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Strahan, TAS

Isolated town on the shores of Macquarie Harbour.

Strahan lies at the northern edge of the wild, savage and unspoiled beauty of Macquarie Harbour. It is the last town on Tasmania's west coast and one of the loneliest and most isolated places on the planet. The British brought their most hardened criminals to Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour and the result was a penal colony of unimaginable hardship. Named after Governor Lachlan Macquarie this 50 km long harbour opens to the Great Southern Ocean through the narrow, eddying, dangerous waters the convict's named Hell's Gates. The region is cold and wet and unforgettable.

Location

Strahan is located 300 km north-west of Hobart and 41 km south-west of Queenstown. It lies on the northern shore of Macquarie Harbour.

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Origin of Name

Although there were convicts living on Sarah Island as early as 1821 the port and township of Strahan didn't really come into existence until 1877. At various earlier times the 'port' had been known as Long Bay and Regatta Point but in 1877 it became the port for the tin mines at Mount Heemskirk. It was named Strahan after Major George Strahan who was the Governor of Tasmania from 1881-86.

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Things to See and Do

Strahan Wharf Centre
Located on the harbour foreshore the Strahan Wharf Centre offers an ideal introduction to Strahan and Macquarie Harbour. It articulates the complex history of the region with an emphasis on the conflict between the indigenous population and the British. The Parks and Wildlife Service brochure explains that "your visit to the centre will help you to see how the different facets of Strahan fit together to create the personality of a unique township." The reception desk is built from Huon pine. The foyer is made from river gravel. For more information contact tel: (03) 6471 7488 or download the brochure at http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/file.aspx?id=6995

Strahan Central
The history of Strahan Central is much more than the collection of interesting accommodation options now available. Twenty years ago it was the home of the self-titled Duke of Avram, a wonderful 'character' who had created the Royal Ba-k of Avram. His argument was that anyone who couldn't open a bank account could open one with him and he created his own currency. The problem was that he could not legally use the word 'bank' and so he called his operation a Ba-k. It was a battle with the authorities that he was never likely to win. He was eventually closed down by the police.

The Strahan Post Office and Customs Office
This handsome two-storey brick building with stucco trim on the Esplanade was built in 1900 and, over the years, has been used for everything from the local Court House through the offices for the Public Works Department to the Marine Board and the Telegraph and Post Office. It is a fine example of an early 20th century Customs House which reflects the importance of Strahan as it became the major port for the mining operations at Queenstown. It now houses the Parks and Wildlife Service offices.

Ormiston
Located on Bay Street this gracious federation house was built by Frederick Ormiston Henry, a successful local storekeeper who is seen as the father of modern Strahan and who made his fortune investing in in the Mount Lyell mine, in 1902. Today it has been turned into a very up market B&B with five rooms. Check out http://www.ormistonhouse.com.au/index.html which also has some excellent photographs of the area. The grounds around the building are large and impressive, as are the beautiful magnolia trees.  Today Ormiston is recognised as one of the finest federation houses in Australia with its delightful combination of wrought iron lacework with squared huon pine posts, large bay windows and, above the bay windows, gables of durable Tasmanian timbers in the design of the rising sun. It was once owned by the so-called Duke of Avram.

Peoples Park and Hogarth Falls
It is not necessary to go up the Gordon River to see the local rainforest. At the northernmost end of Strahan Harbour (beyond Water Tower Hill) is the Peoples Park and Hogarth Falls, an interesting mixture of forest with swamp gums and botanical gardens with picnic facilities. At the right time of the day it is possible to see platypus in Botanical Creek and wallabies, quolls and possums. There is a pleasant 40 minute walk (return) to the Hogarth Falls. The path passes through rainforest and the trees have been clearly identified for those interested in the botany of the area. The geology is also fascinating as the horizontal layers have been folded so dramatically they now present as vertical bands.

Water Tower Hill Lookout
The best views of Strahan (see the photo at the top of this page) can be had from Water Tower Hill which, on a clear day, will combine views over Macquarie Harbour with excellent views of the town and the harbour.

Regatta Point Railway Station and the ABT Railway
The ABT heritage railway stopped operating in April, 2013. It was a unique railway experience. The line, built in the 1890s, went from Strahan to Queenstown and was named after the German designer. He developed a rack-rail system which allowed trains to pull heavy loads of ore over the steep slopes between the two towns. In recent times it had become an important part of Strahan and Queenstown's tourism. The service was halted due to the expiration of the lease and the need to do major infrastructure maintenance and capital improvements. The Commonwealth government provided $6 million in funding and it is hoped the rail will reopen for the 2013-2014 summer season. To find out about the railway's restoration and current progress check out the website: http://www.dier.tas.gov.au/abt_railway

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Other Attractions in the Area

Ocean Beach
There is no better way to experience the unique loneliness and isolation of Strahan than to drive out to Ocean Beach and contemplate the facts: this beach is so far south that a direct line west will pass below the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and not reach solid land until it hits the coast of Patagonia in Argentina. On a wild and windy day you can almost feel that the waves have travelled 12,000 km uninterrupted. They break relentlessly on the hard, flat beach and the winds push the dunes behind the beach higher and higher. Ocean Beach is 40 km long. It is the end of the world and it is unforgettable to experience the wildness and loneliness. Pause and think of the poor convicts who arrived here with sentences of seven or fourteen years. Oh, yes, and when the weather is perfect the sunsets are amazing.

Macquarie Harbour
Macquarie Harbour is one of the wonders of Australia. If you visit it on one of those rare days when the sky is blue and the air is sharp and clear you will be amazed by the mirror-like clarity of this huge harbour. The waters are permanently brown from the button grass that grows along the banks of the Gordon River and its tributaries. It stains the waters of the harbour. The shoreline is edged with dense undergrowth. This is temperate rainforest. It is impossible to travel across Macquarie Harbour and not think of the convicts who lived and worked on Sarah Island between 1822-1833. It was common for them to row across to the Gordon River, spend the day cutting down the beautiful huon pine (it was used for shipbuilding) and then to row back in the evening. There are a number of day and half-day cruises which leave Strahan and travel across Macquarie Harbour and up the lower reaches of the Gordon River. Some will take visitors to Hells Gate, others go to Sarah Island and others simply pass those attractions and let passengers explore the rainforest on the edge of the Gordon River. It is wise to book cruises well in advance. The best way to choose a cruise is to contact the Strahan Visitor Centre  tel: (03) 6471 7488 for advice.

Hells Gate
One of the highlights of a cruise across Macquarie Harbour is the opportunity to sail between the shore and the rocky island which forms the infamous Hells Gate at the mouth of the harbour. Not surprisingly Hells Gate got its name from the convicts who came to Macquarie Harbour. It seems to be entirely appropriate. Many ships, which had sailed from England, were wrecked at the mouth of the harbour literally metres from their destination.

Cape Sorell Lighthouse
Standing 40 m above the land and 2.5 m in diameter, the Cape Sorell Lighthouse was built in the 1899 to meet the increasing demand from the silver and zinc mines at Mount Lyell, Zeehan and Queenstown which were shipping their ore from Strahan. Over the years the lighthouse keeper's cottage and outbuildings have been dismantled so the lighthouse stands like a lonely, solitary sentinel.

Sarah Island
It was the cruellest of all the penal settlements. Located in the middle of nowhere on a wet and windy coastline on an island with no regular water supply it verged on bureaucratic insanity. The first settlers arrived in January 1822 and comprised 14 convicts, 16 soldiers and their families. It is hard to understand why they chose Sarah Island. Water had to be shipped to the island from Phillips Island which was 6 km away; the males and females were separated with the women being placed on Grummet Island; and the work conditions (rain, long journeys by rowboat, cutting down timber) were horrendous. By 1826 the governor in Hobart realised that the situation was unsatisfactory and so Sarah Island only lasted for a decade. By 1834 it had been abandoned and the convicts moved to the new settlement at Port Arthur. If offered a cruise which includes the island it is definitely worth a visit. The solid brick buildings are now in ruins but the scale of the penal colony is still in evidence. It is a fascinating reminder of the harsh reality of early European settlement.

The Gordon River
To see the Gordon River, and to walk through the dense temperate rainforest on its banks, is to experience one of the wonders of the world. It is so gloomy, so rain-soaked, and so removed from the rest of the world. The photographer, Olegas Truchanas, who drowned in the Gordon River in 1972 and who photographed the river in all its wild beauty, wrote of it: "This vanishing world is beautiful beyond our dreams and contains in itself rewards and gratifications never found in an artificial landscape or man-made objects".

In the 1970s and 1980s the Gordon River was the scene of some of the most divisive protests in Tasmanian history. At the time there was an official belief that hydro-electricity would be the economic saviour of the state. With this in mind the state's Liberal government announced that it was going to dam the Franklin River with a huge 105 m dam on the Gordon River 40 km upriver from Macquarie Harbour. The battle to save the river, spearheaded by Dr Bob Brown who would go on to lead the Greens in Federal Parliament, took place at Warners Landing, 6 km from the junction of the Franklin and Gordon Rivers. There have never been protests like these early acts of "green" resistance.  In the summer of 1982-83 a total of 1,272 people were arrested. The river was saved by the action of the Hawke Federal Labor government and a decision from the High Court in Canberra in 1983. It was a remarkable act of political bravery. The publicity about the river lead to a dramatic increase in tourism and by the early 1990s over 90,000 tourists a year were visiting Strahan and travelling across Macquarie Harbour and up the Gordon River.

Today it one of the great victories of the environmental movement. It was first explored by Captain James Kelly in 1816 and named after James Gordon who had given him the whale boat which he used to explore the river.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area around Macquarie Harbour was home to the Toogee Aboriginal people of south-west Tasmania for around 35,000 years.

* The first European to explore Macquarie Harbour was James Kelly who, with four companions, entered Hells Gate in December 1815. They spent three days exploring the harbour and their reports of the vast stands of trees led to timber cutters arriving, settling and cutting down the magnificent and ancient huon pines, a superb fine-grained wood which was ideal for shipbuilding.

* It was the huon pine which led to the establishment of a penal colony at Sarah Island in 1821. At that time a signal station was established on Cape Sorell to ensure safe traffic through Hells Gates. It subsequently became a lighthouse.

* One of Sarah Island's most infamous inhabitants was Alexander Pearce who escaped in 1822 and, with seven other convicts, attempted to cross the island to Hobart. They lost their way and in the ensuing weeks all of the escapees disappeared except for Pearce. When he was recaptured he was accused of cannibalism but nothing was proven. The following year Pearce escaped with another convict, Thomas Cox. Running short of food Pearce killed and ate Cox. When he was finally recaptured he admitted to eating Cox and confessed to cannibalism during his first escape. He was subsequently executed in Hobart.

* The penal colony on Sarah Island finally closed down in 1833 when the convicts were moved to Port Arthur. The convicts had worked on a nearby coal seam and rowed across the harbour each day to cut down the huon pine which edged the waters.

* By about 1830 there were no Toogee people  left in the area although, in recent times, the discovery of Kutikina Cave near the Franklin River, has offered an insight into their lifestyle 15,000 years ago.

* The township of Strahan came into existence in 1877 as an important port for the tin mines at Mt Heemskirk. Prior to that the small port had been variously known as Long Bay and Regatta Point. It was named after Major George Strahan, Governor of Tasmania from 1881-86.

* In 1890 the government constructed a railway from Zeehan to Strahan and the town was officially proclaimed in 1892.

* The ABT railway line from Queenstown was opened in 1899. Around this time the population of Strahan was over 2,000 people and it was the second busiest port in Tasmania.

* The port remained important until the 1950s and 1960s. In 1960 the rail link to Zeehan was closed down. Three years later the same fate befell the Queenstown rail link and in 1969 Mount Lyell Co. started transporting its ore by rail to Burnie.

* In 1983 the Federal Government decided that the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam proposed by the Tasmanian Hydro-Electricity Authority would be stopped and that the whole area, including the Aboriginal art in Fraser Cave and the white waters of the dangerous Franklin River, would be preserved under a World Heritage order. The whole area is now known as the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park (it is in a World Heritage Listed area) and it attracts tourists from around the world.

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Visitor Information

The Strahan Visitor Centre is located on the wharf near the Huon Pine Sawmill, tel: (03) 6471 7488

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Useful Websites

The Parks and Wildlife Service Tasmania have produced an excellent brochure which can be downloaded at http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/file.aspx?id=6995 and there is a useful website http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/?base=3937 about the Gordon River.

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