By our second week in Tasmania, we had reached the southern coast!
Port Arthur Historic Site
Port Arthur is a tiny town but very popular tourist stop, as it is the home of the (very well-maintained) Port Arthur Historic Site, an important heritage site that (like most heritage sites in a country born of convict colonization) is pretty interesting in a kind of terrible way. Basically, Port Arthur was a convict settlement for secondary offenders, meaning that if you had gotten shipped to Australia for breaking the law in Britain, and then broke the law in Australia, you got shipped to Port Arthur. So, times were extra hard and security was extra tight at Port Arthur, because this was where all worst criminals were. Though by “extra tight” I mean they relied on the sea (most people, even sailors, couldn’t swim in those days) and the endless forest to keep people there. Port Arthur was chosen as the location for the secondary offender prison because it’s on a peninsula, with a 30m strip of land the only connection to the mainland. (Interesting side note: One convict tried to escape that way and went through the effort of putting a kangaroo skin on to sneak by the guards. He didn’t count on the fact that the guards were hungry and tried to hunt him, so he decided to give himself up and be returned to the prison rather than shot for food.)
The main reason for the colony being there was the large swathes of virgin timber. The pine trees there are renowned for ship building because they are immune to certain insects that like to eat boats. This meant that the whole colony was devoted to timber collection and ship building.
In addition to the main prison, there was also a boys prison on the nearby island of Point Puer, which we got to see on a little cruise around the harbour. The idea was to give the boys (you were a punishable adult at about age 7 at that time) a chance to learn a trade and be reintegrated into society. It wasn’t the best success (the Artful Dodger was apparently based on one convict there).
Port Arthur was also notable because it was one of the first prisons to experiment with psychological punishment instead of physical punishment, and so was one of the models for the eventual reform of the penal system. The thought, started by the Quakers in America, was that if a man was just left alone to ponder his crimes, his conscience would tame him where physical punishments had failed. Enter the solitary confinement system. Everyone was left in their room most of the time and could not talk with anyone else other than the guard. To pass time they did various solitary jobs, like making brooms in their cells. Whenever anyone left their cell they wore a hood so they could not be identified. They exercised alone as well. The church was set up so that everyone would stand in telephone booth type places so that they could only see the preacher and no one else. It was pretty creepy.
Unsurprisingly, this isolationism for years caused a large amount of psychological problems in the prisoners. It is interesting that there was a placard explaining how this was all horrible and scientifically shown to be psychologically destabilizing, and in the same sentence points out that solitary confinement is still widespread in Australia and America. Not much has changed.
We camped by Port Arthur, where there were a million pademelons and green rosellas around our campsite. It was pretty exciting (I may or may not have thrown all our extra bread on the ground to see what would happen).
Also by Port Arther is the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo, which is a wildlife park operating under the “fewer walls are better” ideology. They had all the native Tasmanian species, along with some nice presentations. First we watched the very adorable possums and quolls get fed.
They also had about 8 Tasmania devils that got fed at different times during the day. Feeding time is pretty exciting because when the hunk of meat gets thrown into the enclosure, the devils go from cute to terrifying in about a second. Even though there are two devils per enclosure, they only give them a single piece of meat because their natural behaviour is to viciously fight over it as they feed. As a result, older devils often have quite a few scars and pieces of their face missing.
Tasmanian devils also have the strongest bite force to body weight ratio in the animal kingdom, so they eat the entire piece of carcass they are given, bones, fur, and all. It is a bit intense to hear them chomping down the bones.
As with all the wildlife sanctuaries in Australia, there was a big area where you could go and hand feed the kangaroos and pademelons.
We also watched the bird presentation, which included the endemic green rosellas and some other parrots. Chris was particularly pleased because at the end of the presentation you could go hold and pet the tawny frogmouth, which is his favourite bird. The frogmouths at the sanctuary are there because they have been injured and can no longer fly, which means you can give them lots of pats on the head. We also learned that they are not in fact owls but nightjars, which is a bird family I have never heard of before. They get injured because they hunt moths, which are often attracted to car headlights… 🙁
We were pretty excited to arrive in Hobart, because it’s basically THE city in Tasmania. We arrived in Hobart too early to check into our AirBnB, so we decided to visit the museum first.
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
After navigating the pretty inadequate parking situation in downtown Hobart for 45 minutes, we managed to make it to the museum. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery is pretty small, but very Tasmania-centric and modern.
There was a lot of stuff about the Tasmanian Tiger, a.k.a. Thylacine, the largest carnivorous marsupial (of modern times, i.e. excluding the giant marsupials of dinosaur times). The thylacine has only gone extinct in the last hundred years, so people are still pretty sad about it. It was basically hunted to extinction by bounty hunters, who were paid by the government because it was thought that the thylacines were killing farmers’ sheep.
There was also a temporary exhibit on patterns where you could make your face into a kaleidoscope, and a big slab of ice you could touch (no joke) to show Australians what Antarctica is like.
Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary
Our second day in Hobart we drove out to Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a bit north of the city. Bonorong is a centre mainly for rescued wildlife, and also teaches wildlife carer classes, offers internships in wildlife care, and manages a wildlife rescue network. They had quite a few Tasmanian devils we got to see being fed.
They also had some SUPER ADORABLE wombats, including a baby one named Jaz. Apparently wombats are pretty friendly with people until they turn about 2, and then they don’t want anything to do with you anymore. Jaz was so relaxed with the crowd she fell sleep in the arms of the keeper who was giving the wombat talk. You get to pat her on the bum, because wombats have a big fat pad there. So if they are attacked, they just go into their burrow and wedge themselves in with their bum facing out.
The sanctuary also had the first potoroos I’ve ever seen, and many kangaroos to feed, including some little joeys.
There was also a three-legged echidna, who had come to the sanctuary after being injured by something that tried to eat him.
Since we were in Hobart over the weekend, we went to the Salamanca Market, which is a giant Saturday food and craft market. There were a lot of good snacks and Tasmanian-made things.
The Museum of Old and New Art
That afternoon we went to the The Museum of Old and New Art (a.k.a. MONA), which was possibly the part of Tasmania that I was most excited about, because I had been told it was SUPER WEIRD. The MONA is the largest privately owned museum in Australia, and from what I can tell, the owner David Walsh is pretty eccentric and hilarious. The museum is built underground, in this big bunker-like structure. David and his wife (I assume) appear to drive matching electric cars, which have reserved stalls at the museum entrance marked “GOD and “MISTRESS OF GOD”. To get to the museum (it’s upriver of Hobart) you can take the MONA ROMA ferry, which is camo-coloured, staffed with people in military wear, and has statues of sheep to sit on.
Inside the museum you go down a big spiral staircase to get to the galleries. There are no labels on anything, instead everyone gets an iPhone with an app called “The O” on it. “The O” detects which works you are standing by, and then you can select them to get artwork/artist info, accompanying interviews or music, and random David Walsh ramblings about the piece.
The art ranges from ancient, historical pieces (Egyptian sarcophagi for example), to “normal”-type art, to BANANAS CRAZY installations. The best ones are the weirdest ones, of course. There was a waterfall that made random words, and a maze-like room with binary all over the walls.
There was a fat Porsche, and a giant head that used strobe lights to create psychedelic inner brain workings.
There was also about 70 casts of different vaginas, and a man’s back tattoo (the guy just sits there for a couple hours a day), which apparently counts as art as he has sold it for thousands of dollars, on the condition that after his death he is flayed and his skin displayed in a gallery (erm).
Of course the weirdest thing of all was the poo machine, or as Chris called it, “modern art that is actually literally shit”. I think it may have an official name but everyone calls it the poo machine because that’s exactly what is it. Basically, you put food in, and then it goes through all these tubes and chambers where enzymes and gut microflora are added, essentially simulating the human digestive process. And then at 2pm everyone crowds around to watch the machine poo. Which is stupid and hilarious and ridiculous and stinky all at once. The guy who made it is probably a genius.
On our way out of Hobart, we figured we had to drive up to Mount Wellington. We had considered hiking, but in the end were glad we drove because holy cow was it windy up there. Fortunately they have a little shelter, otherwise I don’t think I would have enjoyed the view as I would have been blown over.
Mount Field National Park
After Hobart we headed over to the west coast. On the way we stopped in Mount Field National Park, where we hiked to Russel Falls and also went on the Tall Trees walk, where there were, as expected, some very tall trees.
We stayed in Strahan, a small but frequently visited town, due to its position in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The big “thing to do” in the area is to take a cruise on the Gordon River, since it’s pretty much the only way to see the wilderness. We chose the locally operated World Heritage Cruises, which ended up being a good choice because they had just obtained a brand new boat, and we got to go on its second voyage. The cruise takes all day and there is a pretty nice buffet lunch included. It was a rainy and chilly day out (which I guess is typical in this region) so we were glad we got to ride in a boat all day.
The cruise starts off in Macquarie Harbour, where we saw Hells Gate, the entrance to the harbour, and some cute lighthouses. We also drove by some fish farms, where one of the aquaculture tanks had a silly seal sitting on top trying to get the fish. The fish farmers unsurprisingly don’t like the seals, as they chew the net and eat their fish, so they remove them to other areas. Sharks also eat the fish, but only the dead ones, so not so bad. They have a diver who goes around every week and repairs the nets.
We then visited Sarah Island, the site of another penal colony that is actually older than Port Arthur. There is not much there but ruins, so they have a local theatre company take you on a very animated tour of the area. Times were pretty brutal on Sarah Island and lots of prisoners tried to escape, including the infamous Alexander Pearce, who escaped twice and both times also cannibalized his fellow escapees to survive in the woods (before being recaptured). Eventually the island prisoners banded together, got smart, and basically frustrated the commandant off the island. In the ensuing confusion a shipbuilder came in and decided to give the prisoners whatever they wanted in exchange for their help building ships (they were great at it), as the Tasmanian Wilderness has particularity good ship building wood. So then the island actually turned into a productive ship building colony for a while. Hilariously, the last ship that was built there was stolen by the convicts who built it and sailed to South America.
The rest of the day was spent cruising along the Gordon River, enjoying the wilderness. There is pretty much nothing but trees out there. The important ship building tree is the Huon Pine. It makes particularity good ships because it excretes an oil that makes it flexible and naturally rot resistant. It is extremeeeeemly slow growing, so it takes a long time to repopulate once harvested. Now in the area you can’t harvest them. But given its amazing rot resistant qualities, people still get driftwood and use that (good as the day it was harvested, apparently).
There is one point along the river, called Heritage Landing, where you can get off the boat and take a walk around the wilderness. It’s pretty rainforest-y in there.
Back on shore we watched some Huon Pine being chopped up and looked at a bunch of wooden crafts, before going to warm up with some hot chocolate.
After Strahan, it was time to head back to Devonport. On the way we stopped to visit Montezuma Falls. It was a nice rainforest walk to get to the falls, past lots of little streams and one super creepy abandoned mine shaft that you could go a short ways into (but I did not because it was SUPER SCARY).
It had been raining the last couple days in western Tasmania, so the falls were big and creating a nice rainbow when we were there. Chris wanted to come here mainly because there is a super skinny suspension bridge at the falls you can walk across, so we goofed around on that for a bit.
Finally, it was time to head back to Devonport for the overnight ferry back to Melbourne!