Newly retired Andrew Morris has dragged his wife Gill with him to Australia for 5 weeks. The main, wholly selfish, reason is to complete the tennis Grand Slam – sadly as a spectator, rather than as a player. Wimbledon, New York and Paris were conquered over the last four decades, the Australian Open in Melbourne will complete the set.
It’s a long way to go for a game of tennis, so they are also visiting Adelaide and Tasmania.
Part 6 – Tasmania, by camper van – Strahan on the west coast
I mentioned before that we didn’t pre-book any camp sites on our 10 day camper van tour of Tasmania. Well, I’m really glad we didn’t, otherwise we probably wouldn’t have made it to Strahan, on the remote west coast and definitely one of the highlights of the holiday.
It was quite a spontaneous decision to press on from the Central Highlands and then Lake St Clair National Park as far as Strahan. But I had read in the guidebook about The Play That Never Was, Australia’s longest-running play about nearby penal colony Sarah Island, and it sounded interesting.
We made it by the skin of our Pommie teeth, arriving a couple of minutes before the daily 17:30 performance and taking our unsuspecting places on one of the front benches. We soon become press-ganged players in the fascinating, and comedically performed, true story of 10 convicts who stole a new ship to make good their escape from nearby Sarah Island in 1834. This was to avoid the fate of the rest of the local convicts, being shipped off to the new facility at Port Arthur, on the other side of the island and already feared.
I was the drunken captain of the Frederick, attacked by the scallywags who stole the new brig, built from local Huon pine trees. Gill was the scurvy, faithless helmsman, successfully steering the ship 10,000 miles to Chile, where the felons enjoyed freedom for a year. Four of the convicts were then sent back to Van Diemen’s Land to stand trial for theft and mutiny, and face an almost certain “scragging” (hanging). But there’s an unexpected twist…..
Great fun, with plenty of audience participation but also with an insight into the brutal regime that gave us some good context for the next day’s planned boat trip out to Sarah Island, and to the mouth of the dreaded Gordon River.
It was quite late by the time we managed to steer the van into an unpowered slot on the Discovery camp site on Strahan’s West Beach, but the sun still generated evening heat. We quickly threw some burgers on the site BBQ, pulled together a salad and stripped the tops off a couple of cider bottles……and enjoyed a magical supper, alone on the beach as the sun set, apart from a few hungry seagulls and a couple of boats scudding across the otherwise ripple-free water of Macquarie Harbour.
The next day dawned cloudless and warm at Strahan. A beautiful 10 minute stroll along the Esplanade from West Beach to the centre of town, and at 9 am we were leaving on The Eagle, a sleek red World Heritage Cruises boat owned by the Grining family, who have sailed these waters for more than 100 years.
If you’re ever on the west coast of Tasmania, you really should do this tour. We went first to Hell’s Gate, just 90 metres wide and 12 metres deep and the narrow entrance to Macquarie Harbour, protecting it from the dangerous Roaring Forties beyond. Then there was an interesting insight into the local fish farming, the boat pulling up by the side of one of the many offshore pens, each holding 28,000 trout or salmon and covered by netting to protect them against marauding cormorants and other predatory birds.
But the most interesting – and harrowing – part of the tour for me was the hour exploring Sarah Island on foot, hearing about the brutality meted out to the convicts between 1822 and 1834, about some of the characters who passed through there, and seeing the site where the Frederick – The Ship That Never Was – was built.
The final part of the trip is along the mouth of the mighty and inhospitable Gordon River, jumping off at Heritage Landing for a 30 minute boardwalk stroll amongst mighty myrtle beech, sassafras, Tasmanian laurel and Huon pine trees.
The tour lasted 6 hours and cost A$105 each, including a substantial buffet lunch with fresh salmon, cheese and more salad than a Tesco’s deli counter. Great value and a fascinating insight into some the history and livelihood of this remote coast.
Back on shore, we enjoyed local ice cream and stocked up the camper van’s supplies before enjoying our first swim in Tasmania, easing tentatively into the treacly Macquarie Harbour water off West Beach.
Into town along the Esplanade in search of non camper-van food. The first course was 10 bulgy-eyed Exmouth prawns – as fresh as fresh can be – from the unpretentious Schwoch Seafoods on the main street, followed by tea, coffee, apple crumble and Black Forest cake across the road at Bushman’s cafe and bar. It’s run by Bumpy, an ex Aussie football pro, Buddhist monk, street-living helper of failing souls, and fellow fan of Leonard Cohen.
Strahan was the only place we spent 2 nights and I’m glad we did. It was a long journey from Hobart but you’ll find interesting history and some genuine people when you get there.