Hell’s Gates is a notoriously shallow and dangerous channel entrance to the harbour. The actual channel is between Macquarie Heads on the west and Entrance Island on the east and the name of the channel relates to the original convicts’ claim that it was their point of ‘entrance to Hell’, their Hell being the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station on Sarah Island and the outlying surrounds of the harbour.
There is a wider area of water between Entrance Island and Macquarie Head, but it is too shallow to get a boat over. Macquarie Harbour is a body of water is six times the size of Sydney Harbour, and you certainly can feel the sheer size and scale while on board our cruise. We exit the harbour just north of Hell’s Gates, and head towards Ocean beach, a 40km stretch that faces 8000km of Great Southern Ocean.
The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, a former British colonial penal settlement, established on Sarah Island, Macquarie Harbour, in the former colony of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, operated between 1822 and 1833. The settlement housed mainly male convicts, with a small number of women. During its 11 years of operation, the penal colony achieved a reputation as one of the harshest penal settlements in the Australian colonies.
The penal station was established as a place of banishment within the Australian colonies. It took the worst convicts and those who had escaped from other settlements. The isolated land was ideally suited for its purpose. It was separated from the mainland by treacherous seas, surrounded by a mountainous wilderness and was hundreds of miles away from the colony’s other settled areas. The only seaward access was through a treacherous narrow channel known as Hells Gates.
Strong tidal currents resulted in the deaths of many convicts before they even reached the settlement due to ships foundering in the narrow rocky channel. The surveyor who mapped Sarah Island concluded that the chances of escape were “next to impossible”. Neighbouring Grummet Island, a small island to the North west, was used for solitary confinement.
The ruins of the settlement remain today as the Sarah Island Historic Site —part of the larger Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area—though they are not as well preserved as those at better-known Port Arthur. The island is accessible via ferries and charter boats operating out of the town of Strahan.
Despite its isolated location, a considerable number of convicts attempted to escape from the island. Bushranger Matthew Brady was among a party that successfully escaped to Hobart in 1824 after tying up their overseer and seizing a boat. James Goodwin was pardoned after his 1828 escape and was subsequently employed to make official surveys of the wilderness he had passed through. Sarah Island’s most infamous escapee was Alexander Pearce who managed to get away twice. On both occasions, he cannibalized his fellow escapees.
As Sarah Island could not produce food, malnutrition, dysentery, and scurvy were often rampant among the convict population. The penal colony had to be supplied by sea. Living conditions were particularly bad in the early years of the settlement. The settlement was so crowded, convicts were unable to sleep on their backs in the communal barracks. Punishment involved solitary confinement and regular floggings – 9,100 lashes were given in 1823.
In 1824 a prisoner named Trenham killed another convict in order to be executed rather than face further imprisonment at Macquarie Harbour Penal Station. It was finally closed in late 1833. Most of the remaining convicts were then relocated to Port Arthur.
The boats reaches the entrance to the Gordon River not long after. It is here the engines slow so that we can drink in the tranquility of its mirrored surface and the magical atmosphere of the thick rainforest that reaches to its banks in a wilderness of enthralling beauty. The journey continues on to view a majestic 2000 years old Huon pine and a walk through rainforest surrounds, admiring the calmness and stillness the remote area has to offer.
As with many rivers in western Tasmania, the water is fresh and drinkable, yet has the colour of weak tea due to the absorption of tannin from button grass growing in the catchment area.