We decided to take advantage of a long weekend and head south east of Hobart to Port Arthur. To be honest we didn’t really know much about Port Arthur and unfortunately, like many people, associated its name with a tragedy that occurred here in 1996, in which 35 people lost their lives.
The events that took place are still very raw to many people and remain an extremely sensitive topic. In fact, in some of the printed literature visitors are requested NOT to ask the guides about it and instead are invited to read the plaque at the on site Memorial Garden. We did this with the kids, answered any questions they had and decided to leave it at that. Here is some information if you wish to read more, otherwise we are going to leave it at that too.
We decided to park Stan at a free camp in Dunalley, about half an hour from Port Arthur. This was great. It is actually a large grassed area behind the pub. Campers are able to use the toilets inside the pub with the idea being that you pop in for a drink or even a meal. More than reasonable we thought, as did the many other people parked here.
We had done a bit of research before leaving Hobart and discovered that Port Arthur is a historic site which over time has actually played a number of roles, including; a timber-getting camp using convict labour, a punishment station for repeat offenders, an institution for physically and mentally ill convicts and for a short while was a small town renamed Carnarvon.
You can’t just turn up and look around the area, it is actually a closed site and entry passes must be purchased. All passes are valid for two consecutive days and we took advantage of this spending one and a half full days here. We opted for the basic bronze pass ($79 family) which included access to around 30 buildings and ruins, a guided walking tour and a cruise around the harbour -which went for around 30 minutes.
The kids were given an activity booklet which they could complete as we walked around and we were all given a card with the name of a convict on it. We then had to navigate our way around the Visitor Centre to learn more about our convict. There were a number of other interactive things to do with HEAPS of factual information displayed.
The guided walking tour was a fantastic introduction to the site and we learnt a great deal about the history of Port Arthur. Our guide’s particular focus was on how it had been a penal settlement used for housing repeat offenders. He did a great job in describing just how horrific life was for the men held here. I wont go into too much detail because I think people need to visit and learn for themselves but I will say that what some of the prisoners were subjected to was extremely brutal, both physically and mentally.
Some of the buildings that can be viewed include The Penitentiary, Church, Hospital , Asylum and The Separate Prison (shudder – nasty stuff happened here). Each of these had heaps of information available on what the buildings were used for with a number of (mostly friendly) guides throughout, ready to answer questions.
There are some beautiful gardens to walk through and we really enjoyed discovering the fruit garden where each variety of apple grown over the years at Port Arthur has been recorded, with some trees preserved. Visitors are invited to sample the wares from these trees.
The cruise around the harbour took us past the Point Puer Boy’s Prison and also The Isle of The Dead and explained a little about each. For an additional cost tours on each of these are available. The view back towards the ruins of Port Arthur was quite beautiful, it was just hard to shake the eerie feeling we had the whole time we were there.
We loved visiting The Dockyard where convicts were once used to build both decked vessels and smaller open boats. The story goes that the dockyards were eventually closed because the quality of the boats built was so high that other boat builders could not compete. As you move around where the dockyards once stood there are speakers on the ground which emit the sounds that may have been heard when the yard was operational, such as a blacksmith’s station and sawpit.
As well as the day and a half spent walking around the buildings and ruins we decided to come back one evening and do a ghost tour. This is something we have considered doing in a number of locations but have never got round to. After discussing it with the kids they were all for it so we booked online ($65 family) and came back later for what we hoped was a bit of fun.
On the drive back for the ghost tour we spotted our first Tasmanian Devil in the wild, which was very cool. We also talked about what we thought might happen on the tour. I suggested that maybe people would hide behind doors and jump out or make spooky noises as we walked past. We all had a bit of a laugh about this and I was quietly confident that we had prepared the kids for any ‘unexpected’ events.
When our guide met us for the tour one of the first things she did was explained that there would be no such shenanigans and that we would be visiting three or four buildings where she would tell of some unexplained events that have happened in these buildings. I was a little disappointed at first but really shouldnt have been. What a story-teller! Using only her voice she had us captivated. Unfortunately though, she was a little too good for a couple of little people on the tour, who shall remain nameless. As will the little people’s parents who experienced three or four nights of broken sleep due to the runaway imaginations of unnamed little people!
I was hoping to write of the rest our extended weekend in this area but have decided this post is already wordy enough. To conclude, though I should say that Paul and I both consider Port Arthur a place to sincerely recommend to other travellers. Some people we met thought that it was too expensive but we believe we got our moneys worth. The grounds are extremely well-kept, the facilities good, staff helpful and the information available very detailed. The whole site had a feeling of peaceful eeriness and we found it incredible just how many stories one place had.