©Copyright Kelley Mether 2017
It’s not surprising that with such a miserable, tragic history, the atmosphere of Port Arthur is downright spooky.
On the other hand, it is also beautiful. Magnificent, even. You can do a day trip there, sure, but to really get a good look, and experience the place and learn about its historical significance fully, try to take at least two days to visit.
Towards the bottom of the south east coast of Tasmania, which itself is the tiny island to be found at the bottom of mainland Australia.
All the major Australian airlines fly into the main city of Hobart, from where you can either hire a car or a taxi for the one hour, twenty minute journey to Port Arthur. For those with more time, it’s possible to add to the adventure by taking a ferry over from Melbourne to Devonport, at the top of Tasmania. You can even bring your car over on the ferry.
Port Arthur began its white Australian life as a timber station in 1830, and quickly expanded to include a hospital and a granary and flour mill. The granary and flour mill did not last long, soon being reincarnated as a large, imposing jail, the ruins of which are quite well preserved with excavation continuing on it today.
Port Arthur was a place for punishment of the harshest kind. The worst convicts were sent here (some had apparently even stolen two loaves of bread! – quelle horreur!), and were put to work clearing land, felling timber, building boats, working as blacksmiths and tanners. To refuse to work meant a flogging.
In the late 1840’s the Separate Prison was built, ushering in a new era of psychological punishment. Prisoners were kept in total isolation, and no speaking, whistling or singing was allowed. Not surprisingly, in 1864 work began on a mental asylum, the remains of which are in excellent condition and quite spine tingling.
As if the brutality of convict life were not enough to leave an indelible stain, in 1996 Port Arthur was the scene of a mass shooting. Thirty-five people were murdered, most of them in a cafe. This cafe was all but wiped out in the 2013 fires, although the stone walls remain and it is now part of an evocative memorial site.
All these tragedies occurred in what is unarguably a very beautiful bushland setting. Port Arthur is surrounded by dense native forests and the sparkling blue waters of the bay. This is part of the attraction of Port Arthur: the juxtaposition of the ugliness of human nature, and the beauty of nature itself. Yuck, I hate poetry.
Many of the convict era buildings were wiped out in the bushfires of 1895 and 1897, and again much later in the fires of 2013. Stone walls and floors remain, and much restoration work has made the place a popular tourist destination. The main reception building offers a great restaurant, aptly named ‘Felons’, as well as a well-appointed gift shop and safe bag-drop facility.
The museum at the reception building offers an intriguing insight into convict life at the settlement; visitors choose a card from a deck of playing cards, and find a convict’s name on it. They then follow a set of instructions which lead them around the museum while they trace the life that “their” convict lived. And it’s free!
One day is not long enough to explore the whole of the Port Arthur settlement. There are also side trips worth doing, such as the short (ten minute) boat ride over to the Isle of the Dead Cemetary and to Point Puer Boys Prison.
Any time of year. It’s freezing but gorgeous in winter, and hot but gorgeous in summer, so you can’t go wrong. Unless you are going to do the four day Three Capes Track hike, which begins at Port Arthur. Winter is freezing and it sometimes snows in Tasmania, so only do the hike in winter if you are an eskimo or a masochist.
Right on the doorstep of the Port Arthur historic site, so close you won’t need a car, is the Port Arthur Motor Inn. It’s not going to win any prizes for luxury or service, but the beds are very comfortable and the bathrooms are clean, and it’s reasonably priced. You’ll only eat once at the restaurant, and after that you’ll be more than happy to walk the five minutes in the freezing cold and rain to Felons Restaurant, at the Port Arthur reception building.
If you’ve got a car, or you don’t mind the twenty five minute walk, there’s a small township at Big Possum Beach, just south of the Port Arthur settlement. It has a number of B&Bs and other accomodation options.
The ferry: https://www.spiritoftasmania.com.au
Official Port Arthur site: http://portarthur.org.au
Accomodation options: Port Arthur Motor Inn: http://www.portarthur-inn.com.au; Port Arthur Villas: http://portarthurvillas.com.au
Three Capes Track: http://www.threecapestrack.com.au