Tasmania – Port Arthur

Picture of Port Arthur

Port Arthur

Before I went to Tasmania the one place that was definitely on my list was Port Arthur. With a history that is as famous and renowned in Australia as the Tower of London in England or Alcatraz in the USA, this is a must see place.

In the 1800’s convicts were transported from England to Port Arthur mostly for what would be petty crimes today, and they were put to work in incredibly harsh conditions. The price paid for stealing a loaf of bread was severe.

Port Arthur Ruins

Port Arthur Ruins

Port Arthur is at the end of an island on the other side of the world that is isn’t easy to get to and is very hard to escape from, with only one very narrow land route in and out. Many tried but few escaped from here.

Port Arthur Ruins

Port Arthur Ruins

As I drove that very narrow road to the one place I really wanted to visit, I started to think about the impact it would have on me. The day before I’d been to Richmond Gaol which was thought-provoking but gloomy. Did I want to go to another site that would leave me melancholic and sad? Fortunately I didn’t let my ‘What if’s’ take over and I arrived at Port Arthur around 10am. I thought I’d be there for a couple of hours’ tops then visit another local site. After all, how much could you see at an old prison? As it turns out, quite a lot! Tip number 1 for Port Arthur – Allow yourself a plenty of time.

Tower at Port Arthur

Tower at Port Arthur

What I hadn’t thought about was that a prison doesn’t only have prisoners but also staff. Back in the 1800’s they were also imported from across the sea. Some came with spouses and families and they needed accommodating as well. When I entered the site, I was quite pleasantly surprised to see something that looked more like an English country estate than a prison.

Port Arthur Grounds.  This does not look like a prison.

Port Arthur Grounds. This does not look like a prison.

The grounds are expansive, you see the remains of an impressive church built of stone, you see English country gardens that the wives and children of senior staff would stroll around and you see the remains of some quite striking buildings. Port Arthur doesn’t LOOK as foreboding as Richmond at all, in fact I thought it could be quite a nice place for a holiday house… if I could ever afford one.

English Country Garden at Port Arthur

English Country Garden at Port Arthur

The stories that go with Port Arthur aren’t as pretty as the site itself, but this attraction is very well set up to inform tourists without bringing you down. You start with a guided tour that gives you a basic overview of the site and information on what life was like for prisoners and staff. The interactive centre gives you an insight of what it was like for particular people and that adds another element of interest to your experience and after a good few hours of exploring you have an appreciation of what life was like all those years ago.

Church at Port Arthur

Church at Port Arthur

Port Arthur has another more recent history that is tragic and sombre and commemorated well on the site. The Port Arthur Massacre in 1996 has been Australia’s deadliest. 35 people were killed and more injured on April 28th 1996. When something that grievous happens in a community as small as Port Arthur, practically everyone is affected and for that reason at Port Arthur itself, you’re requested not to ask staff about that day. Instead the memorial garden gives visitors both information and a place to remember and reflect.

There is a reason Port Arthur is so popular with tourists and that is that it’s so very well set up to cater for us. It doesn’t shy away from the grimness and its history, but it delivers the facts in a very digestible manner. It is definitely worth a visit.

Pania

Tasmania – The Scenic Route

Oyster Bay Swansea Tasmania

Oyster Bay Swansea Tasmania

A main highway in Tasmania is much the same as a main highway in any country. If you want your trip to get interesting, if you want to see bridges with history, beautiful scenery and gaols that housed convicts in the 1800’s, you’ve got to take the scenic route. So that’s what I did.

After a night in Swansea I was sent off by my Bed and Breakfast hosts with an itinerary of places to see. Swansea is not unlike small town New Zealand (where I’m from) with wide streets, weatherboard homes and friendly locals. The walking tour around gives you an insight into whaling and convict history of the area, and highlights the colonial architecture that I didn’t notice at first.

Church in Swansea Tasmania

Church in Swansea Tasmania

A few k’s south of the town, if you have your eyes peeled, you’ll find the Spiky Bridge, built by convicts in the 1840’s. The ‘spikes’ and the ‘built by convicts’ make you want to stop and see what it’s all about. The fact that it’s well built and quite interesting makes you want to stay a while and think about how difficult it would have been to build way back then. Then you’ll wonder about the spikes… Some say it was to keep cows from falling off the edge, some say the convicts did it to get their boss in trouble. You can choose which story to believe.

Spikes on the Spiky Bridge Tasmania

Spikes on the Spiky Bridge Tasmania

Spiky Bridge Tasmania

Spiky Bridge Tasmania

The next stop on the way to Hobart was Richmond, another town with a detailed convict history. Richmond Gaol pre-dates the more famous Port Arthur penal colony by nearly 10 years. It’s quite easy to romanticise convict history in Australia, without really meaning to. It’s not that you’re being disrespectful, but you tend not to think about specifics when you talk about it. A visit to Richmond Gaol will bring you crashing down to earth with a giant thud. The Flogging Yard is stark, the only other outside area for prisoners is barren but for a single almond tree, I suspect grown by accident over design.

Richmond Gaol Tasmania

Richmond Gaol Tasmania

Most rooms are dank and musty and they spark your imagination into visualising what life must have been like here. And then you see the solitary confinement cells. Stepping into one of these incredibly tiny cells that are pitch black with the doors closed for just a minute, gives you an incredible sense of isolation… and convicts could sometimes be locked in them for a month. Richmond Goal is definitely worth a visit just make sure you know it’s not one of those uplifting tourist attractions before you go.

Close the door and this solitary confinement cell is pitch black

Close the door and this solitary confinement cell is pitch black

Richmond has another piece of convict history that isn’t quite so grim. Richmond Bridge is the oldest bridge that’s still in use in Australia. Built by convicts housed in Richmond Goal in the 1820’s, the arched sandstone bridge spanning the Coal River, was heritage listed in 2005. The grounds around the bridge are a great place for a picnic or to stretch your legs before you hit that scenic country road and head to Hobart.

Richmond Bridge Tasmania

Richmond Bridge Tasmania

Tasmania – Wineglass Bay

I had great expectations for Tasmania. Everyone who’s been to or lived there has great things to say about The Apple Isle. Everyone told me I’d love it… and they were right. Everyone said it was beautiful… and they were right. Everyone said the roads were terrible… and they’re obviously not from my hometown.

As I drove out of the Launceston airport, I had some trepidation about what I might encounter ahead, but I needn’t have worried, the multi lane state highway 1 that leads towards Hobart was anything but scary. The distraction here is not narrow roads and crazy drivers, it’s gorgeous scenery that makes you want to stop often and take photos… and when you’re on holiday why not do that?

Even the cows are scenic here

Even the cows are scenic here

Destination One was Freycinet National Park, a great spot for hiking, bird watching, and camping. I’d heard about the famous Wineglass Bay and as it had ‘wine’ in the title, I thought it was a must see place. I was right. This is a park that offers something for every type of tourist. If you want to get really involved and stay for a week, trekking all over the place, you can. If you’re short on time and you just want to see something wonderful, you can do that too.

Oyster Bay

A view of Oyster Bay as you walk to the Wineglass Bay Lookout

The walk from the information centre to the Wineglass Bay lookout is 30-45 minutes, depending on how often you stop to admire the scenery. It is uphill, but it’s not super strenuous, and you can take your time, you don’t need to race to the top… but when you get there, you’ll be glad you made the effort.

A place to rest

A place to rest on the journey to the Wineglass Bay Lookout

Wineglass Bay is beautiful. You see the calmness of the bay and a white sand beach protected by rugged Tasmanian bush. It’s easy to feel a little like you’ve stumbled across a secret and you can’t help but wonder how this place was found at all, all those years ago.

Wineglass Bay

Wineglass Bay

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From here I had a relatively short drive to Swansea to a B&B for the night. It was just on dusk as I was leaving the national park, which is when you need to be particularly vigilant. It’s not the road that’s scary it’s the traffic. That rugged Tasmanian bush houses rugged Tasmanian wildlife, that comes out at dusk. This is when you need your wits about you.

Tasmania lesson number 1: Think about what time you’re driving.

Pania