Friday, December 10, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: A Cruise into Tasmania's Western Wilderness

Photographer Gerhard Bock is back this week with more beautiful photos and a travelogue about his recent trip to Australia. To learn more about Gerhard and read his advice on taking better photos, check out his post from last week: Off the Beaten Track: Travel Photography 101. Gerhard’s photos and writing can also be found at The Photo Continuum, and

For many people, Tasmania is in the same category as Timbuktu: They don't really know where it is, but just the name conjures up visions of a place far away, near the end of the world. Well, they're right. Tasmania is at the very edge of the world.

That point is brought home by a comment the captain of our tour boat makes as we approach the mouth of Macquarie Harbour, a large inlet on the west coast near the town of Strahan. “The waves that hit that lighthouse there,” he says in a broad Strine accent, “come all the way from Argentina because there's nothing but water between here and there.” Nothing defines geographical isolation more than 7,000 miles of open ocean.

After turning around at the lighthouse, we proceed to head up the Gordon River, which empties into Macquarie Harbour. One of largest rivers in Tasmania, the Gordon River cuts through a vast stretch of uninhabited wilderness located in the heart of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which itself encompasses 20% of all of Tasmania. Trees grow right down the water which looks like weak tea because of the tannins leaching from the roots of the buttongrass that lines the shore.

Aside from trees, water, and sky, there isn't much to see, and yet these three elements are so all-encompassing that I stand on the upper deck of our catamaran utterly transfixed by the tableau in front of me. The wind is blowing strong, drowning out the sounds of other passengers talking and laughing, and I manage to lose myself in this primal world as the minutes tick by without meaning.

The shrill sound of the boat horn brings me back to the here and now. We're docking at Heritage Landing, the farthest up the river that commercial boat tours are allowed to go. We walk through a pristine cold-climate rain forest with trees older than any of us by hundreds of years, luxuriously draped with moss. We're not allowed to leave the boardwalk because the ecosystem is fragile, but what we see gives us a good idea of what the remaining 99.99% of this endless wilderness must be like.

After an hour we leave Heritage Landing and turn around to head back down the Gordon River. The final stop on our cruise is Sarah Island, by many accounts the most hellish of the British penal colonies in Australia. “Sarah Island is remembered only as a place of degradation, depravity, and woe,” newspaperman John West wrote in 1842. The punishments meted out to the prisoners bore no relation to the offenses committed, all part of the British strategy to "reform" these poor souls.

Precious little remains of those days—just a few ruins and foundations scattered throughout the island, all meticulously labeled. It's hard for me trying to imagine this place as the Tasmanian equivalent of Dante's inferno. It is just too stunning. But maybe it's this aching beauty that made Sarah Island so terrible for the convicts. It's as if nature thumbs its nose at your plight instead of commiserating with you.

Dusk begins to fall as our boat returns to its home base in Strahan. With less than 700 souls, this is a tiny town, but the cluster of buildings along the harbor seems gaudy and frivolous to me after seeing nothing but untamed nature for the past six hours. But I imagine that the permanent residents of Strahan know full well how precarious their perch is, right there at the edge of the world.


  1. Lots of good memories, Gerhard! Hard to believe it's almost a year ago...

  2. This is such a vivid portrait of your trip to Tasmania, Gerhard. I feel like I was there along with you! I always feel that history leaves its imprint on a place. Did you get any unpleasant tingles from Sarah Island, despite the natural beauty of the place?

  3. What a lovely place "at the edge of the world," Gerhard. And as always, your photos really bring the place alive for us. Thanks for taking us along.

  4. What a wonderful post, Gerhard. It's been at least 15 years since I was last in Strahan and you have brought back some lovely memories. Wow, not only are you a fabulous photographer, you write beautifully as well. Awesome!