It was only fitting that as I made my way south towards Port Arthur, that the sky began to take on a very ominous feel, with slate grey clouds swirling above me in every direction that I looked. Port Arthur is one of the cornerstones of Tasmanian history if not all of Australian history. It had a short lived life as a timber mill station for a few years around 1830 but it was in 1833 when the penitentiary was established that it became the Port Arthur as people know it today.
The Port Arthur penal colony was setup as a secondary offender site, it was where the bad of the bad were sent. Convicts who committed a second offense while already in the custody of the British were sent packing down to this lovely establishment. In addition to other hardened criminals, it was also the site of the first juvenile imprisonment where men and boys alike were subjected from corporal punishment to psychological imprisonment. The kind of the place that you really wanted no part of, the men of the time were devoutly god-fearing people and it’s believed that rather than committing suicide and spending a guaranteed eternity in hell, a few men took the lives of other prisoners with the hopes of being shipped off the island only to face his maker at a later date.
I was fortunate enough to be taken around the grounds by Danial Rochford, the director of tourism operations at Port Arthur, who gave me a personalized tour and other insights into what life would have been like in those times. I couldn’t help but getting slight flashbacks of touring Alcatraz, cold, unbearable conditions and where as the prisoners of the “rock” would stare across the bay towards people enjoying their freedom, the men of Port Arthur needed to not look so far. The location was setup with a well groomed English style living quarters for the wife and children of the guards, where the prisoners could hear the laughing of children as they stood shackled to their prison cell walls. Again, all in all a little slice of history of this world that I am pretty happy I never had to partake in.
Now, I would be a bald-faced liar if I told you that I didn’t get a little spooked later on when I took the ghost tour throughout the prison in the pitch black of night. I was all alone, so I needed to go in with a little smirk on my face and try to laugh it off, because all I needed was to really start thinking about ghosts before heading back to my cabin in the woods alone that night.
James, are colorful ghost tour guide brought the group of around twenty of us in and out of some of the haunted locations on the islands. From the old church, where grass has never grown on the base of the wall where a prisoners blood pooled up after he was murdered during the church construction, to the basement of the surgeon’s house. It was in the basement of this house that medieval style dissections occurred in the name of science on sick or dead inmates, the worst being that since there was no light and the basement was made of stone, with nowhere to hang lantern, several inmates were ordered to hold up the lanterns and would daily watch the cutting open of fellow prisoners.
The tour went on with other delightfully spooky stories until we reached the prison used specifically for solitary confinement. James brought us into the center, which had four branches of cells heading out in opposite directions. It was here, that as James told us about people often hearing footsteps, I looked behind myself in the pitch-black darkness and started to think “You know, you could really play a prank and scare the hell out of someone here”, and as I was looking, I also thought to myself “It could be so easy to get into your own head here, I mean… look at that lantern, what if that thing was moving right now… is that thing moving?” That’s all took, one little thought and I broke. I looked back three to four more times before I had completely convinced myself that the ten foot iron lantern hanging from the roof above the last cell was slightly swaying, and after about the fourth look I turned back to the group with goose bumps running down my neck. “Yup, thank you, I’m out” I think I said that out loud, I’m not sure though but on that note my ghost tour ended, I’d had enough and headed straight towards the door where I was more than ready to exit.
The next day I took the Tasman Island Cruises coastal wilderness cruise which skirted along the southern tip of Tasmania and a little ways back up the eastern tip of Tasman Island to Pirates Bay. The cruise really is a nature lover’s dream, with dolphins accompanying us for a good portion of the ride, Australian fur seals, countless species of birds, and for our lucky captain Ben, a humpback whale, which he spotted but dove before the rest of us could see him. The coast itself has a rugged beauty unlike any I have seen before. The constant battering of the sea against areas like Cape Pillar have left nearly 300 meter high cliffs that would leave anyone who saw it in awe of its sheer beauty. It reminded me of a scene out of Jurassic Park, the kind of coastline that only a set designer could dream up, it really was beautiful.
That weather that I originally thought was appropriate for the prison leg of my journey decided that it would go ahead and escort me further up the coast on what was to be my beach portion of the journey. With travel photography, I know that the one thing you cannot control is the weather, you have to roll with the punches and remember that it is what it is on that day. Knowing that, do you think that stops me from checking weather reports excessively? Looking more like some kind of attic, as I fumble around the hotel room murmuring to myself about dew points, humidity, low pressures and things of it’s like. It’s all for nought though, because weather is going be weather.
I reminded myself of this as I drove into Freycinet National park, tucking in and out of beautiful bays and dreaming of what these beaches might look like with a little sunshine on them. I however, was buckled into my warm, dry car as competitor after competitor rode past me on bikes for dozens of kilometers, fighting the conditions as they battled through the head winds. The weekend that I was there was the 12th annual Freycinet Challenge. A bike, paddle, swim competition that takes its entrants throughout the entire park and one that was making me winded just watching these people work so hard. Later, as I sat in the ranger station, getting information on where and what to see, the ranger informed me that the Wineglass Bay viewing platform was closed for construction and that the only place to see it was from the top of Mt. Amos. The hike was one and a half hours each way, but highly not recommended in the rain, because you would be climbing over slick granite and could be quite dangerous “Not worth getting hurt over mate” I was told…
I hadn’t come half way around the world to not see Wineglass Bay. The Bay has been voted one of the top ten beaches in the world, with it’s bleached white sand, turquoise water and a near perfectly shaped symmetrical coastline, it’s a place that you wouldn’t want to miss. Alas, I had decided, inspired by all the athletes I had seen racing past me with faces of determination, I too would take on my own personal Freycinet Challenge… The Mt. Amos hike challenge! I set off, enthusiastic, excited and determined, I was going to see this beautiful beach, whether or not weather would not get the best of me. Well, the lovely ranger was right, an hour later I found myself climbing nearly vertical through a crack in the side of the mountain all with around twenty kilograms of awkwardly positioned photo equipment hastily fastened to my back. My tripod, now a mountaining stick, was used to jam into every crevasse I could find to better stabilize myself as I scaled up the side. It was a battle, a pilgrimage if you will but the weather gods rewarded me, because as I finally made it to the top, the clouds parted for about 20 minutes and sent glorious beams of unfiltered light to the beach down below. Because it had been raining (and probably because the other park patrons had half a brain) none had decided to take on the hike and there I stood on top of Mt. Amos alone, starring across one of the most beautiful vistas I had seen.
My next day took me to the small town of St. Helens and the Bay of Fires. The Bay of Fires is also known as one the world’s best beaches, but again my luck was once again not on the sunny side. It all worked out though, because with clouds… comes sunsets, and I had a beautiful one there. The Bay of Fires get its name from a French explorer who saw fires on the beaches lit by the aborigines back in the 1700′s when it was first discovered by Westerners. The name can easily be confused for coming from the color of its rocks. The rocks have an orangish glow around them and really make a surreal seen against the backdrop of these beautiful white sand beaches. The weather may not have cooperated quite how I would have liked, but the serenity and isolation of the place is really what makes it so beautiful.
After a gorgeous sunrise at the Bay fires, I was off, destined for Bridport on the North East coast of Tasmania from where my next blog will begin. Look out for part three.
This is the second in the series from Scott as he travels around Tasmania on a two week assignment with the MatadorNetwork. Read story one.