November 23rd – Gordon River

Despite our fears, thanks to the heater in our room we weren’t cold at all this night. In fact the lot of us had trouble staying cool! As a result we all ended up being awake much earlier than intended, though this meant I could finally catch up with the last of my blogging before breakfast.

Today we’d had two choices, a walk with a waterfall, or an optional cruise along the Gordon River. It came highly recommended, but with a steep price tag of $80 – I didn’t plan to do it, but the tour guide warned us that it was almost always the highlight of many trips, so got coaxed into it by the other travellers. In the end, only 2 people chose to do the walk, and we boarded the ‘Eye Spy’ at 8:30.

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The Gordon River Cruise takes you along the Gordon River, which is famous for several reasons. First of all, its part of a World Heritage site, which saved it from being destroyed by a dam in the 80’s, and less recently, it’s home to Sarah Island, which was once one of the worst convict settlements in Australia.

The cruise starts by taking you the right where the Southern Ocean meets the river’s edge. It’s a very narrow entrance, which was home to many shipwrecks in its day, and eventually had a sea wall built in the water in order to reduce the waves. Hasn’t been maintained in over 100 years but still holds strong today. On the edges of the passageway are two lighthouses, and the entrance was dubbed ‘Hells Gates’ by the convicts going through, as Hell was what many of them considered Sarah Island to be.

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The island in question was our next stop, but along the way we paused to check out the fisheries along the river. These are large circular nets in the water, hosting rainbow trout (among others). There are three companies that can farm in this river, and one of them happened to be harvesting as we arrived. They place a tube in the water, and suck the fish into a large tanker on a lorry seated on the ship. They then get shipped to Devenport for processing. We also saw them feeding the fish, which requires them to shoot pressurised water with pellets mixed amongst the liquid into the pens. I grew rather sick of this as I was the only one in my group paying attention to the Skipper explaining this, and had to reiterate it to half the tour group several times (though to be fair, some of them don’t have the best English skills).

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On Sarah Island, almost nothing remains of the buildings, and you get a guide to take you round and explain what’s left. Ours was Jane, who took the most enthusiastic as the rain began to fall heavily just as we arrived. Thanks to the terrible winds and storms in the area, along with just general wear, most of the buildings (such as the commanders office and living quarters) have been reduced to nothing more than foundations. That said, a few still have standing walls, including solitary confinement (which was built by the prisoners and yet seldom used) and the bakery (whose building had been positioned specifically to send the smell of freshly baked bread towards those in solitary). The penitentiary still has several walls standing, though it’s a far cry from its days of a 3 storey building. Strangely enough, the prisoners considered these sleeping quarters very comfortable, despite the island supposedly being ‘Hell on Earth’. In addition, before 1829 escape attempts were numerous (although seldom successful), but dropped to nothing around May.

This was because David Hoy, a shipright from Dundee had come to Australia to make ships, and had planned to build them on Sarah Island. However, after a ship sank due to improper ballast stones (possibly intentional on the convicts side), he realised that it was impossible to build good ships with slave labour. Negotiations took place, and in exchange for turning a blind eye to the black market trade (which was vast on the island), a better place to sleep (the penitentiary was meant to be a court house, but was never used as such, and the prisoners found it much better than sleeping outside), and better food, they were willing to learn new skills and create the ships Hoy desired. It was a fantastic situation for everyone – with many convicts learning new skills they could take with them once their sentences were up.

Sarah Island became one of the most productive shipbuilding sites in Australia, but those in power weren’t happy about the convicts having such a good deal, so build Port Arthur, and started to reduce Sarah Island’s work. Nobody wanted to go to Port Arthur, since it was meant to be as bad as Sarah Island was in the beginning, and when nearly everyone had left, the last 10 prisoners manages to steal the very last boat built there and sailed it all the way to Chile – a story that’s told in a play on the docks every night in ‘The Ship That Never Was.’

We’re on Sarah Island for about an hour, before the ship heads off again and hits the narrow stream of the river, resulting in a reduction and speed and change of scenery. We’re now in the temperate rainforest, which has remained pretty much unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years – its been like this since the supercontinent days, and forests of this type can only be found in the South – Tasmania, New Zealand and South America.

We’re heading towards an area you can walk through, but before that we get the buffet lunch that’s been promised, and it’s a great spread. Our guide insisted that we try the salmon, even if we don’t like it, because it’s fantastic on the boat. She’s not wrong – not a fan of salmon but really liked the smoked slices. Also has a variety of salad, cold meats and cheese, including brie, which made me very happy.

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We missed the announcement that we’d have a guide for the rainforest section, so ended up walking through it ourselves, only catching the back end of the tour. The forest is essentially unchanged, although last century did see the Piners come through – men looking for Huon Pine to chop down and sell. You can still find the chopped trees in the forest, including many that were uprooted, and merely had their base lopped off and left in the forest. We were gathered around several such pieces, and the guide admitted that you can’t really cut the trees down anymore, and have to rely on those that have already been cut down or washed downriver, so these ‘unwanted’ pieces are now worth about $60,000 due to their size. However, huon pine takes 500 years to mature, so perhaps it’s not so surprising.

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Takes at least 90 minutes to get back to shore, where we get to see more pine at the sawmill on the harbour. It performs demonstrations, but also still works as a functional sawmill, and has several pieces of untreated wood for sale. However, there’s also a shop with finished pieces just a little further up – some with stunning sculptures with less stunning price tags.

Jerry, our guide, picks us up at 4 and takes us to our next stop, Ocean Beach. We only have half an hour here so that we can get back in time for the evening performance. This is considered the most dangerous beach on the West Coast, due to its lack of protection and dangerous waves. Surfing and swimming is forbidden, and its not uncommon for whales to beach themselves here.

Although the water is dangerous (not that it stops one gentleman from going walking in the shallows), the beach is free of loose sand and great to walk around, its extremely cold due to the bitter winds. If the weather was nicer, I think it would actually be a great place to spend an afternoon. The winds however have even affected the local foliage – the leaves do not grow on the top of trees, and most of them are bent over with branches and leaves only growing on one half of the tree. Once we’d had our short trip. Jerry dropped us off at the theatre, and wished us luck.

‘The Ship That Never Was’ is in the record books as one of the longest running plays in the Australia, if not the world. It’s been running for 22 years, and was our evening’s entertainment. It’s an improv play, focused on the story of the 10 convicts that stole the last ship from Sarah Island and sailed to Chile. There are only 2 actors, so they play several parts, and enlist in a lot of audience participation. Most of the cast is in the audience, sometimes dragged on stage for certain scenes. I even got a role – as a rather loudmouthed parrot!

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FYI – I LOVED being the parrot. For the first half I was given an oven mitt designed to look like one, and basically had an excuse to interrupt whenever I wanted with a snappy comment, but in the second section, I was dragged onstage and given an actual costume consisting of a head and wing shoulder-shawl. Loved this thing, and just overacted as much as it was physically possible, from play fighting with the cat (Martha from my tour, much to her dismay!), to squawking ‘I believe I can fly’ when I was told to go see if a ‘cloud’ was in fact Chile. At the end of the show I was told by the two performers that I was one of the best parrots they’d ever had – clearly I’ve found my calling.

Tomorrow we have to be up stupid early as we’re packing up and off to our next stop, Cradle Mountain, where we’ve been warned it might have been snowing. Really don’t think I have the wardrobe for that! Eep!

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About Batale

I am an aspiring writer - though since I haven't written anything original in about 2 years, so calling me a writer is like calling a man who makes dinner every night a 5 star chef. I started this blog to force me to write. From the 1st January 2013, I intend to update this blog every day. If nothing interesting happens, I'll write about something that does interest me, whether that is a movie, a book, something I've heard about, or even some of my stories growing up.
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