Stories » Two Rivers of Tasmania

Two Rivers of Tasmania

It seemed like a good idea at the time but as we looked out over the grey overcast waters and rocky shores of Lake St Clair from the gravel launching ramp, the thought of putting the boat in didn't seem very inviting at all. Before coming to Tassie I had contacted the Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair ranger and was told that yes, you could sail on the lake. I had pictured deep blue sparkling waters surrounded by majestic mountains and forests but the reality, on this day at least, was not as I had imagined.

Our two weeks with the Victorian Trailerable Yacht Fleet, including 2 other Magnums, had been fantastic, with warm weather for the D’Entrecasteaux channel cruise (a little more wind would have been helpful sometimes) and then a spectacular and sometimes exciting cruise around the Freycinet Peninsular to Wineglass Bay. After we said goodbye to the other boats I had dropped Lyn at Launceston airport and then picked up a couple of friends, John and Geoff who had just arrived from Victoria.

The Gordon River on the west coast was our first destination and there were three ways to get there. One was due south toward Hobart then west through Queenstown. Another was west to Burnie and then south to Strahan, and the third was through the middle and over the central plateau. The later looked the most direct and it did take us past Lake St Clair but I began to doubt my choice when the climb up to the Central Plateau burned a full 95 litre tank of gas in less than 50 kilometres! Then I knew I had got it wrong when the road across the plateau turned to very rough gravel and rock. At midnight we stopped at a real ‘end of the world’ pub and caravan park and I was amazed that the car and trailer were still intact.

Cove in Birchs InletThe next day we made our futile detour to Lake St Clair and then proceeded toward Queenstown. I had been warned about the steep and winding road into Queenstown but a torrential downpour made the descent a very, very scary one. Once again, surprisingly in one piece, we continued on to Strahan and soon found the (old but good) launching ramp. Soon we were heading out into Macquarie Harbor, a fairly open body of water which can be very uncomfortable in the wrong weather. However, the rain had stopped and we had a pleasant 35 km crossing with views of the surrounding mountain ranges including the spectacular Frenchman’s Cap peak in the distance. It was getting late so rather than enter the Gordon River we motored into a very pretty and secluded anchorage in Birch’s Inlet just to the west of the river mouth. At dusk I rowed into a little cove with a shoreline of moss and miniature forest, and inhabited by tiny birds … a memorable scene.

The weather was perfect as we entered the Gordon the following morning. The river is bordered by lush rainforest with no wildlife evident except for a few water birds. So when we saw a majestic white sea eagle in the trees we slowly drifted nearer to it and had great pleasure in making a large tourist cruiser wait while we had a good look. These enormous, futuristic catamarans spoil the primitive atmosphere of this ancient area.

Dawn in Birchs InletAnchoring in the river is a problem due to the abundance of snags and overhanging trees. We therefore turned around after a few hours traveling upstream and explored an old river camp on the way back to the mouth. The camp had been built by enthusiasts many years ago and is left open for anyone to use. Very interesting, in a ‘Heath Robinson’ kind of way. Leaving the Gordon we encountered a stiff sea breeze and the short chop that Macquarie Harbor is known for. A fast and wet sail of a few miles to the north found us in Kelly Basin, a well protected anchorage, and in the company of about fifteen cruising yachts. Many of these were taking part in the circumnavigation of Tasmania organized by the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania and the Royal Geelong Yacht Club. At the head of Kelly Basin are the ruins of East Pillinger, a town built to service nearby mines but abandoned early last century. We spent several hours the next morning exploring the rainforest-entangled remains of large brick kilns, the boilers of a sawmill, and carriages that ran on the line to Strahan.
On the sail back to Strahan we made the obligatory stop at Sarah Island to take in the tourist sights of the old convict settlement … along with the hoards from the big cruise boats. A more remote destination beckoned so we sailed on to Strahan, hauled out and headed north to stay at Zeehan caravan park for the night. Up early the next morning we headed north west toward the Pieman River. The final stretch was 12 km of gravel to the southern bank of the Pieman River ferry crossing. The steep drop down to the river had the Landcruiser brakes smoking! The ferry punt was not long enough to take the car and boat so we amused ourselves and a few onlookers with a twenty point u-turn on the narrow bush road. No Tasmanian forest was damaged in the making of this turn … almost. Although we could see the launching ramp only a few hundred metres away on the northern side of the river, not far from the ferry landing, to get there meant a 165 km road trip. To make it worse the last 26 km section beyond the Savage River mine was a track with a surface of fine silica and on which we met speeding mining trucks. At some point on this rough and highly abrasive surface, the seals of my newly installed oil-filled hubs on both left-hand trailer wheels decided to pop out - letting the oil out and the sand in.

Launching near Pieman ferryAfter putting in some spare seals we launched the boat, this time leaving the mast in the car park. Motoring down the Pieman River, we explored its tributaries and saw another sea eagle before we reached the coast. Along the way our attention was caught by a few guys emerging from the forest and loading dead branches into a small power boat. About a kilometre from the raging surf at the river mouth we tied up at a jetty just as the tinnie arrived. The guys looked a bit wary of us but after a chat they explained that the load of dead wood, which included Huon and King Billy pine, was firewood to boil the crayfish that they had caught in the ocean the previous day. We carefully avoided the topic of National Parks and Marine Parks but still they suggested that we should not mention the wood or the crayfish to anyone when we got back to civilization. We couldn’t hear any dueling banjos but unpleasant thoughts inspired by the old movie ‘Deliverance’ came to mind and we readily agreed … we did want to get back to civilization.

We motored back up the river past the ferry crossing until we came to the advised limit of navigation. In a pretty side lagoon we tied up alongside a huge log that lay along the shore. I took the hatch cover out and rested it against the lifelines for a moment while we secured the ropes. Hearing a clatter I turned to see the fiberglass hatch disappear overboard. On with a mask, snorkel and fins - in l went after it. The water was a dark tannin color with visibility of less than a metre, so armed with a torch I swam down beneath the boat until suddenly I realized that I was surrounded by the limbs of a large sunken tree. No light came from the surface 3 metres above as I carefully reversed out of the tangle of branches, hoping not to get hooked by one. I hadn’t seen the white hatch or even the bottom of the river so I decided that making a new companionway hatch when I got home was a safer bet that trying to retrieve this one. Even the idea of staying here the night with all those snags below the boat ready to hook the keel was no longer attractive so we went back out into the river proper and found a nook in the bank where we could tie to trees fore and aft and still be well off the snag infested bank.

Hatch is under there somewhereTwilight on the river and surrounding rain forest was stunning but waking the next morning to a mist covered river and a blue sky was even better. Unfortunately we only had a day left to get back to Launceston and the ferry to Melbourne so we retrieved the boat and made our way slowly back along the sandy track and then the winding west coast highway to Burnie. Then on to Launceston for a final night at the caravan park before joining the queues of caravans, trucks and campervans loading onto the Sprit of Tasmania. It is amazing how small Tasmania is ... a remote west coast river to a major north coast city in less than a day. In three weeks we had cruised some of the most beautiful waterways of Tasmania. We departed with the knowledge that we would one day return to do it again.

John and Lyn - BreakawayMorning mist on the Pieman