Things to Do in Strahan
Founded in 1877, there is little to remind visitors of the village’s more sinister past - Strahan is the closest town to the infamous Sarah Island, regarded as the worst convict prison in Australia. The 200 metre opening to the nearby Macquarie Harbour was dubbed ‘Hell’s Gates’ by convicts who had survived the tumultuous journey.
The smell of salty sea air and fresh fish mingles with the earthy scent of pine on pleasant harbour breezes. The calls of sea birds and the lapping of water provide a relaxing ambience. Fishing is, obviously, a popular local past time and a relatively easy skill to learn. Simply wandering around the edge of the bay can be an exercise in meditative, slow paced tourism.
Today, Strahan is a relatively untapped mecca for tourists wishing to take in the local area. Small shops and businesses dot the town’s harbour. Locals are friendly and unpretentious. Seafood is cheap and fresh, and activities of all sorts are available, including kayaking, jet boating, and all-terrain sand dune driving. Boat cruises along the Gordon River give travellers access to World Heritage Area wilderness, allowing them to travel through one of the last pristine temperate rainforests in the world, and showing off this truly unique part of Australia.
Modern Australia was famously founded by boatloads of British convicts, and Sarah Island off of western Tasmania was once reserved for the worst offenders. Isolated, wet and completely surrounded by the tempestuous Southern Ocean, not only is it Australia’s oldest penal colony, but the remote outpost was such a fearsome place to be sent that the mouth of the harbor leading out toward the island was simply known as “Hell’s Gate.” The penal colony was short-lived, however, only lasting from 1822 to 1833. During that time, convicts were enlisted for the backbreaking work of felling the surrounding pine trees, and there was a brief time when Sarah Island was the largest ship-building site in Australia.
Conditions on the island were horrendously bad, and prisoners were said to have favored execution over continued life here. Many tried to escape, and though most failed and met a miserable fate, a famous few were able to flee and live a life on the run. Today, all that remains of the penal colony are the ruins of the former quarters, and touring the island is one of the most popular activities for visitors staying in Strahan. Hear stories of scurvy, torture and the misery of solitary confinement, while also gaining insight into the formative years of the pioneering settlers of Tasmania. Oftentimes a visit to Sarah Island is combined with a Gordon River cruise, which provides a scenic and stark contrast of comforts compared to the historic island.
The Gordon River is as beautifully remote as one could hope a river would be. Beginning in the highlands of the central plateau that dominates inland Tasmania, the riverbank is devoid of any residents along its 117-mile path. Instead, the entire length of this tea-colored river is part of the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area, a forested expanse of raw wilderness found on the western side of the island. Many of the trees set along this riverbank are nearly 2,000 years old, and as if the beauty couldn’t get any more stunning, the rolling profile of the surrounding hills is often reflected in the river waters.
When visiting Strahan on Tasmania’s west coast, one of the most popular activities is to spend a day on a Gordon River cruise. Plying the waters of the lower reaches of the river, it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like in the early 1800s, when the nearby prison at Sarah Island housed some of Australia’s most fearsome convicts. Today, however, the Gordon River is as placid and peaceful as the leaves that drift on its waters, and it’s a natural resource that fortifies the beauty of the western Tasmanian coastline.
Reaching depths of nearly 700 feet, not only is Lake St. Clair the deepest lake in Australia, it may very well be the most beautiful. Set at an elevation of 2,400 feet, this cobalt lake and its forest-lined shores make up the aquatic pearl of Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park. The distant peak of Mt Olympus towers above the shoreline as visitors dip their toes in the cool waters,. Though not as tall as the park’s Mt Ossa (which, at 5,400 feet, is the tallest mountain in Tasmania), the jagged spire of Mt Olympus manages to dominate the lakeshore’s skyline.
Besides the lake, the entire area is famous for housing some of the best hikes on the island. The six-day Overland Trail has its southern terminus here at Lake St. Clair, and hikers who have just completed the 40-mile trail are often found on the ferry that crosses from Narcissus Bay to Cynthia Bay. Travelers just visiting for the day can spend an hour walking the lakeshore trails or tackle a six-hour backcountry journey into the surrounding Tasmanian wilderness. Since track conditions change frequently, the first stop should always be at the informative Lake St. Clair Visitor Center, where not only will you get information on current trail conditions and closures, but also find exhibits on early settlers and original Aboriginal inhabitants. At the end of your hike, fire up the BBQ at the Cynthia Bay campground, wash your feet in the refreshing waters and watch as the fading afternoon sun drapes Mt Olympus in shadows.
Rising from the coastline of western Tasmania like soft, shapeshifting mountains, the Henty Dunes are natural wonders on the outskirts of the town of Strahan. Trek to the top of these wind-sculpted pinnacles for sweeping views of the shoreline, and then feel the rush of wind in your face as you race down the dunes on a sandboard. Tall, dusty and with a soft cushion for landing, the largest sabd dunes can create heart-pumping runs as you slide your way toward the shoreline.
Or, to really explore the depths of the Henty Dunes as they stretch inland toward the interior, rev the engine of a 4WD quad bike and bounce away from the coast. Along the way you can drink in the views of Tasmania’s largest sand dune structure, and given the otherwise lush surroundings of the rainforest-laden west coast, you’ll see that the desert-like pinnacles are beautifully out of place. At the end of the day, stick around to watch the sun go down beneath the distant western horizon, and enjoy the isolated, elevated perch from the top of your very own dune.