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The two faces of Port Arthur.

AUSTRALIA | Saturday, 7 February 2009 | Views [2988] | Comments [2]

Some of Tasmania's beautiful coastline en route to Port Arthur.

Some of Tasmania's beautiful coastline en route to Port Arthur.

Port Arthur is Tasmania's most famous spot for both good and bad reasons. 'Most famous' and 'good and bad' being subjective evaluations. I must contend that Port Arthur, and probably Tasmania, was relatively unknown to me until April 28th 1996. No one would argue that what happened that day definitely falls into an area categorised by superlatives much stronger than 'bad'. The small penal colony that still stands as a poignant reminder of Australia's convict history went from minor tourist attraction to world wide news in one day.

With the utmost respect to anyone affected by a simpleton's murderous rampage that claimed 35 innocent people, I admit I was more fascinated by that event than the century that proceeded it. Unlike the morbid curiosity of gore enthusiasts, like slowing down at the scene of a car crash, I wanted to pay my respects by visiting the memorial dedicated to the victims. What could impel anyone to commit such a crime still baffles my mind, and I wanted to remove rationale by just experiencing what it was like to be in the same spot.

Unfortunately the days events totally changed any sombre sentiments I might have felt there. Not only did I have too much fun before and after visiting, the company I kept was oblivious to the significance of the place beyond what the tour guide was willing to discuss. Even though he went to great lengths to describe the hardships endured by the original inmates, no graphic retelling of life over 150 years ago was going to change the fact that Port Arthur is an amazingly beautiful spot. I said my prayers at the memorial shrine and remained largely unaffected by what I first thought would be the most haunting aspect of the place.

My posse for the day was comprised of the usual three stooges in Shane, Kei and I. Forgoing $200 worth of pre-paid tours to Port Arthur just to join us, two lovely Canadian girls in Dominique and Chelsea took up the remaining seats in the last day of service provided by the rented Lancer. They had caught our flight from Melbourne, a trip I slept through after spending a few hours the night previous trying to sleep on Shane's hostel floor. We bumped into them in Hobart as they tried to find their hostel near ours by heading in the opposite direction to which we were returning home by. With four days in Tasmania, they were cramming in every spare moment of shopping in Hobart between the occasional distraction of a tourist site. Overly friendly they quickly found favour with us and made a five person crew for most of their four days.

Our first stop was at a blowhole, an arch and a Devils kitchen which were all caves in a cliff face with varying degrees of land remaining above them. March flies swarmed like locusts and hurried us along after taking the obligatory photos of sheer cliff faces that endangered underwear just by peering over them. Despite a cool breeze, the sun shone consistently enough to prompt us into having a swim at Eaglehawk Neck. Small glassy barrels broke gently on the shore spoiling the otherwise crystal clear azure blue water of the Tasman sea. I taught the girls how to body surf, and while mastering the face full of sand approach, more practise would be necessary before they could scoot along the face of a wave like a grinning piece of bikini clad flotsam.

The road leading to Port Arthur was in the same condition as most of Tasmania's roads and always made you feel like you must have been lost on some deserted country lane. Admission wasn't cheap, as we had come to expect, but the site itself had at least a days worth of interest to justify the cost. Like a great prize awaited he who bankrupted themselves first, we paid an extra $12 each to visit the Isle of the Dead. That was where all the Port Arthur residents went to await the Resurrection believing that once risen, they would be able to walk across water and leave the island. Like the Hastings Caves, it was paramount that we didn't touch anything lest our 'death wax' eat through the memorial headstones like we were xenomorphs with acid for blood. The same respect couldn't be shown to the islands inhabitants as they were buried everywhere in unmarked graves and the entire tour took place on top of many of their resting places. A book titled 'Stiffy', or something similar, had been written about the island, but as educationally arousing as that sounds, the guide had managed to exhaust my curiosity by the time we had to return to the mainland.

Numerous parts of the site had become interactive to appeal to more than just history buffs. There was an audio introduction to the punishment cells that read the prisoners rights in a manner similar to what they would have actually been given. As menacing and degrading as it sounded, it couldn't stop me from just wishing I could burn one down and turn the solitary confinement cell into a dutch oven. A database listed all the inmates to have passed through and allowed one to find long lost relatives. With an ancestor six generations previous coming on a boat from England, I half expected to find a Wellington had been deported here for public nudity or something. None could be found but Dominique found a possible relative. By failing to steal anything for the entire time, certain traits had obviously not been passed down to her and cast doubt over any blood connection.

One could not ask for better weather conditions and the fun of the mornings surf had prompted an early exit knowing none of us were in a state of mind to truly grasp the poignancy of the place. We ventured further south to the Remarkable Cave whose appalling stench was its only remarkable feature. We returned to the same beach for another chance to fill up our swimmers with sand and headed back to Hobart. We ended the day a lot happier than what I expected to be after seeing the morbid history of Port Arthur infused into such a beautiful environment.

Tags: beaches & sunshine, friends, sight seeing



Just reading that makes me want to go back home and go back to Port Arthur like I did all the time back in the 90's..Canadian backpackers I can relate to of course! Lovely boys! Port Arthur is the best place on earth with the worst background known to modern man.

All the best

  Nathan Staples Mar 18, 2009 12:49 AM


The parsonage is said to be one of the most haunted places in Port Arthur. There have been rumors of ghost sight seeings. Nowadays people who want to have wild adventure take a lantern lit historical tour on the island. the tour is two hour walk through the entire Port Arthur region.

  jadesmith Oct 21, 2010 10:26 PM

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