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The seductively calm waters near Hell’s Gates hide the horror that lays beneath Photo: Atlas Phoenix

Rain pouring, wind blowing, waves raging; this is not a land for the faint hearted. Considered by many of the British Convicts of the early years of Europeans settlement of Australia as worse than hell, a sentence of transportation to the convict settlement within Macquarie Harbour was in many ways considered worse than a sentence of death. But when the wind drops, the seas calm and the rain clears, Macquarie Harbor takes on a completely different nature.

A wide expanse of water, much larger than the celebrated Sydney Harbor found in New South Wales, Macquarie Harbour is located on the west coast of Tasmania, Australia. The harbor is characterized by its wide yet shallow expanse of water. The average depth of the harbor is 15 metres, with some sections of the harbor as deep as 50 metres. This shallow nature means that a man made rock wall was constructed along the outside of the channel to keep it clear and allow for ships to travel through.

The harbor itself is 315 in size, and is named in honor of Scottish Major General Lachlan Macquarie, who was the fifth Colonial Governor of New South Wales. The first European sighting of Macquarie Harbor was by explorer James Kelly in 1815. When in 1815 is the subject of conjecture, however, with different accounts sighting different dates in late December. James Kelly wrote in his work “First Discovery of Port Davey and Macquarie Harbor”, Kelly states that he found Macquarie Harbor on 28th December 1815. Yet in a letter written by T.W. Birch on 11th April 1816, it is mentioned that Kelly in fact found Macquarie Harbor on the 26th December 1815.

Owing to its distinct climate, thanks mostly to its proximity to the Southern Ocean, Macquarie Harbor was identified as an ideal location for the creation of a convict settlement (ideal may be a bit of a stretch). Sarah Island, located in the middle of Macquarie Harbor, was established as a convict settlement designed to inflict “extreme physical and mental torture”. The island was cleared of all trees, with the prisoners exposed to the wild weather of the west coast while being given little or no clothing or shelter to protect them. Convicts often described the convict settlement on Sarah Island as worse than hell and dreaded receiving a sentence of transportation to the island. The island camp was designed to break the prisoners, in the hope that they then could be rehabilitated into respectable members of society, while also offering a deterrent that the authorities could use against anyone who was considering breaking the law back in Britain. Due to its horrific nature, Sarah Island was reserved for the worst of the worst convicts. However, in later years of the settlement, the attitude to the treatment of convicts changed and prisoners began committing crimes in the hope to be sent to the island. In what could be best described as the first TAFE-styled facility in Australia, prisoners were trained and put to work building ships out of the locally grown Huon Pine, a wood noted for its buoyancy, resistance to rot and strength. This form of rehabilitation saw many of the prison population move into a career in ship building once there terms of imprisonment elapse, with tales of one convict staying a month longer than his sentence to finish a boat he was working on being among the historical records. The Sarah Island Camp was closed, to be replaced by the even more formidable Port Arthur settlement on the east coast of Tasmania.

The distinct landscape of Macquarie Harbor helped lead to the reputation of the harbor being like traveling to hell, with many ships wrecked and lives lost in the attempts to make it into the harbor. As ships approach the harbor from the Southern Ocean, they pass through a shallow area known as Macquarie Heads. Ships are then confronted with a narrow entrance, named Hell’s Gates for its difficulty of entrance and shipwrecking nature, before entering into the shallow harbor. This combined with the weather stirred up from the Southern Ocean and its remoteness made Macquarie Harbor a formidable place for convicts. Yet, the allure of the nearby mineral deposits and Huon Pine did not deter settlers from making the dangerous journey to this spectacular land.

An old pier sits at the edge of the notorius Sarah Island Convict Settlement, the hills in the distance often temping convicts to try for their freedom Photo: Atlas Phoenix

Settlers in and around Macquarie Harbor tried many different enterprises to make their fortune, in the hope they could live their lives out as part of the upper classes. For many, the nearby mineral deposits at Queenstown and Zeehan drew them to the area. For others, it was the ancient Huon Pines that lined the Gordon and Franklin Rivers that compelled them to make the journey. They soon discovered the unique nature of the landscape had far reaching consequences.

While we have already discussed the formidable weather that graces this particular landscape, the physical structures of the harbor made life just that little more difficult. Owing to the narrow entrance of Hell’s Gates, combined with the sheer amount of fresh water expelled into the harbor by the King and Gordon Rivers, the harbor exhibits what is refered to as Barometric Tides. When there is rain in the nearby mountains that surround Macquarie Harbor, the volume of water, combined with the lower atmospheric pressure usually associated with the rain, causes the tide in the harbor to rise. Conversely, when it isn’t raining and the atmospheric pressure rises, the tide drops. This made navigating the harbor challenging until the building of the sea wall along the channel.

Macquarie Harbor has been the hub of activity for a variety of industries since European settlement, placing great pressure on the landscapes that make up the harbor. With many of these industries declining, the pressure has been somewhat diminished. However, the landscape that makes up Macquarie Harbour is still under threat even today.

Historical pollution of the Queen, King and Gordon Rivers as the result of mining practices resulted in the dumping of over 100 million tones of mine tailings, much of which has made it’s way into the harbor over the years.

Climate change could also have a devastating impact on the harbor. With the changing climate, comes a variation from the historical long term average rainfall. This becomes an issue when we consider the barometric tides that occur within the harbor. The lower rainfall will see less high tides, combined with more periods of atmospheric high pressure could result in a change of tides and water chemistry makeup. With Macquarie Harbor being a hub for the production of Salmon, this could have a detrimental impact on this industry, as well as local aquatic life found within the harbor.

One risk factor that has been lowered in the last 50 years has been the threat of commercial and industrial development. With the declaration of the World Heritage area covering the Franklin and Gordon River complex, any commercial ventures face a significant barrier to their viability, as well as potentially falling foul of the UNESCO guidelines for the world heritage classification.

There are many physical features that make up Macquarie Harbor. These include Bonnet Island, Cut Island, Elizabeth Island, Entrance Island, Magazine Island, Neck Island, Philips Island, Sarah Island, Soldiers Island, Birchs Inlet, Farm Cove, Gould Point, Hell’s Gates, Kelly Basin, Kelly Channel, Lettes Bay, Liberty Point, Long Bay, Pillinger (an abandoned settlement), Pine Cove, Regatta Point, Risby Cove, Rum Point, Sophia Point, Strahan Harbour and Swan Basin.

Macquarie Harbor is a unique landscape unknown by many Australians. It has a strong history, from it’s convict settlement on Sarah Island to its modern day tourism industry. It’s just as inhospitable as it was when James Kelly sailed by; just as important to industry now as it was when the Huen Pine boom was at its peak. It’s often uninviting to those who come to visit, but can be a shining jewel when no one is looking. It’s the gateway to one of the most important UNESCO world heritage areas (which we will cover in later posts) and gives those who visit a chance to see the true beauty of the west coast of Tasmania. It’s a landscape that we all should work to protect so that future generations to come can enjoy it just as much as we do.

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