Gordon River Cruise

This weekend we had a trip of a lifetime. We cruised up the Gordon River on a sailing ship from Strahan on the west coast of Tasmania and spent the night on a boat under the stars. It was amazing. For completeness of story, we came back as well.

Gordon River

Hobart to Strahan

We’ve covered Strahan in a previous blog, this one.

I won’t go over all of it again but I will repeat, if you ever get a chance to get to Strahan, it’s worth the trip. It’s really off the beaten track but you won’t regret it. My advice would be, don’t visit, stay for at couple of days at least.

We left Hobart for the 5 hour drive to Strahan. The weather was unseasonably warm nearly 30c and sunny. The drive was along the Lyall Highway most of the way and we were regaled by the most outrageously beautiful scenery all the way.

At one point on the perfectly winding road, after we had ‘Ooooh’d’ and Aaaaaah’d’ at the beauty of the mountains and sky and lakes and forests and such for a while, we rounded a corner and the view was like a painting. The sky was perfect blue, the mountain rolled perfectly into the azure lake and the trees sat perfectly on the hills with artistic precision. “Oh for fuck sake Tassie, give it up with all the perfectness, that’s just showing off.” The road was too twisty to stop for a pic so you’ll have to take my word for it. You may have to do that a few times in this blog.


The road to Queenstown

About 40 minutes to go on the drive to Strahan we pass through Queenstown.

Overlooking Queenstown

Not to be confused with Queenstown in New Zealand, this Tasmanian town is no resort. It’s an old mining town that has seen better days but, like a lot of similar places we have seen in Tassie it’s making the most of its attractions. It certainly has character and some original old buildings. We were on a schedule so we drove straight through and kept going till we got to Strahan. However we made a mental note to stop there if we ever got the chance. We think its important to support these sorts of places.

We arrived in Strahan about 6pm and checked into our chalet apartment. Well, when I say checked in, the Reception was closed and there was a handwritten sign on the door saying “Jim and Jenni, You are in Unit 1, the door is open and the keys are in the lock”. Gives you an idea of how Strahan works.

Upper Gordon River Cruise


Our adventure was booked through Mags and Trevor of West Cost Yacht Charters. Mags and Trevor own this beautiful 65ft steel ketch called “Stormbreaker”. She was launched in 1975 and was designed to be unbreakable and I must say she is wearing pretty well for a old girl. They have a unique contract which we piggy backed on. They are the only company with a license to go way, way, way up river. 17 nautical miles upriver. All the other boats can only go to Heritage Landing which is about 8 Nautical Miles upriver.

Their license was granted to enable them to collect wild water rafters after a long journey down the Franklin river. These adventurous creatures are dropped off miles up river then spend 8 nights and 9 days rafting down the river, sleeping rough each night. Most of them make it to St John’s Falls Landing where the Stormbreaker picks them up. The ones that don’t make it get put in the stew and provide protein for the rest of the adventurers on the trip. Tassie is a rough place. These ravenous, feral cannibals were to share the ride back to Strahan with us on the Stormbreaker.

Stormbreaker leaving Strahan

Departing at 1pm we set off out into the wild blue Macquarie Harbour. On board were myself and Jenni, Olaf and Julie, the other two passengers, and Trevor and Rob the crew. Some dolphins joined us for the early part of the journey.

A Pod of Dolphins feeding
Dolphins swam along side us

You could fit 4.5 Sydney Harbours into Macquarie Harbour. It is massive, over 300 square kilometres. It is a flooded river valley and as such is shallow, 15m average some parts 50m.

There was almost no wind when we set off so we were using the engine but pretty soon a breeze caught us and Trevor and Rob raised the big sail and turned off the motor. The weather was not just kind but majestically generous in its provision of sunshine and warmth. The scenes across the harbour were magnificent.

Macquarie Harbour views

In the distance we could clearly see Frenchman’s Peak. There is a cracking walk up to the top of this. A few years ago Aussie billionaire and philanthropist Dick Smith donated a few thousand dollars to this attraction and now there’s an air conditioned shack at the top to sleep in, free of charge.

Frenchman’s Peak

I didn’t capture this scene too well so use your imagination. There are two interesting facts about this picture, possibly three. 1) This was once a garden to feed the convicts on Sarah Island. Convicts once cleared all the trees off it and planted root veg and other crops. Wouldn’t know it from the picture. 2) This side is good fishing but has no good landing places the other side has better landing places, a local fisherman recently built a path from a good landing place on the other side to this side, the local authorities weren’t too pleased as it is a protected location. 3) There was a fire recently which you can see from the bare trees. The fire threatened the town of Strahan. The fire fighters used the path cut by the local fisherman as a fire break and stopped it devouring the town. Strange how some things just work out.

Former Garden

I’m a farmer, a person of the soil. Sailing is a mystery to me. I can now confess that this sailing is a fantastic experience, under expert hands I must qualify. Soon another smaller sail went up at the front and the wind caught that too and quickly we were really zinging along.

See how the main sail sets

I heard the term ‘jig’ and then Trevor did something with the ropes and the ship turned and the big sail whacked from left to right, or from port to starboard. We were leaving Macquarie Harbour and entering the mouth of the Gordon River.

Trevor ‘Jigging’
The mouth of the Gordon River
Wild Rivers Sign at the mouth of the Gordon River

Not far into the river the wind dropped and the sails were put away.

Sails dropped

And then this happened….


On the steep banks landslides happen all the time, see the gash in the trees. You can tell were they are as there are no trees and lots of ferns.


And we did this..

And a bit of this…

And a lot of this…..

Taking in the wonder

At one point a Platypus swam from the bank to greet us then dove under the water to feed. At another section a flock of magnificent black cockatoos with yellow tails flew by in the trees. Neither of these beautiful scenes did I capture on camera, which is one of the many reasons why I am not paid by National Geographic.

Franklin Dam Controversy

The Franklin Dam was a proposed dam on this river that never happened.
The movement that eventually led to the cancellation of the project became one of the most significant environmental campaigns in Australian history. We sailed through the middle of the scenes of the main activities.

In 1978 the government planned to build a dam that would have destroyed significant part of this region. This was a Unesco World Heritage location. The people didn’t agree and stood against the plans and eventually won. The dam was cancelled. I have condensed 5 years of many peoples personal sacrifice and dedication into 3 sentences.

As we cruised up the river we were shown where the first test drilling for the dam took place, but as there were underground streams that was cancelled. At this point the walls of the river were covered in particularly wonderful vegetation and trees and was a little bit more beautiful than the previous corner.

We came across the second drilling location which was discounted for the same reason as the first. A flock of birds lifted off the river in front of us as this story unfolded. It was hard to imagine an outcome where this was all destroyed.

About an hour before we arrived at the landing Rob produced a remarkable dinner of Sea Trout and veg followed by Fruit Salad and Cream for dessert.

Dinner on the Gordon River

Eventually we made it to St John’s Falls Landing where we saw the mad feral cannibals waiting. As it turned out they were a lovely bunch of lads who booked this as a birthday treat. We had a great time hearing about their adventures on the way back.

The cannibals await

St John’s Falls

We docked at St. John Falls and went to view the falls themselves. Then we got into the kayaks for a bit of an explore. We didn’t take any camera on this bit but Rob took these pics from the boat of Jenni and I returning from the kayak trip to the falls,

We kayaked around a bit more and explored the ‘Hanging Gardens’ that surrounds this part of the river. It really was a special.

We had a wonderful night chatting to the guys from the rafting experience and Olaf and Julie. Turned out Olaf owned a cafe in Goolwa that Jenni had had lunch in 5 years ago. We also uncovered that Ewan from the rafting group was at the Panama festival same time as we were and we recognised him. As a post script we will meet him again at the Panama Festival next week. It really is a small world. The night sky put on a blazing spectacle. We were so far away from population we had zero light pollution and the stars were out in abundance.

The stars look very different today-ay-ay
Starry night through the masts

In the morning

We set off at 5:30am in the dark. Rob was up and made tea and coffee and toast for all of us. The rafters were on board and they brought with them all their kit.

Breakfast at 5:30am

Stormbreaker and Trevor had done this trip a thousand times but it was still concerning for a land lubber like me to be afloat in the pitch black.

Julie with her breakfast coffee a we set off

There were 3 lights in play, one in front and two out either side. Shortly after we set off Rob perched himself up front to get us started. He said he wasn’t absolutely necessary, it was just one of the perks of the job.

Rob navigating
Jenni with coffee in the pre-dawn

The river was like glass. When Rob abandoned his post Jenni took over and steered us safely through the next section.

Dawn on the Gordon River

As the sun slowly rose we sat and watched the new day emerge. It was magnificent.

New dawn, new day

On the return trip there is always a challenge. Who will climb the mast? Julie was the first to give it a go.

The rafters lay and watched with barely contained enthusiasm.

One of the rafting crew went next and made it to the top.

The crowd went wild

Meanwhile one of the guides slung a hammock over the side of the boat and climbed into it and instantly fell asleep for the entire return journey.

We cruised all the way back to Strahan. We all talked and interacted and by the time we docked there were many new friends on board. This was a unique event. A bucket list event. Something few people ever get to experience. Made more remarkable by the environment in this beautiful part of the word.

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