Gordon River National Park, Tasmania

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Hell's Gate, the narrow stretch of water barely 8m deep at the entrance to Gordon River, on a quiet night. Seas here have been recorded as high as 18m (70ft).
Hell's Gate, the narrow stretch of water barely 8m deep at the entrance to Gordon River, on a quiet night. Seas here have been recorded as high as 18m (70ft).

After travelling 11,000 miles along the 40th degree of latitude from South America, the winds and waters of the Southern Ocean, meet Tasmania. On some days Mother Nature plays nicely on others she shows her ugly worst. Ragged rocks and crashing waves contest in mortal combat. In the middle of Tasmania's western seaboard, lies the mouth of the Gordon River, perhaps better known as Hell's Gates. It was here the very worst convicts from in the British colonies were brought, to serve their time on Sarah Island, the harshest of all penal settlements in the British Empire in the 1800s. It is also one of the most dangerous harbour entrances in the world.

During the convicts time, they were conscripted to cut and move Huon Pine and Celery Top,(cherished, endemic hardwoods, that do not break down in water) from the rain forests, to Sarah Island, in preparation for ship building. Punishment was meted out mercilessly with a Cat of 27 tails, designed to tear flesh at the first stroke. In a single year 8004 lashes were given to the prison population. The island seldom had more than 100 prisoners at any time. If that was not enough, many were banished in chains to spend the night, shackled to the walls of a cave, that flooded up to their waists with freezing waters.

Sarah Island today. IN the penal settlement days there were no trees, the island was totally exposed top the elements
Sarah Island today. IN the penal settlement days there were no trees, the island was totally exposed top the elements

Today, the Gordon River, enjoys a much more peaceful existence; Mother Nature still regularly, throws her rath at Hell's Gates, but the convict era has been replaced by aquaculture, conservation and tourism. The Gordon River National Park is one the World Heritage most protected treasures. Like the Tarkine, its northern neighbour, the Gordon River has had its share of battles.

Fishermen, feed salmon with liquid food to ensure better distribution across ponds, Salmon Farm Aquaculture, Gordon River
Fishermen, feed salmon with liquid food to ensure better distribution across ponds, Salmon Farm Aquaculture, Gordon River

In the 1960s an hydro electric scheme was given the green light, by government. A dam was proposed at the head of the Gordon River. Tasmanian's erupted in anger. A bitter and fiercely fought battle resulted in the closure of the dam scheme and the World Heritage listing of the Gordon River.

An Huon Pine Tree aged around 80-100 years old. In the forests behind are trees that are 200 years old.
An Huon Pine Tree aged around 80-100 years old. In the forests behind are trees that are 200 years old.

Like the Tarkine, the rain forest here is almost as old as time itself. There are trees and plants here that are the closest living relatives to early life on earth. They evolved long before birds and many animals. If you stop and listen there is no bird song. No scrambling animals. These trees have nothing for them to eat, they produce no flowers and no fruit. They do not use pollination to reproduce.

Metres into the dense Rain Forest on Heritage Walk, it is impossible to see the river you have just left.
Metres into the dense Rain Forest on Heritage Walk, it is impossible to see the river you have just left.

Despite this the forest is so dense that four metres in from the river on the Heritage Walk, it was impossible to tell which direction you would need to go, to get back to the river. The Heritage Walk is an access point provided by Parks and Wildlife on the Gordon River Cruise to see first hand this extraordinary natural phenomenon. A fallen 2000 year old Huon Pine beside the walk, was recorded to have had over 147 different species of plant on it. Many of which grow nowhere else on the planet.

Flora found in the rain forest here are seldom seen anywhere else in the world
Flora found in the rain forest here are seldom seen anywhere else in the world

Back on the river, the early morning light, barely pierced the mists. The tannins lending their dark brown colour to the still waters, provided perfect mirrors to reflect the magnificent forest backdrop, en route back to the infamous Sarah Island Penetentiary. The competition for space and light is clear to see, with trees growing in the river and grasses and reeds, lining the waters ahead of them. Above the canopy is thick with a collection of vibrant green and yellow leaves, occasionally interspersed with a dying tree, devoid of leaves.

The lush canopy including Leatherwoods, Myrtles, Sassafras, Blackwoods, the endemic hardwoods so sort after by the forestry industry.
The lush canopy including Leatherwoods, Myrtles, Sassafras, Blackwoods, the endemic hardwoods so sort after by the forestry industry.

Back at Sarah Island, a tour reveals the story of the convicts and the administration that ran them. Brutality, murders, floggings, plots and counterplots have been researched over 18 years by a local historian, providing a fascinating insight to life on the island. On our tour this was delivered by an equally engaging Aboriginal guide who also doubled as an actor in the evening. His lively and interactive dialogue brought to life scenes of the time.

The mountains that are part of the Gordon River catchment were also another brutal barrier to anyone trying to escape Sarah Island. A few did and ended up eating their fellow escapees, in the absence of any other food.
The mountains that are part of the Gordon River catchment were also another brutal barrier to anyone trying to escape Sarah Island. A few did and ended up eating their fellow escapees, in the absence of any other food.

Whilst escape was not upper most in the minds of the visitors, escape they did, back to the boat and the journey back to Strahan. With the sun, shrouded in hazy cloud and no wind, it was almost like a sunset cruise home. A far cry from the violence of both convict history and the brutal forces of the Roaring Forties synonymous with the region.

Hazy clouds, weak sun and no wind, provide a Sunset cruise feel back to Strahan
Hazy clouds, weak sun and no wind, provide a Sunset cruise feel back to Strahan

For more images from the Gordon River National Park please click here

My thanks to RACT Gordon River cruises, The People, Ships and Shipwrights Tour, for information used in helping write this article

© Robert Oates | BALLANTYNE Photography Travel and Events Photography and Editorials