• Shelley Dark

#13 Strahan


After spending a lifetime of summers in sticky muggy Queensland, it's hard to imagine a better destination at this time of year than Strahan.

While the rest of Australia has sweltered, we've been here for two weeks delighting in the bracing air and chilly breezes of the early mornings. Most days I've started with a jumper, and temperatures in the middle of the day have hovered in the balmy low to early twenties. 

It's is a sleepy little fishing village near the mouth of Macquarie Harbour on the west coast, population at last census 705.That's boosted by tourists who come to see the forests of the Gordon River, and the amazing rack and pinion railway line which still runs tourists to Queenstown.

Two kilometres away is the even sleepier Lettes Bay.

It's an historical shanty town of corrugated iron shacks built by miners from the 1890's to the middle of the twentieth century.

They used what building materials they could carry from the railway, and the crown land they sit on is used communally.

It's a charming time warp of colourful dunnies, where the most startling occurrence is the weekly garbage truck or the very occasional sound of kids jumping off the ricketty jetty.

Super-stylist and marketer Sarah Andrews has converted a derelict seafront shack into a very attractive weekend cottage for two.

By using 12-pane antique windows she found in Launceston, she's filled the space with light reflected in the glossy reclaimed Tasmanian oak floors.

There's an eclectic mix of vintage and op-shop; a palette of white, rust and forest green, and the textural contrasts of wicker and old rope, linen and velvet.

It's a photographic opportunity at every turn.

Our only complaint after two weeks was the clawfoot bath with no shower - you need to be mobile enough to get in and out, and prepared to wash your hair with a hand-held nozzle.

We've loved the ever-changing light on the bay.

From sun to rain.

Or just sitting dreaming...

It's an extraordinary place of peace and solitude. I think I'd even like to be here in winter to watch the sunsets, fogs and wild weather through those soaring windows. With a fire roaring in the wood heater!

It's only a few steps to the water. It's a constant joy watching the changes of light.

And the ducks! There were two mothers with a combined baby count of 28. Then after a commotion one night, it went down to 15, and there it stayed.

No one, including the ducklings, is quite sure who belongs to whom.

There are four other adult ducks. The mallard ducks swim up to the baby ducklings, grab them by the head, and duck them, trying to drown them. There's nothing playful about it. It's deadly serious! It's a tough life.

We hocked the kids' inheritance and took a top-deck day cruise on Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon River. The sleek charcoal catamaran Spirit of the Wild is big, powerfully fast and quiet, with floor to ceiling windows. There's a great film commentary during the trip.

It was a low grey sky.

We glided out through Hells Gates to the vast Southern Ocean through the entrance to the harbour where so many ships have sunk.  A rock wall which stops the passage from silting up was amazingly built by hand in 1897. How visionary!

Back in the harbour, we passed the ghostly salmon and trout farms - I was a little alarmed to hear that the farmed trout flesh goes grey and is coloured pink with another food ingredient. There was a colour chart on board to demonstrate the different salmon colours preferred by different markets!

The Gordon River is edged by amazingly dense forests of tall timbers. This is home to many magnificent species including Huon pine, Sassafras, King Billy, leatherwood, myrtle and laurel. I didn't realise that Huon Pine grows only a millimetre in girth a year and can live for thousands of years. 

​The most interesting part of the trip for me was the visit to Sarah Island. This island penal settlement in Macquarie Harbour was the most appalling of them all, begun in 1822 to house incorrigible prisoners.

Conditions were so ghastly that at the onsite hanging of three prisoners as an example to the others, both the condemned men and their friends watching were laughing and catcalling - they kicked off their shoes and cheered ‘goodbye’ to their companions and ‘goodbye, Jack’ to the commandant. What a way to thumb their noses at the authorities. And what a hellhole it must have been.

Later, it's thought that conditions improved enormously. The authorities must have realised that in order to have the men work co-operatively to build beautiful huon pine ships, they had to reduce the lashes administered, and house the men much more humanely. The output of ships, some of them bigger than the transport ships the convicts had arrived in, rose to 113, an amazing number.

One hundred metres away this tiny rocky outcrop of Grummet Island at first housed 8 women convicts until it was decided to remove them for ‘moral’ reasons. They meant the morals of the guards who were taking advantage of their charges - the three men were court-martialled. Sometimes it was used for solitary confinement. Later about 60 of the more troublesome male prisoners were held here at night for security - they had to wade ashore through chest deep water and sleep wet and cold. In the worst weather it’s said that waves could break over the island. No wonder it was the scene of several murders. The most infamous convict held here was Alexander Pearce who escaped twice, both times cannibalising his fellow escapees. Wouldn't you run for cover if he suggested you escape together!!!! 

This bakery must have been a source of great comfort to these men. Imagine the smell of fresh bread in those conditions! 

Another must-do in Strahan is a West Coast Wilderness Railway journey.  The line was carved out of steep rainforest-covered mountainsides by workers for the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company to transport copper, silver and gold to Strahan. It operates on a rack and pinion system which lets the engine pull itself and its load up the very steep hills. And presumably stop it from running away downhill.

​There are full day-trips to Queenstown, and half day trips deep into the rainforest between the two towns. We opted for the second.

The train driver had love hearts in his eyes when he looked at this engine.

Our steam engine, number 3, was manufactured in Scotland in 1897 and shipped here as a do-it-yourself kit. Amazingly the workers put it together and it worked! 

It starred when a fire broke out in the mine in 1912, bringing firemen and rescuers from Strahan to Queenstown and making the trip in record time, its engine glowing red! Tragically there was no escape for the miners except through the main mine shaft. Of the 170 men who went down the mine that day, forty-two were lost.

I loved watching the engine being turned around on the turntable at Dubble Barrill.

There's a wonderful story of how the tiny siding got its name, from a letter sent by a fettler to a company in Hobart ordering a shotgun. The gun came back addressed to Dubble Barrill, Strahan Railway. And so the name has stuck. Or so the story goes.

We were incredulous too that one of the railway fettlers and his wife ran a dairy farm there, with 9 children and 11 cows. In a rainforest! The kids and the milk went to Strahan each day on the train, and depending on what time the 4.30pm train eventually left Strahan, sometimes the kids didn't arrive home until midnight.