Travelling Australia - Journal 2015b




22 April 2015
Macquarie Harbour Cruise


Yesterday we had collected boarding passes for Lady Jane Franklin II and boarded the vessel shortly after 8 o'clock for the cruise planned to last nearly six hours. Unlike the previous few days the sun shone brightly, the sky was blue and there was no wind; conditions promised a pleasant trip. In practice, some cloud came over later in the day but the sun shone pretty well all the time. Lady Jane Franklin II is a purpose-built catamaran carrying well over 100 passengers in considerable comfort. She was designed for the sheltered waters of Macquarie Harbour and is very stable but with a substantial turn of speed reducing the time taken to get to the next destination.

Jane Franklin

Lady Jane Franklin II approaching Strahan. Photograph taken the day after our cruise when the weather had reverted to dank and cloudy.

Hell's Gate

First destination was the narrow entrance into Macquarie Harbour from the ocean. During our visit the ocean was calm so going through the entrance in the cruise boat was entirely practical; seeing the entrance explained why so many sailing ships were wrecked trying to negotiate the narrow gap when wind and sea may not help a vessel. The reputation of the convict settlement in Macquarie Harbour as "hell on earth" during its early years of operation led to the entrance to the harbour being called the gate to hell or Hell's Gate and the name has stuck.

Hells Gate

Hell's Gate from outside in the Southern Ocean looking into Macquarie Harbour.

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In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Strahan was more of a working port, considerable effort, and expense, was directed towards making the entrance safer. One of the more obvious problems was a sand bar across the entrance which often made the seas rougher and could be an obstacle for vessels. At that time a common way of dealing with such sandbars was to build breakwaters on either side of the exit from the river or harbour out to sea as well as installing lines of rocks inside the entrance (known as training walls) to direct the tidal flow so it washed away accumulating sand.

The training wall built at Hells Gate was built by 200 to 300 men (reports differ) and is 2 to 3 kilometres long (reports also differ); it was built by hand. Unlike some other training walls built in New South Wales the Hells Gate ones worked very well; on 21 October 1901, the Hobart Mercury reported the depth of water over the bar was definitely increasing as the breakwater and training walls grew longer; now deeper draught vessels could safely negotiate the entrance.

But, even with all this work, Hell's Gate into Macquarie Harbour remained a menace to shipping.

After returning through the entrance the Lady Jane Franklin II accelerated along Macquarie Harbour to stop beside the fish farms so we could have a look at them.

Fish Farms

Fish farms have been established in Macquarie Harbour to raise Salmon and Rainbow trout under apparently ideal conditions. There are three main operators: Tassal, Huon Aquaculture and Petuma.

Fish Farms

Fish farms. Fish grow in circular floating enclosures with netting over them to stop seabirds helping themselves to the fish's food.

Most Tasmanian fish farming operations are in the Huon including some of the hatcheries and growing pens. Macquarie Harbour, used principally for growing pens, offers an excellent environment for Atlantic Salmon (and Rainbow Trout). The water is mainly salt but with a mixture of fresh water infused with tannin leached from button grass roots into ground water before it flows into streams; the water is cold enough for salmon in pens and there are few seals naturally found in Macquarie Harbour. Seals are a particular problem, not only because they eat fish but because they tear holes in the nets through which fish escape, as well as stressing those fish which do not escape; stressed fish do not grow as well.

Fresh water mixed with seawater in Macquarie Harbour reduces the incidence of naturally occurring amoebas which cause disease in the fish. At other sites considerable effort is needed to provide fresh water so the salmon can bathe themselves to control amoebas.

Salmon smolt (young salmon) delivered from hatcheries are released into pens then fed and looked after for 12 to 18 months before being harvested. Artificial lighting is used to modify day length for the fish; longer days delays sexual maturity which leads to degraded flesh quality.

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Harvesting is done at night when the fish are 'more relaxed'. Huon Aquaculture stuns the fish while still in water, drains the blood in less than a second, then puts the fish in ice slurry for transport to the processing plant.

While we were near the fish farm a boat came alongside one of the fish pens and began spraying food pellets onto the pen. Each pen is covered with mesh to stop seabirds having a free feed while the fish food passes through the mesh into the water to feed the fish.

Then we accelerated again to complete the run up the full length of Macquarie Harbour into the mouth of the Gordon River.

Gordon River

Lady Jane Franklin II slowed down considerably in the Gordon River to avoid any wash damage to the shore. Vegetation came right down to the river on both sides, usually overhanging the water.

Gordon River

The Gordon River is famous for the mirror surface reflecting the river bank trees and shrubs.


Boardwalk at Heritage Landing takes visitors through the temperate rainforest. Sunshine reaching the ground was an unusual event in this shadowy place.

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The river surface was dead flat acting as a mirror around us; even our wake was so reduced that it didn't really disturb the tranquility (although engine noise would have been intrusive to anybody on the riverbank). After several kilometres we came alongside at Heritage Landing which is as far upriver as large cruise boats are allowed to go and most of the passengers went ashore on a boardwalk through the temperate rainforest.

The boardwalk passed a variety of trees and shrubs including a Huon Pine said to be 2000 years old. The vegetation was well adapted to the three to six metres of annual rainfall here. Fungi and lichens were common and most appeared to be thriving. There were no birds seen or heard, one explanation is that it is too dark in the rainforest for birds to be comfortable but various surveys of the region, which confirm fewer bird species in south-west Tasmania than eastern parts, concluded that environmental factors such as steep river banks and lack of sandbanks suitable for wading birds are more likely explanations.

When we sailed from Heritage Landing heading back downstream the captain made the comment that if anybody wished to remain ashore the boat would be back next day at the same time to pick them up. We thought that was a joke until we learned that kayakers do use the cruise boat to get that far up the Gordon River then go further upstream in their kayaks, sometimes returning to meet the boat on later cruises or sometimes continuing further upriver to road access points.

By the time we returned to the Lady Jane Franklin a substantial lunch had been laid out. Despite frequent statements there was plenty to eat, by the time we reached Sarah Island everybody had had enough and the meal was cleared away.

Sarah Island

Lady Jane Franklin II came alongside a small jetty at Sarah Island and most passengers disembarked to go on guided walks of the former penal colony. The buildings of the convict settlement were abandoned so long ago that not a lot remains but there is enough to get some idea of how the place was laid out.

Sarah Island operated from 1822 to 1833 and quickly earned an evil reputation as a convict settlement where convicts were very badly treated but this appears not to be the whole story. While true for the first years of the penal colony things changed and Sarah Island built many boats and ships which were renowned for their high quality. Our walking tour guide commented that heavily punished and starving unskilled convict/slaves do not produce extremely high quality vessels for which Sarah Island became famous. Nevertheless, it was a place of secondary punishment where repeat offenders were sent for additional punishment.

Sarah Island

Very little is left of the numerous buildings used on Sarah Island when it was a penal settlement. For many decades it was completely neglected and local people took whatever they fancied. This is one of the better preserved buildings.

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In 1828 Sarah Island held about 380 convicts, 95 military personnel, 14 women and 27 children.

People from the Lady Jane Franklin were divided into two groups for a walking tour of the penal colony site. Both guides did an excellent job of describing the penal colony and outlining some of the questionable claims in present-day descriptions of Sarah Island where attitudes towards, and treatment of, the convicts changed fundamentally while it operated. Much of the bad reputation is now attributed to biased writers who had ulterior motives for portraying Sarah Island as far worse than it really was and were not entirely truthful.

The penal colony initially sent working parties up the Gordon River to cut down Huon Pine which was sent to Hobart but delays in handling the timber meant that stockpiles on the island grew and measures were taken to begin building boats on the island since the timber was already available. According to this interpretation, the drive to build high quality boats and ships from the readily available Huon Pine led to improved conditions for convicts, some of whom became skilled craftsmen.

Although Sarah Island may have been producing high quality vessels the place was closed in 1833 when Port Arthur was built as the venue for secondary punishment.

Once everybody had returned onboard the cruise boat left Sarah Island for another high-speed run along Macquarie Harbour bound for Strahan. Access to the bow deck on the vessel is controlled and generally not available during high-speed transits because of the very strong wind generated by the vessel's speed. An open deck area at the stern was always available and often provided a better vantage point despite the vibration from the screws immediately below.

The return to Strahan was uneventful and we were alongside soon after 2 o'clock in the afternoon after a most remakable and memorable cruise on Macquarie Harbour.