Trail of the unexpected

The lush island that once struck fear into the hearts of hardened convicts

The mouth of Macquarie Harbour, on Tasmania's rugged west coast, is notorious among seafarers. The treacherous channel, just 120 miles wide, can be navigated only by experienced skippers. In stormy weather, when the Southern Ocean turns into a raging maelstrom, it is often impenetrable.

The mouth of Macquarie Harbour, on Tasmania's rugged west coast, is notorious among seafarers. The treacherous channel, just 120 miles wide, can be navigated only by experienced skippers. In stormy weather, when the Southern Ocean turns into a raging maelstrom, it is often impenetrable.

The narrow entrance is known as Hell's Gates - but not because of the number of ships that have come to grief on its rocky shores. It was given the name by men whose hearts filled with dread as they passed through it en route to Sarah Island, a penal settlement set up in 1822 as a place of last resort for the most recalcitrant convicts.

Most visitors interested in Tasmania's convict history head to Port Arthur, a well-preserved collection of ruins south of Hobart. But Sarah Island, located in a wild and remote spot in the middle of Macquarie Harbour, has an even more gruesome history. A place of floggings, hard labour and privation, it was known as the most brutal penal colony in the British Empire, feared by even the most hard-bitten convicts.

Numerous escape attempts were mounted by Sarah Island's desperate inmates, although the dense forests of the mainland presented a formidable obstacle. Most starved to death in the bush. One infamous escapee, Alexander Pierce, was carrying a bag containing the half-eaten remains of one his mates when he was captured.

The small town of Strahan, a four-hour drive west of Hobart, is the starting point for explorations of the island. Two tour companies, World Heritage Cruises and Gordon River Cruises, run ferry trips across Macquarie Harbour and up the lower reaches of the scenic Gordon River.

An entertaining tour of the island is provided by actors from the Round Earth Company, a Strahan-based theatre group. Round Earth puts on a nightly production in Strahan of The Ship That Never Was, a play about a group of convicts who hijacked a boat and sailed it 10,000 miles to Chile.

A pile of bricks is all that remains of some buildings, including the cottage occupied by the island's first Commandant, Lieutenant Cuthbertson, described as "a sadistic bully".

Other structures, such as the penitentiary, the bakery and the jail where convicts were held in solitary confinement in tiny, windowless cells for offences as trivial as stealing parsley, are still semi-intact.

The convicts were set to work chopping down the valuable Huon pines that grow along the Gordon's banks. They had to haul the giant logs down river and cut them by hand; the timber was used to build ships. It was back-breaking work, with men forced to stand for hours in freezing water. Conditions were dire, with convicts fed starvation rations. Dysentry, scurvy and malnutrition were rife. The men were confined in living quarters "in so crowded a state as to scarcely be able to lay down on their sides; to lay on their backs was out of the question", according to one convict known only as Davis.

Floggings with the hated "Macquarie Harbour Cat" - a particularly heavy-duty cat-o'-nine-tails - were common. A total of 9,100 lashes were meted out in 1823. After one flogging, the victim had "a back like a bullock's liver", wrote Davis.

Little wonder that men tried to flee this "place of unremitting degradation and woe". One got to know the countryside so well during his many escape attempts that he was later given a job by the Surveyor-General. Others committed murder just to get off the island, knowing they would be sent to Hobart for trial.

In later years, a flourishing shipbuilding industry took root and conditions improved. By the time that Sarah Island was closed in 1834, its shipyard was the most productive in the Australian colonies.

Reminders of this lurid era are everywhere on Sarah Island, which is a World Heritage site because of its historical significance. Bricks bear the thumbprints of men who made them. Pick-marks are visible in slabs of rock near the jetty.

Standing on a cliff, looking out to sea, you may see dolphins frolicking and eagles soaring overhead. The island itself is lush and thickly forested. It is hard to believe this serene spot was once a place of such cruelty.

Qantas and Virgin Blue operate daily flights to Hobart from Sydney and Melbourne. World Heritage Cruises (00 61 3 6471 7174) and Gordon River Cruises (00 61 3 6471 4200), visit Sarah Island as part of a trip across Macquarie Harbour. Prices start from $55 (£23) for adults and $25 (£10) for children. It is not possible to visit Sarah Island independently

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