20 to 24 December 2019
Seven Mile Beach to Port Arthur, 88km
to Lake Leake, 190km
to Burnie, 229km
Our appetites whetted for Tasmania’s penal colony history, from Hobart we headed to the Tasman Peninsula and perhaps Australia’s most famous prison, Port Arthur. This was one of those places that when I read The Fatal Shore I never dreamed I would actually get to visit so to say this criminal justice nerd was excited is something of an understatement!
Before we got to Port Arthur we stopped for coffee in Richmond, a village apparently plucked straight out of the English countryside. Its stone bridge was built by convict labour in 1823 and claims to be the oldest bridge still in use in Australia.
The Catholic church overlooking the bridge and the river also claims to be the oldest in Australia.
The Anglican church, however, can merely claim a royal visit from Charles and Camilla and a nicely planted new tree!
We drove through the beautiful wilderness of the Tasman Peninsula to settle in the caravan park close to the historic site at Port Arthur. In fact we camped on the site of the kitchen gardens worked by the convicts. A short walk from the tent we discovered a spot that went straight to the top of Stefan’s list of favourite places on this trip. It helped that a few yachts were anchored in the bay but those aside this felt like a very remote place indeed.
Our company on the beach were the friendly oystercatchers
and amongst the eucalyptus we added another marsupial to our list of encounters, and one I had never even heard of before we came to Tasmania, the pademelon. Like a small wallaby crossed with a mouse, pademelon are very common all over Tasmania and not unlike kangaroos in Queensland we saw many more dead on the roads than alive. The red berries on the bushes doubled for seasonal holly as we got closer to Christmas.
Our favourite camp pets in Port Arthur were undoubtedly the green rosellas who just happened to fly by every time we got our breakfast things out. They seemed to have a sixth sense that cashew nuts and almonds were about and were difficult guests get rid of.
From our campsite it was a gorgeous walk along our favourite beach, following the shoreline path taken by the convicts and through the shipyard in which they worked to the site of the notorious and isolated penal station, established in 1830 to house some of the colonies most hardened criminals.
Many say that Port Arthur has an eerie atmosphere amongst its ruined buildings. Maybe it was the bright sunny day or the fact that as Europeans we are used to (some might say sick of!) ruins but despite the stories told by our guide of life in the penitentiary, of the forced labour, the chains, the solitary confinement we couldn’t quite feel the horror of it.
We enjoyed wandering in and around the houses of the staff who must have almost felt like prisoners themselves in this isolated outpost of the colony. Somehow, in the planning, and despite their proximity to the prison buildings, they didn’t overlook the convicts and could perhaps imagine themselves back home.
They had everything they needed – churches to worship in and a leafy park to stroll in.
The Governor’s House was set in the best position in lovely gardens with the best view of the bay.
For those prisoners who continued to break the rules the Separate Prison was built to mete out the cruellest of punishment, solitary confinement. Behind its thick, high walls there was no outside world to be seen.
Locked in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, permitted only to exercise for one hour alone and isolated from all other human contact, even in chapel, it is no wonder that many convicts ended up in the asylum next door. The asylum now serves a lovely sandwich for lunch!
When transportation stopped in 1853, Port Arthur became an institution for old and infirm convicts from all over the colony before closing altogether in 1877. The buildings were left at the mercy of bushfires and the hospital was the least in tact.
When inmates died they were buried on the Isle of the Dead out in the bay. We had a boat trip around this unique graveyard, the final resting place of 1100 convicts, civilian and military officers and their families.
Port Arthur has a much more recent, tragic history. On 28 April 1996 a gunman shot and killed 35 people around the historic site including 20 in the cafe. Today the cafe has been left, ruined as a memorial to the victims surrounded by a peaceful garden and pool of remembrance.
Before leaving the Tasman Peninsula we had time to sit and stare at one of our favourite spots one more time, imagining Pintail anchored there.
On our return north we encountered dirt roads again for the first time in ages and after a night camping beside Lake Leake we had a very exciting sighting of a pure white wallaby. We were very unlikely to see a snowman this Christmas but this more than made up for it!
Our last stop before we settled down for our Tasmanian Christmas was Campbell Town, another early European settlement with a convict built bridge and some chainsaw art celebrating that history and local native animals.
But our search for the elusive Tasmanian Devil would have to wait because we had a date with two ferocious beasts back in Burnie…