There are few places in Australia – let alone the world – more wild or remote than the west coast of Tasmania. Bordered on one side by savage seas generated by the Southern Ocean weather system, and on the other by thickly-forested mountain ranges, it remained untouched for nearly two centuries after Dutch navigator Abel Tasman first sighted Tasmania in 1642.

Europeans did not arrive here until the early 19th century, when Captain James Kelly punched his whaling ship through the narrow opening at Macquarie Harbour. The opening was later named Hells Gate by the convicts shipped here to labour on the penal colony at Sarah Island – regarded at the time as the worst convict prison in all the colonies of Australia.

Kelly was followed by fishermen, sailors, prospectors and tree-loggers, who travelled to what was then the edge of civilisation to exploit the west coast’s vast natural resources, basing themselves in the port town of Strahan (pronounced ‘Strawn’).

Today, Strahan attracts a different kind of explorer: tourists who come to see Tasmania’s great south-west wilderness area. Luckily, it’s a whole lot easier to get to Strahan today, with sealed highways linking Launceston and Hobart.

Set on a tranquil inlet in the northern reaches of Macquarie Harbour, Strahan is a sleepy little village with a population of just 600. The action, when there is any, is centered along the Esplanade, where a row of heritage-listed terraced buildings front Strahan’s historical wharfside district.

Among the many public bars, restaurants, cafés and galleries is Tasmania Special Timbers, marketed as “the best smelling shop in Australia”. They specialise in Huon pine, one of the slowest growing plants in the world, known to live for up to 3,000 years. Huon pine contains an oil that renders its wood waterproof and prevents it from rotting, which made it extremely popular among colonial-era shipbuilders, who used convicts to harvest the trees around Macquarie Harbour.

Today, Huon is a protected species and cannot be felled. But wood harvested from areas flooded by hydro-electric projects as well as stumps and heads left over from historical logging sites are stockpiled by the government and sold through Tasmania Special Timber and other select retailers.

“We still have waiting lists of Huon pine for boat builders, but it’s mostly novelty stuff or high-end tenders for multi-million dollar yachts,” says sales manager Dianne Coon. “Most of it goes to furniture making and smaller items like apples and bowls and chopping boards that are sold as souvenirs across Tasmanian and the mainland. It has extraordinary value.” 

In the early 1980s, Strahan became the focus of the most famous conservation battle in Australian history when the then government of Tasmania planned to dam a junction of the Franklin and Gordon Rivers, not far from Macquarie Harbour. Emotions ran high as more than 1,200 protestors, including renowned British botanist David Bellamy and Senator Bob Brown (now leader of the Australian Green party) were arrested in the boat blockade that followed.

The ensuing victory by the conservation movement led to a huge increase in tourism in south-west Tasmania, with visitors flocking to Strahan to catch an eyeful of the famous reflective waters of the Gordon River and the ancient temperate rainforest that feeds off it. Now part of a 1.38 million-hectare World Heritage-listed area that encompasses 20 per cent of the state.

February 13th, 2012