As a new trail opens up one of Tasmania’s wildest beauty spots, Sarah Baxter explore the island’s convict history and bright future
We made our break for it. The boat cleared the jetty, leaving behind the ghostly remnants of 19th-century colonial justice: dour penitentiary, military barracks, lunatic asylum. Straight ahead, a squat lump of mudstone: the Isle of the Dead, final resting place of over 1,100 souls (officers in marked graves, convicts in mass ones). Beyond that, navy waters, kelp gulls and our destination: Port Arthur inlet’s forested far shore.
However, there was no rush. We spent an hour skimming down the sound and back, past sea caves and fur seals, before edging into the emerald shallows of Denmans Cove. Ramp lowered, we walked onto its squeaky white sand, along a creek and into the bush. Across the inlet, the prison ruins were now barely visible through a smugglers’ mist. Our escape from Port Arthur, once the most feared address in all of Australia, had been a leisurely affair. How times change.
Port Arthur Historic Site (Paul Bloomfield)
Established on Tasmania’s Tasman Peninsula in 1830, Port Arthur began life as a timber station but soon became a jail for Australia’s worst. Its inmates weren’t fresh-off-the-boat transportees but convicts who committed further offences once they’d arrived. Despite that, it was a prison with no walls. Connected to the rest of the mainland by only a narrow, well-guarded isthmus, tucked into a secretive inlet and surrounded by hostile bush and shark-infested seas, Port Arthur’s geography kept the inmates in.
Despite its horrors, that geography also made it beautiful. The Tasmanian Steam Navigation Company described it about right in its 1887 brochure: ‘A spot as lovely in its position as it is ugly in its memories’. Tourists started visiting just three months after the penal colony closed in 1877, drawn by Port Arthur’s macabre reputation and incongruous natural splendour.
Today, it’s a fine starting point for Tasmania’s newest escape, the first stop on our exploration of the island’s convict history that would take us around some of the south-east coast’s most arresting developments.
Climbing to Cape Huay (Paul Bloomsfield)
The Tasman Peninsula has long been a place of seclusion – formerly forced, now eagerly sought. Opened in December 2015, the Three Capes Track is an easy four-day, 46km walk that traces the dramatic edges of Tasman National Park, offering a taste of freedom. Only 48 walkers may start the track each day; there is nowhere en route to buy supplies, so all kit must be carried in. However, the trail has three new cabin sites, offering dorm rooms, long-drop toilets, kitchens, libraries, even deckchairs and yoga mats. This is wilderness lite.
A sculpture marked the start of the track. It was an easy 4km hike to Surveyors, the first cluster of cabins, climbing along the coast with views west to Port Arthur. Also visible was adjacent Point Puer, site of a boys’ prison from 1834 to 1849; 3,000 boys were interned, the youngest aged nine. Now it’s a golf course. We also passed the first of several man-made seats, designed (in conjunction with the track guidebook) to tell a particular story.
If these benches sometimes jarred a little with the landscape, the cabin-sites are a design tour de force. Though comfortable rather than plush inside, all three look like high-end lodges, with wide decking, big windows and swooping roofs. Surveyors sits exposed, at the edge of a high buttongrass plain – well, at the edge of the world, really: due south is Antarctica.
Resident ranger Robin welcomed us, and started his briefing by paying respect to the land’s traditional owners, the Oyster Bay people. He told us he grew up just 20km away, and that the Reverend George Eastman – parson at Port Arthur in the 1850s, and now one of its most notorious ghosts – was his great, great, great grandfather. He also told us not to rush the trail. “This is not just a walk,” he concluded, “but an experience.”
Forester kangaroo (Paul Bloomfield)
It was certainly quite something. At Surveyors we ate instant porridge while watching wallabies nibble buttongrass and clouds drift over distant Cape Raoul – the only one of the track’s three titular capes that you don’t actually walk on. Then we set off in sunshine, clomping along boardwalks and well-marked paths through messy eucalypt, the ground like the afters of a carnival, strewn with bark streamers and leaf confetti.
We climbed a winding stone staircase to the top of Arthur’s Peak, where views stretched right to Cape Hauy – named after the French geologist who first described the Jurassic dolerite so prevalent here, and where we’d be walking in two days’ time.
Before that, there was plenty of heart-soaring hiking to be done, via open moors, clustered sedges (where wombats hide) and eucalypts harbouring black cockatoos. Then there were the cliffs – dropping 300m down to the sea, these jointed dolerite columns were less like rock, more like an army of dormant giants awaiting the call to transform.
The most impressive of these precipices lay ahead, on the third day. After a fierce, wind-howled night at the Munro site, we set off along Cape Pillar – though we barely knew it. The weather closed in, restricting our world to the pinkberry bushes and cuboid wombat poo that lay immediately by the trail. Wisps of mist tinselled the treetops, and invisible waves crashed below.
Perhaps it was no bad thing: to reach the Cape’s tip, a ‘Severe Hazard’ sign preceded a clamber up boulders, over chasms. Snatched views through the clouds were vertiginous and slightly terrifying. Any escaping convict that found himself here in such conditions might consider Port Arthur a more appealing prospect.
Vast eucalyptus forests (Paul Bloomfield)
Our final day was much improved. We embarked under brighter skies, a wallaby bounding ahead on the boardwalk. Soon we were climbing though a fairytale forest, fecund with mosses and lace-like coral lichen, sunlight dappling through the ferns. The ground felt alive – which it was, with tiny leeches twitching for a feed. We sped up…
On the descent, the trees opened into herby maquis, providing views back to Cape Pillar, the blade of rock that had been so elusive the previous day. We were luckier with Cape Hauy, our final outcrop. We hiked over its verdant saddle in brilliant sunshine, scattering skink lizards to reach the exposed tip.
Here the wind was like a solid object, immobilising and suffocating, but there were clear views to the impressive, perilous-looking rock pillars below. On our way back we passed two climbers walking up; their plan was to rappel down, pendulum across to a stack called the Totem Pole, then climb it. I was glad not to watch.
The track ends at Fortescue Bay, a delight of white sand ringing a deep bay, crashed by surf. We dipped our feet and waited with the wallabies for the bus back to Port Arthur. We were breaking back in. Few convicts would have chosen to do this, of course. During Port Arthur’s 47 years of operation, about 200 inmates tried to escape; it’s known what happened to all but 12 of them.
Now, about a third of Port Arthur’s buildings remain. We walked around, fi rst visiting the ruined Penitentiary, close to the water’s edge. It was a fl our mill before being converted into a multi-level prison, with inmates housed dependent on the severity of their crimes; the worst off enders were chained in cells at the bottom.
In the Separate Prison, just uphill, inmates were given numbers instead of names, and locked up in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day; even in the prison’s chapel, they sat in separate booths. The ethos: each man must look inwards to reform himself.
All in all, and despite its truly beautiful location, Port Arthur remains creepy – a vibe which was gleefully ramped up on a guided night tour, full of ghost stories whispered down dark corridors.
However, it’s the site’s more recent past that is most chilling. An understated memorial garden commemorates the 1996 massacre that took place here, when Martin Bryant killed 35 people in what remains one of the world’s deadliest lone-gunman shootings.
Tasmania’s convict history is most visible at Port Arthur but runs island-wide. Around 72,000 criminals were sent to ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, 42% of all convicts sent to Australia. The island has been shaped by this legacy. However, until a few decades ago, it was little spoken about – almost a shameful secret. But times have changed.
Cabins at Retakunna (Paul Bloomfield)
Many Tasmanians now embrace their convict ancestry, and, in 2010, five related sites (including Port Arthur) were granted UNESCO listing. We planned to drive around the island, following this theme – with a goodly amount of scenery, adventure and eating thrown in.
From Port Arthur we drove north-east to Triabunna, to catch the roiling foot-ferry to mountainous Maria Island. Like Port Arthur, Maria Island’s Darlington Probation Station, first established in 1825, was for those who committed crimes after arriving in Australia. Nowadays, the site is also UNESCO-listed, and the old penitentiary is a hostel where families holiday and wombats graze outside.
No cars are allowed on Maria, so we walked among the old buildings: the cavernous mess hall, which once fed 400 convicts (and where we ate our sandwiches, sheltering from the rain); the Commissariat store and officers’ quarters; the once-grand Coffee Palace, built by an Italian entrepreneur who leased the island to grow wine and silk in 1884.
With white-sand bays, rugged hills and no permanent human residents, Maria is made for hiking. We struck out from Darlington, scattering pademelon marsupials and turbo chooks (native hens) in our wake. We followed fossil cliff s into eucalypt forests, where kookaburas laughed. And we circled back to Darlington via plains where Foresters kangaroos reclined suggestively in the grass.
In the past, Maria was called a place of ‘paradise and pandemonium’; Irish political prisoner William Smith O’Brien, interned here in 1849, wrote: ‘To find a gaol in one of the loveliest spots formed by the hand of Nature in one of her loneliest solitudes creates a revulsion of feeling I cannot describe.’ Wildlife is now Maria’s key concern – since the 1960s it has been a sanctuary for threatened species. Paradise has the upper hand.
Wombat on Maria Island (Paul Bloomfield)
Back on the mainland, we continued north-east along the coast towards our final destinations via hills striped with vineyards – yet we never quite escaped Tasmania’s criminal past. Convict-built bridges and ruined penal stations dotted the countryside. There were even reminders amid the white sands and pink-granite peaks of the Freycinet Peninsula. Its main settlement, Coles Bay, is named after a felon who built a lime kiln here after earning his ticket of leave.
Veering inland, we visited Woolmers, one of Australia’s most important heritage houses. The weatherboard homestead was constructed by convicts in 1817-19 for Thomas Archer, then commissary of Hobart, and aggrandised over subsequent years. It occupies a pretty spot amid the foothills of the Great Western Tiers; and while no longer a working farm, it’s home to the country’s finest rose garden – a fragrant place to stroll.
However, what makes Woolmers so fascinating is that it stayed in the family until the last Archer bequeathed it to the nation in 1994 – having not thrown away a plate or pill bottle since the early 19th century. Walking from room to dusty room was like sifting through a Tasmanian time capsule. The oldest, simpler pieces of furniture were convict-made, our guide explained – initially the Archers didn’t have much money. As their wealth grew, chairs, drawers and dressers were ordered from fashionable European designers to make a status statement.
In the early days, four female convicts were employed as servants at Woolmers. Female convicts were a strand that we’d scarcely encountered, yet from 1803 to 1853 around 12,500 were sent to Tasmania, many for crimes as small as stealing a square of silk. The pettiest thefts began to result in transportation, as authorities realised Van Diemen’s society needed more women.
Thus, we made our final stop Hobart’s Cascades Female Factory. Converted from a distillery into a correctional facility in 1828, it was designed to house women leading ‘the most flagitious lives’.
Few buildings remain, but the place is brought to life by two actors on the ‘Her Story’ tour. We followed ‘Mary James’ around its yards as she recounted damp, cheerless 19th-century life. Worst was the site of the solitary dark cells, where I joined her to (pretend to) pick oakum from old rope, a tedious punishment. Thankfully I was not fitted with a spiked iron collar, as many of the inmates were.
Tasmania’s society was created by convict hands, and to trace this strand around its rugged coast is to better understand the island. But the region is also a place of lighter pleasures, from its wild walks to its sumptuous wine, to the gargantuan cliffs that seem to give you epic views to the bottom of the planet. A great escape indeed.
The author travelled with Tasmanian Odyssey (01534 735449, tasmanianodyssey.com), the UK’s only Tasmanian specialist, who offer nine-day trips that include the Three Capes Track walk and six nights self-drive tour from Homart to Launceston. It’s also possible to do the four-day Three Capes Track on it’s own (threecapestrack.co.au).
Main image: looking out to Cape Pillar, Tasman National Park (Paul Bloomfield)