We leave our quite disappointing lodgings at Swansea backpackers, readying ourselves for a long old day. Today we're going to Port Arthur - the antithesis of all British penitentiaries in Tasmania, indeed all of Australia!
First stop, just some 5 minutes down the road from Swansea, is the Spiky Bridge. Part of the old convict coach road, it connects Swansea to Little Swanport. Sited by the old Rocky Hills Probation Station, most of the remains of this area now reside on "PRIVATE LAND" (according to the sign) as is not open to the general public. Aw. But as the name suggests, this bridge is indeed spiky... But they're still not sure why! Strange.
Driving onwards, we enjoy some sweeping roads that enjoy fantastic changes in elevation. We enjoy discovering that a section of this road is call Break-me-neck Hill.
In anticipation of the expensive food fare to be found in the Port Arthur historic site, we stop at Woolworths to stock up on supplies. Here we spot a large Tasmanian firefighter milling around, and considering there are 50 or so uncontrolled fires, we muse why this chap isn't out fighting these blazes!
As we enter the Port Arthur vicinity, we tune into the terrible Port Arthur radio station. It's like a rolling advert for tourists (like us), who have lots of money to burn (not like us). We turn it off.
Unfortunately, it's been a long old drive to Port Arthur from Swansea, so we reach the car park at around 11.00. So we have early lunch! As we've been travelling for some months now, we take no issue with making and then eating our beef/cheese sandwiches out of the back of our Kia. Needs must!
Sadly, it's quite a cold, cloudy day today. But this, in addition to it being Australia Day, contributes to the complex being relatively empty. Much more so than usual we are told. For $37 each (the basic tariff), we're going to enjoy an introductory walking tour of the front of the site, a ferry trip around the surrounding areas, and a full grounds pass for the day.
We just about make the 12.00 tour, and are introduced to Port Arthur by a tour guide who... we assume... preferred the 'adhoc' style. It was either this, or he just didn't know his beans. Here are a few factoids from our chap:-
- Port Arthur was a prison complex for reoffending convicts. Nobody was sent here directly from Britain; they were sent to the colonies, and then sent here if they misbehaved.
- There are 11,000 people buried on the nearby Isle of the Dead (it is TINY!). The convicts were buried in unmarked graves, although the free people buried here got gravestones.
- Port Puer was for boy convicts, sent directly from Britain. This was the first children's prison in the British Empire.
- Training and education was a big part of prison system in Port Arthur. This was quite innovative for its time, and unusual for the British Empire who up until this point had predominately used convicts for free labour.
- Informed about the line of half-starved dogs across the single land access to the peninsula, at Eaglehawk Neck. These dogs were later also placed on platforms in the water to warn soldiers of sea borne convicts.
- Thanks to the dog line at Eaglehawk Neck, and the local surroundings (thick bush, sharks in the water), there were only 110 soldiers to 1,100 convicts here.
- Spotted the Commandant's house in prime location at the mouth of the port, on the hill. He was the top chap, but our tour guide gave us the impression that the Senior Military Officer was actually in charge. This chap lived next door.
- Soldiers stationed here couldn't go to Hobart, and generally had a poor time too. Just slightly better than the convicts. They were banned from alcohol, gambling and women... So they did illicit things also, often colluding with the convicts to create a black market.
- The penitentiary itself was only built in 1857. The 20 years before, convicts slept in huts and tents whilst they worked in the ship yards / timber yards at the granary. But, as wheat didn't grow well in Tasmania, they eventually lost the granary, and converted the building into the Penitentiary. And it shows! It looks like a factory, and even now, one of the chimneys survives.
- The daily routine for men in the main prison consisted of 12 hours labour, followed by 2 hours study every day, with a 'rest' day on Sunday to contemplate God. There was a very strong church presence here, both Anglican and Catholic
- There was running water in the Penitentiary! Flushing toilets! As a result, the level of disease was low. Much lower than industrial England.
- Initially, there was a focus on corporal punishment as a means of reforming convicts. However unsurprisingly, this didn't always work. Some convicts found that an ability to take the lashes improved their status in the prison. Rumour has it that one chap took 14,000 lashes over his time here.
- As it was agreed the lashes wasn't working, and it was deemed cruel, it was abolished in 1850 with solitary confinement the new punishment. Very modern way of thinking, the model was based on Pentonville Prison, which in turn was based on the American Quakers theory, that if given time and silence (and a Bible), inmates would consider their sins, 'see the light', repent and reform. Inmates here had to endure a regime of absolutely no speaking (soldier guards included), with 23 hours solitary confinement every day, and just the 1 hour exercise alone in a small yard. Taken to chapel once a week, again one by one, with no speaking. The only noise they made was the hymn singing during this service, where they all apparently sang 'lustily'. The chapel was bespoke, ensuring that there were small 'privacy' booths, so no inmate could see or talk to another, but only look straight forward to the vicar. If you transgressed their rules however, instead of the lashes, there was a punishment cell. Here you could be sentenced for anything between 14 - 40 days where there was total silence and darkness. (We later visited it... It was completely black. Quite terrifying really).
- Once told about this cell, we were also not surprised to hear about the 'Lunatic' asylum that was later built on site, next to 'The Other Prison' (!!)
- Eventually the stream of transported convicts slowed, and in 1877 Port Arthur was closed. Freemantle in Perth was the destination of Port Arthur's ageing convict population, since all the other colonies now wanted to have free settlers and didn't need the associated free labour.
- Our tour guide spoke about coming here as a kid and filling up the back of his ute with Port Arthur bricks. Port Arthur only listed as a World Heritage site 20 years ago, and this was only when this commonplace vandalism stopped (how Australian!!).
That concluded the scatter gun, meandering introductory tour we received. Not entirely content with the 'history' content we received, we walked over to another walking tour guide whose tour style couldn't be more different. 4,000 facts every sentence. It was incredible! So much so, that there was simply no time to make notes... So there are none ;-) Walking away once the second chap had concluded his tour, we christened him the 'wise old owl' of Port Arthur. He was clearly just trying to see how many facts he could fire off in 20 minutes to a shell shocked group of tourists. Heaven forbid if English was NOT your first language....
Soon after, searching for water, the 'wise old owl' told us where to find drinking water. Apparently it was by the jetty. Well, he was mistaken. Not-so wise old owl now, ey!
As part of our basic entry into Port Arthur, we also get a ferry ride! How exciting! During this short little ride, we learnt the following quite interesting information:-
- Port Arthur has a 45m deep harbour; one of the deepest natural harbours in Australia.
- There was originally a shipbuilding business here, but it was closed down by the government after Hobart private ship building companies complained.
- To escape, skilled convicts often would build a raft (perhaps rather emboldened through building real ships day after day), and when they were caught, the commandant would display the caught rafts on his veranda, in a kind of 'look how creative my convicts are'. Quite funny actually. Apparently this commandant, Charles O'Hara Booth was well liked by the inmates. When he disappeared into the bush for a few days, the convicts rejoiced when they learnt he had been found safe and well (!) Perhaps fearful of another commandant who might be less just?
- So instead of building a raft, the most successful seaborne escape went like so... A group of 8 convicts instead stole the commandant's personal boat. They had worked out the usual crew was 7, plus the boss, so if there were 8 of them, perhaps nobody would see the difference! It worked, and they got such a sufficient head start on the guards that they stole away to Port Davey - where they expected there to be food. Unfortunately, there was none, as it had been abandoned. So, they turned back down the West coast, and then 4 months later reached Eden NSW, mainland Australia. Here they were captured, with 2 men dying before further sentences were passed. All men were sent to Norfolk Island (presumably because there were less opportunities to steal boats there??), with only the one chap eventually returning to Port Arthur.
After the 20 minute ferry ride, we took our seats (okay, okay... We actually stood at the back) for a short period play. 2 actors, performing what we assumed was a true(ish) story. One chap was playing an American lawyer had been caught and sentenced for helping the Canadian republicans commit treason against the crown. The other played the Commandant, various English Guards, and waved around a school bell a lot. The moral of the story was that Port Arthur was particularly terrible to 'learned' men, as the British viewed them as incendiary forces that could spark revolt, and as such the Commandants did all within their power to keep them locked up. Although a little dramatic, this sentiment was confirmed elsewhere in the historic site.
Needing a refresh, and flagging a little after our very early lunch, we took tea and scones at the Visiting Magistrate's House up on the hill. Very quaint. The Visiting Magistrate was the chap who dolled out further sentences to re-offending convicts on the site. So having scones and Earl Grey tea from this superb vantage point over the site felt very, very Colonialist (and a little weird when we actually thought about it).
Taking our minds off this, here we read up on Wiki about the terrible gun massacre that happened on this site in 1996. 35 people were killed that day by a manic depressive gunman, some of whose victims had worked and lived near the Port Arthur historical site. It was an event that our tour guides all acknowledged at the start and end of their tours. If there can be any good to come out of this episode (?), it was the event that prompted the Howard government to tighten up their terribly lax gun controls. In fact up until 1996, you didn't need a permit to buy a gun, just proof of age. They kept no records of who bought weapons.
Fittingly, we then wandered into the Lunatic Asylum. When Port Arthur was closed in 1877, the local population wanted to pull down the entire site. They didn't do this however, for as soon as the place closed, it was inundated with tourists (!) In fact, they converted many of the buildings into hotels and the like, with many ex convicts now gainfully employed as tour guides! However, after 2 terrible bushfires in the late 1800s (the second much worse than the first), the site was entirely repurposed and renamed as the town of Carnarvon. Hilariously enough, this old Lunatic Asylum served as the Town Hall of Carnarvon!
Inside, we enjoyed a photo gallery that actually was the Masters of Arts submission for the artist. The central idea was to photograph descendants of convicts, posing with materials that their ancestors had allegedly stolen in order to warrant the original sentance of transportation to Australia. In many of the cases, this amounted to the smallest of thefts - a hankerchef, a pair of boots, some cutlery. It certainly amounted to some amusing photographs!
Cheered somewhat by this amusing gallery, we felt we could now brave the 'Separate Prison' - the one our tour guide earlier described as based on Pentonville. Inside we saw the Chapel, complete with booths and individual cells with speakers, that would from time to time sing a jaunty hymn. This noise filled the entire prison, and it was fabulous. We wandered round the period cells in the prison, and exercised around the exercise yard, finally entering the punishment cell. This prison was recently in receipt of government funding, and in showed as it was nicely done up. For a moment, Alice and I had the whole place to ourselves, and it was VERY eerie when silent. There were too many loud tourists generally though. :( Exciting the prison and re-entering the pastoral haven of the Port Arthur grounds was a disorientating experience... Very much like drawing the curtains first thing in the morning.
With the sun now shining, the grounds were looking resplendent. If only it had rained recently and the grass was greener, you would have thought you were in England. Elsewhere on the grounds, we enjoyed playing with the semaphores. A messaging system that Commandant Booth had deployed for communicating to Hobart (the clever old dog).
Walking past the ruins of the old Anglican Port Arthur church, we noted how its old bells are believed to be the very first cast in Australia. One is missing though... And they're still asking for visitors who have information to come forward! As for the church itself, it was burnt irreparably when the local residents lit a fire around the parsonage in order to 'to clean it up' (actual quote). The subsequent fire caught the old shingles of the church, and it burnt down. Yes, they actually burnt their own church down, and didn't have the fund to rebuild it.
And then the sun came out properly, and we had to redo ALL of our earlier cloudy pictures!
Now with the site almost entirely to ourselves (owing to Australia Day and the earlier cloud cover), we visited the Commandant's House up on the hill. Here it made clear that it was the third commandant, Charles O'Hara Booth (already twice mentioned in this entry), who was particularly instrumental in growing the settlement. This particular house became the Carnarvon Hotel after the penal settlement was closed, and it has since been reconverted back to period (thankfully!).
With time marching on, we decided to make tracks. And as we left, we saw that on the only flagpole in the complex, was flying... the Union Flag!! On Australia Day, haha! (...The sun never sets and all that, but don't say that to an Australian)
Getting terribly close to 20.00 (the time we said we would check into our bnb for the night), we did a quick round of the indoor museum in the main building, that charted the passage of a convict from Britain, to Port Arthur, and to promotion (and possible Pardon), or demotion (and punishment) in the camp. This was absolutely fantastic, and ranks as highly as any place we've visited in Australia. Perfect balance between history and fun - you really could have spent all day in it.
FINALLY leaving the site, we take a 'rustic' drive into our posh backpackers for the night - Bubblegum hostel. Nestled in a thick forest, right by the ocean this was as scenic as it gets. We arrive to an empty bungalow hut down at the bottom of the place, and are delighted to see it has a full kitchen, washer, etc etc. All self contained. Again, this bnb ranks right at the top of our list.
On the desk when we arrive is an information sheet written by the owner, that explains how there is a Little Penguin colony 5 minutes drive from the house. It has full instructions as to how we should get there... So we merrily give it a go!!
Leaving soon after sunset, we drive carefully as to not hit any Tasmanian wildlife. In fact, on the way there and back, we see a possum, lots of rabbits, THREE bilbies and a wallaby. But did we see any penguins? No. Accompanied on the beach by a group of loud English girls with torchlights, we saw none.
So we return home, where Marion and Phil (our hosts) arrive and introduce themselves. We say we just went to the beach and saw no penguins. They're in utter disbelief about this, saying there are ALWAYS penguins. So confident is Phil that he offers to drive back down with us.
Still a little cold from our first excursion, we head back to the beach at 22.30 or so. And did we see any penguins with Phil? Nope. Not a sausage. To his credit, Phil is genuinely surprised that there were no penguins, and offers us a really genuine apology - "I have never come down and not seen a penguin. This is a first. There're usually several on the path to the beach!"
Oh well, his apology really wasn't needed as we had lots of unexpected fun hunting for penguins. At least we tried!
We drive home without hitting wildlife... And bed. Pooped. According to our phones, we walked at least 10km today. Good day.