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Friday, 03 July 2009

A Whirlwind Tour of Tasmania: Australia’s Green State with a Dark Past

Written by Kristen Hamill
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“Ok, wait… Why are we going to Tasmania?”

Our flight from Adelaide to Hobart had barely levelled at cruising altitude when I turned to Taylor with the question.  He looked across the aisle at Kate and Jonny, who were already slumped over their tray tables, sleeping off the night before.

He laughed, “I have no idea.”

We may not have been sure why we’d decided on Tasmania, but after six months of studying abroad down under, we started running out of places to explore. Intrigued by Tasmania’s dodgy history (the island housed some of the largest and harshest penal colonies in Australia), reputation for being the backwards Australian state (forever the butt of mainland jokes), and its collection of oddly named towns and landmarks (Snug, Nowhere, Break-Me-Neck and Bust-Me-Gall Hill), the four of us booked tickets and headed as far south as we might ever go.

A Whirlwind Tour of Tasmania: Australia’s Green State with a Dark Past, travel Hobart, travel Tasmania, Mt. Wellington, Hobart, Salamanca Place, Hastings Caves, Tasman National Park, Port Arthur, Kristen HamillThe cool breeze we encountered on the tarmac of Hobart’s tiny airport was a shock compared to the heat we’d left in Adelaide; it was the first time I’d needed a jacket in months.  We picked up a rental car and drove towards Hobart, Tasmania’s capital and Australia’s second oldest settlement. Hobart sits nestled between the base of Mt. Wellington and the slate-gray Derwent River, which opens out to the Tasman Sea. The city is small but attractive, with plenty of Victorian architecture and a refreshing lack of concrete and high-rises.

A Whirlwind Tour of Tasmania: Australia’s Green State with a Dark Past, travel Hobart, travel Tasmania, Mt. Wellington, Hobart, Salamanca Place, Hastings Caves, Tasman National Park, Port Arthur, Kristen HamillFollowing directions to a friend of a friend’s house to borrow camping gear, we found ourselves climbing up the slope towards Mt. Wellington.  The views from the summit of Hobart over the Derwent estuary, and the World Heritage Area to the west were spectacular, and the air, while chilly, lived up to its title of the “cleanest air in the world.”

After a failed attempt at digging a tent and sleeping bags from the friend’s backyard shed, we headed to Salamanca Place, a waterfront terrace of 19th century renovated sandstone warehouses that date back to Hobart’s whaling days.  The area is also the site of the Saturday morning Salamanca Market, where local artists, farmers, and shop owners set up outdoor stalls to sell organic vegetables, wood work, ceramics, cut flowers, and other crafts and foods.  For dinner, we stopped in at Irish Murphy’s for a few pints of Moo Brew (a local Tasmanian beer), pots of hearty Irish stew, and beer-battered fish and chips.

After stuffing ourselves we chased the sun to Dover, a small town about an hour south of Hobart.  As we drove, it became clear that Tasmania was very unlike the “North Island.” Australia on the whole is dry and sun-parched, and while there are rain forests and other lush plant life in some areas, nothing we’d seen so far compared to the intense green of Tasmania.  It also seemed that everywhere we drove, a body of water – be it an ocean, river, or lake – was not far away.

 


 

We spent the night in an on-site RV at a campground and the next morning headed down to the nearby Hastings Caves.  Our tickets for the cave tour included a dip in the nearby thermal springs.  After walking deep into the forest, we were disappointed to find that the springs were less of the bubbling natural rock pool we’d imagined, and more of the concrete, chlorinated variety, complete with a senior citizens’ aqua aerobics class mid-session.

After warming up by an outdoor fireplace, we made our way down to the Newdegate cave opening.  Our guide emerged from the dark with a glaring helmet-light. A Whirlwind Tour of Tasmania: Australia’s Green State with a Dark Past, travel Hobart, travel Tasmania, Mt. Wellington, Hobart, Salamanca Place, Hastings Caves, Tasman National Park, Port Arthur, Kristen HamillAs he cautioned us down the slippery steps and pointed out several very large, hairy spiders resting on the handrails, he gave us a brief history of the three caves. Newdegate, King George V, and Beattie were discovered by a group of timber workers in 1917. Newdegate is home to impressive stalactite, stalagmite, and helictite formations, as well as over forty species of insects and animals that were discovered in the cave, including several species that are as yet unnamed.

An hour later we reemerged a little damp, but ready to drive on to our next stop on our whirlwind tour of Tazzy, Port Arthur.  Port Arthur is a former convict settlement that housed some of the hardest criminals in the British Empire. The 19th century penitentiary and surrounding village have been preserved as a museum to those wishing to learn more about the town’s dark past.

A Whirlwind Tour of Tasmania: Australia’s Green State with a Dark Past, travel Hobart, travel Tasmania, Mt. Wellington, Hobart, Salamanca Place, Hastings Caves, Tasman National Park, Port Arthur, Kristen HamillWe signed up for a night-time ghost tour, which was lead by a man who could have passed as the spirit of a dead criminal. Pale, with long black hair, matching coat, and old-fashioned lantern, he bore a striking resemblance to Harry Potter’s Professor Snape.  The tour began in the ruins of an old church, where our guide told us that he believed that walls of the spirit world were thinner in Port Arthur because of its long and tragic history of violence, pain, and death.  He claimed that in his time as a Port Arthur guide, he’d seen spirits on three separate occasions, and led countless tours in others had seen, heard, or felt a ghost.

Each house and building we stopped at on our tour had its own story of tragedy; convicts executed, the death of ill children, murders and suicides.  He led us through Port Arthur’s asylum, where it is believed the historic shift from corporal to psychological punishment was made.  One by one we were led in to the tiny cells where prisoners were punished under the “Silent System,” where they were hooded and forced to stay quiet.

ImagePerhaps the most disturbing was the underground operating room of the Senior Surgeon’s house.  A television crew had filmed a documentary in the town not long ago, and stopped in at the Surgeon’s house because it was known to be particularly paranormally active.  The crew placed a cow’s skull on the operating table for dramatic effect, and were stunned when moments later, it levitated from the table and hovered several inches in the air before crashing to the floor.  Other visitors to the operating room have reported being pushed by invisible forces, seeing blood seep from the walls, and witnessing ghostly faces emerge from a hole used to draw ashes into the room to clean up the post-operative mess.

 


 

For completing the tour, Professor Snape presented us each with a certificate of bravery. We didn’t see any ghosts, although we had a bit of a shock when a man, separated from his own tour group, came running through the dark towards us without warning.  But what made the tour especially chilling, besides the stories and the village’s eerie vibes, were Port Arthur’s more recent tragic events.  In 1996, a local man went on a shooting rampage that killed 35 people and injured 21, most of them at the historic site’s café, gift shop and parking lot. Needless to say, walking back to our car at midnight was slightly unnerving as we considered all the horrible things that had happened in one small town.

A Whirlwind Tour of Tasmania: Australia’s Green State with a Dark Past, travel Hobart, travel Tasmania, Mt. Wellington, Hobart, Salamanca Place, Hastings Caves, Tasman National Park, Port Arthur, Kristen HamillIn the morning we began a coastline trip back to Hobart through the Tasman National Park, stopping at the Wildlife Sanctuary to check out Tasmania’s notorious state critter, the Tasmanian Devil.  Not far down the road we found an echidna, which is similar to a North American porcupine, waddling his way through the grass.  When we got out to take a closer look, he didn’t run away; we assumed that due to his ability to turn into a ball of spikes he didn’t need the extra high gear most small animals have.

Our coastal trek through the park took us by a number of amazing natural rock formations.  Some of which, like the Devil’s Kitchen, the Blowhole, and the Tasman Arch, were similar to the famous formations of Australia’s Great Ocean Road; others were far rarer, like the Tessellated Pavement, a flat sheet of rock on the shoreline that is broken into rectangular blocks resembling tiles.

A Whirlwind Tour of Tasmania: Australia’s Green State with a Dark Past, travel Hobart, travel Tasmania, Mt. Wellington, Hobart, Salamanca Place, Hastings Caves, Tasman National Park, Port Arthur, Kristen Hamill

We stopped in Doo Town for a walk on the beach and a few cartons of honey milk (a great Aussie drink that’s sweet enough to give you cavities on contact), and then again after being waved down by a six foot tall robot outside a local museum and shop that boasted a newly opened “Convict Robot Exhibition”.  Taylor and Jonny bought faux Tasmanian passports that listed a number of “rules” a carrier must obey, including “The area of land to the north of Tasmania must at all times be referred to as the North Island.  Anyone calling it the Mainland can expect a long term in the Port Arthur Penitentiary,” “Rain will be called Liquid Sunshine; cold weather, Refreshing,” and “Tasmanians are very proud of their heritage. Most of their forebears were chosen by England’s best Judges. Once we had our fill of robots and Tasmanian knickknacks, we hit the road back to Hobart to check into a hostel and head out for a final night on the town.

A Whirlwind Tour of Tasmania: Australia’s Green State with a Dark Past, travel Hobart, travel Tasmania, Mt. Wellington, Hobart, Salamanca Place, Hastings Caves, Tasman National Park, Port Arthur, Kristen HamillAlthough we’d boarded the plane in Adelaide not knowing why we were going to Tasmania, we returned very pleased with our decision to go.  When one looks at vacationing in Australia, it’s usually for the surfing and beaches, the Great Barrier Reef or the Outback.  Tasmania stands apart as a very unique destination, one that travelers looking for authentic experiences shouldn’t overlook.

©Kristen Hamill

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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