Port Arthur

From seven mile beach we headed to the Port Arthur Holiday Park to set up the camper and have dinner. I had hoped to camp at the Fortescue in the National Park but had left our ‘she’ll be right’ booking a little too late and the only campsites they had available were for tents not camper trailers. I couldn’t convince Miss 9 to stay in our hiking tent for the night so we ended up booking the last site at the Holiday Park – it wasn’t until I’d booked and they asked for my credit card details that I bothered asking the price (minor heart attack though later I was grateful for the van when we had some rain as our tent is purely a hiking tent with room for sleeping only).

The rain stopped and the lightening started just as we headed to the historic Port Arthur site for our evening ghost tour. Miss 9 was really looking forward to the possibility of seeing a ghost on the tour but we had no such luck. We did however, hear some very interesting tales of the ghost experiences of those who lived at the settlement during it’s time and from those that have been doing tours since it’s closure.

These tales were told by our Drizabone clad host carrying a candle-lit lantern while walking through some of the iconic old buildings around the site all to a backdrop of constant lightening (with no rain) on a fairly fine night.

At one stage we were in a small underground room with our guide building the suspense of his story while Master 17 casually lent against an old door. All of a sudden at the height of suspense, the door he was leaning on flew open. He jumped. We all jumped & a few screams may have been heard also!

The following morning we headed back to Port Arthur to check out the historic ‘machine to grind rogues honest’ site in the daylight, starting with a walking tour with another guide around parts of the site. Neither of our guided walks take in the entire site as it’s around 100 acres in size but both provide some great background and insight into what life, and the structures that once stood, were like back when the settlement was still running.

The walking tour and a boat cruise around the harbour are both included in your entry fee to the site (entry also provides 2-day access) so we took advantage of these first up in the morning to help us with the rest of our self-guided tour of the site. The harbour cruise takes you past Point Puer Boys Prison – the British Empire’s first separate prison for boys (some as young as nine – a fact that Miss 9 was both horrified and delighted with). The harbour cruise also takes in the Isle of the Dead – a tiny island where around 1,100 convicts, officers, women and children are buried.

From our morning tours we then traipsed around the historic site reflecting on some of the stories we’d been told previously. Miss 9 delighted in retelling some of the ghost stories from the night before for others to hear (I think she was secretly hoping to spook a few of them too!).

We heard about the life and times of a few interesting convicts through a series of short plays on site too. Miss 9 and Master 17 even got involved in some art activities making peg dolls and whale skip boats.

The history of the site is much richer than we had thought it was -starting as a timber station and ship building site (though the ship building had to stop as other builders couldn’t compete with the free labour of Port Arthur) and even an attempt as a flour mill and granary in the huge four-storey building that later became the Penitentiary, housing hundreds of convicts in dormitories and solitary cells. Port Arthur was designed to use physical labour to not only punish the convicts but to provide them with useful skills to use once they’d been released as well as religion to rehabilitate the convicts.

Taking a tour through the Separate Prison – modelled off a prison in the US and the similar solitary cells built on Sarah Island (where it was recommended to never use that type of confinement again due to the psychological impacts it has on the prisoners) was an eye opener (both on the ghost tour and during the day). The Separate Prison was a place of solitary confinement with 23 hours a day spent in a small cell where no sound could be made. Prisoners and guards couldn’t talk and even wore woollen boot covers so that their footsteps made no noise. For one hour a day, the prisoners could walk around (in solitude) in a small outdoor area of the yard with walls so high that all you could see is the sky above. Movement throughout the building required prisoners to cover their faces so that all of their identity was removed. The impacts were extreme psychological trauma with many prisoners becoming dangerous and violent or withdrawn and moved to a separate end of the building before an asylum was built. It was the Separate Prison that shifted the penal philosophy from a physical punishment to psychological punishment.

Later, as new prisoner numbers decreased, the site took more of a welfare approach with the asylum built along with a Pauper’s Depot for those old prisoners who had no family or community to be released to and were too old to rejoin the general community.

Once the site was closed as a penal settlement, it was renamed Carnarvon and opened to tourists to stay there and others to live. Later, it reverted to Port Arthur and commemorated it’s historic past. The site also includes a memorial garden to acknowledge the tragedy of 1996 which was a sobering and reflective space to walk through and talk to the kids about the tragedy that occurred.

After a day at the historic site we took a drive up to the the Blowhole and then Devil’s kitchen and the Tasman Arch – both once caves carved into the rock over thousands of years by the ocean with their roof collapsed to reveal open arches in the rocks.

When we read ‘Blowhole’ I think we were expecting something like what we found in Quabba WA so were a little disappointed that it was just waves crashing into rocks. The fact that the rocks seemed inland as the ocean had carved a tunnel underneath the land to crest the ‘blowhole’ was pretty impressive though.

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