Last updated: 09:05 AM ET, Fri February 05 2016

Tasmania: Immersion in a Harrowing Past and Pleasant Present

Destination & Tourism | Will Hatton | February 05, 2016

Tasmania: Immersion in a Harrowing Past and Pleasant Present

PHOTO: Bay of Fires, Tasmania. (photo courtesy of Thinkstock)

Freshly awakened, I found myself lying on a mattress on the floor of an empty, pale pink room. The walls were cracked and the floorboards were rotted open. The carpet's scent was stale, and a trail of ants crawled up the wall behind my head in a perfectly sequenced line. After only arriving the evening before, I should have known the shaky, turbulent landing was only the beginning to my Tasmanian escapades. 

Despite my weary (but free) accommodation with a friend, the city of Hobart was quite charming and welcoming. Situated along the water, it hosts many quaint restaurants and outdoor market areas — a beautiful spot for a touring older couple, but definitely no place for an eager traveler. Within two days I found myself a little silver rental car, and headed 90 minutes south to my first big stop: the haunted grounds of Port Arthur.

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Port Arthur is officially Tasmania's top tourist attraction and one of Australia's most significant heritage areas. In the 1800s, the site housed over five hundred British and Australian convicts in a large stone-walled penitentiary. The grounds are surrounded by the rough and unforgiving Tasman Sea with only one road in and no way out.

In the present day, tourists are able to pay a small entrance fee to wander the history-enriched grounds and learn about the torturous ways these felons lived, and the painful ways they tried to escape. Let me tell you, it is downright disturbing — like the convict who skinned a wallaby and wore his fur to “hop” his way off the prison grounds.

The stories are not for the faint of heart, and continue on a short boat tour around The Isle of the Dead — a tiny island cemetery holding the remains of over 1,000 people, many of which were young lads. At least the boat had a concession stand, because tales of horror are better with snacks.

The 11 original penal sites are now just a shell of brick ruins, however the Separate Prison of solitary confinement was re-created to give tourists a better understanding of how this form of punishment worked. In 1848, harsh physical punishment within the prison was rejected in favor of mental punishment.

This is where the really bad guys went.

It was a place of no sound or human interaction whatsoever. The prisoners were locked in thick sandstone walled rooms in deep dark corridors for twenty-three hours of the day. For the remaining hour they were masked in heavy leather and led to a chained cement block where they would walk in circles for “exercise.” The building was constructed in the shape of a crucifix with four long hallways. People suffered within these walls. Some went absolutely mental. The convicts’ photos and names are now plastered across an illuminated wall with their stories written below.

Photo by Will Hatton

The groundsmen host a spooky Ghost Tour every evening past dark, but unfortunately there was no space left on the day I visited. If you intend on visiting Port Arthur, I highly suggest you book this tour in advance.

Although after viewing the interactive indoor exhibits, the original building remains, the re-created prison of solitude, and the included boat tour, I was very curious as to what truly happened on this piece of land. I returned to Hobart to purchase a novel based on a true story of one of the surviving Port Arthur convicts.

It was time to hop back into my silver rental and head north to something a little less dismal. Tasmania really is as small as it looks on a map; you can drive from one side to the other in about four hours. However this little island is full of stunning hidden treasures, so I took my time and found some excellent places to camp out in my car.

One of my favorite spots was the Bay of Fires. Stunning tropical scenery with fiery red rocks make for some amazing photos. Another great destination for active travelers is Wine Glass Bay. It is about a mile-long hike up a steep gravel path, but the top view is stunning. You can also hike down to the bay’s beach and enjoy a dip in the water on a calm day. The round trip hike is around one-and-a-half hours, but have your camera ready at all times to snap some tame wallaby selfies.

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My last stop was Launceston, the only other large city on the island besides Hobart, and the only land-based urban center in Tasmania. The attracting feature of Launceston is a beautiful man-made park built along the banks of the Tamar River. It is locally called The Gorge. The park hosts a variety of features such as a cafe, a swimming pool surrounded by bushland, a Victorian garden created with ferns and exotic plants, a footbridge that extends over the water, and a scenic chairlift.

Not to forget the stunning peacocks that roam the park by day, and wallabies at dusk, this may be Australia's most alluring urban reserve. And entrance is free.

Overall Tasmania is very rich in an Australian culture and beauty that differs from the mainland. Definitely somewhere every Australian backpacker should visit, just make sure to take the time to learn about the painful convict history in order to truly appreciate the stunning scenery and very kind locals of today’s Tasmania.


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