After our day in Sydney [Click that link to get caught up, if you’d like], Trevor and I were bound for Tasmania, better known by the locals as “Tassie” (pronounced ‘Tazzy’). Australians have nicknames for everything. In fact, if you survive more than a few weeks in Australia without a nickname, there’s not much hope for you.
- People with red hair are called “Bluey”
- You’re called “Curley” if you have no hair
- A short person suffers from “Duck’s Disease”
- An American is a “Sepo”
I’m still waiting for my own nickname. Or, perhaps I have one and they’re just not telling me? Hmmm….
It was tough to contain my excitement about a visit to Tassie! But when I shared the news with Sydneysiders, all I got were laughs and a string of stereotypes. Australians talk about people from Tasmania in the same way many Americans talk about the people from West Virginia. Apparently, there are a lot of cousins in both places.
In my opinion, the laughs and stereotypes miss the boat. Hobart and the Tasmanian Peninsula rank as one of the top five places I’ve visited (so far). Curious about the others? In alphabetical order, they are:
- Cape Town, South Africa;
- Charlottesville, Virginia, USA;
- Edinburgh, Scotland;
- Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.
Hobart (the capital of the State of Tasmania) is a port town of about 200,000 people. It’s far south (about 42 Degrees South Latitude), but we had plans to go a little farther south: To the Tasmanian Peninsula, about 1.5 hours away.
This isolated part of an isolated island off the coast of an isolated continent is magnificent. We’d been advised by a local to check out the “blowhole” and the “arch” in the Tasman National Park on our drive to the peninsula. The “blowhole” was probably more impressive when the seas weren’t calm, but we arrived on the only day in the year when the skies were clear and there was almost no swell. A lucky happenstance, according to Trevor.
The arch, on the other hand, started off unimpressively.
“What’s this? How far do we have to walk? I’m hungry. This better not take too… Oh my God!”
That was what you would have heard if you were listening to me as we got out of the car and we literally stumbled on a massive feat of nature. It must have been ten stories from the top to the ocean. It was almost as stunning as the Grand Canyon but significantly more unexpected.
Tasmania, as far as I could see, is like a slightly less amazing version of New Zealand’s South Island.
Port Arthur Prison
After exploring these impressive spots, we arrived at our ultimate destination: Port Arthur.
You’re probably aware that Australia’s foundation was as a prison colony. Let’s put a little more color on that tale:
After the United States shook the shackle of Great Britain at Versailles in 1783, Great Britain needed somewhere new to ship its “undesirables.” The choice was between Africa and Australia. Australia won. The first prisoners would head south in 1787. The irony was that no Englishman had seen the place in 17 years. As Robert Hughes wrote in The Fatal Shore,
“Never had a colony been founded so far from its parent state, or in such ignorance of the land it occupied. There had been no reconnaissance [since it was seen in 1770].”
Captain James Cook (one of my heroes) “discovered” the continent back in 1770 during his explorations in the Pacific and it remained virtually untouched by Europeans until 1787 when a fleet of eleven ships – “the First Fleet” – was assembled to head south. These poor souls had first to sail to Rio de Janeiro (6,100 miles), then to Cape Town (3,300 miles), and finally to Botany Bay (6,500 miles). It took the better part of a year (252 days to be exact). And let’s just say, this was not a “first-class” experience. Nobody knew exactly what to expect when they arrived. And nobody in England really cared. After all, these were men who’d done horrendous things like steal loaves of bread.
Let’s fast forward a bit to that moment in time when the colony’s administrators realized they needed a prison for the bad prisoners. You see, most of the “prisoners” weren’t that bad. As a result, they were given paid jobs to maintain the colony. Jobs like “farmer” or “shepherd.” And mostly, they did good work even though they didn’t necessarily know anything about farming or shepherding. On the whole, these weren’t bad people. But some of them didn’t fit the mold and were actual criminals — as in really bad people. As a result, they needed someplace to go. Along came the Port Arthur Penal Colony.
Port Arthur is the stuff of legend down here. Every Australian student learns about its horrendous conditions at some point. But our guide – with the definitively Australian name of Andrew Smith (like most of Australia, he is one of about ten Andrews working at the place) – explained that it was a more nuanced story than the one most Australians “know” to be true.
By way of example, a visitor once shared proudly that he’d had a relative who unfairly wound up in Port Arthur. His crime? Stealing a length of rope. So, Andrew and his colleagues did a little research. It turned out the man’s ancestor had, indeed, been sent to Port Arthur for stealing a length of rope – with a horse at the end of it.
Port Arthur was an advanced prison. It was the first place on the planet, for example, where prisoners were divided up based on age. Someone finally realized it probably wasn’t a good idea to lock up a 10-year-old boy in the same cell with an actual adult criminal.
It was also the first place in the world where your lashing was overseen by a doctor. I mean can you imagine a modern-day lashing without a doctor present?!
On the way out of Port Arthur, we stopped by the “Unzoo.” It bills itself as “unlike a zoo” because the animals are free to roam in and out of the place (a privilege not afforded to human visitors who have to pay).
The highlight occurs every quarter-hour when an “un-zookeeper” feeds a couple of Tasmanian Devils. I’m pretty sure they feed different devils each time since all of the devils looked pretty fit. But then again, they’re allegedly free to roam in and out, so how can anyone really know? A question for the ages…
In any event, feeding involves hurling pieces of mammal carcass across an unfence while the Devils run after it, screaming. Once they get it, they crack through the bones with 400 pounds of pressure (for comparison, you’ve only got about 55 pounds of pressure with which to eat). The sound was truly terrifying. Interestingly enough, the wild devils on the Tasmanian Peninsula are so remote they’re the only ones in the world not yet impacted by the terrible face cancer ransacking the rest of the population.
After a day on the Peninsula, we thought we’d check out the other side of Tassie. With a burgeoning whisky industry, why not explore some local distilleries?
I guess I should confess this was really the impetus for the trip. During my last trip down, Trevor introduced me to Sullivan’s Cove whisky. After a long day of work, he and I each had a glass of the stuff. When we met for breakfast the next day, we confessed it had been the best sleep of our lives. We had to go!
Let’s just say the flight back to Sydney was quite restful.
Next up? Canberra!
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