AT reckons it might be. Strahan is a little Tasmanian beauty with a wicked past, and it’s big on stuff to do. That’s why we love it, writes Quentin Long.
If Strahan were an actor, it would be Drew Barrymore – sexy and fun, with a fairly wild and occasionally unpalatable history. The tiny dot of a town with a population of 637, on the west coast of Tasmania, is definitely, incredibly, gobsmackingly – unfairly, even – beautiful. But there are many aspects to that beauty.
This quirky town sits on the enormous Macquarie Harbour. The quaint Strahan foreshore is cuter than a Japanese tourist’s photo album. It is movie-set sort of stuff that feels surreal, and if you were paranoid, you might feel you were in The Truman Show. Nothing should be this goddamn perfect.
Top 10 reasons to go to Strahan right now:
1 Explore the most beautiful wilderness in Australia, the West Coast of Tasmania.
2 Feel the horrors of ‘hell on earth’ through convict life on Sarah Island.
3 See the devastating effects unbridled mining can have on the environment in Queenstown and the King River.
4 Appreciate the beauty of Huon pines and perhaps purchase an item made from this rare timber.
5 See Australia’s booming aquaculture at work.
6 Ride one of Australia’s engineering marvels, the West Coast Wilderness Railway.
7 Watch little penguins come ashore, then see inside their burrows as they roost for the night.
8 See the birthplace of two great political forces in Australia.
9 Discover the greatest exhibit of pioneering and mining at the Zeehan Pioneers Museum.
10 See Australia’s longest running play, The Ship That Never Was.
stunning strip of Federation two-storey façades sits snugly against the foreshore, housing the local pub and restaurant. Serene trawlers bob idly at the wharf. Fat ducks waddle to greet all those out for a constitutional along the foreshore (a parasol is not out of place in Strahan). How cute. And then the bastard ducks crowd you like a bunch of intimidating gangster teenagers about to roll you for your food. They squawk and nip at each other – and you – if you don’t hand over something edible.
Yeah, life’s tough in Strahan when the only things a jaded travel writer has to bitch about are some overindulged waterbirds. That’s probably the way most things go in Strahan. From time immemorial, or at least since white man’s tenure in Tasmania, the beauty of the place belies a serious bite. It’s a history of fierce, tenacious, unstoppable people who met the immovable force of nature, or each other.
Convicts and a ship that never was
The fierce Antarctic storms that roll in over the sea to smash into the hideously rugged mountains, thrashing anyone foolish enough to be outside, were just the beginning. Strahan’s dark and fascinating history centres around the activities of two groups of people who came to the West Coast with very different agendas: the convicts and the miners.
The fierce convict history was somewhat shortlived. From 1822 to 1833, convicts would be sent to a tiny island in the middle of Macquarie Harbour – Settlement Island, later to be renamed Sarah Island. Governor Sorell decided that the island would be the perfect home “for the worst description of convict”, who could then be used as slave labour to exploit the great timber in the area.
Sarah Island would become the living hell described in the Marcus Clarke book For the Term of His Natural Life. But the most chillingly appealing stories about the convicts on Sarah Island are about the escapees. The most famous, and infamous, is Alexander Pearce, the Cannibal Convict featured devouring fellow escapees in the movie Van Diemen’s Land.
The most audacious escapees – and the ones who should arguably be given more of a profile – were the group of convicts who commandeered the last boat built on Sarah Island, the Frederick, for their break for freedom. From 1828 to 1833, the shipyards at Sarah Island were recognised throughout the colonies as some of the best in the country, with an incredibly high standard of workmanship. The convicts liked their work so much they decided to steal it and set sail. Arriving safely → in Chile, the ten convicts were accommodated for a while until a new Chilean governor decided to remove the unlawful riffraff. Four of the escapees were arrested and returned to Hobart. The other six? Well, no-one’s really sure what happened to them.
The whole story of the escape is now a play performed every night in Strahan: The Ship That Never Was, which is the oldest continuously running play in Australia. Its production company – the Round Earth Company – also runs the worthwhile Sarah Island Tours.
Dam: the political kingmaker
There are two do-not-leave-without-doing tours in Strahan. The first is a cruise on the Gordon River, which includes the Sarah Island Tour. The second is a choice of two overlapping tours, depending on your budget and mobility. Choose between the Piners & Miners Tour or West Coast Wilderness Railway. Both give you a very different experience and appreciation for the place.
The priority must be the Gordon River cruise. It brings the wilderness part of the gobsmacking-beauty equation into focus. If you can ignore the sharp elbows of the septuagenarians storming the all-you-can-eat buffet to conquer the ridiculous mountain of smoked salmon, the commentary is superb. The cruise will take you out past the salmon farms, on to Sarah Island and into the Gordon River, the site of Australia’s most famous environmental protests.
Probably unbeknown to any baby boomer or gen-Xer, Strahan is the town that touched us all in the late ’70s and early ’80s. We all grew up knowing what the hell a green triangle emblazoned with “No Dams” meant. This tiny town was the epicentre of a new political consciousness and power base.
The Franklin-Gordon Dam battle gave birth to two political powerhouses. Bob Hawke stormed into power on the back of a no-dam policy in 1983 for his first term. And it was the birthplace of the latest Australian political powerbrokers, the Greens.
Do not ask locals about the dam. It split the town and families, and is a topic not to be discussed. But this is just part of the colourful West Coast character.
Mining is a dirty word
But mining has had the most effect on Strahan’s history – the town only exists because the mines in Queenstown needed a port from which to ship their ore. The West Coast Wilderness Railway tour travels from Strahan to the denuded and deforested Queenstown. The tour is a celebration of the tenacious spirit of the Mount Lyell Mining Company and doesn’t shy away from the obvious catastrophic environmental devastation of the West Coast.
Completed in 1897, the original railway construction was a tale of madness, folly, greed and pure Australian grit. The journey from Strahan to Queenstown was surveyed three times without success. The route was declared impossible. And yet it was built. The railway is an astounding feat of engineering (and part of AT’s Australian Engineering Marvels, issue #33, Jun/Jul ’10). The Abt toothed railway, a completely untested and unsighted new railway system developed by a Swiss engineer, was purchased for the project. Forty-two bridges were carved out of this fierce, steep terrain by hand. It could and probably should have been calamitous.
Restored and reactivated in 2002, the railway follows the original path next to the King River, which goes from being clear and unpolluted above its junction with the Queen River to a sickly brown below thanks to the tailings of the copper which flowed along this route from 1880 to 1995. Today, 15 years after the practice was stopped, the river still pours about two tonnes of copper into the Macquarie Harbour per day.
Cut it down or dig it up
The Piners and Miners Tour is by far the ultimate way to appreciate the incredibly important mining history of the West Coast. The tour takes a ‘high-rail’, a converted Land Cruiser that drops railway wheels so it can travel along a train track, up the Wilderness Railway. It turns back into a 4WD to drive you to the Bird River track. Here, you take a sensational two-and-a-half hour walk along the river and enjoy a three-course barbecue lunch accompanied by Tassie wines in the deserted mining town of Pillinger. The tour intertwines the fortunes of the miners in Queenstown and the piners in the hills. Both are magical and phenomenal frontier stories.
The miners’ story is about two rival egomaniac mining bosses, James Crotty and Bowes Kelly, who constructed duplicate railways, towns, smelters and mines. The only remains of Crotty’s efforts (I will not ruin the story by revealing the end) is the eerie ghost town of Pillinger.
The entire day’s experience is an example of world-class guiding. It ends with a cruise back → up the harbour. The day is very personalised because there’s a maximum of eight people, and it comes with all the equipment – gaiters for walking, wet-weather gear, breakfast, water, snacks, lunch, a private guide, driver, ship’s captain and deckhand/waiter – so it’s not cheap at $365 per person.
If you baulk at the price, the Railway experience is a satisfactory alternative and you can walk the Bird River track to Pillinger yourself – the downside being you have to walk back out.
THE AT VERDICT
Strahan is an astonishingly beautiful place and an important town historically. At every major juncture in the country’s past, Strahan has played a role. From the convicts, piners and miners to the environmental battles that rage today, little old Strahan in the remote Western Wilderness of Tasmania has been there. Most of us wouldn’t know it, it’s just an added benefit when you visit the most interesting town in Australia.