With place names such as Cape Grim, Suicide Bay and Dismal Swamp, north-west Tasmania hardly sounds like an idyllic holiday destination. But while Hobart’s stunning MONA museum has cast its glow of cool sophistication over south-east Tassie, the north-west has a different but no less compelling allure, rooted in ancient forests, a dramatic and bloody history and a breathtaking sense of isolation.
You can get a taste of all three aboard a cruise down the majestic Gordon River, out of the postcard-pretty west coast village of Strahan. On a 5½-hour cruise, the 32-metre Lady Jane Franklin II crosses Macquarie Harbour to the treacherous mouth at the southern ocean – named Hells Gate by convicts en route to the notorious Sarah Island penal colony – before following the convicts’ course upstream into the heart of the world-heritage-listed wilderness area.
Time seems to fall away as the boat sails deep into Tasmania’s past to Sarah Island, where ruins of one of Australia’s most brutal convict settlements are brought to life on an entertaining tour.
There’s a more contemporary slice of history back on board as the crew explain how the majestic, centuries-old Huon pines lining the river were almost lost in the bid to dam the Gordon in the late 1970s, sparking Australia’s national conservation movement. Listen and learn or just sit back, enjoy the buffet lunch and get lost in the awe-inspiring views reflected in the tannin-stained water.
Just an hour’s drive from Strahan’s quaint charms, the moonscape hills of Queenstown seem as if in another world. The enormous Mount Lyell copper mine that fuelled the town’s economy for 130 years is temporarily closed after a spate of fatal accidents and a plunge in copper prices. But the eerily desolate landscape, scarred by open cut mining and acid rains, is now a drawcard for artists.
Local gallery LARQ was established by printmaker Raymond Arnold, who moved here 10 years ago and is a driving force behind the town’s biennial arts festival The Unconformity. Just as a revegetation program is slowly bringing new life to the barren hills that loom over town, the first shoots of artistic awakening promise to reinvigorate the area.
Meanwhile, enterprising former mine workers have made the most of Mount Lyell’s hiatus, leading tours deep into the labyrinthine shafts that now lie quiet. For those unfazed by descending six kilometres into the earth, Queenstown Heritage Tours offers a fascinating glimpse into a subterranean world of backbreaking labour, gargantuan rock-crushing machinery and engineering accomplishments that few of us ever get to see.
Spirit of Tasmania
Savvy travellers have long known the Spirit of Tasmania is the best way to get to Tassie.
Drive the car on in Melbourne, crawl into bed after a hearty dinner on board and, before you know it, you’re driving off next morning at Devonport.
Now, thanks to a $31.5 million upgrade, the good old SOT has been transformed from daggy to de rigueur.
Day beds, polished timber floors and parlour palms evoke the golden age of travel on the upper decks, while a reading room, twin cinemas and swish new bistro give a touch of class to the main decks.
Mt Lyell Anchorage
- 17 Cutten Street, Queenstown
History blends with luxury at this painstakingly restored 19th-century cottage in the heart of Queenstown.
Private rooms have soaring pressed-metal ceilings, romantic bay windows and spacious en suites with freestanding bath, fluffy robes and aromatic toiletries. There’s also family accommodation in the self-contained former miners’ cottages next door.
Guests help themselves to ample breakfast provisions in the main cottage’s communal kitchen.
West Coast Wilderness Railway
Part panto, part great railways of the world, this trip into history is fun, informative and indulgent in equal measure.
The 1896 railway that hauled ore from the world’s richest copper mine in Queenstown to the harbour at Strahan was an engineering marvel, traversing 40 bridges and climbing death-defying gradients through remote wilderness.
These days, passengers ride the restored 35-kilometre route in style, sipping champagne as one of the original steam locomotives does all the hard work.
Unconformity Arts Festival
- The Unconformity Arts Festival
- October 14 to 16
Jane Hutchinson travelled courtesy of Spirit of Tasmania and Tourism Tasmania.