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Cruising Tasmania's Gordon River

Gary Walsh explores why Tasmania’s spectacular beauty, and convict past, comes to life on a cruise of the mighty Gordon River.

Aerial view of Port Arthus Historical Site, Tasmania

Across Tasmania, it’s possible to discover remnants of the state’s brutal convict heritage in impossibly spectacular settings. That’s certainly the case at the island’s most infamous penal settlement, Port Arthur, where the beautiful backdrop belies a past marked by cruelty, tragedy and inhumanity. And it’s a similar story just outside the port town of Strahan on Tasmania’s west coast, where the entry point into a serene harbour fringed with rainforest is known as “Hells Gates”

That broad, vast expanse of water is Macquarie Harbour, and in its southern reaches sits the former penal settlement of Sarah Island, where convicts were sent in the 1820s and ’30s. They so feared the place that they coined the name Hells Gates for the narrow channel leading from the fierce Southern Ocean. 

Gordon River Cruise Hells Gate, Tasmania

And hell it must have been to the unfortunates who endured the appalling conditions on the island as they toiled, chained together, to harvest Huon pines and build boats. Today, however, it presents an almost heavenly prospect. With its tumbledown remains of the convict era, the island is one of the key sites on a wilderness cruise.

Hells Gates now offers a portal to salmon and ocean trout farms near the mouth of Macquarie Harbour, before the waterway – six times the size of Sydney Harbour – broadens as the Gordon River comes into view. Here your state-of-the-art vessel, Spirit of the Wild, comes into its own, switching off its diesel engines and running on its electric motors to cruise almost silently into the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Aerial view of Gordon River with Cruise Ship
The Gordon’s water is famously the colour of weak tea because of the tannins released by the button grass that grows in its catchment area, but in the perfect stillness of early morning its surface is often like a mirror
View of rainforest in Gordon River, Tasmania
The river snakes upstream to Heritage Landing, where it’s possible to disembark for a guided tour along a wooden boardwalk into the dense temperate rainforest, which is home to myriad species including towering protected Huon pines, some of which are believed to be up to 3,000 years old.
View of Sarah Island, Tasmania
The next stop is Sarah Island, which is much smaller and much less grand than the more famous convict settlement at Port Arthur. The ruins here are less extensive and there’s none of the manicured beauty of Port Arthur’s setting. Sarah Island is an altogether wilder place, mostly returned to nature, with skeletal remnants of the penitentiary, bakehouse and solitary cells that in their state of collapse convey a powerful sense of desolation and horror. A place in a limbo between heaven and hell. 

On Tour

Cruise the Gordon River and visit Sarah Island on our 12 Day Tasmania Complete tour. This Tasmanian journey begins in Hobart, before moving on to Russell Falls in Mt Field National Park en route to Strahan.

The next day, board the Spirit of the Wild, cross Macquarie Harbour and pass through Hells Gate, cruising towards the Gordon River. Head to Cradle Mountain that evening for two nights at Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge.

Explore Dove Lake in the morning before choosing an optional activity – maybe a wine and cheese tasting, or a walk with a naturalist guide. On Day 5, head to Stanley on the northern coastline, and enjoy a Tasmanian Fare dinner at the Tall Timbers Hotel in Smithton. Two nights in Launceston follow, staying at the Peppers Silo Hotel.

Visit Bridestowe Lavender Estate and East Coast Natureworld the next day en route to spectacular Freycinet National Park, staying at acclaimed Freycinet Lodge. Spend the next day discovering the park’s natural landmarks. Immerse yourself in the historic towns of Ross, Richmond and the iconic historic site of Port Arthur before the tour concludes in Hobart.