Day 176: Empty Prison, Deserted Beach

Tue. 5th February 2013

With Graham and Chris having a paddle at Crescent BayAfter the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, we wanted to learn a little more about the other driver of early (white) Australia – the deportation of convicts from Britain. So, today we are heading off on a trip down to Port Arthur which is a historical site of the penal station for repeat offenders. Initially it was a timber logging camp using convict labour but it became the site to which all convicts who reoffended were sent – i.e. you didn’t get sent there directly from Britain for a first offence, but if you tried to escape or committed another crime while serving your sentence you would be. A key to Port Arthur – and to our drive down there – is the unique geography of Tasmania.

Low tide on a beach on the way out to Port ArthurTasmania, like Australia but unlike New Zealand is old (in geological terms) – some of the rocks date back over 1 billion years (or 6,000 years if you are a Creationist). The coastline is not formed like New Zealand’s from fjords carved out by glaciers but instead is formed from sunken valleys. In practice, this means that the coastline, particularly around Hobart is complex. Whilst, from the beach in Kingston (near Graham and Chris’ house) we can look across the bay and see the promontory with Port Arthur, it takes a couple of hours to drive it and even then we have to cross the Tasman bridge and a couple of causeways.

Charred trees and scorched earthWe drive through Hobart just after the rush hour – though I suspect that has an entirely different feel to it than Melbourne’s rush hour. Actually, I suspect that nobody rushes in Hobart. Once we get out into the country we head north and east around some of the bays before we can start heading south. The roads are quiet and are mostly lined with trees. Soon we start to see parts of the forest that were damaged by a recent forest fire. The fire burned out of control for 4 or 5 days, closing the only road out of the peninsula  and some people had to be evacuated by boat. Fortunately, nobody was killed.

Charred trees left after the fireIt’s clear that the fire didn’t burn evenly. We can see that it jumped quite large distances as we come across a stretch of burnt trees with charred trunks and brown leaves in the middle of an otherwise healthy looking forest. Equally in the area at the heart of the fire, we can see small patches of green trees or a house or cabin still standing whilst all around is burnt out. Sadly we see plenty of burnt down houses with people now living in tents or caravans. I’m sure these folk are glad to be alive but it must be heartbreaking to lose your house and all of your possessions.

Semaphore poleOne stretch of the peninsula, by Eaglehawk Neck, is only 100m wide from coast to coast. This is a key part of the reason why Port Arthur was not only chosen as a prison but also had no prison walls – the land formed natural walls. Any escaping prisoners had either to swim the cold water or to pass through Eaglehawk Neck where there was a line of guard dogs on permanent patrol. Fortunately for tourists, the view from the lookout point on the peak overlooking the bay is beautiful and only contains signs about Tasmanian Devils.

Penitentiary and Hospital buildings as seen from the waterGraham and Chris tell us that we need a minimum of two hours to explore Port Arthur. We were initially sceptical but once we understood that the grounds covered 100 acres and the ticket included a boat trip to see the Isle of the Dead and Point Puer Boys’ Prison as well as an introductory walking tour we knew that 2 hours was not really enough. Still, we had to make it fit as we wanted to go for a walk in, as well to get to see, some more of the countryside.

All that is left of the PenitentiaryPort Arthur was a really interesting visit. The displays in the visitor centre fulfilled our wish to understand  a bit more of the transport of convicts and their lives in Australia. For example, because the captains of boats transporting prisoners were paid only for live prisoners delivered to Australia, life for prisoners on ships was better than that for some early immigrants who paid their fare up front. When the prison was closed in 1877 (following the end of prisoner transport in the 1850s – no point in sending prisoners to a working gold mine!) many of the buildings were demolished as the site was turned into a town. However, there is enough remaining to warrant spending more time than we did.

Looking through Remarkable CaveWe were only a little late meeting up again – but it was well past 2pm and we hadn’t had anything to eat, whereas Chris and Graham had lazed on a beach with a beer. So, a quick bite of lunch and then it was off in the car a little further down the Tasman Peninsula toward Mount Brown. We stop in a car park with a signposted path down to Remarkable Cave where there is a sea cave that is, well, really quite remarkable.

Why is it called Crescent Bay?In the other direction there is a path signposted ‘Crescent Bay – 4hrs return’. Graham scoffs at this and says we have plenty of time and so off we head. The path is easy to follow through ferns and heather and then through rocky and sandy sections. All the while we have views out to sea looking out at Cape Raoul where Graham says that the walking is really spectacular and that you can walk along the coast for days and not meet anybody.

At least I didn't get my shorts wet - ah!After a brief stop at a blowhole (we’ve done blowholes, and the sea was too calm for this one to be working) we get to Crescent Bay after only 5omins or so of walking. Here we find a beautiful sandy beach (in the shape of a crescent would you believe?) with waves from the blue Southern Ocean rolling up the sand and a complete absence of other people. We had the whole beach to ourselves. Removal of shoes was compulsory (even for me) and we go out for a paddle, we added the Southern Ocean to our list of seas and oceans we have sampled. We spent a lazy hour strolling around the beach, enjoying the sunshine, before heading back. We timed it just right as on our way back we passed at least 5 people going in the other direction – imagine having to share the beach with others!

Fish and chips for supper - from a pontoon moored at the dockBy the time we were back at the car, it was declared to be beer o’clock. Luckily, Chris’ daughter Hannah and her partner Jordi run the restaurant at a nearby holiday complex so we were both able to meet them and get a beer as we sat and had a chat looking out over another part of the bay. Oh, these high stress days! After all of this, it was getting late by the time we got back to Hobart so there was no way anyone would be cooking supper. The only solution was to stop in the docks in Hobart and pick up fish and chips from one of the pontoon take away stands moored in the harbour. No cod on the menu and instead it was ‘Trevalla’ one of the local white fish which was very tasty and a great substitute. Needless to say we were all very happy and content as we sat around the table eating our fish and chips and reflecting on the day.

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