Port Arthur, Tasmania: Kinda Like Williamsburg, Virginia meets Alcatraz

Port Arthur is a small town situated within a peninsula in Southeast Tasmania. In fact, the peninsula is so narrow where it connects to the rest of the state that the entire area was used as a prison. The narrow passage was called Eaglehawk Neck, and at one point it’s no more than 100 meters across. To prevent escape attempts by the prisoners, an infamous “Dog Line” was put across the entrance — 18 dogs tethered at points in a line to help spot escapees. They even placed some in platforms in the water to alert soldiers of swimmers trying to get across the short expanse towards the other shore.

Eaglehawk Neck was also home to a few natural sights, like the Tesselated Pavement, the Tasman Arch, Devil’s Kitchen and the Blowhole.

That morning a light rain fell on our campground. My tent was waterproof, so I had little to worry about, but Steffen’s wasn’t, and by morning he had small puddles of water on the floor of his tent. There were four of us, but since Ben and Jake didn’t have tents, they swapped between one person sleeping in the car and one sleeping in Steffen’s two-man. That night had been Jakes turn, but since he was on the floor near the water, and not on an air mattress like Steffen, he moved into the car early in the morning. We cleaned up as best we could and packed up the wet tents.

Thirty minutes later we pulled into the Tesselated Pavement. The “pavement” is a shelf of rock that had been carved out of the side of a cliff. Natural joints had formed from earthquakes, but occurred in a cris-cross structure. Further erosion by the sea had formed a pavement like matrix in the rock. It was amazing to see something that appeared so manmade had actually occurred naturally. Next came the Tasman Arch and Devil’s Kitchen. Both were the result of water eroding away a small cave and exposed joints, or cracks, in the side of a cliff. Tasman’s Arch occurred when the water had eroded away so much of the cave that the the back of the roof of the cave collapsed, leaving an arch to the sea.

Devil’s Kitchen started the same way, but the roof of the arch itself collapsed, leaving a deep gorge that cut into the cliff. You could even see where two new caves had been formed by the lapping of the waves, and the joints that would eventually give way to new rock formations.

We also took a walk to Paterson’s Arch, but you already know the story, right?

Next came the blowhole, yet another collapsed cave that now forced the water inland into a small area, now exposed, that would have been the back of the former cave. The strength of the current driving the water through the cave and into the rocks caused some big sprays, hence the name.

Modern-day Port Arthur is one giant tourist attraction, much like Williamsburg, Virginia. In fact, you can only enter the convict settlement on foot, after buying a ticket at the visitor’s center. The ticket cost an absurd $25, but was good for two consecutive days. We decided to find some accomodation first, then head into the settlement.

The caravan park offered bunkhouses for $16 a night, and since it was the only one in town, we took it. Showers were available for $0.20 per 5 minutes. I changed $2 into twenty-cent coins; this was gonna be the shower to top all showers. None of us had changed clothes or gotten even close to falling hot water in nearly a week. Both ourselves and the car smelled ripe. Jake would often gag when he entered Steffen’s tent after Steffen had removed his shoes and socks. We bought a pine tree car freshener at a gas station in Sorell, but the poor thing could only do so much.

Back at Port Arthur, we found out that our tickets also got us a boat ride around the bay. They had a pretty neat idea of giving each person a playing card, corresponding to a prisoner who’s story you could follow downstairs, where the life and times of the prisoners were described in impressive detail. My prisoner was the ten of clubs, John Thomas, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve completely forgotten what he did. I remember he worked in the boatyard, though, and was generally a good prisoner.

After reading about how they handled the prisoners, we made our way to the ferry to catch the boat. The boat took us around the waters off Port Arthur and gave us a running commentary about the different areas. Did you know that back then you could be sent to jail at 7 years old and hanged at 9? There was an entire area of the peninsula dedicated to young boys who had been charged with crimes, called Point Puer.

At 4:30 we were included in a short, guided tour of the grounds and given a little bit of information about all the buildings in the settlement. The tour guide was quite knowledgeable and the tour was well organized. We walked around the grounds for a bit, but decided to reserve most of our sight-seeing for the morning.

On the way back to the dorm, we stopped at a bottleshop and picked up a slab of Carlton Draughts. Everyone immediately made a break for the showers. When we were clean, we cooked our pasta and played a drinking game Jake taught us called Trapped.

And of course, we shared stories, like Ben’s mate in Thailand who had gotten in a drunk argument with his girlfriend and, while storming off, tripped and crashed through a coffee table, puncturing his right eye. He later lost the replacement glass eye in the sea while swimming. How much it would suck to have such an accident only because you were drunk? And how cool it would be if he got a glass eye with a funky design on it, like a bullseye?

Lleyton Hewitt, the pride of Australia and Australian Open hopeful, was playing Fernando Gonzales that night and I stayed up to watch Gonzales knock Hewitt out of the tournament. Gonzales would go on to challenge Federer in the finals, but there I would watch him lose the match. Keep an eye out for that story, it’s a good one (has little to do with the tennis match, rather the pub in which we watched it).

Stay tuned for day two at Port Arthur, one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever done and an old travelling laborer named “The Captain”.

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