Saturday, 27 August 2016

Tasmania - Convict country.....

[Part 2 of more than 2.  We are a couple of British expats living and working on the Falklands. Occasionally, though, we manage to explore other parts of the southern hemisphere. This time, we had flown around the globe to Australia, and were exploring the stunning state of Tasmania.....]
Smaller than the Bass Strait ferry.  The Fatman on the Pieman...
Soon we were across, and again travelling through the familiar, dense forest.  After a couple of hours, the landscape cleared, and we approached the harbour town of Strahan - home of Atlantic salmon (!) and Tasmania's first penal colony........
Bonnet Island - home of Little penguins.
 Strahan is a pleasant waterfront place, catering for tourists now that the mining and timber industries that caused it to be established have largely gone.  It sits on the shores of MacQuarie Harbour, which is bigger than Sydney harbour, but has the disadvantage of having a tiny, rocky entrance, known as Hell's Gate.  On the plus side, the unpolluted, sheltered water makes it ideal for fishing companies to farm trout and imported Atlantic salmon.
Hell's Gate
 About 60 years before Strahan was founded, in 1822, Sarah Island in the harbour was deemed to be the perfect spot to establish a punishment penal colony - for convicts who couldn't be held by other prisons.  It was hundreds of miles, over impenetrable forested mountains, from the nearest settlements on Tasmania.  Escape was supposed to be impossible.
Sarah Island - Tassie's first penal colony.
Punishments were so severe that one prisoners killed another prisoner so that he could be executed, and escape the regime. Another prisoner, Matthew Brady, escaped twice: each time surviving in the bush by eating his fellow escapees.  Sitting round their camp fire at night must have been tense!
Remnants of the shipyard.
 But, over time, the regime softened, and the prisoners became skilled and productive shipbuilders.  Work parties logged the native (and waterproof) Huon pine, and floated it down the Gordon River to the prison.  The prison became the busiest shipyard in Australia.
Gordon River.
Their story is hilariously re-enacted every night in an open-air theatre in Strahan.  "The Ship That Never Was" is one of the most entertaining productions I have ever seen, and it is the longest-running play in Australia.  I won't spoil the plot, but the actors (and participating members of the audience), bring alive the true story of the last ship built there, and the 10,000-mile escape attempt to Chile!  In 1833, the colony was closed and prisoners moved to Port Arthur near Hobart (of which, more later).
The regular cast of "The Ship That Never Was"
 The next day, we drove the  incredibly twisty roads over high mountain passes.  How the early pioneers and prospectors, not to mention the Aborigines, navigated this trackless wilderness was beyond me.  By the way, we saw two Little (or Fairy) penguins at Strahan, but like most wildlife, they only appear in the dark, so photography was not really an option.
Ross - another historic stone town.
 Once clear of the mountains in the west, it became obvious that the farming belt was having a drought.  Fields were parched, and we later heard that it was the driest year on record.  It was also unseasonally warm - in the mid 20s centigrade - but luckily, a few days after we left, it snowed across the island! (The island also had the worst floods in 100 years in June).
Swansea sunset.  Not the Welsh one.
Tasmania was also suffering from the loss of a power and internet cable to 'mainland' Australia.  Diesel generators were having to be used to augment power supplies as the hydro-electric dams (controversially built on wild rivers) were at a low level.  Internet access was slow and patchy.  We felt at home!
Wineglass Bay, Freycinet peninsula.
 After a long, relaxed drive, on two-lane roads, from the west to the east coast, we explored the Freycinet peninsula for a couple of days.  This unspoilt peninsula comprises mostly low, granite mountains, pristine sandy beaches and a myriad of hiking trails.
Eroded granite boulders, Freycinet National Park
 Although the much-photographed Wineglass Bay is an obvious destination, there are several quiet beaches, some with camping and others reached by walking.
Hazard Mountains
 The clear waters support an oyster industry, and it used to be a whaling centre.  Now visitors come for whale-watching rather than hunting.
Swansea sunset.
 We stayed at a nearby village called "Swansea".  Perhaps some Welsh convicts, transported to Tasmania, were feeling homesick?

Heading south, we visited the famous ruins of the Port Arthur penal colony.  This is a massive site - basically a self-contained town - and we could have spent a few days exploring, but, as usual, we had underestimated the time needed to explore Tasmania.

Port Arthur penitentiary
The island/state is about 30% of the size of Great Britain, or a bit smaller than the island of Ireland.  But has a population of 500,000.  On our travels, we saw no Aboriginal people as we had done on previous visits in the Northern Territory, around Darwin and Alice Springs.  When convict ships arrived, food was required for the new population, and kangaroos and emus were literally "easy meat" for hunters with dogs and muskets.   Within a few years, they were wiped out on Tasmania, causing conflict with the Aborigines.  Within a few decades, Aboriginal people were endangered, too.  Systematic round-ups, such as the "Black Line", as well as diseases and forced relocations, eventually saw them all but wiped out.
Derwent River from Mt Wellington.  Tasman Highway, centre.
We left the sombre Port Arthur and headed for a few days in the capital, Hobart. The scenery around the small city is stunning. I regret not doing the 20-mile downhill bike ride from the top of Mt Wellington back to the centre of town, but the views we saw were great, too.
Derwent River from Mt Wellington
Hobart has a beautiful and busy harbour, finish of the annual Sydney-Hobart yacht race, and the starting point for many expeditions to Antarctica. The old stone docks and warehouses are now trendy restaurants and bars and apartments. On Saturdays, the main street is closed to traffic and the massive Salamanca market takes over for the day, offering every possibly craft creation or Tassie tidbit.

Salamanca Market, Hobart, with Mt Wellington in distance
Hundreds of stalls display amazing craftwork, or handmade clothes, or specialist food. The choice is dazzling.

We wandered around the harbour, past the many seafood restaurants to a place we had come to Hobart to see. The Australian pioneer of Antarctic exploration was Douglas Mawson, who had turned down the invitation to join Captain Scott's ill-fated dash for the South Pole, to lead an eploration expedition for Australia.

His original hut is still in situ in Antarctica and is being repaired by a team of volunteers. To raise money for this expensive maintenance, an exact replica of the hut has been created on the harbourside in Hobart.
Mawson's bunk, Mawson's Hut
It provides a fascinating insight into the lives and work of early polar pioneers, and we were lucky enough to have on hand some guides in the museum who had spent most of their working lives in Antarctica. Their knowledge was fascinating, and we discovered we had some mutual acquaintances in the Falklands. Small world!

More on Australia soon,