After our time on the east coast, we headed south to the largest city, Hobart, with a planned stop at the historic Port Arthur. We had a large and good map thanks to the car rental agent who gave it to Dan after our rental car was delayed. It was huge when unfurled and a bit ungainly but had lots of detail and included the locations of many shipwrecks along the coast line. Despite the quality of the map, the size made it challenging, so we asked Google maps to set our route. It offered up a nice looking route through a state forest area. The road quickly went to gravel but took us to a nice turn off with great views of Maria Island, the previous day’s destination. The gravel road was in such good shape Dan commented that the paved roads at home were often not as smooth. Murphy’s Law, being what it is, meant that shortly after that comment was uttered, we spent the rest of trip bumping along a washboard textured road with some pretty impressive potholes. We had entered the area of the forest that was actively logged. It was still a beautiful drive and well worth it.
We arrived in Port Arthur, not really knowing what to expect beyond the historic site of one of the largest convict site in Tasmania, if not Australia. I think I expected a town and the remains of the prison site. In fact, it is the prison site, there are many residents in the area, but it appears as if Port Arthur is held in time. Not only is it a World Heritage site related to the convict history of Australia, it also has the sad distinction of being the site of the largest mass shooting in Australia, and at the time in the world. In the 1990s a mass shooter opened fire on the staff and visitors, killing 35 people. Shortly after, Australia passed significant gun control legislation and no longer appears on the list of mass shootings. There is a memorial garden at the site of the massacre and the site honors both its older and newer tragic histories in very appropriate ways.
The site is a sprawling place with the prison and British army garrison in one area and the church and homes for the free settlers nearby. It sits on a beautiful bay and is connected by a narrow strip of land back to the mainland. There are no fences because the natural boundaries were perceived to be sufficient to keep prisoners on site. In the early days, the strip of land – about 100 km across – was lined with vicious dogs, chained at intervals who would attack anyone trying to cross that way. The forest and the water were the other barriers. It seems like they worked because there were very few escape attempts, and even fewer successes.
This site was a place of secondary incarceration, meaning that if a convict re-offended after arriving in Australia, they were sent to Port Arthur and held there. There is a lot of history regarding the convicts in Australia, and I admit to knowing almost nothing as the writing of this blog. Who knows if I will educate myself in the future and feel like sharing, so you might want to stay tuned…
While a number of the buildings have been destroyed, either by neglect before it became a park, or by one of several major bush fires in the area, there remains a lot of history. The site is also a stop for many cruise ships that come to Tasmania. A P&O Australia ship was in port the day we were there, and the Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to arrive the next day.
From Port Arthur we left the sparsely travelled rural roads and headed in to the big city across a large bridge spanning the river and overlooking the harbor. We found our hotel and Dan navigated the rush hour traffic to drop off our stuff and then proceed to the parking deck several blocks away. Judicious use of the one way streets allowed us to avoid any major lane crossings and difficult turns. I think he was very happy to stash the car for the remainder of our time in the big city!
The schedule called for four days in Hobart with a suggested visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), we had also heard from our friends in Sydney and several other people that we should check it out. We did some exploring of the city and found out where to catch the ferry if we did decide to head to the museum but were still on the fence. The ferry terminal was on the pier next to one that hosted several restaurants and we stopped in and sampled some different brews made in the Hobart area, we would be back here more than once.
The next day dawned cloudy and had rain in the forecast so we took that as our sign to head over to MONA. The ferry ride is definitely part of the experience and each ferry (there are at least 2 we saw, possibly 3) has it’s own décor. Ours included a herd of sheep on the upper deck and some kind of hot pink torpedo looking thing on the front. They have 2 sections on the ferry; the pit where everyone can go hang out with several cash bars and a café and the higher class section which you can pay extra, get canapes and an open bar. Since it was pretty early, we took the cheap seats. The ride across the bay and up the river to the museum was fun, with views of the nice houses, some industrial areas and then the museum. There are 99 steps from where the ferry drops you off to the entrance of the museum (if you can’t do the stairs they take you to a secondary dock and give you a ride up there).
You enter the museum at the top and then proceed down four stories to begin to see the exhibits. The building itself is worth the price of admission, and the variety of art on display is pretty amazing. Things from ancient Egyptian figurines to recreations of 1960’s art installations share space with a mechanical digestive track that poops every day at 2 pm. There is live artist painting in a recreation of an impressionist artists studio (sorry, I didn’t write down the name and waited too long to write this post to remember) and around the corner an artist tattooing his body sits on display as a living canvas. Dan became part of the exhibit by lending his heartbeat to a light display that incorporates all of the pulses into an ever-changing rhythm.
We enjoyed a great lunch at one of the many restaurants and it was served so nicely plated and artistic that we were inspired to play with our food! After we finished in the museum we headed to the winery. MONA sits on the site of an established winery, so that is a nice bonus. We tasted a selection of wine and liked one well enough to buy a bottle to take on the rest of our Tasmanian adventure!
The next day we were scheduled for a walking tour and it turns out we were the only ones, so we had a wonderful, private tour of the central part of the city. Our guide took us into several historic buildings still in use, and many were made with convict labor. She provided interesting insight into the daily practices of the settlement, including the free colonists, the recruitment of women to come to Darwin (not as convicts) and the penal colony, including how they encouraged the convicts to learn a trade so they would stay and have a vocation. There were of course a variety of issues created by both the efforts to establish livelihoods for paroled and released convicts and the use of convict labor as essentially slave labor by free settlers. All of this before we even get in to the destruction of the aboriginal population and culture.
Another stop on the walking tour was a park in the city with a number of monuments that could have been grave monuments. Well, they were. The park was built on an old cemetery in the 1920s, but the council in its civic wisdom was not going to relocate the bodies or the gravestones. They gave families the option to pay to remove their loved ones, but very few could afford it. When the time came to prepare the park, they simply pushed the headstones, except for a few monuments to “significant” people, down the hill. They were discovered a while later by an architect doing site preparations for a new government building. He proposed a wall between the park and the building that would incorporate many of the headstones and it is a nice monument. It was a fascinating tour!
Our last day in Hobart we took a walkway along the “rivulet” that serves the city up to the “Female Factory” which is where many women convicts were incarcerated. This site, like many, was sold by the government in the early 1900s, and only about 60% of it has been reclaimed and turned into a museum. It is part of the multi-site World Heritage Site that includes Port Arthur, Maria Island and other locations around Australia. They have done a nice job on this site of giving you the sense of the place despite the fact that only a few walls and one building remain. On the 40% of the site that they will likely never get back there sits a day care center and several private homes.
After our exploration of the Female Factory we headed up the hill to the Cascade Brewery. Now owned by one of the international beer conglomerates, the building is visible from many places in Hobart and the grounds include some beautiful gardens. We declined to get a Goose Island beer using our usual “we can get that at home” standard, but we did try a tasting paddle of three beers and a cider. Like most Australian beer so far it was light and delightful, especially after our walk up the hill in the bright and warm sun.
From Hobart we had our longest drive to the next destination, four hours on the short route. We were headed to Cradle Mountain, most of that region in Tasmania is national park. Of course, we took the scenic route which meant we spent whole day in the car. But there were plenty of stops along the way. We tend to stop at most places with a “scenic overlook” sign and were not disappointed on this trip. The first turned out to be part of a hydroelectric system build in the 1920s and 30s. Great views and well worth the minor detour. Further on the trip the overlooks included opportunities for short hikes, one to see some waterfalls and another with panoramic views of the mountains in the region.
When we arrived at our accommodations the woman checking us in encouraged us to go to the “feeding” tour of the Tasmanian Devil sanctuary nearby. While we planned to stop at Devils@Cradle on this trip, we hadn’t reserved a spot on the afterhours tour, but a quick log in to the wifi and a few moments on my phone and we had tickets! Again, not sure what I expected, but Tasmanian devils didn’t disappoint. Endangered because of a cancer, loss of habitat and falling prey to feral cats, this sanctuary and several others around Tasmania are home to “insurance populations” and are breeding centers. They have devils on display who are too acclimated to humans to be released, usually due to being hand raised, and devils who will be released to try to stabilize the population. While they look cuddly, if you let your fingers or toes too close their jaws are powerful enough that you might lose one. They are mostly scavengers and got their name because they let out quite a racket. They growl and moan to communicate and when there are several in close proximity who decide to make their presence known, it is obvious! The center also has two types of Quolls, cousins of the Devils who are smaller, but even more fierce.
Our cabin at the lodge had a wood burning fireplace and a deck with a nice view of the mountains. We spent some time on the deck, and enjoyed a woodfire after dinner along with our wine from MONA. The grounds featured several walkways and paths and a nice collection of wallaby’s and the occasional wombat. We woke up one morning to a wombat sitting in the grass near our car. The couple staying on the other side of the duplex cabin was walking out to their car while we admired the wombat from our window and we got to see the woman’s startled reaction when she looked over and realized she was feet from the furry guy!
We took several hikes that started near our lodge and saw some beautiful waterfalls, some otherworldly forest scenes and some type of alpine low shrub area that might have been near a spring. The forest was filled with trees covered in moss and the overcast skies and light mist made us on the lookout for elves and fairies or perhaps, Yoda.