15 to 19 December 2019
Melbourne to Devonport, by sea, 232nm
to Burnie, 46km
to Seven Mile Beach, 320km
We crossed the Bass Strait from Melbourne to Devonport on Tasmania. It is a 10 hour crossing on the Spirit of Tasmania, a very comfortable ferry which even has its own cinema. Taking the day crossing we booked ourselves reclining seats rather than a cabin and sat back and enjoyed not having to navigate for once. Time passed surprisingly quickly and soon the big ferry was apparently squeezing its way into the Mersey River at Devonport.
We spent our first a couple of nights on Tasmania checking out our Christmas home at Burnie and, importantly, meeting our two charges, Millie and Shadow (much more about them soon!). We hoped that they would remember us fondly when we returned to take sole care of them as we headed south for a week.
We found a campsite at Seven Mile Beach which was close enough to Hobart to visit the city but also a couple of minutes walk from, yep, seven miles of beach!! In the end we only spent our evenings there, watching the black cockatoos flying overhead, because Hobart put us under its spell.
We were enchanted by the city’s Derwent River waterfront and it’s old buildings that reminded us of home. The stone crescent at Salamanca Wharf took me back to the Grassmarket in Edinburgh.
Elsewhere we found old pubs, grand facades and clock towers that could only have been built by the British colonists.
At Battery Point their houses could have been straight out of Hampstead.
But I was more interested in the stories of those other first British inhabitants, the convicts. Ever since reading Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore as a third year law student I have been intrigued by the lives of those spared death by the British penal system and instead sent to a place unimaginably far away and a fate entirely unknown. Of the 162,000 transported to Australia 24,000 were women, and it was the stories of those women that I really wanted to know more about.
So we went up the hill behind Hobart to find the Cascades Female Factory. Its name alone was dehumanising enough but although pretty much all that remains are its high walls it became clear that it wasn’t just the name.
The tiny cells and overcrowded halls housed three classes of women prisoners depending on their reason for being there. Women convicts could end up there if their assignment with their convict master broke down, they became pregnant or committed a further crime. It was part prison, part workhouse, part hospital. Squalor, disease and death were rife whilst they sewed, laundered or broke rocks depending on their class. When the floods came, as they annually did, women and staff alike were knee deep in filthy water.
Inside the Matron’s Quarters, the only original building still standing, we spoke to a guide, John. He taught us about the difficult relationship Australians have had with their convict past. It is really only recently that people talk about their convict ancestors. Until the 1960s this part of the country’s history simply wasn’t taught. John told us a story of how at school in 1976 he had entered an essay competition. They had been asked to write about someone from the past that they would like to have met. John wrote about his great, great, great grandfather, a convict transported to Tasmania. Having proudly submitted his essay he was called into the headmaster’s office where the headmaster ripped up his essay in front of him and told him to write about someone else. Even then there was still great shame about a family’s convict past.
In the Matron’s Quarters I found a reproduced list of women who ended up in the Female Factory. In alphabetical order by surname I couldn’t help but see if anyone with my name appeared and she did! Emma Scott arrived on the Mermaid in 1828. I just had to do a bit more research online and, thanks to the excellent record keeping of this early colonists, found that she had been convicted of receiving stolen goods at Surrey Assizes, Kingston. Sentenced to 14 years transportation she arrived in Tasmania aged 25 and the records describe her as “fair complexion, dark brown hair, dark grey eyes, brown mole on left cheek, scars on left thumb, Prostitute.” How or why she ended up in the Female Factory I couldn’t find but she, unlike many, survived the experience and got her Ticket of Leave in 1834 having married a Robert Randolph. It would be nice to think she and Robert and their ancestors threw off their bumpy start in the country and made a good life on Tasmania.
After that sobering visit we headed to Hobart’s outskirts further up the Derwent River to a museum everyone recommended we visit. Without fail everyone had told us that a visit to Hobart is not complete without a visit to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, and without fail they had all given a knowing look.
Owned and run by gambler and art collector, David Walsh, MONA has been described as “a subversive, adult Disneyland“. We really weren’t sure what to expect and our confusion was compounded by the museum’s architecture. Finding its entrance was our first challenge and we couldn’t help thinking that was the plan.
Set over three floors deep underground through tunnels and galleries stuffed full of extraordinarily strange art, MONA is a dark, disorientating and disturbing experience.
Interactive art, social commentary and words in waterfalls all got us thinking.
There were images of fear, distress and death everywhere and a Hansel and Gretel style cottage full of human hair.
Technology turns wind into drawings. Clown Physics are beamed in from CERN. A machine recreating human digestion deposits a, well, deposit once a day!
And then there is Tim, a real life human with a tattooed back whose skin has been bought by a collector for collection on his death. Until then he sits almost as still as death in the museum for hours, days, weeks.
It is perhaps just as well that we never found the wall of plaster cast vaginas we had been warned about! We exited feeling more than discombobulated but sort of glad we had been and despite all that dystopia we loved Hobart so much we extended our stay by another day.
From just about everywhere in the city is overshadowed by Mount Wellington. Towering over the CBD or peeking out from the cloud it is one of the highest peaks we have seen in Australia. So after a morning Christmas shopping in Hobart’s department stores and arcades, we decided to head up to the top to get a different perspective on the place.
From 1271m the views down to the Derwent and its twists and turns were spectacular and Hobart all but disappeared on the shoreline.
Our minds full of convict tales and other dark sights and having helped Santa fill our stockings we had time for one more stop before returning to Burnie on Christmas Eve and we headed to Port Arthur…