View of a lighthouse near Gordon River Cruise

Cannibals And Lighthouses: Colourful History Of Hells Gates And Cape Sorell

An aerial view of a lighthouse & the sea at Gordon River Cruise

When visiting Strahan, it is essential that visitors take a tour of Bonnet Island in order to appreciate the contrast between the area’s turbulent past and the cute little penguins which peacefully inhabit the island today. This twilight experience conducted by Gordon River Cruises is a highlight of any Tasmanian holiday.

Convict Tales

Your cruise takes you through the notorious mouth of Macquarie Harbour, otherwise known as Hells Gates. Whilst the channel can be difficult to navigate, the ominous name has other origins. Convicts were taken through here to the penal colony on nearby Sarah Island. The Macquarie Island Penal Settlement gained a reputation as a hell on earth with colourful stories of desperate escapees and cannibalism fuelling the idea that Macquarie Harbour was indeed the “gates of hell”.

Today’s steadfast sea vessels easily negotiate Macquarie Harbour; however, many convicts didn’t make it to Sarah Island due to ships sinking. Those who were “fortunate” enough to arrive safely would find themselves working in chains as they logged Huon Pines and rafted them downriver for shipbuilding. They were rewarded with overcrowded sleeping conditions, beatings, poor rations and regular bouts of dysentery or scurvy for their efforts.

Sunset over Sorell

As you head towards Bonnet Island and its little penguins, you will pass by the Cape Sorell lighthouse, the second tallest in Australia. Named after William Sorell who was Tasmania’s Lieutenant-Governor from 1817 to 1824, the lighthouse has been a welcome beacon for boats since 1899. Other lights, including the one on Bonnet Island, already existed but increased traffic due to silver and lead discoveries at Zeehan meant that Cape Sorell lighthouse was needed to improve the harbour entrance.

In its heyday, a lighthouse keeper and two assistants were employed to keep Cape Sorell lighthouse operational. A horse-drawn tramline was used to access various places on the headland. The last lighthouse keeper left in 1971 when it became automated. Today’s lighthouse has a solar-powered beacon to guide ships through the narrow channel. Only a few remnants of the buildings where the lighthouse crew lived exist.

Bonnet Island Experience

As with all tours in Tasmania, the journey is just as important as the destination. Make sure that you ask your crew to regale you with some of the fascinating stories that haunt Macquarie Harbour. It will make your trip to see the little penguins even more worthwhile. Wear warm clothing, even in summer, so that you don’t miss a moment of this incredible trip.

Image credit: Tourism Tasmania & Dennis Harding