STRAHAN is not just the only town and port on the west coast nor even the leading resort in the region, it is also one of the premier tourist destinations in Tasmania. The reason is twofold: its setting on Macquarie Harbour, a huge body of water over six times the size of Sydney’s harbour; and the surrounding wilderness. Long before it became a launchpad into the southwestern wilderness, the harbour was home to a brutal, secondary convict settlement on Sarah Island between 1822 and 1830 – it can be visited on a Gordon River cruise. Convicts nicknamed the entrance to Macquarie Harbour, only 80m wide, Hells Gates. Abundant Huon pine, perfect for shipbuilding, facilitated logging and boatbuilding by convicts’ trades, and continued to attract loggers after 1830. Strahan developed as an export port for the copper and lead fields in 1882 and was Tasmania’s third-largest port in 1900 until larger ship sizes – not to mention wild weather – led to its demise. By 1970 the population had dwindled to three hundred, most involved in fishing for abalone, crayfish and shark.
What changed its fortunes was the Franklin Blockade campaign in 1982. When protestors based themselves here, they put Strahan in the international spotlight for two months. Cruises on the Gordon River had run before this event, but the declaration of the World Heritage Area lured busloads of tourists to see the river for themselves. The West Coast Wilderness Railway added another sight to a growing list of attractions in 2003. Federal Resorts owns the railway, Gordon River Cruises and much of the central accommodation. In summer at least, Strahan has ceased to seem “real” in the normal sense – fishing is largely a sideshow to the town’s tourism industry. What saves it from tackiness is that it remains an attractive place – the tourism infrastructure is far from the eyesore it could have been – and the surrounding wilderness is as compelling as ever.Read More
The Gordon River
The Gordon River
The Gordon River is deep, its waters dark from the tannin leached from buttongrass plains – even tap water in Strahan is brown (though drinkable). Cruise boats used to travel as far as the landing at Sir John Falls, 30km upriver, but their wakes caused the river banks to erode and they now travel only the 14km to Heritage Landing, where there’s a chance to amble along a boardwalk above the rainforest floor.
Trunks and branches of ancient myrtles and Huon pines provide homes for mosses, lichens and liverworts on their bark, and ferns and fungi grow from the trunks. The wet and swampy conditions are ideal for Huon pines, a threatened tree species found only in Tasmania: they’re the second-oldest living things on Earth after the bristlecone pines of western North America, with some trees found to be more than ten thousand years old. The massive pines, which may reach a height of 40m, can grow from seed but more often regenerate vegetatively, putting down roots where fallen branches touch the soil. The trees are also renowned for their resistance to rot. A tree near Heritage Landing, reckoned to be around 2000 years old, split in two during 1997 – one half fell to the ground – but the trunk won’t rot for up to one hundred years as the tree’s methyl eugenol oil slows fungal growth. The oil content of the wood also explains why Huon pine was so highly sought-after – pine logs could be floated down to a camp and fashioned into huge rafts to be rowed across Macquarie Harbour.
River cruise operators usually provide refreshments of varying standards (depending on your ticket), visit Sarah Island and make a thirty-minute stop at Heritage Landing. Wrap up warm to brave the boat’s prow – much the most exhilarating spot to be when you whizz through Macquarie Heads (Hells Gates). Overnight trips are also available aboard the ketch of West Coast Yacht Charters.
The West Coast Wilderness Railway
The West Coast Wilderness Railway
In 2002 a $30-million investment saw trains once again rattle along the old Abt Railway between Queenstown and Strahan. The original railway was completed in 1896 to transport copper ore from Queenstown to Regatta Point in Strahan, but closed in 1963, when road transport became more economical. Reconstruction took three years, only six months less than it took the original workers to hack through the rainforest by hand, two of the line’s four surviving steam locomotives were restored and replica carriages were built using native woods. Today, the West Coast Wilderness Railway runs twice daily, with most visitors embarking at Strahan, then swinging through the King River valley and climbing up to Dubbil Barril on a 1:16 rack-and-pinion track system (invented by Swiss engineer Dr Roman Abt) before they arrive in Queenstown in a reconstructed station opposite the Empire Hotel. While services in both directions stop at Dubbil Barril, trains from Queenstown call at the reconstructed historic settlement of Lynchford to try gold-panning. Each trip divides between steam and diesel trains, with one leg made by coach. Either way, try to secure a riverside seat; when facing forward, sit on the right-hand side from Strahan, or left from Queensland.