Dirty old town (bah-humbug!)

Let’s not beat about the bush – we don’t much care for Melbourne.  Or, to be brutally honest, and in the spirit of never calling a spade a spade when in reality it’s a bloody shovel, we find the place crowded, chaotic, noisy and dirty.

OK, I admit we’re not in a positive frame of mind.  We stayed the night in a city centre apartment where our sleep was disturbed by the sounds of drunken revelry in the street outside.  Let’s face it, there’s nothing worse than the sound of every other bugger in the neighbourhood having a great time at a party to which you’re not invited.

Of course, we prefer places that boast more trees than people, more critters than cars, more bird species than burger joints.  Melbourne fails on all counts.  To make matters worse, after more than a month in Tasmania we’re highly sensitised to the people-to-trees ratio and similar indicators of rural tranquillity, and can’t help looking back wistfully.

Moreover, following the long march prompted by our car breakdown on Flinders we can hardly move thanks to the combined effects of tweaked muscles, inflamed joints and lactic acid overload.  In short we are feeling irritable and out of sorts, and ill-prepared for the urban jungle that is Melbourne.

We are also, I will confess, suffering from a severe case of bah-humbuggery.  Christmas is fast approaching, and signs of it are everywhere.  This evening we sit in a street-side Starbucks, drinking mocha and watching the world go by while we rest our aching limbs.  The streets are rammed with folk getting into the festive spirit, giggling girls in Santa hats, half-cut guys in the full Father Christmas gear, green-uniformed elves roaming the street like gangs of unpaid extras from a Lord of the Rings movie, and screaming kids, all kitted out in reindeer antlers, presumably auditioning for a walk-on part as Santa’s Little Yelper.

I find this all rather distasteful.  This trip to Oz was about getting away from it all, and the last thing I need is to have the modern world in general and Christmas in particular thrust into my face, to be reminded so brutally that the big day is just a fortnight away and I still haven’t got Julie a present.  And anyway, it’s unnatural: the lead up to Christmas is meant to be cold, dank, gloomy and miserable, yet here we are sitting in warm late afternoon sunshine witnessing scantily-clad festive shenanigans all around us.

Of course, the fact that it’s a warm early-summer’s day and the locals are having a good time isn’t strictly Melbourne’s fault, but someone has to be held accountable.  Bah-humbug!

To be fair, Melbourne has two saving graces.  The first is its grand historic buildings, from banks to shopping arcades, which suggest that in its earlier days this was a city of real style and elegance, a place to be reckoned with. The ANZ bank, for example, is imposing from the outside …


… and stylish inside:


Here’s an interior from 336 Collins Street:


And here’s a detail from one of the shopping arcades:


Even the station is impressive:


The second thing in Melbourne’s favour is the Royal Botanic Gardens, which are an ocean of calm amidst a sea of chaos.  We take the hop-on-hop-off bus, though in our case hobble-on-hobble-hobble-off might be more accurate, and soon lose ourselves amongst the flowers:


The lake is a focal point of the gardens:


The gardens also give us a chance to do some last-minute birding.  The lake sports an old friend from Tasmania, the Pacific Duck:


We enjoy watching as a Yellow-wattle Bird raids blossoms for nectar …


… and listening to the ringing call of the Bell Miner, which is sometimes referred to locally as the Bellbird:


Even butterflies are here in force:


We spend a happy afternoon wandering the paths of the Royal Botanic Gardens, exploring its grounds and immersing ourselves in its tranquillity.  We really like this place, and probably what we like most of all is that while you’re here you can forget you’re in Melbourne altogether.  I guess that just about says it all.

[10 December]

On Flinders: a game of two halves

First half: Ah, but your land is beautiful

A few months ago we visited the Isle of Man, which is overwhelmingly rural and sparsely populated.  Flinders Island is over twice as big, and its population is about 1% that of the Manx-land.  Flinders is very sparsely populated, very rural.

The island setting, the wide-open spaces, the tranquillity and to some extent the landscape are reminiscent of our favourite place in the whole world, Orkney.  We feel strangely at home and at peace here, this tiny island lying all but unknown between the Australian mainland and Tasmania:


A man could be happy here, an island where motorists greet one another with a friendly wave as their cars pass, as long as he doesn’t crave the bright lights of the city, the hustle and bustle of 21st century living:


Like Orkney, nowhere on Flinders is far from the sea, and nowhere is more beautiful than the coastline.  This, for example, is Allport Beach:


Killiecrankie Bay gives its name to the Killiecrankie ‘Diamond’, which in reality is a type of topaz.  The ‘diamonds’ are much sought after and although we don’t find any (we don’t have the time or the energy to look), later in the trip we encounter a guy who has a pocketful thanks to his fossicking endeavours.  Ourselves, we’re happy just to see the magnificent bay:


Once again, parts of the rocky coastline are coated with red and orange lichen, adding an exotic twist to the landscape.  Julie takes this photo at North East River:


Some of the places we visit are simply stunning.  This is the white, sandy beach of Palana Bay, with the Sisters Islands in the distance:


Sawyers Beach is equally beautiful, though here our enjoyment is cut short by swarms of biting flies that send us scurrying back to the safety of the car:


Beyond its visual beauty, Flinders Island has a darker secret.  The Visit Flinders Island website says:

In 1834 one hundred and thirty-five Tasmanian Aboriginals from the mainland were settled on Flinders Island, where as George Augustus Robinson said they were to be ‘civilised and christianised’.  The settlement was called Wybalenna which means ‘black man’s houses’.  They were forbidden to practise the old ways and were homesick for their lost country.  Many died of respiratory disease, poor food and despair.  In October 1847 the forty seven survivors of this group were transferred to Oyster Cove, near Hobart.

We visit Wybalenna.  All that remains is a restored chapel and a graveyard containing unmarked aboriginal graves along with graves of some of the first European settlers.  In the nearby cemetery, the Young Farmers’ club has erected a plaque to commemorate the death of over 100 Aborigines at Wybalenna:


Wybalenna is a sobering place.  Throughout our month in Tassie I’ve struggled to make up my mind about the official attitude to the Aboriginals who once called this place home.  Superficially everything is respectful, even a little contrite, honouring a lost race and culture that died at the hands of the White Man.  But I’ve been around the block a few times, I know that you would say this anyway even if you didn’t feel it, the marketing men would want you to clean up your image through a show of political correctness.

I simply don’t know what I think about the Aboriginal issue, but I do know how I feel as I look at the field of unmarked graves and reflect on the fate of the innocent people buried here: I feel sad, so so sad.  Let’s move on.

Second half: A road less travelled

Overnight, the weather breaks.  Greeted by leaden skies, low cloud and rain, we rearrange our itinerary, opting to take a dead-end gravel road to Lackrana Wildlife Sanctuary where, hopefully, we can birdwatch from the car.

We birdwatch our way down the road, deeper into the sanctuary.  In two hours or more we see just one car.  We reach the end of the road and decide to call it a day.  We’ve seen little of interest, the weather is foul and the visibility rotten so we’ll head into Whitemark, the biggest settlement on the island, for a hot drink and something to eat.  I turn the car round and begin the journey back towards town.


After a few hundred metres Julie tells me to stop.  There’s a flock of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos working their way through the trees to the left.  This has been a bogey bird for us, and now seems like a good opportunity to get a decent photo, particularly as the rain has eased.  I pull off the road and Julie stalks them for about twenty minutes.  She gets views of the flock in flight, but not the shot she was hoping for:

Damp and disappointed Julie gets back in the car, and I prepare to set off.  I turn the key.  Nothing.  I turn it again.  Still nothing.  I take it out, re-insert it, and try again.  Absolutely nothing.  The electrics have failed completely.

This is, to say the least, a bit of a problem.  We are many kilometres up a dead-end gravel road along which no car has passed for a couple of hours.  Nobody lives out here, so we’re on our own.  Also, we have no food and very little drink with us as we weren’t expecting to do anything more adventurous than some casual birding from the car.  We try our UK mobile phone, but inevitably there’s no reception.  And, to add insult to injury, the heavens have opened again.

We have two choices: to stay put and hope that a mad birder will brave the deluge to visit the Lackrana Sanctuary, or to attempt to walk out along the gravel road in the pouring rain until we reach a busier road where maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a vehicle we can flag down.  Reluctantly, we decide to walk out.

The rain teems down and a cold wind gets up.  Our backs, our legs, our feet all protest painfully, and we’re running out of drink. We understand the term walking on water. The road is alive with froglets celebrating the arrival of wet weather, but we’re too miserable to share their enthusiasm.  At one point a Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo lands in a tree just yards from the road, and appears to laugh as we squelch past.

After several hours and over 7km we at last spot a car approaching us and flag it down.  Never in my life have I been so pleased to see a Volkswagen.  I’m close to tears, the relief is so profound.  The occupants are shocked to encounter us, but come willingly to our rescue.  One of them has a working mobile phone.  We call Rob, and within 40 minutes he’s with us.  He scratches his head, curses under his breath and twiddles under the bonnet, and eventually gets us going.  We limp back to the farm with Rob following close behind, just in case.

Rob is mortified.  “Nothing like this ever happened before,” he says miserably.

In reply I mumble polite disclaimers.  “No worries,” I say, “nobody died.”

The delicate dance continues for a while, soothing declarations are exchanged, reassurances offered.  In due course a bottle of Scotch changes hands, is accepted in the spirit in which it is gifted, and honour is duly satisfied on both sides.

Everything we’ve worn or carried today is sopping wet and needs to be dried out before tomorrow morning’s flight to Melbourne.  Lorraine lights the log stove in our cabin and lends us a clothes horse, and we get started on the job in hand:


The only way we can get the insides of our shoes dry is with the hair dryer, and I’m forced to dry out my leather wallet and the British £10 notes it contains on a heated towel rail.

As we reflect on the day’s events we recognise things could have turned out a lot worse.  There are definitely some lessons for us to learn, should we ever be crazy enough to contemplate a trip like this again:

  1. Make sure you have a mobile phone that actually works in the place you’re visiting
  2. Carry plenty of food and water in the car, even if you’re planning to spend the day in said car
  3. Do a course in car mechanics.

To be brutally honest, today’s experience has taken the edge off our visit to Flinders and, to some extent, off our Tasmanian adventure as a whole.  It was scary, very scary, I don’t think we’ve ever felt so totally alone as we did on that gravel road, a road less travelled than any we’ve been on since we arrived in Tassie.  On top of that, we’re not particularly fit and once the adrenaline begins to wear off the pain really kicks in, and there isn’t any part of us that doesn’t hurt like hell.

But let’s look on the bright side: we’re still in one piece (just) and tomorrow’s another day.  At least in Melbourne we can be confident that our car won’t break down … we’ll be travelling by hop-on-hop-off bus instead.

[8 December]

Chewing the fat on Flinders

Filling Station Man

Flinders is a friendly place.  There aren’t many people here – the population is less than 1,000 – and the pace of life is relaxed.  The locals are happy to chat, as Rob and Lorraine demonstrated yesterday.

Our car is a Rav 4, supplied by Rob.  It’s the first 4WD I’ve driven, and it seems like a smart move on an island as remote as this.  We call at a filling station and fall into easy conversation with the old guy who takes our money.  He’s been to Britain once, to meet up with distant relatives in Scunthorpe.  I ask what he made of Scunthorpe and he says hurriedly that, if truth be told, the family hails from a rural area a little way out of town.  I nod sympathetically, saying that I’ve heard that lots of people come from Scunthorpe but very few choose to go back.  He doesn’t demur.

After the family reunion, Filling Station Man and his wife had travelled on to Scotland, and were astonished to pass through Killiecrankie.  This came as a bit of shock, he explains, as Killiecrankie is a tiny settlement just a few kilometres up the road, in the north of Flinders.  We take his point.  To drive through Tassie is to drown in a flood of familiar place-names, the names of counties, cities, towns and villages from across the length and breadth of the UK.

Over the past four weeks we’ve passed through, or close to Kettering, Sheffield, Swansea, St Helen’s, Derby, Devonport, Brighton, Bridgewater, Perth, Margate, Melton Mowbray, Somerset, Strathblane and Southport to name but a few.  In so many ways, whether it be the place names, the landscape or even the climate, Tasmania conjures up misty-eyed memories of the Old Country.  Tassie is, I tell myself, like the UK with added wombats, and is therefore a good thing.

We continue to pass the time of day.  Filling Station Man asks where we are heading, and when we say to the north of the island he says to watch out for the remains of the air-raid defences.

“That’s difficult to believe,” I say, “This place is in the middle of nowhere.”

“It’s true,” he replies.  “In 1942, after the fall of Singapore, Australia was thought to be vulnerable.  The theory was that the Japanese might capture Flinders and use it as a base from which to launch air-raids on Melbourne and Hobart.  So the government put up a string of defences to protect us from attack.”

“Really?” I ask, the doubt obvious in my voice.

“I know it for a fact,” he replies “because my father helped build them.”

We shake our heads thoughtfully.  Looking around us the story seems so improbable, yet it’s plainly true.  I can see it in Filling Station Man’s eyes, which shine brightly at the thought that once, long, long ago, his family here on Flinders had a walk-on part in a conflict that turned the world upside down.

Hydro Man

A couple of hours later we are in the north of Flinders, parked up by the beach.  Like so many stretches of shoreline in Tasmania it is both completely deserted and stunningly beautiful, and we wander off to explore.  A few minutes later I glance behind me and in the distance see a guy standing by our car.

Immediately my 21st century urban paranoia kicks in … someone’s standing next to my car, why doesn’t he stand somewhere else, he must be planning to break in and nick it, or maybe he wants the radio or the wheels, I’m going to keep my eyes on him the thieving bastard.  I scurry back, masking my anxiety with phoney nonchalance.

“G’day,” he says as I approach.  He smiles warmly, drawing deeply on his cigarette.

“Er .. oh … hi,” I stutter, thrown off-balance by his friendly charm.  Where the hell’s his crowbar, I wonder to myself.

“Grand day,” he says, “we’re due some good weather after the last few months.”

“Yes, we’ve heard it’s been rough,” I reply, sheepish now.  It’s evident that this guy has no agenda beyond a leisurely fag break.

“Where are you from?” he asks.  It’s a familiar question.  Almost without exception the Aussies we’ve met have been friendly and have asked about home, how long are we staying, do we like it here and so on.  When we say we’re from the UK he says he’s never been, though he’s visiting Donegal next year to meet up with an old friend.

“My son’s been to the UK though.  Had his camera stolen when he fell asleep on a train from Edinburgh to London.”  I feel suitably ashamed for having doubted this guy’s intentions when the welcome we have received in Oz has been so warm while his son was treated so badly back home.

We chat amiably in the hot sun.  He’s 68, and is doing contract work as a lineman for the hydro.  He earns $76 an hour but has to pay his taxes and insurances out of that.  It seems generous, no wonder everything’s so expensive if a lineman for the hydro earns that much.  But good luck to him I think to myself, it must be tough to earn a living here on Flinders.  “Also,” Hydro Man adds, “I run sheep and cattle on my property, and we’ve got some holidays lets too.  And three months a year I go off shearing sheep.”

There’s a pattern emerging here, which we’ve already seen in Rob and various other people we’ve met.  On Flinders people don’t just have a job, they have multiple jobs, they do a bit of this and that, here and there, and if they’re flexible and hardworking there’s a decent living to be made.

“Have you got a garden?” he asks suddenly, apropos of nothing in particular.

“Yes,” I say, “about 75 square metres out the back.  What about you?”

“Yep, we’ve got a small garden,” Hydro Man replies, “About two-and-a-half acres.”

It’s a different world you know, out here on Flinders Island.

[7 December]

It makes you sick

We’re staying at a luxurious eco-lodge on the Freycinet Peninsula.  The view from the property is spectacular: tasmania-freycinet-lodge-view-2016-1

And we are at one with the wildlife living here, including this lizard who calls our bedroom home: tasmania-freycinet-lizard-in-the-bedroom-2016-3

The Freycinet Peninsula is another of Tassie’s coastal gems, with breath-taking views around nearly every corner, such as here at Honeymoon Bay:tasmania-freycinet-honeymoon-bay-2016-2

But there’s no time to spare, we’re off on another cruise.  Today the boat’s much bigger than on our trip to Maria Island, a catamaran in fact.  This is no bad thing as, despite the brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies, the sea’s rockin’ and rollin’.

We set off towards Wineglass Bay.  The catamaran is comfortable, verging on the luxurious, and we settle back to enjoy the scenic coastline of the Freycinet Peninsula: tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-2016-53

However the sea begins to take its toll, and pretty soon sickness is rampant amongst the assembled passengers.  The crew are attentive, brilliant in fact, circulating endlessly amongst the sufferers offering sympathy, advice, ginger tablets and, when all that fails, a discrete paper bag.

We sail on, admiring dramatic cliffs painted in vibrant shades of orange and pink: tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-2016-23

As with so much of our Tassie experience, the weather is everything.  On a grey, wet, windy day this trip would be a miserable mistake.  Today, with the sun beating down from a cloudless sky and the ocean molten cobalt, it’s magical:tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-2016-26

The sea doesn’t seem too bad to us and we prove immune to its sly mischief.  For us the experience is exhilarating: the warmth of sun, the wind tugging at our hair, the choppy challenge of the waves:Tasmania, Wineglass Bay cruise, 2016 (42).JPG

Around us, however, others are less resilient.  Some of our fellow passengers are turning a whiter shade of pale, others as green as the grass back home, and in private corners embarrassed chunder monkeys are compelled to review the morning’s breakfast.  We shrug it off, and enjoy views of the majestic Shy Albatross wheeling above the waves:tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-2016-51

At another point, we pull close to the shoreline to inspect a White-bellied Sea Eagle sitting atop its massive nest.  These birds mate for life and return to the same nest every year, simply building an extension to previous years’ efforts.  The results are hugely spectacular:tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-white-bellied-sea-eagle-2016-3

Finally we reach our destination, Wineglass Bay, where we drop anchor in its sheltered waters to eat lunch.  The food showcases the best of Tasmanian produce.  It’s attractively presented in bento-boxes, though many of our fellow travellers are too ill to be seduced by its undoubted charms.  Julie and I, however, tuck in ravenously: tasmania-wineglass-bay-bento-box-lunch-2016-1

As we eat we take in the view.  Wineglass Bay has a reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.  It certainly looks the part today: tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-wineglass-bay-2016-11

And what a romantic name, someone says, conjuring up comforting images of happy hours spent in the company of loved ones on an intriguingly curved stretch of pristine coast.  As if the observation has been overheard the PA system clicks on and the guy who’s been doing commentary during the journey pipes up again.

“And in case you’re wondering where it gets its name, Wineglass Bay has nothing to do with its shape or even with the local wine industry.  It dates back to the whaling days.  The dead whales were hauled in to be processed at whaling stations dotted all around the bay.  So many whales were butchered here that the sea in the bay would be turned wine-red by the blood.”

Now there’s something to really make you sick.

 [5 December]

A spiky bridge, a pointed peak and some big trees

tasmania-spiky-bridge-2016-1Today is primarily a driving day as we head south to get into position for an all-day trip to Maria Island tomorrow.  On the way we pass the Spiky Bridge, built by convicts in 1843.  Now by-passed by a new main road, it’s yet another example of how convict labour was central to the early development of Tasmania.  Some commentators suggest that the spiky parapet was intended to prevent cattle falling over the sides of the bridge.  Other, more enlightened commentators say that this theory is a load of dingo’s kidneys and that we should simply regard the Spiky Bridge as the brainchild of someone who’d spent way too much time on the sauce.

We drive inland, along a twisting road that climbs steadily into the mountains.  When the land flattens out we get distant views of St Mary’s Mountain, with a strikingly pointed profile that dominates the surrounding plateau:


We have taken a major detour to take in another of Tasmania’s 60 Great Short Walks at the Evercreeech Forest Reserve.  This area features some magnificent White Gums, which are the tallest trees of their type in Australia.  To see them we must first walk through the fern-clad undergrowth, marvelling at the various subtle shades of green that surround us:


When we finally reach them, the trunks of the big trees are massive:


And trying to see the tops of these towering White Gums can be a real pain in the neck:


Thankfully Evercreech is a reserve, so these magnificent trees are safe from the chainsaw and will be there to be enjoyed by future generations.

[3 December]

Nuts about Stanley

Stanley is one of Tasmania’s most historic settlements.  In the early nineteenth century it was headquarters of the Van Diemen’s Land Company, an important player in the early development of the colony.  The Company was in effect a state within a state, doing pretty much its own thing in those parts of the island in which it had an interest.


Highfield House, set on a hill overlooking the town, was built between 1832 and 1835 as a residence for the chief agent of the Van Diemen’s Land Company. It’s impressive by the standard of Tasmanian historic buildings, though not of any great size or quality by the standards of the British Empire.  However it’s difficult to grasp the significance of some of the decisions made here.  In Highfield House deals were done, fortunes made and lives destroyed.  Decisions made within these walls helped seal the fate of the aboriginal inhabitants of the island, and of the thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger)

Because of the long history of the Van Diemen’s Land Company it’s unsurprising that Stanley boasts a number of buildings of age and character:


It looks and feels quaint:


Coming right up to date, we learned while in the town that recently Stanley has been used as a location for the filming of The Light Between Oceans, based on a novel by M R Steadman.  Julie read and enjoyed the book some time ago, and heartily recommends it.

However the most significant thing about Stanley is nothing manmade; rather, it is the topography, or, to put it another way the Stanley Nut. The town is dominated by the Nut, a vast, flat-topped rocky outcrop formed from the core of an extinct volcano.  It is a looming presence, towering 152 metres above the town:


It’s possible to take a chairlift to the top, but the weather was cool and windy and we agreed that in the circumstances this was one experience we could manage without.

Our luxurious accommodation, on a hill overlooking Stanley gave fabulous views of the Nut, and the floor to ceiling windows ensured that it was never out of sight or mind. There was even a spa-bath strategically positioned to enable the bather to soak up the views while soaking in the bath.  Here Julie is posing for the camera in the bath:


If you want any more you will need to use your imagination (or maybe just take a cold shower).

[26 November]

A grand day out

tasmania-strahan-west-coast-wilderness-railway-2016-28About 20 miles from Strahan lies Queenstown. During the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century it was the home of a very lucrative copper mine.  However its location deep in mountainous and thickly forested terrain meant that the biggest challenge was not to get the copper ore out of the ground but rather to get it out of Queenstown.  The answer they came up with was to build a railway to the coast at Strahan, an astounding feat of engineering.  The work was all done by hand in period of less than three years, which was way ahead of schedule (we learned later in our trip that this outstanding result was probably due to the sassafras tea the workers were served – it’s made from the leaves of a local tree and contains amphetamine, which acted as a performance enhancing drug.)

The copper mine is no more, though locals hope for its revival if prices pick up sufficiently. However the railway has been preserved, and is doing a great job ferrying tourists past wild landscapes and though magnificent forests.  So we join them and take a relaxing return day-trip from Strahan to Queenstown, getting great views of the train and the land through which it runs:


We are generously fed and watered throughout the trip, and even get to spend an hour in Queenstown, which to me feels a bit like a careworn frontier town in the American Wild West, although without the tumbleweed:


It’s interesting to note that the steam trains were originally coal-fired, but have been converted to run on recycled sump oil. The reason, we are told, is that locomotives running on oil won’t release sparks and embers into the atmosphere, and are therefore less likely than their coal-fired cousins to set on fire and burn down the UNESCO accredited rainforest through which they run.

Heritage steam trains are always good fun, and the West Coast Wilderness Railway is no exception.  Travelling the line allows an appreciation of just how much effort and ingenuity went into its construction, while the locomotives and rolling stock are full of character:


A grand day out was had by all.

[21 November]

Messing about on the river

tasmania-gordon-river-cruise-hells-gate-2016-6Today we’re back in luxury mode as we take a cruise on a catamaran, first exploring Macquarie Harbour, which is the second largest in Australia and therefore much bigger than the more famous Sydney Harbour, before heading past the old penal colony of Sarah Island and up the Gordon River into a UNESCO World Heritage Area of temperate rainforest.

Luxury is not an exaggeration. Sparkling wine is available on tap, and they seem to feed us at least once an hour.  No such luxury for the skipper however.  We are seated on the captain’s deck and if we get bored with the view outside we can turn our attention to him instead and watch him drive the catamaran, constantly fiddling with knobs and dials while gazing at a bank of VDU screens.

The captain obviously knows where he’s going, which in the first instance is out past Bonnet Island, where we watched penguins yesterday evening. From there a narrow channel, marked by a lighthouse, gives access from the Harbour to the Southern Ocean through Hell’s Gates:


However it is not the narrowness of the channel, the risk of running aground or the savagery of the waves on the Southern Ocean that led to this place being called Hell’s Gate.  Rather, this was the name conferred on it by convicts on their way to Sarah Island.

The Sarah Island penal colony was established partly because it was very difficult to escape from, but the determining factor was the British navy’s need, in the years after the Napoleonic War, to access high quality Huon Pine timber to build new warships, usable oak currently being in short supply in England. And who better to undertake the back-breaking and dangerous work of felling the timber in the dark, impenetrable rainforest than a bunch of convicts?  Not only did they work for free, but the convicts were not protected by health and safety legislation, or indeed any legislation at all.


Our cruise drops us off at Sarah Island for an hour. Although convicts were forced to work on number of trades on behalf of their masters, most notably the building of ships with the timber they had felled, there’s not much to show that they were ever here, just scattered ruins:

But in the hands of a guide the stories live on, stories of a brutal and sadistic regime, of desperate prisoners and corrupt guards, of failed escape attempts and of cannibalism amongst men who did manage to flee the island only to find that there was nothing to eat on the nearby mainland except each other (see my review of the movie Van Dieman’s Land earlier in this blog, which tells the story of infamous cannibal convict Alexander Pearce.)

Later that day, back in Strahan, we attend a theatrical performance that dramatises a remarkable event from Sarah Island’s dark and shameful history, the escape to Chile of some convicts who stole a boat they were being made to build. It’s been running for some 23 years, which makes it Australia’s longest running play. The Ship That Never Was is great fun, with lots of laughs and plenty of audience participation.  Julie and I find ourselves called upon to play a pair of disreputable scoundrels, so absolutely no type-casting there.


The cruise also takes us up the Gordon River into virgin rainforest. Well not quite virgin if truth be told, as the forest was systematically ravaged by the convicts searching for Huon Pine on behalf of their guards.  Now the forest is fully protected and is recovering but as the diameter of a Huon Pine trunk grows by just one millimetre per year and a decent specimen can be more than 2,000 years old it will be many generations before the impact of the convicts is fully eradicated.  Nevertheless to the untrained eye the forest looks in good shape, and it’s great to spend time in such a special place that is a million miles away from our everyday existence in the UK.


[20 November]

Horsing around in Port Arthur

We spend the day at Port Arthur. It is the site of Tasmania’s most well known and significant penal station which operated between 1830 and 1876, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It is also Tasmania’s busiest tourist attraction.  Big groups follow guides around the site for introductory tours.  Ours tells an anecdote: recently, he says, a woman visiting Port Arthur from Ireland was angry, very angry in fact, that the British had transported one of her ancestors to Australia for seven years, and he had ended up at Port Arthur, all for stealing a length of rope.  Too harsh, she protested, too harsh.  So, our guide tells us, staff looked into the records on her behalf, and yes her ancestor had indeed been transported for stealing a length of rope.  However, attached to one end of it had been a racehorse …


The story gets a good laugh. It sounds apocryphal rather than strictly true, but illustrates the point that nothing is as straightforward as it seems at first glance.  Applying this lesson to Port Arthur we can say that, despite its reputation, it was not a place of unthinking brutality.  Yes, there was brutality by the bucketful but it was far from thoughtless, and it evolved and changed over time in response to external pressures.  In particular, flogging was abandoned in favour of more subtle forms of control based on English prison reformer Jeremy Bentham’s notion of using psychological methods rather than brute force.

In the Separate Prison there was no physical punishment. Each prisoner was confined to his cell, alone, for 23 hours each day where he was required to work.  The cells are arranged in long corridors, at the centre of which sat a guard at a desk.

tasmania-tasman-peninsula-port-arthur-53For one hour the prisoner was allowed to exercise, also alone.  Speaking was forbidden, not only between prisoners but also between prisoners and guards who had to communicate in sign language.  All prisoners also had to attend church, but each had his own private box pew which was so designed that he could see the preacher but not the convict standing next to him.  The photograph above shows the view from the pulpit: the preacher could see all the convicts but they could see only him:

Thus, through these psychological methods, was it intended to break the spirit and the resistance of the convicts.

The most famous view of the Port Arthur site is this one, showing the Penitentiary at the front right, which was converted from a flour mill in 1857 to enable Port Arthur to absorb more convicts. The bottom two floors comprised 136 single cells for “prisoners of bad character,” while the top floor could accommodate 480 better behaved prisoners in a dormitory with bunk beds.


The Port Arthur site succeeds as a tourist attraction in part because it recognises that the real story is not about the buildings, whether they be in ruins or still intact, but about the people who lived there: hearing something of their stories is a key part of the overall visitor experience.

It is also possible to consult a database of the names of convicts to search for one’s own ancestors.  Julie and I both do this eagerly but draw a blank, in Julie’s case no doubt because she comes from a law abiding family, whereas I suspect my lot were simply smart enough to get away with stuff.

Port Arthur is a fascinating place to visit. British students studying nineteenth century history tend to think of transportation as being the end of the story.  However from the Australian perspective this is simply the start of a different, but equally compelling tale.

[16 November]

The beautiful south

img_0415We head south from Geeveston to escape the rain, and visit the Ida Bay Railway, which is the last operating bush tramway in Australia.  It once hauled limestone to a nearby wharf, but now takes tourists on a leisurely trip past gum trees, tea-tree bushes and pretty coastal views.

Our train ride over we continue to head south until we reach Cockle Creek, the most southerly point anywhere in Australia that can be reached by car.  We walk a few hundred metres further south to a life-size sculpture of a baby (calf) whale. The hunting of whales was big business in the early days of Tasmania, with whaling stations being dotted up and down the east coast. The Southern Right Whale was their main quarry. The whalers would initially target the calves, knowing that the distress calls of the dying youngsters would bring their mothers rushing to the rescue and into range of the harpoons. .

img_0473Of all the indignities that man has heaped upon the animal world it is probably whaling that upsets me most profoundly.  I find it almost unbearable to look into the eyes of the sculpted whale, knowing what I do about the fate of his species at the hands of the whalers.  Thankfully numbers of the Southern Right Whales are now recovering, and the sculpture stands as a poignant reminder of a more brutal age.

We begin to work our way back north, taking in the impressive coastal scenery:


At one point we park up and I leave my driver’s door open while Julie is off taking a photo.  There is a sudden fluttering of wings and I find a Black Currawong, one of the Tasmanian endemics that we first encountered on Bruny, sitting brazenly on the top of my door giving me the eye.  A few days ago we met a local woman who dismissively described these birds as forest seagulls.  This seems a bit harsh, though I can see that people who don’t get birds might find them hard to like.


We return to Geeveston, where it’s raining hard.  We pay a couple of visits to a nearby river to look for platypus, but to no avail.  Never mind, tomorrow is another day.

[12 November]