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Port Arthur

By marksams, 10/09/2010 - 06:17

Stopping at 'The Blowhole', where the sea is hurled out the back of a collapsed cave in the eroding cliffs, and noting that there were wild penguins in the area as we passed Pirates Bay, we arrived at the 'Port Arthur Historical Site' a couple of hours after leaving Hobart. Tasmania held a fearsome reputation as one of the last places a convict should wish to be transported, and Governor Arthur obviously ruled with an iron fist. The historical site at Port Arthur is geographically located in the far south east of Tasmania, and only accessible across a narrow spit of land. The surrounding waters were a natural barrier (no-one could swim in those days) and the spit of land was covered with fierce dogs chained to posts, in addition to the armed sentries.

Inside Port Arthur, many of the original buildings remain, including the main gaol, separate gaol, church, military buildings, officers buildings, a court of law, a hospital and houses for the 'free people' such as dentists, medics and other trained staff with their families. The site was fully self-sufficient as a small town at one time, with varying success in trading exports and imports, notably ship building. The hefty entrance fee for Port Arthur as a tourist attraction is probably due to the continued restoration work required to get everything back into shape after the area was temporarily renamed and resettled following the convict era. It was since deserted again and left to the elements for a number of years, including a fire that burnt out the church, leaving just the walls.

Life at Port Arthur must have been strict. Religion, social class, military rank, and a further system of convict classification with behavioural recording and analysis formed the backdrop to long hours of hard labour for the convicts. Various punishments for on-site misdemeanours included weighted iron chains, and separation in the 'separate' gaol, where isolation was used as a technique for focussing the mind and limiting the spread of criminal intelligence.

A harbour boat cruise was included in the entrance fee, and we circled the Isle of the Dead, where everyone who died at Port Arthur was buried. Even on this small island the class system is evident with convicts buried on the low-lying land in unmarked graves, and 'free people' buried on the high-ground according to their status.

We later found out that convicts were used all over Tasmania for hard labour, much like on the Australian mainland. The historical (and beautiful) bridges of Richmond and Ross were built with convict labour, and the architect of the Ross bridge was even a convict himself, subsequently freed upon successful completion of the bridge building project.

On the way back from Port Arthur we stopped at Pirates Bay. It was approaching dusk, and we hoped to see the 'Little Penguins' return home to their burrows from a day out at sea. Walking up and down the beach, we suddenly stopped - not for a penguin, but a seal! Looking tired and in need of rest, a single seal was just lying there on the beach, and it let us approach to a very short distance. After some time with the seal, we returned to the spot where we would most likely see the penguins. By now, it was almost dark, but two by two, Little Penguins started to emerge from the water, shake down, and waddle up right past us to their burrows. One pair stopped right by me and had a good look, as if wondering who I was. It was amazing to see them almost appear from nowhere after their long day at sea. After four or five pairs walked by, and with plenty more penguin noises around us, we decided to head home, talking all the way about all unbelievably amazing day!