One of the privileges of being a ‘post-career’ traveller is that you go places that as a young person you would never have dreamed you would one day visit. I recall as an early teenager, accepting the challenge of reading Marcus Clarke’s tragic convict saga, For the Term of his Natural Life, His description of the geography of Macquarie Harbour has stayed with me.
“Navigation is dangerous, and the entrance to the “Hell’s Gates” of Macquarie Harbour—at the time of which we are writing (1833), in the height of its ill-fame as a convict settlement—is only to be attempted in calm weather. The sea-line is marked with wrecks. The sunken rocks are dismally named after the vessels they have destroyed. The air is chill and moist, the soil prolific only in prickly undergrowth and noxious weeds, while foetid exhalations from swamp and fen cling close to the humid, spongy ground. All around breathes desolation; on the face of nature is stamped a perpetual frown. The shipwrecked sailor, crawling painfully to the summit of basalt cliffs, or the ironed convict, dragging his tree trunk to the edge of some beetling plateau, looks down upon a sea of fog, through which rise mountain-tops like islands; or sees through the biting sleet a desert of scrub and crag rolling to the feet of Mount Heemskirk and Mount Zeehan—crouched like two sentinel lions keeping watch over the seaboard.”
The fictional convict hero of this novel, Rufus Dawes, would not believe the contrast between the above description of Macquarie Harbour and the view of the local tourist bureau 150 years later.
The first discovery of Macquarie Harbour by Europeans was in 1815 when James Kelly sailed an open five-oared whale boat from Hobart. The harbour was named after Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the fifth Governor of the Colony of NSW. Macquarie himself was a big namer of places after his family and associates so it’s no surprise that the favour was returned. Macquarie had done two tours of Van Diemans Land during his time in NSW.
Macquarie Harbour has many features that make it an iconic harbour in Australia today. It is Australia’s second largest natural harbour (after Port Philip Bay) and is six times the size of Sydney Harbour. For all this, it is described as a Fjord, a rare feature of the coasts of Australia. Like the neighbouring mountains of Cradle National Park, this shallow harbour was formed by glacial action back in the last Ice Age.
Our cruise on Macquarie Harbour promised to be a very interesting day with four major sites to be inspected. The ‘Spirit of the Wild’ was the name of our boat and I have to admit that its name wasn’t an hyperbole. We had a very calm day for the cruise to some normally ‘wild’ places in all senses of the term.
THE TRIP TO HELLS GATE
Our boat took us out of Strahan Harbour past Regatta Point and out into the centre of Macquarie Harbour. It then turned right and headed towards Hells Gate. The trip is a very different one from the rock and wreck strewn voyage of the early sailors navigating this harbour. With every shoal marked on the charts and a very clear path mapped out, our route took us almost directly towards the first lighthouse on Bonnet Island, strategically placed well before the exit into the Southern Ocean. Even before we got to this island, we noticed a long rock breakwater poking its head above the water out from the left-hand shoreline that was evidence of late 19th century attempts to alter the nature of the harbour to make it safer for shipping.
After passing the lighthouse and heading into Bonnet Bay, we were reasonably close to shore and noticed a series of houses that had the best views of Hells Gate on a sunny day. I am not sure I would have liked to live there during Winter storms.
It was the convicts of Sarah Island that apparently gave the entrance to Macquarie harbour its ghastly name of Hells Gate. I have always assumed this was because the Harbour entrance led to the misery of Sarah Island. However, it may have been because of the sand bars at the entrance to the harbour or the fact that there were enormous tides that rushed through the narrow passageway making riding them very treacherous for any ship. A signal station was set up in 1822 run by convicts to assist boats coming into this dangerous entrance. It wasn’t until the lead and zinc mines of Zeehan opened up and they needed an all-weather port for larger ships that the weatherboard lighthouses were built on Bonnet Island and Entrance Island in 1891.
Once our boat passed Entrance Island, more breakwaters appeared on our left which were also built at the end of the 19th century to provide a barrier for the moving sand, determined to block the harbour entrance. By building a breakwater, the entrance to the harbour could be dredged and slowly made deeper.
Once our boat made it well and truly into the Southern Ocean, it turned around and gave us the view back towards Hells Gate. It was then time to head back through this famously dangerous entrance where many ships had hit the sandbar and lost their propellers. The next destination for our trip was the other end of Macquarie Harbour where the Gordon River entered the harbour.
Salmon Farming in Macquarie Harbour
The map on the right of the Salmon Farming leases (Courtesy ABC News) shows the extent of the industry in the harbour. Industrial salmon farming began here in the 1980s and today there are three major companies with operations in this waterway. It took some time for our boat to pass all the pens and the image below is just one example of the curious views out over the harbour to the southern shore.
Initially when fish farming of this sort began in Australia, it seemed to the average consumer that this was a great way to address the environmental issues arising from over-fishing in our oceans, thus threatening fish stock throughout the world. However the pursuit of huge profits from this type of intensive farming has started to have an impact on the environment of Macquarie Harbour that is starting to worry all levels of Tasmanian society from the locals to the government. There are many issues caused by large scale salmon farming and one is the depletion of oxygen in the harbour waters, particularly under the fish pens. The rise of so-called ‘dead zones’ coincided in the 2017-18 summer where over 1.35 million farmed salmon died from a fish disease. Calls for a large decrease in fish numbers since that time have been prevalent. These issues (and others) surrounding fish farms we heard again when we visited Bruny Island off Hobart later in our trip.
It was curious that the values and issues being promoted in the Franklin Gordon River National Park were very different when compared with those raised by the presence of Fish Farms in Macquarie Harbour.
Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park
When we arrived at the mouth of the Gordon River, the first thing I noticed was that the captain had turned the diesel engine of the boat off. We had slowed down dramatically but we realised that we were still progressing effortlessly up stream on the boat’s electric motor…but quietly!
Our destination was Heritage Landing where there was a boardwalk through the wilderness that would get us up close and personal with this ancient, forested wilderness. One of the historical questions that can be asked about Macquarie Harbour and its associated rivers is why was it so attractive to the colonial government of the time. When Captain James Kelly reported back after his 1815 voyage to the area, there were two aspects of his report that were ceased upon by the government; Huon Pine and a perfect Island in the middle of the harbour where badly behaved convicts could be sent into inescapable circumstances, never to be able to bother Hobart society again. The image below of the wilderness country around Heritage Landing today illustrates why escaped convicts rarely were able to get very far, even if they escaped the prison built on Sarah Island from 1822-1833.
The Huon Pine that James Kelly discovered around the shores of Macquarie Harbour was the perfect timber for building boats, the main transport system for Tasmania at the start of the 19th century. There are two aspects of Huon Pine that make them very different from the other trees here; they are the slowest growing tree in the forest (one millimetre a year) and the oldest (up to 3000 years). However, the main aspect of Huon Pine that made it perfect for boat building was that it was high in a natural oil which resists rot and insects.
While there was no living Huon Pine for us left to see along this trail, on the other side of the boardwalk platform above right, there was the fallen trunk of a Huon Pine tree, half in and half out of the water. It had clearly been left behind after it was cut down due to the difficulties involved in moving it. A normal tree would have rotted away; this one lay there, half covered in moss but still resisting the normal processes that would have seen it fade away into the swamp.
While the Sarah Island convicts only cut down Huon Pine trees for 11 years before the settlement was closed down for the more developed misery of Port Arthur, the demand for Huon Pine by ship builders continued. It was a tough miserable job cutting down Huon Pine from the forests around Macquarie Harbour so only the hardiest of ‘Piners’ worked here between the 1830’s to the 1880s. When mining at Strahan and Queenstown saw the area opened up at the end of the 19th century, sourcing Huon Pine from this area continued until 1983 when this wilderness was declared a World Heritage Area. The image to the right shows a raft of Huon Pine logs on the Denison River in 1966; this river is a tributary of the Gordon River so the two piners on board would have worked very hard for months bringing these logs to Macquarie Harbour. It is now illegal to harvest living Huon Pine. As one of the information boards at Heritage Landing noted… For Tasmanians, Huon Pine – one of the oldest, slowest growing trees on the planet – has become a symbol of endurance and antiquity.”
It was a very enjoyable time strolling the boardwalk in the middle of this dense forest but we only had 30 minutes to stroll through this wilderness area. It was then back on the boat as we headed back down the Gordon River to Sarah Island.