OZ and Tassie travel blog

Port Arthur penitentiary


Nubeena/Tasman Peninsula

22 January

The smoke haze seemed to get denser as we made our way out of Hobart, at one point it was difficult to see much of Mount Wellington. It got clearer as we headed north on the Brooker Highway, Highway 1, along the Derwent River valley. We crossed the Derwent on the old lifting bridge into Bridgewater. A railway ran alongside the road across the bridge. We drove on for about 10k to the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary where we hoped to see Tasmanian Devils plus live wombats(we had only seen roadkill so far, and lots of it)

We were not disappointed. We wandered around the enclosures to see eastern grey kangaroos everywhere, free to roam and being fed by many visitors (we were given a small paper bag of food each for them on entry). It was a very hot day, almost 30 degrees and completely cloudless, so many of the animals were just lying down or underground in their burrows. We did see tiger and copperhead snakes, a spotted quoll, tawny frogmouth (related to owls), echidna and a Tasmanian Devil. At 11.30 there was to be a guided talk about wombats, tassie devils and koalas, so we joined the crowd and followed on. Interesting talk about the wombat. Our guide held and carried around a baby wombat, about 10 months and already 7 kilos.

We moved on to the Tassie Devil enclosure. A young female was out and about and once again a very interesting talk from the guide. She produced some food at the next enclosure to entice a male out from hiding. And out he came, and the guide ran in the opposite direction, apparently the devils are very unpredictable and have powerful jaws and sharp teeth! They are surprisingly small, about the size of a staffordshire bull terrier, have very poor eyesight, can’t run very fast, but have an excellent sense of smell.

So to the koalas. Not native to Tasmania (there are none) the koala here were brought in from Kangaroo Island as part of the population reduction programme by the former owners of what is now a sanctuary. Seen them already lots of time on the mainland so I wandered off to take another look at some of the enclosures. Saw several spotted blue-tongue lizards, and a sugar glider tucked into the end of a hollow log, well out of the sunshine. The snakes had hidden themselves, as had the potoroo and the bettongs. It was just too hot for them.

Getting hungry we left and drove on towards Nubeena, our destination for the night. The gps took us east, along the Tea Tree Highway and Fingerpost Road to the Tasman Highway south. We decided to turn off the highway to take the coast road, causing the gps much confusion. A beautiful drive, the coastline is stunning and eventually we found a shady spot with a picnic table above Susan Bay for lunch.

We drove on, still ignoring the gps until we reached the Arthur Highway at Dunalley, from here an easy drive into Nubeena. Found our Airbnb apartment and settled in. Met the owner who told us where to look for wildlife at dusk. Lovely views across Storm Bay towards Bruny Island and the mainland beyond. Pretty new holland honeyeater perched on the hedge outside our window. Saw him several times during our stay and always in the same spot. Went for a walk at dusk but saw no wildlife, did hear several kookaburras. Went out again after dark but just heard the thump, thump of the wallabies bounding away.

23 January

It rained during the night but the clouds were clearing now. The wind had swung right round and now from north of west and quite cool.

After breakfast we headed south to the Port Arthur Historic Site, down through Nubeena again and across the Tasman Peninsula. The Site is well organised, there is a very smart admin building at the entrance, we paid our entry fee and joined a guided walk of the Site and then joined a boat trip around the harbour, all included in the entry fee.

The tour guide talked us through the history and lots of anecdotes about the place, standing in front of the penitentiary, originally built as a flour mill and granary, which failed as a business and due to the increasing pressure on accommodation resulting from more arrivals from Britain. Four floors, prisoners segregated according to their behaviour, the ‘hardest’ criminals on the ground floor and the better behaved on the top. The labour to build the mill and the conversion to a jail was provided by the convicts.

There was a hospital, laundry, bakery, paupers quarters (pardoned convicts who couldn’t find work), a church, a dockyard (that built many boats and ships) and latterly a ‘Separate Prison’ (solitary and silent prison for the ‘hardest’ convicts) and a lunatic asylum. The dead were buried on a small island in the harbour, actually known as ‘The Isle of the Dead’. There are about 1,100 unmarked graves on the Isle.

Port Arthur was for male convicts only, women were placed elsewhere. Boys, those under 18, were imprisoned on nearby Point Puer, the first purpose-built juvenile reformatory in the British Empire. All the boys received an education and some were offered training in a trade.

After the intro we boarded the boat for a trip around the harbour. More interesting anecdotes from the on-board guide as we motored around ‘The Isle of the Dead’ and closed in on Point Puer. We could see a few gravestones on the Isle, these were the graves of military personnel. A beautiful harbour, it is said larger than Sydney Harbour, but a good deal colder and apparently they have had 80-odd cruise ships in during the past year; the water depth is 45 metres! Just glad no cruise ships today!

We disembarked and then wandered around the Site, looking into the various buildings or ruins. The Separate Prison was particularly chilling as the solitary cells were tiny, as were the exercise yards. The chapel, which was the only place the convicts were allowed to make any vocal noises, has pews arranged so that it was not possible to see anyone but the preacher, such was the arrangement of screens. The whole Site has been subjected to several severe bushfires since it closed, destroying all the wooden features (roofs, floors, windows, doors etc) and collapsing some of the walls but there has been some reconstruction to give visitors a better idea of the conditions here when in full swing.

The site closed and parts were sold off after the cessation of transportation in the late 1800s. The people who moved in called the ‘town’ Carnarvon. It was all bought back by the Government from about 1913 and over several years to create the ‘Historic Site’.

We had spent several hours here so we grabbed a sandwich in the cafe then moved on. We drove to Remarkable Cave just along the coast, and it is indeed remarkable. The ocean has cut into a weakness in the sandstone rock to create a deep inlet and cave, well a tunnel really, as the back of the cave roof has collapsed and that is where the access staircase is located. Quite a stunning view but didn’t hang around too long as there was a large dead seal just below the viewing platform, must have been there a few days! Nearby is the lookout onto Maingon Beach which offers great views of Cape Raoul in the distance. Cape Raoul has the same dolerite formations as Mount Wellington, but here they are at sea level. Back past Nubeena to visit the Coal Mines Historic Site at the north of the peninsula. Several ks along a dusty gravel road we found the Site. All of the buildings had collapsed and the 92 metre deep main shaft was almost totally filled in, so not a great deal to see. We walked around the convicts area and found the block used as a prison for re-offenders was almost totally fallen down but the basement area containing the solitary confinement cells was complete. The cells were so small.

After that we headed north to Lime Bay State Reserve. A hot and dusty drive through dry woodland and a real surprise when we reached the Bay; it was beautiful. The tide was out, the sands almost white and the sea a beautiful shade of blue. There was a campsite here, among the trees, would be an amazing place to camp - completely self-contained though. A forester kangaroo (closely related to the eastern grey)was grazing under the trees. First live one we had seen!

We headed back to our apartment for a cup of tea before driving back to Port Arthur for dinner. We ate at the 1830 restaurant, Ruth had striped trumpeter and I had the blue-eyed trevalla (again!). All very good. It was dusk as we left the restaurant and we drove slowly back to Nubeena hoping to see some wildlife. There was a field at White Beach with over a dozen wallabies, very wary of us and bounded away as we approached. On now, it was almost dark, we turned onto Nubeena Back Road which became gravel shortly and along this stretch we saw wallabies and pademelons (very small wallabies), none hung around for long but at last we had seen them alive. Just as a reminder, there was a recently road-killed wallaby in the middle of the road ahead. Home, bed.

24 January

Another bright morning, but still that cool wind, a bit stronger this morning. We packed up and left, followed the Back Road out towards Eaglehawk Neck. It was here that the prison authorities created a ‘lock’ on the peninsula. The prisons had no containing walls or fences, so any escapee could leave the prison, but have to make their way along the Neck to get to the mainland. There was a guardhouse with soldiers and a ‘dog line’, a row stretched across the Neck of six to nine ferocious dogs on long chains. A line of oil lamps was lit every night. No escaped prisoners got through the line. The only remaining building is the officers quarters.

The road climbs steeply from the Neck to a turnoff, Pirates Bay Drive where there is a lookout with magnificent views of Pirates Bay and out to Cape Hauy in the distance. It was a beautfil day now, hot, though still windy. The car park had a coffee kiosk and seats. There were quite a few people here to look at the view while having a coffee, and we joined them; great coffee! Pirates Bay Drive wound down the hill to the Tessellated Pavement. A stunning geological feature formed by cracking of the rock caused by movements in the Earth’s crust, subsequent salt and water erosion have created loaf-like formations near the water’s edge, and concave pan-like ‘tiles’ further back. The Drive was the original Tasman Highway and the only way onto the Peninsula, it has now been bypassed making it a nice quiet road.

Ok, back up the Drive to rejoin the Arthur Highway and head north.....

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