Hell’s Gates and Devil’s Island

I took a boat tour to Hell's Gates and Sarah Island, aka, Devil's Island. The convict history was fascinating and alarming. If the convicts survived, they could leave as skilled tradesman. Others were cannibalized.

Day 462

I checked out of my motel in Strahan, feeling sleepy. I was once again racing to get my car packed. I left the key in the door as instructed and started to pull away when the woman who was watching the motel appeared. She thanked me for understanding the situation the night before when my power went out, and I had to switch rooms. 

I drove to the harbor, paid for parking, and walked into the ticket office at 8:50 am. I picked up my ticket for the famous boat tour and was the last to board. The large ship wasn’t even halfway full (perks of traveling in the non-peak season).

Ocean with dark clouds above

I sat in the third row of seats and against the window. It was cold and raining on and off. There was a door at the front of the ship that led to the front bow. People occasionally went outside for pictures, and each time the door opened, a rush of freezing air swept over me. I ordered a muffin and coffee and looked at the ocean around me. 

house in trees near ocean

I decided to go outside for a bit, and it was incredibly windy, cold, and was sprinkling. I took a few pictures but quickly returned to the warmth inside. The boat was cruising fast to get us to Hell’s Gates. 

Light house on island

Hell’s Gates is the name for the entrance to Macquarie Harbour. It’s notorious because it’s shallow and dangerous waters, but the only way in and out of the harbour. The name is also because of the convicts who were sent there, their personal hell. 

Ocean waves

There was a long sandbar close to us and waves fiercely crashing when we went through Hell’s Gates. We passed a lighthouse and an old break wall built by hand because they couldn’t get machines into the area. 

sandbar and ocean waves
lighthouse on an island

We passed fish farms, and the announcer explained that they care about the environment because their jobs will go away without it. We turned around and went back through Hell’s Gates. I stood outside again for some pictures, but couldn’t stay for too long because of the cold rain.

mountains and ocean
woman with lighthouse in background
woman taking picture of lighthouse
mountains and ocean

Our first stop was at Sarah Island, an old settlement island. The banishment settlement, also known as Devil’s Island, predates the more famous Port Arthur. They started sending convicts there in 1822. Second offenders were sent to the island. 

People walking on wooden ramp to island
Tree laying on ocean

Life on the island was isolating with harsh conditions. We walked around various brick rubble from old, fallen buildings. The weather was wet, cold, and windy. It was easy for me to understand just how horrible it was to be there as a prisoner. 

Old brick rubble

Our large group followed a tour guide, David. He wore a black cowboyish hat, a gray trench coat and appeared to be in his 50s. He was a classic Aussie in his attire and thick accent.  

David explained that the convicts built a 30 meter (98 feet) wall using tree logs on one side of the island to block the wind. Life there was awful. They liberally used lashes with metal in them to punish convicts. It was banned in places like Port Arthur. 

There were a few signs around the island with information. One poster titled, “12 years – 1,200 prisoners. To the end of the Earth,” stated, “From 1822-1833, Sarah Island was the most feared place of banishment for Tasmania’s convicts. Yet, despite this reputation, it became the most productive shipbuilding yard in Australia in its time.”

Sarah Island sign

The sign continued describing life on the island, “Located on the far western edge of today’s Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Sarah Island was described as ‘Hell on Earth’. The authorities believed it to be a place from which escape would be impossible, with the seemingly impenetrable mountainous wilderness separating it from the newly settled districts in the east. They were wrong.”

Another sign described the operations on the island, “Upon arrival, the convicts were tasked with clearing the island of its vegetation so their movements could be easily monitored. Working in chain gangs, they then became Tasmania’s first piners. Huon pine and other valuable timber was cut from nearby forests. Initially, the timber was stored then shipped to Hobart to be used principally for boat building, but the difficulty of access (due to frequent poor weather and long voyage times) required a change of plan. Within a decade, authorities had transformed the island into an industrial village. Under the guidance of master shipwrights, over 100 vessels of varying sizes were built. It was hard, cold, wet labour, but the convicts that survived departed as skilled tradesmen.”

The convicts that survived. That was the key. Life was hard on the island, and conditions were rough. There were huge wooden signs with the deaths of some of the convicts. Some of the causes of death were: flogged to death, murdered, drowned, speared by natives, shot by the military, and cannibalized. Yes, cannibalized.

Sign about deaths at Sarah Island
Sign about deaths at Sarah island

David told us more about the lucrative trade going on at Sarah Island. The prisoners made walking sticks from the timber and were paid $2 for ten sticks. The guards took the items and sold them in Hobart for $5 for ten sticks. The trade was so good that people were purposely getting sent to the island. 

Trees and grass with ocean

It started raining pretty hard, so I pulled out my umbrella. A couple was standing near me, and the girl had an expensive camera. I offered them the shelter of my umbrella to protect it (and them), and we all squeezed under it. 

People on boardwalk on sarah island

Another sign described the end of Sarah Island, “In 1833, after 12 short, brutal but productive years, the settlement and its shipyards closed due to access difficulties, frequent escapes, and the opening of Port Arthur.” 

sarah island convivt settlement

The sign continued, “Shortly after, the island became a base for local piners harvesting in the area – and later still, became a place for Strahan locals to enjoy a picnic. Over time, the forest grew back, and the buildings and fencing collapsed – their bricks looted and timbers left to rot. Today only scant ruins survive, though the layout of the original settlement remains intact.”

old brick on sarah island
fallen buildings on sarah island
fallen buildings on sarah island

The sign’s final sentence recapped the island’s history well, “Australia’s most feared – yet most productive – convict settlement.” Australia’s history always fascinates me. I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea of locals using that same island for picnics.

grass with fallen rubble

On the way back to the boat, I talked with a guy from England. He appeared to be in his late 20s, was tall, and had dark hair. He was in Australia for one year with a working holiday visa. He was teaching high school math in the Northern Melbourne suburbs. He told me that he had seen most of Australia except for the Northwest. I told him that’s the best part! He was on a school holiday so he decided to see Tassie while he could. 

trees and ocean

Once we were all back on the boat, we drove down the Gordon River. The river snakes through a forest with thick trees. The water was so still, it seemed like we were floating on glass. The river was large, and hills surrounded it. 

Gordon river
gordon river with mountains

The tour guide provided commentary while we ate the provided lunch. He explained that they put in a hydro dam that powered the whole island of Tasmania and was an engineering marvel. Before it was built, they had to import all of their energy (oil). In 1982, a group wanted to add a second hydro dam, which was met with protests. The dam would force large areas underwater, ruining the landscape. 

trees reflecting in river

Many protestors went to Strahan and the river to create blockades. They hurt and slowed down the company that was trying to build the dam. The Tasmanian government put a new law in place so they could arrest the protestors. They arrested 1,200 people. Yes, they arrested the same number of people who spent time at Sarah island 150 years earlier. 

In 1983, the protestors successfully got a World Heritage listing from Switzerland, so they couldn’t put in another dam. The case went to the high court on the mainland. One group argued that tourism and adventure activities would create more money than the dam would. After more than a week of deliberations, they sided with the heritage area four against three – the site needed to be protected. 

They used to take the trees in the area for timber until they were forced to stop. The guide said that decision really hurt Strahan. They don’t have roads because of the protection, and the primary way to get there is by boat. They’re isolated, which has hurt them economically. 

I thought the provided lunch was just ok. Once I finished, I went outside to enjoy the views and saw the guy from England. I asked him what he thought about the dam, and he said, “I wasn’t paying attention to the commentary. That’s the best meal I’ve had in months!”

The boat made its way along the river. I saw thick trees lying in the water. The mountains reflected in the water. 

trees reflecting in ocean
gordon river boat

We made another stop, and this time we’d get to walk through the rainforest. I walked along the boardwalk, soaking up nature. My time in Australia was almost over, and I desperately wanted to remember every little detail; the smells, the bright green moss clinging to the trees, the wet air, and trees that reached the heavens. 

path through the forest
tall tree in tasmania

I arrived at the end and needed to turn back towards the boat. I saw a very short, heavyset woman with blonde hair who was in her 60s. She was from England originally but lived in Tassie for years. She moved back to England, just outside of London, but her youngest daughter hated it. The woman moved back with that daughter (and her daughter’s husband), but they lived on the mainland. 

The woman and I were the last people in the group, and we slowly made our way back to the boat. We talked about how beautiful the area was and how it’s a temperate rainforest, just like the Pacific Northwest, USA

path going through forest
moss on tree trunk

The woman told me about the housing problems in Sydney. She said that the Chinese have taken over the housing, forcing locals to leave. She said, “You hardly see any Europeans there anymore. Most have moved to Tassie but go to the mainland to escape the winter. So, I suppose it’s worked out in the end.”

I told the woman that I quit my job to travel full time. She told me that she’s been to the U.S. and Canada before. When she was on a tour in Sydney recently, she met a man from the U.S. who was vacationing there for one week. His travel agent told him that’s all he needed to see Australia and Sydney. How crazy for a country that size. The jet lag alone would make it difficult to explore in such a short time. 

The boat honked the horn, warning people that it was about to leave. We were strolling, and I got the impression that the woman couldn’t walk much faster. I started to get nervous that we’d miss the boat, but I couldn’t just run away. 

Thankfully, we made it back to the boat in time and just missed the rain that started again. On the way back to Strahan, they played a slow, boring video about the region. I slowly drifted off to sleep. I woke up and realized most people were sleeping. My throat was hurting, and I felt a little under the weather, so the nap felt good. 

trees on hillside and river
gordon river

When we disembarked, there was a wood cutting station for us to watch. A man was cutting a massive tree trunk with a tall mechanical saw. I watched it for a little while and then briefly walked along Main Street. 

cutting a large tree

Right after I got into my car, it was so windy that I wondered if a hurricane was about to hit. The rain started again, and I was stuck in a storm. I had to get gas, and Australia doesn’t have the little bracket that holds the pump on, so I had to stand outside pumping it. My hair flew around my face, and I was freezing. 

strahan harbor
strahan main street

I drove to Queenstown, which should have taken 45 minutes, but I had to go slowly because of the storm and the windy roads. The English guy on the boat told me that he wanted to drive the Nullarbor just to have a straight road. The roads on Tassie are rarely linear. 

road with trees

There were some beautiful lookout points, so I made a few stops. The trees looked like they were in a battle against the wind. 

lookout point with trees

I arrived at the small, rural mountain town and walked into the motel attached to a bar and restaurant on Main Street. I paid for a room and pulled my car around to the back.

motel room
motel room
motel bathroom

The heater wasn’t working, so I walked to the front and told the guy at the bar. He said it takes 20 minutes to get warm. I said, “But the light isn’t working either.” 

The man walked with me to the circuit breaker box down the sidewalk outside and said the circuit was probably out. Sure enough, only my room had the circuit out. The man said, “If it goes out again, just walk down here and switch this circuit.”

I said, “That’s so strange. My motel room yesterday had a circuit out, and I had to switch rooms.”

The man replied, “You know how it is, being from Canada. It’s the cold. You’re from Canada, right?” I laughed, “No, the U.S., but I get it.” Maybe the hydro dam doesn’t work so well after all?

I walked down Main Street, and it was a ghost town. Some of the old buildings had construction going on, some were vacant, and others were beautifully restored old Victorian buildings. I bought some water and Thai food and took it back to my motel. 

queenstown main street
Old building under construction
general store
restored Victorian building

I felt so cold that I turned on the heated blanket, which is rare for me because usually, I like to sleep in a slightly cold environment. I was afraid that I was getting sick. I turned in early, hoping a good night’s rest would fix it. 

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2 Responses

  1. Fascinating (and gruesome) that men got cannibalized. Were they killed then eaten, I wonder? Okay, maybe I don’t wanna know lol! Looks really cold, Christy.

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Throughout her wild 3-week journey backpacking 220+ miles in the California Sierra Mountains, Christy encountered freezing temperatures, pelting hail storms, and losing her way, but found trail family, incredible views, and experiences that would change her life forever. Hiking up and over ten different mountain passes gave Christy a lot of time to think about why her nine-year marriage was falling apart, gave her the chance to truly embody her individualism, time to make new friends, and the strength she would need on and off the trail. Her life could never again be the same.
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