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The waterfront village of Strahan is the major town on Tasmania’s west coast and the starting point of the famous Gordon River cruise through the UNESCO Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Surrounded by nothing but ancient rainforest, stillness, and silence. I haven’t been to the Amazon yet, but this could be the next best thing, at least in Australia.
But now exploring the river is not as easy as booking a boat tour and setting sail. There are two companies offering Gordon River cruises you can choose from: Gordon River Cruises and World Heritage Cruises.
Both companies have the same itinerary, but we opted to sail with World Heritage Cruises which are a Tasmanian family-owned business with a good reputation.
In this guide, you will find some information about Gordon River Cruises and our experience on a Gordon River cruise from Strahan.
Where is the Gordon River?
The Gordon River is located in southwestern Tasmania and extends from Lake Richmond in the King William Range all the way to the Indian Ocean at Macquarie Harbour.
It extends for 115 miles (185 km), but most of the river is inaccessible because it’s surrounded by dense rainforest in the lower valley and mountains.
As such, you can only explore the river by small vessels.
You can find Gordon River cruises from Strahan, which is located on the north side of Macquarie Harbour.
Is a Gordon River Cruise Worth It?
Tasmania is world-renowned for its unique wilderness areas, and a Gordon River cruise takes you deep into Tasmania’s World Heritage Area which covers almost one-fifth of the whole state, and is one of the last pristine examples of temperate rainforest in the world.
It’s one of the most unspoiled and wildest areas of Australia, rich in convict history and a pioneering spirit.
The only way to see the beauty of this region is by river cruise, which allows visitors to marvel at the serene nature, whilst hearing about the history of this remarkable place from an expert commentator. For this reason, it’s definitely worth doing a Gordon River Cruise.
About Gordon River Cruises
I mentioned earlier that we cruised with World Heritage Cruises, an award-winning Gordon River Cruise company.
Their cruise on the Gordon River is a full day experience with a 30-minute walk at Heritage Landing and a lunch included.
The boat is a purpose-built catamaran that is ideal for sailing down the narrow channel of the Macquarie Harbour.
As you sail, you will hear expert commentary about the human history of the area, the ecology and geology. Since the company is family-owned, you will also hear about the family’s own experience of cruising along the river for more than a century.
The boat has an open bar and toilet facilities, plus guests can ask questions to the on-board guides.
The cruise takes you to the following stops:
- Hells Gates
- Sarah Island
- Heritage Landing
- See a 2000-year-old Huon Pine
- Huon Pine Sawmill
What to See on Gordon River Cruises
The Gordon River cruise isn’t just about sailing along the river and admiring nature, there is so much to see and explore. Here are the main sites and stops on a Gordon River Cruise that you will see.
From Strahan, the cruise heads towards the open sea at Hells Gates, the infamous passage where the harbour and southern ocean meet in a turbulent and shallow channel.
This narrow entrance into Macquarie Harbour was named by the convicts on their way to the Hell on Earth of Sarah Island, once a dreaded penal colony.
Hells Gates is known for having rough waves, so if you get seasick, be prepared for this.
After surviving Hells Gates (it was calm on our visit), we sailed towards Sarah Island, on our way toward the lower reaches of the mighty Gordon River.
Before entering Gordon River, we first stopped at the once-dreaded penal colony of Sarah Island. You spend about 1-hour being guided around the island and shown the historic sites by your knowledgeable guide.
On this guided tour of Sarah Island, we learned about how this fascinating historic site pre-dates the other must-see convict site in Tasmania of Port Arthur Historic Site.
Our local guides told us of the tales of hardship and heroics on Sarah Island, which was created in the 19th century to put the ‘fear of God’ into the convicts of Van Diemen’s Land.
Sarah Island was brought vividly to life by our very informative, witty, and dedicated guide.
This island was the largest boat-building settlement in the British colonies, and we walked among the ruins of this once-thriving settlement and heard stories of the convicts, soldiers, settlers, and shipwrights who lived and worked here.
Convicts struggled in appalling conditions to fell ancient Huon pines on the banks of the Gordon River and float them downstream for shipbuilding at Sarah Island.
Sarah Island has now been recognised under another category ‘World Heritage Convict Sites’, five of which are in Tasmania.
Lower Gordon River
We then spent two hours quiet cruising slowly on the still waters of the majestic Gordon River.
The World Heritage-listed Gordon River flows 200 kilometers from its source in the central highlands through the uninhabited wilderness of the Gordon-Franklin Wild Rivers National Park.
The entire course of the Gordon River is an uninhabited wilderness area until it reaches the immense waters of Macquarie Harbour.
We cruised gently along the river where the lush and ancient rainforest was reflected in the mirror calm waters and learned of the sought-after Huon Pine tree for its boat-building qualities.
These are some of the most famous reflections in Tasmania so make sure you have your camera ready. Head up to the main deck or up to the viewing deck to admire the scenery. There is plenty of deck space so you don’t have to worry about crowds.
As we cruised we enjoyed a beautiful buffet lunch, which was freshly prepared on board – including smoked salmon, cold meats, a selection of salads, fresh fruit, Tasmanian cheeses, and local bakery bread rolls.
Mid-cruise we disembarked at Heritage Landing where an elevated boardwalk guides you into the green silence of the rainforest.
It’s a walk amongst the largest tract of temperate rainforest surviving on earth, and we got up close with species of Huon Pine, blackwood, and myrtle.
One of the ancient trees is thought to be 2,000 years old. This was fascinating and a nice way to stretch the legs.
Huon Pine Sawmill
On the return trip, you sail past the Huon Pine Sawmill which is a more recent addition to the tour and we didn’t see this on our trip.
However, now you can stop by the family-owned Morrison’s Huon Pine Sawmill which has been operating as a sawmill since the early 1940s.
The mill doesn’t operate commercially and still uses techniques and machinery from old times, so it’s like walking through a living piece of the region’s history.
Every day, the mill holds a talk at 3pm, so if your tour stops in time for this, it’s the best way to get some more historical information about the use of huon pine in the area.
Final Thoughts on Gordon River Cruises
Our cruise along the Gordon River was a highlight of our month-long visit to Tassie and was an excellent day out. And the town of Strahan makes for a great base to explore the wilderness of western Tasmania.
Don’t miss this wilderness experience, it’s your best chance to see the ancient rainforest in all its glory.
We only hope you also get a brilliantly sunny day as we did.
We cruised back into Strahan, departed the ship, and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering this picturesque village before our day ended with one of the most amazing sunsets we’ve witnessed.
It was certainly, a day to remember.
Where to stay in Strahan
Strahan is the best place to stay for your Gordon River Cruise. Here are a few choices for you that cover a range of styles and budgets.
- The Crays Accommodation offers self-contained apartments Just a 5-minute walk from Strahan’s main street. See rates and availability here.
- Strahan Village has a restaurant, bar and spectacular views overlooking the water. See rates and availability.
- Risby Cove is a little further out, but only 10 minutes walk! Rooms have water views from balcony or patio. See rates and availability.
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Have you been on a Gordon River Cruise? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.