Tasmania’s penal past means there are plenty of old convict sites to explore. Called Van Diemen’s Land at the time, it was infamous as the place where they sent repeat-offenders or hardened convicts from the mainland. It was remote, harsh, unforgiving and often fatal.
The most famous prison here is Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula, really well suited to its role as it’s on an isthmus, connected by a narrow 20m land-bridge called Eaglehawk Neck. In convict times, from about 1830, this land-bridge was guarded by a row of fierce guard-dogs, with some even on platforms in the channel. On the south-east of this peninsula is the Port Arthur Penal Colony, where convicts suffered depravation, lashes and hard labour and isolation from other prisoners. It was so bad that they built an insane asylum here to cope with the fallout of such severe conditions. Now it is quite stunning with its beautiful harbour and sandstone ruins, but a visit to the isolation cells soon leave you with a different impression.
Cameron convinced us to take the famous Ghost Tour here. “It was lantern lit, but very dark and really eerie! I was chosen to be front lantern bearer, that meant it was me who went into all the spooky prison cells and houses first! We had a great guide called Josh who made it scary but fun. Just after being told a story about an old convict ghost who liked to attach himself to the tours in the form of an old man, someone came out of the darkness behind us, who made me yell “it’s the old man!!” and made us all jump, but actually he was just a tourist taking a short cut to the café. Scary!”
We also went to the less visited Coal Mines, where suitably skilled convicts were also sent to make the prisons ‘pay’. Adele’s history teaching came in good here when she could explain how the Incline Plane used to transport the coal to the waiting ships (thanks to her old boss, Andrew Spooner!)
The drive from East to West is mountainous and winding, so we picked the old town of Tarraleah to break up the journey. It was built for the workers of the massive hydro-electric scheme constructed here in 1915. Our ‘hotel’ was actually a row of 15 individual 1930’s, Art-Deco cottages lived in by the Architects and Engineers of the project. They have been restored to their full art-deco glory and were absolutely gorgeous, so much so that we decided stay an extra day. A good decision because it snowed overnight, and turned the landscape into an unexpected winter wonderland – much to the boys’ delight since they were able to build a snowman!
A drive through the snowy mountains took us to the west coast town of Strahan via “The Wall in the Wilderness” where sculpture Glen Duncan has spent the past 10 years carving the most magnificent, 100 metre long depiction of Tasmania’s history (no photos allowed here unfortunately!). Strahan is one of the main access points for the Gordon River, a Wilderness World Heritage Area. A day cruise to the harbour entrance and the notorious Roaring Forties took us through Hells Gate, a very narrow channel that has been responsible for many a shipwreck in the past. This turned out to be a bit of rocky fun, and we thought we might lose Ben off the bow as he tried to get the ‘perfect shot’. The boys met some other travelling kids here, Cadence and Emerson, who are doing a round Australia trip with their parents, so they had a lot in common to chat about. An interesting and amusing tour of Sarah Island brought the convict history alive here. Combined with an evening ‘interactive’ play in an outdoor theatre about an escape attempt here included Cam & Ollie as convicts!
From here, it was a winding drive up to the Cradle Mountain National Park and our new favourite accommodation – the Highland Lodges, beautifully cosy log cabins with a wood- burner, nestled into the forest with some of the most stunning walks at your door. There is also an abundance of wildlife here, so Ollie was in his element (and will blog about it). The weather was intermittently wet too, but nothing a log fire and a cosy sofa can’t fix after a walk in the wilderness. They cater for all seasons at Cradle Mountain with long boardwalks beautifully poised above the wet terrain, gliding down through the Cradle Valley. Or a more traditional walk past the gorgeous Dove Lake and up to Wombat Pool, which we did, with the snow only adding to its beauty. If you love walking this is a truly magical national park.
We managed to squeeze in two more visits on the journey back to the evening ferry at Devonport, the first to see King Soloman Cave, a stunning labyrinth full of amazing stalactites and other intricate rock formations, and the town of Sheffield, famous for its murals.
Then it was back to the overnight ferry over the Bass Strait Sea to the mainland. We knew the weather had changed but were apprehensive when the ferry Captain announced that the swells would be over 7 metres, and after a night of stomach lurching, and quite frightening crashing, rocking and rolling, we all have a new respect for the power of the sea. We won’t be taking any ferries again for a while!
So Tasmania, it is Australia, but it’s just that little bit different and certainly a place to add to your list if you haven’t been before – you won’t be disappointed!
(P.S. Thanks to Roxley & Loretta and Trevor & Cathy for all your Tasmania Tips and Suggested Itineraries – brilliant)