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Like many people, I was aware of modern day Australia’s roots as a penal colony for the British Empire. What I didn’t know was that out of the 165,000 convicts transported to The Land Down Under (where women glow and men plunder), tiny little Tasmania received 75,000. Most of the convicts were released to live freely and given a fresh start in their new land, while repeat offenders were again sent to prison. Port Arthur was the largest such penal station in Australia.

Port Arthur was known for its brutality. Prisoners were tasked with manual labor jobs that are usually reserved for beasts of burden, including carrying giant blue gum trees (a task that was dubbed the ‘centipede gang’ due to taking 50 men to carry the massive wood) and manually pushing railcars up and over mountains into and out of camp. In addition to death, physical punishment also included lashes from the infamous cat o’ nine tails. This was considered humane when compared to the psychological torture endured by residents. There was a separate prison that had 100 rules, most notably the requirement for absolute silence at all times. Many prisoners ended up developing – or furthering – mental illness.

There are a number of stories about the characters that inhabited the penal station. The most common is that of Billy Hunt. The only way to escape the peninsula by land was through a 30 meter wide isthmus that was well guarded and eventually had very nasty dogs to supplement the personnel. Prior to the arrival of the canines, Billy Hunt procured a kangaroo skin, put it on, and proceeded to hop to freedom. This worked well until one of the guards (who were severely underfed) raised his rifle to shoot some dinner. Billy revealed his identity and was returned to captivity.

Much like Alcatraz, Port Arthur is a truly beautiful place to have such a dark past. The most notable difference between the two, something which also separates Port Arthur from most every other prison, is the lack of fences. The campus is wide open, very green, and picturesque. There are about 30 buildings – or their remains – on the property. The two most famous are the Penitentiary and the church. The Penitentiary is a huge building that was originally built as a wheat mill, but, when that didn’t pan out, ended up being a confinement building for the worst of offenders. Built by convicts, the cathedral, or what’s left of it, anyways, is big and beautiful. My host in Hobart was in a wedding that took place there last year.

As much as I loathe day tours, I’ve found myself on several this trip and Port Arthur was no exception. Unless you rent a car (which makes no sense if you’re on your own), there are limited transportation options and catching the bus can often cost more than a tour. Once again, I found myself riding to a tourist attraction in a van, stopping briefly along the way to snap photos before being herded back on like cattle, and making friends with people older than my parents. This wouldn’t be as bad if alcohol wasn’t so expensive here, but I made the best of it and still managed to have a good time.

Like CRADLE MOUNTAIN, the Port Arthur tour was extremely touristy, but the ends justified the means. Upon arrival, we went on a 45 minute guided tour, a free service offered to all visitors. The briefing was informative and interesting. We then had 45 minutes to walk around before our harbor cruise. The half hour boat ride took us past the first boys prison facility in the British Empire, Point Puer, as well as Port Arthur’s cemetery, the Island of the Dead. After returning to land, we had just under 2 hours to explore PA. The weather was absolutely perfect and although I had to be conscious of the time, it was a sufficient window to take in Port Arthur.

Port Arthur was what I expected it to be and I was satisfied with the experience. The history is fascinating and the setting is beautiful. Unsurprisingly, the place is said to be haunted and ghost tours are offered nightly. It’s worth checking out PA if you find yourself in southern Tasmania.

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