Pilgrimage to Recherche Bay

February 2001

by Phil Renouf

James Craig in Recherche Bay, 1972
James Craig in Recherche Bay, 1972Being in Hobart for the Wooden Boat Festival seemed like a good enough reason to visit a couple of sacred sites in the South West – the Port Huon jetty where recruit seaman Renouf, RANR(NS) first stepped ashore in Tasmania 45 years ago, and Recherche Bay, the muddy resting place of the James Craig for almost half of the 20th century.
Map of South East Tasmania
South East Tasmania

We set out early on the Sunday down the A6 freeway, running into apple and berry rurality about 10 minutes from the heart of the CBD, through the metropolis of Huonville, past the Wooden Boat School at Franklin, the regional centre of Geeveston, scene of a nasty incident involving drunken sailors 45 years ago, finally stopping at Dover, said to be the last supermarket, bakery and, more importantly, coffee shop before the end of the earth.

Refreshed, we continued to admire the fresh roadkill, which, among the sulphur crested cockatoos, lapwings, and large dark brown brush tailed possums, included a sprinkling of Tasmanian Devils, squished while eating their favourite food – roadkill! Half an hour later, beyond the turn to the holiday hamlet of Southport (with brand new pub, if no supermarket) the bitumen gave way to gravel for another twenty minutes to the camp ground at Cockle Creek, at the bottom end of Recherche Bay.

Whale sculpture at Cockle Creek
Whale sculpture at Cockle Creek

Leaving the gravel for a sandscrape through the dunes, another km brings you to the real end of the earth, roadwise, with a full sized sculpture of a right whale, a reminder that the Bay first became prominent in the middle of the 1800’s as a mini Twofold Bay, with whaling from shore based long boats. That was followed by timber getting – a rusty flywheel and concrete plinth marking the site of a sawmill beside the park ranger’s hut (closed on this summer long weekend holiday – ‘just put your camp and hiking fees in the box ‘-) and eventually coal mining from beach outcrops.

The sign is all that's left
The sign is all that’s left

It was the mine at Catamaran which brought the James Craig to her end. There is no sign of the mine, or even Catamaran for that matter, apart from a name board on the gravel road through the jungle, although there is another camp ground at the mouth of the Catamaran river with a small jetty and tinnie ramp. The only facilities at these camp grounds are single hole long drop dunnies planted at 100 metre intervals, and the occasional drinking water tap with a label around it’s neck saying “sorry, no water”. (The bottom of the island was in the grip of a major drought, with bush fires all around including on Mt. Wellington, behind Hobart). However, most reasonable campsites were occupied by fishermen prepared to brave the drive back to Southport for more cold beer, so something in addition to the mosquitos must have been biting.

Recherche Bay
Recherche Bay

Recherche Bay is kidney shaped, about three miles high and one mile wide with the long axis running about north-south, and the opening in the lower half of the eastern side. The ship was abandoned on a mooring on the western shore (where the main road is located) just into the top half of the kidney, so it was fortunate that the gale which broke her free was from the SW, since a NW gale would have blown her straight out the door and off to Antarctica. We drove down a track to the foreshore near some holiday cottages north of Catamaran to take a photo across the bay towards her resting place, with just a fishing tinnie to mark the spot.

Lief Erikson's longship?
Lief Erikson’s longship?

Returning to town via a quick splash in the thermal pool at Hastings and a sniff of the herbal festival at Cygnet we stumbled across another possible candidate for recovery and restoration – what appeared to be an antipodean version of Lief Erikson’s longship. Turned out to be a galley intended for use as a “Row you b…….s!” tour boat on the Derwent, but stalled at this stage for the past ten years. Finally, with a glimpse of the QE2 blowing tubes as she sailed past the Iron Pot into the sunset, we skirted the Shot Tower and that other tower at Wrest Point and made it safely home to our respective pubs around Constitution Dock in time for a quiet little drink before dinner – as one does in that part of the world.