Macquarie Harbour is the second-largest natural harbour in Australia after Port Phillip Bay in Victoria. However, the real glory of Macquarie Harbour is not its size but its setting; the surrounding wilderness and the Gordon River that flows through it are other-worldly, and in recent years have attracted local and international visitors to what is one of the last easily-accessible pristine wilderness areas left in the world. Strahan is a fishing and tourist town located at the northern end of Macquarie Harbour. Strahan is the only coastal town on Tasmania’s West Coast.
How To Get There: Drive south along Lyell Highway from the north-west, or north from Hobart to Queenstown; follow the signs to Strahan.
Visitor Centre: The Esplanade, Strahan. Ph 1800 352 200
Set on Risby Cove in the northern reaches of Macquarie Harbour, Strahan is a small, picturesque frontier-style town with an abundance of character and a variety of stories to tell of the West Coast’s pioneering days. From its beginnings as the location for bushmen seeking precious Huon pine, Strahan became the railway port for a rich copper mine inland. Those days are long gone, and the only reminders of the copper boom days are an impressive post office and steamship offices.
What everyone come to Strahan to see these days is Macquarie Harbour, on whose shores the town stands, and the Gordon River, which flows through ancient Tasmanian rainforests, emptying its water – browned by the oils of the huon pine – into Macquarie Harbour south of Strahan. Unlike many other Tasmanian destinations, Strahan’s landscapes, waves and weather are wild and elemental – typical of the south west Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness in which it is located.
Surprisingly accessible by road, Strahan has become an eco-tourism mecca without sacrificing any of its waterfront charm. Coaches move in and out of the town each day, bringing wide-eyed visitors eager to taste the fresh lobster caught earlier that morning, take a steam train ride through the untouched forest wilderness, or cruise the ancient, mirror-like waters of the Gordon River. This cruise takes in waterfalls deep in the World Heritage Listed Placesrainforests, Tasmania’s world-renowned salmon farms, and the notorious Sarah Island penal settlement ruins. Visitors who prefer to keep their feet on the ground can enjoy one the most intimate rainforest experiences possible – a stroll through pristine forests of 2,000 year-old Huon Pine.
Macquarie Harbour is fed by many rivers, not the least is the Gordon River. Appearing to stand silent within Tasmania’s pristine World Heritage Area, this majestic river winds its way from deep in the South-West to the mouth of Macquarie Harbour. The Gordon which would have been damned many years ago had not the Federal Government intervened and saved it in 1984. The Franklin River flows into the Gordon.
Gordon River and Macquarie Harbour cruises: no visit to the west coast of Tasmania is complete without a cruise on Macquarie Harbour and the ancient, mirror like water of the Gordon River. This magnificent waterway was the subject of international attention in the early 1980s when conservationists stopped the building of a dam across the river. The waters of this river meander down from the Central Highlands, through breathtaking a World Heritage-listed temperate rainforests to the mouth of Macquarie Harbour. A huge natural protected body of water, Macquarie Harbour surrounds the ruins of Tasmania’s most infamous convict stations in the south and gives way to the wild ocean through the narrow and turbulent Hell’s Gates.
Macquarie Harbour is steeped in history. It was on its southern shore that Tasmania’s first penal settlement was established in 1822 on Sarah Island (Port Arthur was established in 1834, after Sarah Island was declared unsatisfactory). Mining and forestry operations based around the magnificent Huon pine, famous for its oily shipbuilding qualities, commenced in the 1880s, making Strahan, the small fishing village now the centre of activities on Macquarie Harbour, the second-busiest port in Tasmania a century ago.
Sarah Island (or Settlement Island) is found in the far south west corner of Macquarie Harbour. This isolated island was a Penal Settlement between 1822 and 1833, established, before the more well-known Port Arthur, as a place of ‘secondary’ punishment, an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Over time Sarah Island has gained a reputation as a place of unspeakable horrors and a living hell, largely due to the exploits of one of the island’s ‘colourful’ characters, Alexander Pearce, the Cannibal Convict, and a novel “For the Term of His Natural Life” written about 1860 by Marcus Clark. The novel, although based on actual events, is a fiction which set out to create Sarah Island as a living hell for its hero, Rufus Dawes. Sarah Island is visited by cruise boats travelling Macquarie Harbour from Strahan. Website >>
Just north of Hell’s Gates, the spectacular entrance to Macquarie Harbour, is Ocean beach. No visit to Strahan is complete without travelling here. Some six kilometres due west of town and facing 8,000km of Great Southern Ocean, it is Tasmania’s longest with nearly 40 kilometres of unbroken beach from Macquarie Heads in the south to Trial Harbour in the north. If you want to experience what the end of the world is really like it is worthwhile standing on this hard, flat beach watching the huge waves relentlessly breaking and realising that those waves, travelling on the Roaring Forties, have not made contact with land between Australia and Patagonia.
Queenstown (41 km east)
Zeehan (45 km north)