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Thursday 30 January 2014

A journey to Tasmania's wild west

For a tiny town in the wild west of Tasmania, Strahan packs a mighty tourism punch. 

With a population of just 700, this fishing village is the base for several major attractions, including cruises on the Gordon River, cruises to Bonnet Island, one of the best places in the world to get up close and personal with fairy penguins, and (sometimes) the West Coast Wilderness Railway.

A 4.5-hour drive from Hobart and a 3-hour drive from Devonport, Strahan was originally developed as a port for the many mining settlements in the area. It  has also played a key role in the timber industry.

Today, it is the gateway to Tasmania’s largely deserted south-west wilderness, where many locals believe that Tasmanian tigers still roam, with boats, planes and helicopters using the settlement as their base. 

Strahan is the departure point for boat trips to Sarah Island, the notorious penal settlement that earned a reputation as the harshest in the Australian colonies. It also home to the Round Earth Theatre Company, which conducts tours of Sarah Island and also created the play The Ship That Never Was, which is Australia’s longest-running theatre production.

The hamlet is a harbour-side village with a dark and fascinating convict past set on the edge of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Nestled on the shores of massive Macquarie Harbour, it is the gateway to the World Heritage listed Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park 

Despite its history of convicts, these days Strahan is a laid-back destination with shops selling artisan wares and eateries serving up delicious local produce (including crayfish). There's no shortage of activities, from jet boat rides and gentle kayak journeys to a seaplane adventure for an incredible bird's-eye view, Google Earth style.

There are also long stretches of wild ocean beach to explore, massive sand dunes to conquer and forest adventures to be had in all-terrain vehicles.

While there are some independent bed and breakfasts and a handful of motels, most of Strahan was owned and run by Pure Tasmania, which operated the up-market accommodation at Strahan Village, overlooking the pretty hamlet and its crayfish fleet, as well as a wide range of self-catering accommodation including some delightful cottages. It recently was acquired by the RACT.

Hamers Hotel (above), one of only two pubs in town, is also owned by Pure Tasmania and is a popular gathering point for both locals and visitors.

The West Coast Wilderness Railway, which usually travels the rugged and largely untamed country between Strahan and the mining town of Queenstown, recently resumed operation, but only one section of the track is currently being used, meaning a trip on the winding road to Queenstown is currently a necessity. 

A restoration of the Mount Lyell Mining line built in 1896 to export copper from Queenstown, it was a feat of remarkable engineering but was closed in 1969. Reopened as tourist attraction in 2000, it features new carriages fitted out with Tasmanian native timbers and modelled on the original carriages.

Four steam locomotives, including ABT 1, which dates back to 1896, are used to pull the train, which crosses the King River and several dramatic rainforest gorges, using a rack-and-pinion system to conquer the steep gradients.

The journey has been described as one of the world’s few remaining authentic railway experiences and passengers are able to disembark at old mining settlements, and even pan for gold.

A cruise up the Gordon River is equally relaxing – and there is the chance to stretch your legs and gaze at the 200-year-old Huon pines at Heritage Landing and on a guided tour of Sarah Island.

The rainforest surrounding the Gordon River has in most places remained undisturbed for thousands of years making the cruise an awe-inspiring experience. It seems strange to think that three decades ago activists had to fight tooth and nail to prevent the Gordon and Franklin rivers being flooded to create a dam.

The Bonnet Island Experience, meanwhile, is popular with animal lovers. This rocky outcrop just before “Hell’s Gate” - the entry to Macquarie Harbour - looks unremarkable when we sail past it on board the fast runabout the Sophia just before dusk.

There is a lone lighthouse, built in 1892 but unmanned for decades, and next stop: South America. Or, if you turn left you are en route for Antarctica.

As darkness descends, however, Bonnet Island comes alive with around 250 fairy penguins (left) that go out looking for food during the day, but return to their island home at night, sharing the island with short-tailed shearwaters.

Guests are given a lantern to enable them to avoid tumbling in the darkness – and help locate the shy birds before they scurry into their burrows, apparently nonplussed by the invaders.

As for nightlife, there is none. Strahan is not that sort of place. But I suspect the sea air nonetheless will ensure most visitors sleep well.

Strahan Village offers a range of styles of accommodation.   See

The 2 ½-hour Bonnet Island Experience runs nightly from Strahan at dusk, while Gordon River Cruises sail daily with guided tours of Sarah Island included. 

For full details on visiting Tasmania, go to the new Tourism Tasmania

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