Port Arthur in Tasmania is an amazing place. A 90 minute drive out of Hobart, Port Arthur is blessed with a stunning natural harbour and lush green vista of rolling hills. It is also home to a penal colony that flourished in the 19th century and today there is a historical site that is maintained by tourist dollars.
The tourist site is fabulous. The site is open from 8:30am in the morning up until about 9:30pm at night, when the last ghost tour ends. We got there in the early afternoon and stayed for the ghost tour in the evening under full moon.
There's an eerie vibe when walking through Port Arthur. It feels pregnant with the pain of anguish, yet there is a tranquility that calms this to some degree. You can almost hear the moans and screams of generations past as you wander through the remains of the penitentiary, the asylum, or the dark cells where some patients or convicts were locked away in total darkness for days on end.
As I see it, the entire system of convicts sent to Australia was a thinly veiled disguise for slavery, for using uber-cheap labour to build this country. In America this work was done by Africans forced from their land. English industrialism during the 18th century produced a band of ultra-wealthy capitalists whilst most of the population, driven to the cities to work, became impoverished. These people were often forced to steal and so for stealing a loaf of bread you were sent to "New South Wales", or Van Dieman's Land as Tasmania was then known. All in all it was an ingenious albeit diabolical excuse for slavery, for cheap labour.
The ghost tour was brilliant with many delightful and eerie anecdotes told by our tour guide. That the place is haunted is beyond question, you only have to go into the underground operating room to almost sense the blood seeping from the walls...
The Broad Arrow cafe was probably the most chilling spot we visited in Port Arthur. This was the scene of a mad gunman's massacre that killed 35 people in April 1996. There is a memorial to the spot, and only the shell of the cafe remains. We walked into the centre of the cafe's shell and we both felt this pressurised, claustrophobic sensation that made us want to walk back out in a hurry. Apparently there were T-shirts available prior to the massacre available that said "I survived Port Arthur", and these were discarded from sale after the tragic event in 1996.
And here we are. Visitors from all over Australia and the world, going on tours, seeing exhibitions, going on the harbour cruise, wearing all manner of cheap colourful clothing made by underpaid workers from all around the globe, carrying our mobile phones and checking our gmails and facebooks, inspecting and learning about what happened on this beautiful port some 140-190 years ago. What on earth would the convicts have thought of all this? It would have been utterly inconceivable to them. Yet they would take heart that people would be coming and paying homage and respect to the hard and treacherous lives they had to endure and live through.
Tasmania is full of heartbreak. We went into the State Gallery in central Hobart to shelter from a severe rainstorm and found ourselves discovering the story of Aboriginal displacement and genocide during the 19th century. No full-blooded Aboriginies survived the "bounty hunt" of the 1840's. You can feel this soft blanket of sadness throughout the land, a land that is just stunning in its beauty yet languid in its soft velvet grief.
There was another bounty-hunt in the 1880's, that of the Thylacine aka Tasmanian Tiger. Footage of this magnificent creature from London & Hobart zoos is televised continously at this museum. The tiger resembles a canine/feline cross and it has stripes only towards its lower back. The thaylacine became extinct on the Australian mainland some 5,000 years ago and now she appears to be extinct indefinitely.
Our journey to Tasmania was a magnificent, eye-opening and educational experience and I just had the best time and a big part of me wishes that life stayed the way it was whilst in Tassie.