A Tasmanian wildlife experience offers an entertaining search for penguins in the wild on Bonnet Island, which is a boat trip from Strahan. Seeing wildlife is one of the top things to do in Tasmania, especially if you’re visiting the western wilderness. Other things to do in Strahan include riding the Western Wilderness Railway, cruising the Gordon River and exploring Queenstown.
Penguin adventure in Strahan
We sneak along the path in single file, tiptoeing behind our guide who stops suddenly, turns and whispers: “There are two penguins on the path in front of us.”
I squint into the darkness.
She shines her red-filtered spotlight on the two little penguins, bathing them in a dim glow.
Camera flashes or strong lights are not allowed.
I point my camera towards the penguins. But before I can take the photo, the penguins leap beneath a bushy shrub and their steel-blue feathers disappear into a burrow in the ground.
There are a number of places to see little penguins in Tasmania but none like Bonnet Island near Strahan.
Crouching and peering beneath bushes is not at all what I had imagined I’d be doing on this night penguin tour at the mouth of Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast.
The little penguin is the only type of penguin that breeds in Australia. Their breeding ground stretches from Fremantle in Western Australia to the east coast (as far north as Sydney).
In most places, little penguins like to come ashore in the safety of large numbers.
But on Bonnet Island, the penguins sneak home under the cover of night, rocks and dense low-lying shrubs.
Little penguins are known as fairy penguins or blue penguins. These penguins are the smallest penguins in the world.
They only grow up to 40cm and weigh around 1 kg.
That’s small and light when you consider the world’s largest penguin, the emperor penguin, is more than 110cm high and can weigh up to 30 kg.
The Bonnet Island Experience begins with a boat ride from Strahan.
We arrive just before dusk. Only 10 guests are allowed on the island each time to minimise the environmental impact on the island and its wildlife.
Our guides set up cheese platters and serve wine at a lookout at the base of the island’s lighthouse while waiting for the penguins to come ashore.
As we wait for darkness to unfold, our guide keeps us entertained with stories about the lighthouse keepers who braved the harsh conditions on the tiny island.
The narrow, 120-metre entrance to the enormous Macquarie Harbour (about six times the size of Sydney Harbour) was discovered in 1815.
Timber cutters moved in. But the narrow entrance and its sandbar proved to be a significant navigation hazard.
A signal station was built near Cape Sorellin 1822 and manned by convicts from the nearby Sarah Island penal settlement.
They called the entrance to the harbour Hells Gate, after the miserable conditions at Sarah Island.
In 1907, the steamship SS Kawatiri was forced onto a sandbank as the captain tried to steer it into the safety of Macquarie Harbour in wild weather.
According to Clark, some of the passengers, including women and children, drowned while trying to abandon the ship in lifeboats.
Among the dead were the wife and sons of Bonnet Island’s assistant lighthouse keeper R. J. Hooper.
A shiver runs down my spine when learn that we are standing on the spot where the Hooper family’s house once stood.
Ghosts in the dark
The penguins sound like ghosts in the dark. They clamber out of the water and from the timber balconies on the island, we watch them waddle ashore.
With head torches strapped to our heads, we peer under the bushes.
A penguin appears from behind the bushes. A group of three shuffles across the path in front of us, stopping for a few seconds before diving behind a bush.
A few curious penguins stop for a longer look at the strange creatures with lights on their heads.
The night is much like a penguin treasure hunt in the dark. And it’s a barrel of fun for all the family. Although I suspect that the penguins, from their hiding places, are getting quite an eyeful of us.
Before heading back to Strahan, the boat does a lap around the island. We shine our spotlights on the island’s low-lying rocky outcrops for final glimpses of the cute little penguins.
By Sue Henly
Taste the grit of Tasmania’s wild wet West Coast as you yell on cue “freedom or death” in the outdoor amphitheatre during the play The Ship that Never Was in Strahan.
Three versatile actors re-enact the true story of ten convicts who hijacked the last boat built on nearby Sarah Island, a ship-building outpost established to take advantage of the availability of Huon pine in the region.
The convicts sailed the ship all the way to South America.
A picturesque village on Tasmania’s wild West Coast, Strahan is set on the eastern shore of massive Macquarie Harbour, which is seven times larger than Sydney Harbour.
Today it is the gateway to the World Heritage-listed Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, which protects one of the most pristine river wilderness systems left on earth.
The West Coast Visitors Information Centre is a perfect place to get the measure of this Wild West settlement.
Self-dubbed the first magic realist building in Australia by its collaborative creative team of architects, writers, and historians, its West Coast Reflections Exhibition guides you through the worlds of the Aborigines, convicts, loggers and miners.
You’ll also learn about the hydroelectric dam projects and environmental movement, as each part of the story is interwoven with the remarkable natural environment right outside.
Take a cruise across Macquarie Harbour to visit Sarah Island then along the Gordon River to Heritage Landing, where you stroll along a boardwalk surrounded by Huon pine and leatherwood trees. Adrenalin junkies will enjoy the multi-day rafting trips on the wild waters of the Franklin River.
For bushwalkers, there is everything from a short walk to Hogarth Falls, one of Tasmania’s 60 Great Short Walks, to the demanding five-day hike to Frenchman’s Cap. Or you can glimpse a bird’s eye view of the wilderness on a seaplane or helicopter tour.
Bonnet Island Experience (Strahan Activities Centre, The Esplanade, Strahan, tel: 6471 4200)
Strahan Village overlooks Macquarie Harbour and the wharf. It has a range of accommodation including heritage-style waterfront cottages, terraced units and hilltop suites.
5 Things to do in Strahan
1. See the west coast from the sky with Strahan Seaplanes & Helicopters.
2. Take a nostalgic trip on the West Coast Wilderness Railway to Queenstown.
3. The Piners and Miners tour in a Land Rover Defender Hi-Rail, a four-wheel drive converted into a rail car, is an exciting wilderness adventure.
4. See the little penguins at night on a penguin adventure.
5. Go on a Franklin River rafting adventure.