Beauty and sadness live hand-in-hand from Hobart to Turrakana / Tasman Peninsula, where sites of brutal 19th-century convict punishment are preserved amid wondrous scenery.
Plan four days for the Convict Trail. The travel distances are small – Hobart to the Port Arthur Historic Site is only 100km – but this is slow-travel territory filled with distractions, so ease off the accelerator and listen for stories of crime and misfortune, loneliness and heartbreak.
From Hobart, it’s just 27km to postcard-pretty Richmond, in the Coal River Valley. Wander the cafes, shop for handicrafts and stay overnight in its Georgian-era buildings. Convict-built attractions include Richmond Bridge, which is Australia’s oldest stone arch bridge, and Australia’s oldest intact prison, Richmond Gaol, built in 1825.
The Arthur Highway meanders down to the fishing village of Dunalley, and across the hand-cut Denison Canal that leads onto the Forestier Peninsula, before crossing a narrow isthmus at Teralina / Eaglehawk Neck onto Turrakana / Tasman Peninsula.
At the isthmus, the Officers’ Quarters Museum tells stories of the Dog Line – a string of savage dogs was kept at this neck of land, less than 100m wide at one point, to prevent convicts from escaping their fate at the feared Port Arthur penal colony.
Established in 1830, Port Arthur Historic Site is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site – it deserves at least a full day and night to hear the stories of life at Tasmania’s most famous convict settlement. About 12,500 convicts served sentences in harsh conditions here – the very worst were sent to the Coal Mines Historic Site, across the peninsula, for the hardest of hard labour. Tickets, valid for two days, include a 20min harbour cruise and an introductory tour – visit the tombstones on the Isle of the Dead and hear the larger-than-life tales of those who tried to escape.
What’s that sound? A tap on the shoulder, a lonesome cry… As darkness falls, the stories of Port Arthur grow larger on an eerie ghost tour through the ruins, lit only by flickering lanterns. More than 1000 souls died here, each with a tale of hardship, loneliness and despair. No wonder the site is considered to be haunted.
While the dramatic Blowhole and perilous-looking Tasmans Arch and Devils Kitchen trench near Teralina / Eaglehawk Neck make fabulous photos for today’s travellers, they were further proof for Port Arthur’s convicts of just how far from the gentle home shores of the British Isles they really were.
Lace up the hiking boots and set out on the Three Capes Track, or take a sea journey with Tasman Island Cruises to see the towering sea cliffs of Cape Hauy, and Cape Pillar. Keep eyes open for dolphins, seals and white-bellied sea eagles. In the 19th century, this wild coast and ocean were simply more barriers against escape for the convicts of Port Arthur.