The Retirees on the Move Again – Tasmania in Ten – Macquarie Harbour and Sarah Island

Next morning, we excitedly awaken to a fine day and the hope of fair seas for we are sailing to Hells Gates, Bonnet Island, Sarah Island, the Petuna Fish Farm and the Gordon River. After a false start (forgot our boarding passes) we boarded the Ocean Spirit setting sail at 9.00 am. We had the opportunity to look at Strahan as we awaited casting off.

Firstly we sailed to Hells Gates (so called by the convicts sent to Sarah Island between 1822 and 1834 as it was hell on earth) the sea entrance to Macquarie Harbour and the location of Bonnet Island and its lighthouse. As we approached the Gates and passed the penguin colony on Bonnett Island, the wind blew hard and the cold grew immensely. The boat seemed to be struggling against the wind and tide. We passed the lighthouse at Hells Gate turned around and returned from whence we had come. Once we had our back to the wind the lake returned to a table top and the boat now moved easily across the water. We made our way to Petuna Fisheries sea farm where they raise Ocean Trout. We watched as an attendant hosed the pellets into the farm pen and the water rippled with a thousand fins.

From there we went to Sarah Island. The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, established on Sarah Island, operated between 1822 and 1834. The settlement housed mainly male convicts, with a small number of women. During its 12 years of operation, the penal colony achieved a reputation as one of the harshest penal settlements in the Australian colonies. The penal station was established as a place of banishment within the Australian colonies. It took the worst convicts and those who had escaped from other settlements. The isolated land is ideally suited for its purpose. It was separated from the mainland by treacherous seas, surrounded by a mountainous wilderness and was hundreds of miles away from the colony’s other settled areas. The only seaward access is through the treacherous narrow channel Hells Gates.

Despite its isolated location, a considerable number of convicts attempted to escape from the island. Bushranger Matthew Brady was among a party that successfully escaped to Hobart in 1824 after tying up their overseer and seizing a boat. James Goodwin was pardoned after his 1828 escape and was subsequently employed to make official surveys of the wilderness he had passed through. Sarah Island’s most infamous escapee was Alexander Pearce who managed to get away twice. On both occasions, he cannibalized his fellow escapees. For a short period, it was the largest shipbuilding operation in the Australian colonies. Chained convicts had the task of cutting down Huon pine trees in the Gordon River valley and rafting the logs down the river to the Island. Eventually the heavily forested island was cleared by the convicts.

It was finally closed in 1834. Most of the remaining convicts were then relocated to Port Arthur. However, 10 stole the last ship built on the Island “the Frederick” and sailed her to Chile to escape. The ruins of the settlement remain today as the Sarah Island Historic Site. The Parks and Wildlife Service website reports the following about HMS Frederick;

“Perhaps the most remarkable escape attempt occurred after the official closure of the penal settlement. Twelve convicts, under the supervision of several soldiers and Master Shipwright David Hoy, remained behind to complete the fitting out of the brig, Frederick. Despite the fact that specific orders concerning the completion of vessels in the yards had mysteriously been mislaid, the men dutifully carried out their tasks with ‘great propriety, executing Mr. Hoys’ orders with promptitude and alacrity’.

After the launch of the Frederick in January 1834, ten of the convicts seized the ship. They landed their overseers on the beach, leaving with them half of their supplies. The convicts then sailed the Frederick south of New Zealand and onto the distant coast of South America. Six weeks later they abandoned the Frederick off the coast of Chile and rowed the ship’s whaleboat the remaining 80 km to shore.

Passing themselves off as wrecked sailors, the men were welcomed into the community and several soon assumed positions as shipwrights and respected members of the community. Several married local women, while six of the men made a further escape to America and Jamaica.

Ultimately, the long arm of British law caught up with the four remaining men, bringing them back to face the Hobart gallows in 1837. At their trial, two of the escapees, William Shires and James Porter argued that they were guilty only of stealing a ‘floating bundle of wood and other materials’. As the Frederick had never been registered, there was some doubt in the Chief Justice’s mind as to what legally constituted a ship. Further, the ship had been seized in enclosed waters and not on the high sea — a requisite for charges of Piracy. It was these legal technicalities which saved the men from the gallows. Nonetheless, the men were transported to Norfolk Island for life.”

From there we sailed to the Gordon River entrance into Macquarie Harbour. Prisoners from sarah Island were sent up here to log Huon pine for ship building and of course it was the centre of controversy in respect of a Hydro dam proposed to built on the river. The skipper moved from the wheel house (where there is no wheel but only a joy stick) to his external controls and moored the vessel carefully against a decaying jetty. We disembarked and walked through temperate rain forest where huon pine is want to grow – very slowly. To demonstrate how slow it grows there is a display of a log showing 650 years worth of growth and on the ground below us is a tree three times that size, albeit it has fallen over but it continues to grow and host some other trees as well. It is a short walk but you get the idea that inside one of these forests is a formidable jungle, cold bleak and not very hospitable.

After returning to the boat we enjoyed a documentary on the area whilst returning to Strahan. A great day. That night it was a burger for me and pizza slices for Kerry from the “greasy spoon’ next door to the caravan park. We had some respite from the camper by renting a cabin for these two nights. Luxury.

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Retired Australian Lawyer having worked representing the innocent and the not so innocent in Australia and some of the remote parts of the world and having travelled widely through Europe, Western Russia, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Thailand Malaysia Solomon Islands northern China, Hong Kong and the UAE So now that I have the time I am writing about my travels present and past. Hope you enjoy exploring off the beaten track.