A Weekend in Hobart…Convicts, Lost Souls, Bushfires and Doomsday Preppers?
by Anna Buckley
Tim and Lola had rung to say they were going to Hobart for the long weekend and wondered whether we’d like to join them. It took all of two seconds to say ‘yes’. I’d been there three years ago and loved it so much that I made it the main setting for book two, ‘Capturing’ in ‘The Lost Woman’ trilogy. I couldn’t wait to get back.
But before we get started, for those of you unfamiliar where Hobart, Australia, actually is, I’ve found an old atlas to fill you in. Maps like these were usually pinned above the blackboard at school. Australia was always shown at the very bottom of the globe, with the Americas on the right and everything else above and on the left. Australia is the big pink blob sitting just above Antarctica and a bloody long way away from the rest of the world. It takes about 14 hours to fly to LA and at least 24 hours to get to Europe.
Australia is a vast continent, about the size of North America. The very top is hot and tropical, the interior is pretty much all desert and most of the population live along a narrow, fertile, strip between Brisbane and Melbourne (where I live) on the east coast. You will see that Tasmania is an island at the bottom of Australia (and very often completely left off the map) and that Hobart is our Southernmost city situated on its tip.
Tasmania has been inhabited by indigenous Australians for tens of thousands of years. Hobart, however was established as a penal colony by the British in 1803 and is Australia’s second oldest city. Back then the harrowing sailing trip from London took between 78 and 100 days. Today my flight from Melbourne is a mere 45 minutes…or so I thought!
First there was the traffic jam which meant the normal 20 minute trip to the airport took one and a half hours. The long-term carpark transfer added another 15 minutes and then there was the ridiculous 15 minute sprint to reach our gate at the gargantuan, new T4 terminal. Breathless and panicking that we’d missed our plane, we were relieved to see that a delay would mean another 30 minutes before boarding. A calming wine was a brilliant de-stresser for the 50 minute flight that eventually got us to Hobart late Thursday night. We landed but no docking bay was available…another 30 minute delay! Tim and Lola had taken an earlier flight that morning, picked up the hire car and volunteered to pick us up from the airport (a 30 minute drive and about $50 by taxi). Tim had used an app to follow the flight and was aware of the delays. A quick text informed him he’d need to lap the terminal a few more times before we could finally jump in the car and reach our destination…5 hours later!!! So much for the 45 minute flight! By the time we got to our apartment it was dark, nearly midnight and instead of a late supper we all went straight to bed!
I woke early the next morning and in need of a coffee but with absolutely no idea how to use the machine. Tim had mentioned a convenience store down the road so I popped out for milk, papers and a jar of Nescafe instant (my dirty little secret!)
Eventually everyone got up, Tim learnt how to wrangle the coffee machine and over breakfast we put together a bit of a plan. First we’d head to Port Arthur, the world heritage site of the original convict prison, then stop somewhere for lunch and perhaps checkout some of the small towns on the way home. By 9 am we were in the car and heading along the well sign posted road to the Tasman Peninsula.
It was an easy 100 km (62 mile) drive. Originally Port Arthur was the site of a small timber station. Prisoners were taken to the site in 1833 where they could be put to use as virtual slave labour for the new industries of the fledgling colony. The prisoners who were sent there were convicts who had broken the law after their arrival in Australia, a prison for re-offenders. Port Arthur had a reputation for inhumane and harsh treatment of its inmates. Forced labour, bloody beatings, isolation and limited rations meant that this was a place feared by even the most hardened criminals.
Not all were felons, some were political prisoners, some with mental illness, some barely out of childhood, many who’d begun their life of crime because of poverty and petty theft. The prison closed, when the industries were no longer viable and the inmates were too old or sick, in 1877. I wandered through the ruins and felt a haunting sense of despair, of restless souls…who knew the real stories behind the men who had been locked up here.
Strangely, after the prison closed, the residents of Hobart were keen to seen what the site actually looked like and almost immediately a thriving tourist industry ensued. Many of the secondary buildings were converted to provide hotel accommodation for the visitors to the site in the newly named town of Carnarvon.
Devastating fires ripped through the settlement in the late 1800s leaving some of the sandstone building completely gutted. Over the years, archaeological digs, restoration and conservation of the site has seen many of the buildings returned to their original condition.
There is so much to see so allow yourself at least 2 hours. Entry ($37) includes a guided tour and a boat trip around the bay.
Before we left I wandered through another ruin, now a memorial garden. It was the site of the Broad Arrow café where a lone gunman, in April 1996, massacred 20 innocent tourists. By the end of that horrible day another 15 had been murdered and many more wounded. He was captured by police and is now serving a life sentence. As a result Australia has now got some of the strictest gun control laws in the world.
Port Arthur is an eerily beautiful, but sad place, a living museum that does not sanitize history or mock it with cheesy reenactments. It hopes to tell the real story (and horrors) of convict transportation during Australia’s early European settlement.
Dunalley was our next stop and the place where we’d get something to eat. In 2013 devastating fires also impacted here heavily, destroying many houses, buildings, almost wiping out the town and the once lush forests that surrounded this little fishing village.
We’d returned today to try to find the lovely little restaurant we’d eaten at a few years ago. The town was almost unrecognisable, lots of new buildings, a few burnt out ruins, gardens regrowing, trees re-shooting…a town coming back from the brink of destruction, but no sign of the café. I feared the worse.
Luckily a local woman pointed us in the right direction and I was very pleased to see that the Dunalley Waterfront Cafe was still open for business.
It was a bit too cool to sit on the deck so we opted to eat inside.
Don’t be fooled by the humble interior of this casual little café, chef Ben Bate sources the freshest local produce to come up with a simple menu of some of the regions finest food (this place gets really busy at peak times so it would pay to book ahead to be sure of a table).
The café was were I first tried some amazing Tasmanian Pinot Noir and Riesling and is the cellar door for tasting and sales of the wine from nearby Bream Creek Winery. We ordered a bottle and checked out the menu. I couldn’t go past the seafood but saw there was plenty to choose from if fish wasn’t your thing.
And the rest of us chose the rich fish pie which was packed full of delicious, locally caught seafood (apologies that this photo does not do the dish justice!) and was by far the standout dish of the day.
We finished up with coffee and bought a few bottles of the Bream Creek wine to take back to Hobart.
While we’d been having lunch we’d seen a rather strange looking, three story building perched on a remote little island (connected by a causeway) in the middle of the bay. It looked like the exterior of a shopping centre or a rather drab government building, perhaps even a high security prison. We asked around only to find that nobody knew very much about it at all. With our stomachs full and our curiosity raised we agreed that a bit of an adventure was in order so we decided to leave the main road and follow the coastal track to see if we could get nearer to the mystery building. It wasn’t long before we reached the turn off to the property only to find a locked gate and no chance of a closer look or a better understanding of why it was there in the first place.
A sign post ahead told us we were still vaguely heading in the direction of Hobart, which was handy because there was no phone service and therefore no maps, so we took our chances and continued our country drive to see what we might discover.
Before long we were heading deep into the bush where the track became a little rougher and signs of life a little rarer. We pulled over to check out this rather neglected cemetery. I was amused to see that someone had attempted to restore one of the heavily weathered tombstones using what looked like a felt tipped pen. It told me that Francis Bedelph would have been alive during the time of the Port Arthur penal colony, and even more sadly that the child Elvelina had lived for only a few months and had died in the same year as Francis. It reminded me that this was once a very harsh, remote place and it wasn’t just places like Port Arthur that were filled with sadness.
A sandy path along the side of the cemetery led to a sheltered cove… a secluded place of quiet contemplation. We were still left wondering what on earth that bloody great building was. The answer was to come in the form of a very chatty local fisherman who had arrived at the site to launch his boat. He told us that the building was a fortress, built recently by a millionaire, a doomsday prepper, who thought he’d see out the chaos of an impending Armageddon in this isolated part of the world. Unfortunately the local government planning authority didn’t share his vision and failed to grant him approval to build the monolith or give him permission to blow up the causeway that linked the island to the mainland. The building remains uncompleted and empty to this day. Oops!
With the mystery solved we said farewell to the fisherman and continued along our merry way.
It wasn’t long before we were heading away from the coast, up a mountain and deeper into the forest. When we saw the burnt out remains of this car hidden in the thick bush we agreed that it was time to turn around (it was getting late) and head back home. It didn’t take long to find a sign post that pointed us back in the direction of Hobart and the main road. Because Tasmania is such a small place it wasn’t long (an easy 45 minute drive) before we were back in the city and pulling into the carpark of our apartment.
That night, over a feast of local gourmet treats and wine, we talked about what an interesting day we’d had. We’d all felt the sadness that hovered over Port Arthur and talked about the terror of it’s more recent brutal history. I was pleased to see Dunalley was being rebuilt, that the cafe was still standing and the forests were growing back after the massive bushfires three years ago. We even googled the mystery building but found no further information. Then I started to speculate that maybe the fisherman knew so much because he was the mystery owner and on his way out to that island…..or maybe he was just bullshitting the gullible city slickers who he’d chanced upon, as he was launching his boat, interrupting his quiet afternoons fishing? We will never know!
What we did know was how good it had been to get off the main roads and see more than just the places marked on the tourist maps. However the off-roading would have to wait because tomorrow we were taking the ferry to MONA, the extraordinary art gallery on the Derwent, and one of the main reasons for our trip. That story coming up soon…
Thanks for reading, cheers, Anna x
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The Lost Woman series follows the sexy adventures of Christina as she makes her way through a world of new media, design, fashion, travel, and … men.
A perfect read for those of you looking for something after Fifty Shades of Grey.