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.