Modern Australia was famously founded by boatloads of British convicts, and Sarah Island off of western Tasmania was once reserved for the worst offenders. Isolated, wet and completely surrounded by the tempestuous Southern Ocean, not only is it Australia’s oldest penal colony, but the remote outpost was such a fearsome place to be sent that the mouth of the harbor leading out toward the island was simply known as “Hell’s Gate.” The penal colony was short-lived, however, only lasting from 1822 to 1833. During that time, convicts were enlisted for the backbreaking work of felling the surrounding pine trees, and there was a brief time when Sarah Island was the largest ship-building site in Australia.
Conditions on the island were horrendously bad, and prisoners were said to have favored execution over continued life here. Many tried to escape, and though most failed and met a miserable fate, a famous few were able to flee and live a life on the run. Today, all that remains of the penal colony are the ruins of the former quarters, and touring the island is one of the most popular activities for visitors staying in Strahan. Hear stories of scurvy, torture and the misery of solitary confinement, while also gaining insight into the formative years of the pioneering settlers of Tasmania. Oftentimes a visit to Sarah Island is combined with a Gordon River cruise, which provides a scenic and stark contrast of comforts compared to the historic island.
Tours to Sarah Island depart from Macquarie Harbor in the west coast town of Strahan, located 185 miles from the capital of Hobart. Private boats are available for hire, although most visitors choose to visit as part of a Gordon River cruise. The weather on the west coast of Tasmania can often be blustery and wet, and travelers should prepare for any weather even in the drier months of summer.