob, who I swear I’d seen ten minutes ago serving in the café.
"Silly season stretches from November to May now," he responds, scanning an updated list of available options in our price range of A$100.
We reserve a studio apartment at the Gordon Gateway on the southern side of the cove.
A gravel driveway leads to reception, a stylish timber-built chalet oozing warmth on a cool autumn afternoon. Surrounding reception and on a ridge-top overlooking the harbour are ten self contained studio units and two magnificent two-storey chalets.
A ginger cat stares indifferently as an overfed little black dog runs to greet us, then urinates on one of my tyres. Karen laughs and we’re met by Janet, owner and resident operator of the property.
"That’s Percy. I think he likes you," smiles Janet.
"Well, he seems to like the car, lucky it’s a rental," I joke.
Percy accompanies us along a covered walkway to our unit. I get my first surprise immediately the door opens.
"Wow, it’s warm in here."
"Beautiful," agrees Karen, quickly finding an explanation. "I bet these units face north."
She was right, and that’s when I got the second surprise. Large bay windows overlook the harbour, also catching the sunset on a good day. Today was one of those days. What a view.
Huon pine features in the spacious, open plan rooms, with a queen size bed and fluffy doona, writing desk and fully equipped kitchen. A small table and cane chairs set by the windows complete the picture. I can only get one decent radio station but the television reception is good.
Karen’s impressed by the spotless bathroom, especially the heater, complimentary toiletries and polite instructions on more responsible water use. I’m sure many people are content not to change their towels every day.
Outside, we pass barbecues that take advantage of the views and a sign directing us to the gardens – Janet’s pride and joy. Crafted from 2 acres of scrub, the delightful grounds seem to merge with the environment. We enjoy the sunset from an arched bridge as Percy arrives with a ball.
I think we’ll like it here.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 26, 2002
Gordon Gateway Chalets
(03) 6471 7165
Attraction | "The Simple Things Are Free"
But don’t overlook the simple things. The area is rich in history and accessible wilderness, and there are plenty of things to do that don’t cost a cent. Within a short drive from town are sensational beaches, skyscraper-size sand dunes, unspoilt rainforest waterfalls and rainbow-coloured villages. Pack a picnic and come on a journey – it’s all free…
Start in town opposite Risby Cove at People’s Park. A trail follows pristine rainforest along Botanical Creek to Hogarth Falls.
Interpretive signs introduce the area’s flora and fauna and the creek is known for its platypus. Quality wilderness so close to town is exciting and the 45-minute return walk takes us to another time and place. There’s only the sounds and smells of the forest. But alas, no platypus.
Across the road at Risby Cove Gallery I’m taken by a triptych of stunning photographs.
"That’s Letts Bay, just up the road at Dead Horse Point. They’re taken by a local lad," says Faye, the gallery curator.
"Take a drive out there, it’s beautiful in the mornings when the sun’s out."
We pass the fish processing factory where daily bargains abound fresh from the wharf, an essential stop if, like us, you have self contained accommodation. At Letts Bay we park at the top of the settlement, overlooking a fairytale vista of coloured fishing shacks.
Built in the 1920s for workers at the Mt Lyell Mines in Queenstown, the cottages are now used as fishing shacks. The hopelessly polluted King River empties here and we chat with three generations from the area, four if you count their dog. Bert, his son Phil and his son Simon have just returned in their boat.
"Can’t be that bad," they reason. "We still get a good haul, and none of them are goin’ belly-up."
We politely decline their offer of fish and return to town, stopping at the small hilltop cemetery. There are some interesting carved headboards but a neatly tended grave with a simple white cross and fresh flowers catches my eye.
"Harry Smith and Cat".
Now there’s a story.
West of town on the Zeehan road we arrive at Henty Dunes, scaling 150-foot monoliths for Sahara-like views and a half-hour walk to Ocean Beach. 33 kilometres of deserted white sand provides a perfect canvas for sensational sunsets or a late picnic lunch. We find a sheltered spot and enjoy the latter.
Aboriginal middens litter the region and the Parks and Wildlife Service monitor designated recreational areas in a bid to manage the fragile eco-system.
We notice a drive-up sunset viewing platform on our way back and vow to catch the show that evening. Surprisingly we share the experience with only three other people. None of us were disappointed.
Strahan Sights & Attractions
Prepare for inspiring scenery; this is Tasmania at its most rugged and magnificent. Brooding peaks frame impenetrable forests and thickly grassed plains where lakes and ancient rivers document history. Towns are few and the space is vast. This is the gateway to the Wild West.
"It’s about eight inches," said Karen, wrestling with the map."More, if you count all the squiggly bits."
This was my navigator’s assessment of how far it was to Strahan as we waved goodbye to Tracey, Rob, Lily and Goat Island House. Oh well, we had all day, let’s enjoy the journey.
After an hour and little traffic the road begins to twist and turn, crossing rivers and skirting higher mountain country. Heavy storm clouds of indigo ink provide occasional space for the autumn sun, brightly lit canvases of forest duelling with dark, mysterious peaks.
The stunning contrast of light compels us to stop the car and just look. I feel insignificant, like a giant gatekeeper has allowed us a privileged moment in this private land. We unpack the thermos and enjoy the moment.
More mountains arrive with the western flank of Tasmania’s World Heritage Area. Soon we’re in the tiny town of Tullah, surrounded by trout-rich lakes, most of them created from flooded rivers, courtesy of feverish construction during the 1970s and 80s as hydroelectric power stations appeared everywhere.
South of town a detour leads to one of these projects at Lake Murchison. Guarded by Victoria Peak, the heavily forested landscape hugs the river, briefly parting at the dam wall. The sun obliges and the scene is awesome and wild, the man made Murchison Lake unfolding beneath us. I wondered what it was like before the dam was built.
A few other small towns are scattered in a fifty-kilometre radius, all established in the 1890s on the back of a mining boom. Today the gold, zinc, copper and tin has all but dried up and they struggle to survive, (ironically) relying on a thriving eco-tourism industry as visitors converge on nearby Strahan and the wilderness of the west coast.
Our route bypasses these towns, heading inland along the 36-kilometre Anthony Road, providing some of Tasmania’s finest views as it skirts Lake Plimsoll and crosses the West Coast Range. At the lake we break for a lunch of salad rolls, cheese and welcome coffee, in awe of the wild and forbidding terrain that reminds us of the Connemara in Ireland.
An hour later we’re in the harbourside town of Strahan, eager to discover the West Coast’s riches and reflecting on our journey to this remote land – a journey impossible until 1963 when the road we’d just travelled was opened.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on August 25, 2002
The Long and Winding Road
Today it’s a laid back tourist town, gateway to World Heritage Historic Sites and Wilderness Areas and entertaining 100,000 annual visitors with a comprehensive menu of outdoor pursuits and, some say, the cleanest air in the world. The Roaring 40s lash the treacherous coastline year round and the next stop west is South America, more than half a world away.
It feels like a Wild West town. That’s my first memory of Strahan.
The main street esplanade is lined with original buildings, transforming it into Strahan Village and recreating an historical atmosphere. I expect to see Wyatt Earp in a crowd of gringos and corsetted women in bonnets. Reality bites when a Ford pickup nearly runs me over.
My second memory was the fudge. Shamelessly displayed throughout town, no-one is immune to this rich, buttery indulgence. Something to do with all the free samples. You will inevitably buy a ton of the stuff.
Although a tourist centre, Strahan retains an unhurried feel. The population of 700 triples in peak season but the town never seems crowded – outdoor pursuits are the focus, drawing people to the surrounding wilderness during the day.
There are no banks, one ATM and one small supermarket. You’ll find everything you need but it’s clear the town has found a responsible balance between tourism and the community; no mass consumerism here. The 30 accommodation options scattered around the harbour fill quickly and it’s wise to book ahead to get your choice.
Set aside a day to explore the village, there’s plenty to see around town before you get out and about.
Start at the award winning Visitor Centre where an innovative, interactive museum captivates visitors with a journey through the area’s 40,000-year history. It’s the best A$3.50 you’ll spend, and you can visit as many times as you like.
Watch expert woodturners in the Woodturner’s Gallery while marvelling at Huon Pine masterpieces, a rare timber unique to the area and prized worldwide for its beauty and durability.
A small selection of quality galleries line the main street, but further on at Risby Cove you’ll find one of Tasmania’s finest art and craft galleries. It’s part of a stunning accommodation complex crafted from corrugated iron and materials salvaged from the local harbour. On your way, climb the wooden walkway opposite the General Store at the Esk Street corner for breathtaking views.
Randy Curwen of the Chicago Tribune said it best, nominating Strahan as the BEST LITTLE TOWN IN THE WORLD:
"Downtown is a one-block postcard shot, and the only real nightlife is the spectacular sunset over Australia’s largest bay.The only real game in town is adventure, from soft to hardy: cruises on the harbour, hikes in the wilderness and walks on the beach."
Strahan - The Best Little Town in the World
Attraction | "Penitentiaries, Pollution and Politicians"
It includes an award-winning exhibition called West Coast Reflections that documents 40,000 years of the West Coast’s colourful and sometimes tragic history, and a beautifully designed amphitheatre staging Tasmania’s longest running play – a true story you won’t want to miss!
Vanessa greets us with a smile, explaining the purpose of the centre and the exhibition,
"Its intention is to interpret history. The Southwest is a unique place, and the people and their stories deserve to be told."
Vanessa helps out at the centre and is a member of The Round Earth Company, a group responsible for staging the play "The Ship That Never Was" in the adjacent amphitheatre each evening. We decide to visit the exhibition and she explains that our A$3.50 ticket entitles us to return as often as we like.
Inside we are treated to a uniquely entertaining and educational journey. Funded by the Federal Government and on a A$1 million budget, three locals assembled this masterpiece; Robert Morris-Nunn was the architect, Richard Flanigan created the interior concepts and Kevin Perkins claims the inspiration.
In an hour we travel 40,000 years, from the first aboriginal communities to Australia’s most notorious convict settlement, the story of the piners’ search for valuable timber and the recent political turmoil of the hydroelectricity industry that divided a nation.
Interactive displays instruct, shock and amuse, encouraging involvment, and we marvel at the unique history of the area:
Port Arthur Historic Site
Attraction | "Up The River - Back In Time"
A state-of-the-art, environmentally sound catamaran takes you from the high-tech present day world of fish farming through the convict past to primeval World Heritage Rainforest – all on a harbour so big it makes Sydney’s look like a bathtub.
World Heritage Cruises have been entertaining travellers since 1896. The same family still runs the show and today Guy has the wheel and Ethel, Haley and Kate have the passengers.
At 9am the 27-metre Wanderer III departs Strahan wharf on a 65-nautical mile journey of discovery. We sail southwest for a look at Hells Gates, the entrance to Macquarie Harbour. Named by convicts, this is the front door to Australia’s most notorious penal settlement. Only 70 metres wide and constantly battered by the Roaring 40s from the Southern Ocean, the entrance has claimed many ships.
Today it’s calm and we turn east, passing several Fish Farms at Liberty Point. The cleansing currents and mild climate are ideal for the salmon, with more than 3,000 tons farmed last year.
Although the day is fine, brooding peaks and dense forests close in as we approach Sarah Island. We’re led ashore in groups by performers from the Round Earth Company. Our group is led by Vanessa and we embark on a theatrical tour of the settlement.
Using actual events extracted from surviving diaries of colonists Vanessa entertains as she educates, bringing the place alive as we visit various points of interest on the island.
Established in 1822 to provide slave labour for the ship building industry the settlement was characterised by brutal oppression, murder and cannibalism and ruled by the lash. This changed in 1828 when a new commandant used disciplinary reform and what we know now as enterprise bargaining to turn the shipyard into the colony’s most productive.
The settlement finally closed in 1834 after the opening of Port Arthur, but not before the most daring of 180 escape attempts. Ten convicts stole the last ship built, successfully sailing it all the way to Chile! Six were never found but the remaining four were eventually captured and returned to Tasmania for trial, narrowly avoiding the gallows.
All that suffering makes me hungry and back onboard we tuck into a smorgasbord of king prawns, salad, bread, meats and fresh fruit before sailing up the Gordon River to a small landing where there’s a boardwalk through the rainforest.
It’s a powerful environment. 2,500 year-old Huon Pines, some of them fallen, litter an unspoilt myrtle forest. It’s so beautiful it makes you believe in fairies – if you didn’t already.
Gliding back through the tannin-black waters, surrounded by gorges and perfect reflections, it’s clear to me that the politicians of the 1980s didn’t come here.
And they wanted to dam the place.
Gordon River Cruise
World Heritage Cruises
+61 3 6471 7174
56 kilometres of the road cuts through the Franklin–Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, a region dominated by dramatic mountains, temperate rainforest and steep gorges. Start early and allow a full day; there’s ample opportunity to stop the car and explore the pristine wilderness.
This is the Wild Highway.
Leaving Strahan early, it takes 40 minutes to negotiate the circuitous route to Queenstown, a spectacular monument to environmental plundering.
It started in 1881 with the discovery of gold. Then came silver and finally copper. The first smelter went up in 1895 and by 1920 the surrounding rainforested district was stripped bare, 3 million tonnes of timber cut to stoke the furnaces. Pollution killed the remaining vegetation and rain washed away the topsoil.
The smelters closed in 1969 and 33 years later the landscape still struggles to recover, patently obvious from our "lookout" [sic] where we enjoy coffee and sticky buns.
The landscape changes to forested gullies and rushing rivers as we enter the national park, stopping at Nelson Falls to explore a short nature trail. A 30-minute return walk leads through cool rainforest to a magical waterfall. I never tire of the rainforest, everything feels and smells different.
The tips of my ears are numb (I must find my beanie) and I can see my breath. Temperate rainforest is a revelation; so beautiful, but a different ecosystem to tropical rainforest and several plaques dispense information along the trail.
Our route follows deep river gorges and looming peaks to another roadside stop where a trail leads to the top of Donaghys Hill. This one-hour return walk crosses dry eucalypt forest, then wet, rainforested gullies to an open ridge before arriving at the summit. The views over the Franklin River and surrounding peaks are breathtaking.
This is Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area, covering 1.4 million hectares or about 20% of the island. It shelters plant and animal habitats and cultural features found nowhere else, satisfying more criteria for selection than any other World Heritage property.
Our final stop is a 30-minute nature walk through the forests bordering the Franklin River before the road exits the national park and arrives at the tiny township of Derwent Bridge.
This marks the halfway point of the highway’s journey to Hobart and the southern entrance to the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park. Its showpiece is Lake St Clair, Australia’s deepest natural freshwater lake and more walking trails.
"After lunch," insists Karen, as we approach the Visitor Centre.
"I’m starving. Look! Hot soup and fresh damper."
"Sounds good to me."
The Wild Highway
2,500 feet above sea level and Australia’s deepest at 550 feet, Lake St Clair is grand and romantic. Surrounded by mountains and eucalypt forests, its abundant wildlife, wildflowers and wilderness is a haven for nature lovers.
Hot soup and fresh damper. Yes! We’d been travelling for five hours already, stopping for several short walks through the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. We were hungry and the Visitor Centre’s café came to the rescue. A glass wall and outdoor deck overlook the lake, inviting the outside in.
The recently completed centre is an impressive timber and iron structure, showcasing the region through innovative displays that educate and entertain. The area’s natural features result from 2 million years of glacial activity and the historic relationships between the environment, animals and their habitat is well presented.
Walks range from 10 minutes to 10 days and one of the rangers plots a 3-mile circuit that explores many of the local features. We grab some fruit and hit the trail.
Flat ground journeys through towering eucalypt forest and an understorey of native wildflowers, wattles and banksias providing sprays of yellow to compliment the grey green canvas. After 30 minutes we arrive at "Watersmeet", the junction of the Cuvier and Hugel Rivers. White water hurries through the rainforest and we spot a couple of pademelons in the brush. An unconcerned echidna digs for insect treats in the soft ground nearby.
It’s peaceful and the crisp air makes my nose cold as I breathe, but it’s a good feeling. A clean feeling.
A newly established branch track explores the area’s aboriginal culture. Information boards explain their unique relationship with the land and their ability to respect its resources (before we wiped them all out). Sobering. And embarrassing.
On the way to Platypus Bay we meet another couple, obviously excited about something.
"We saw one, we saw one," repeats the woman. Her partner just smiles.
"I reckon it’s still there too. Go up to the top of the ridge, to the second hide."
At the second hide there is a young guy set up with a tripod and a two-foot lens. He points to the shoreline about 30 metres away and we wait. There’s a few bubbles then, sure enough, a platypus emerges for a quick poke around in the reeds as the Nikon reels off a dozen frames.
We return along the shores of Cynthia Bay, named after the Greek goddess of the moon. A small ferry arrives at the centre’s jetty, many of the passengers having just completed the 80-kilometre Overland Track from Cradle Mountain and electing not to walk the remaining six hours along the lake.
They’ll be wanting a beer. I reckon we might join them.
Lake St Clair
Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park