His Natural Life

Earlier in the year I made a series of new galleries of the Tasman peninsula for Detail, catching up on a four-year backlog and five trips out there to see my folks. A year after my last visit, I was out there again in July and August with the kids, and this time took them to the most significant tourist attraction on the peninsula, indeed in the entire state: the convict settlement of Port Arthur.

Port Arthur

Port Arthur was a regular day trip in my childhood; we probably visited it once every couple of years. I remember the chapel in the Separate Prison making a particular impression on me, with its pews separated by barriers so that each prisoner could look only at the chaplain: Bentham’s panopticon in reverse. The Guard Tower also made quite an impression, as it was as near as we came in Tassie to a proper castle. Port Arthur’s ruins were very much to us as Historic Scotland properties are to my own kids.

I last visited it in the early 1990s, with J. and a good friend from England who had come over to check out this weird far-flung place that I came from. My main memory of that visit is the three of us in the car park next to the cafe, which goes to show that memory is fickle and it must have been a pretty impressive car park.

It isn’t where the car park is any more, because of what happened a few years later. I’ve mentioned a couple of times here in the past the impact those events had on me and on all Tasmanians, most fully on an entry about a charity single. The cafe at the heart of it is now a concrete shell, with a reflective pool where the car park was, a sombre and moving memorial to those who died.

Memorial Garden, Port Arthur, Tasmania

The whole place is a sombre and moving memorial, really, to the miserable souls who ended up there almost two centuries ago. I had held off visiting it with the kids until they were old enough to appreciate it, so now that my eldest is twelve and his sister is eight and obsessed with Horrible Histories, the time seemed right. We had a perfect winter’s day to visit it, with sunshine for almost the entire day apart from a few clouds mid-afternoon, which cleared again at the end. And as we were staying only a few kilometres away, we were able to get there well before the tour buses from Hobart.

The whole site is looking in great shape, with everything carefully preserved and, where appropriate, restored. Most of the settlement was burnt down in a late-19th-century bushfire, hence the ruins, but some of the houses around the edges survived, so there’s plenty to see. We took all day, with a brief tour at the beginning, then a boat trip around the Isle of the Dead (the cemetery for Port Arthur), and then making our own way around the many buildings. The kids really enjoyed it, as did I.


Apart from Port Arthur, we did less exploring of the peninsula than usual, as our visit was dominated by our trip to the West Coast and time spent in Dad’s workshop and Mum’s garden. But I got some good photos of White Beach, a walk from Stewarts Bay to the edge of Port Arthur, and some amazing sunsets—one of the benefits of visiting in winter is you’re more likely to see them.

My favourite photo, though, might be the last in the gallery, pixelated though it looks. On our return from the West Coast, getting back late at night, we saw more wildlife beside the road in the few miles before my parents’ place than on the entire rest of the trip. Arriving at their house, I turned off the car headlights and stepped out into total darkness—not a house nearby had its lights on, and of course neither did theirs. Overhead was a clear, black sky, lit up by the Milky Way, with the Southern Cross lying on its side near the southern horizon. I stood outside for a few minutes taking it all in, remembering similar nights outside our house in Huonville as a kid: the night skies in rural Tasmania during a new moon are some of the darkest in the world.

On a whim, I tried photographing the stars with my compact camera, propping it on the ground on a stubby tripod and setting its exposure time and aperture as long and wide as they would go. The resulting photos looked like black rectangles, but when you apply the Auto Contrast feature in Photoshop, you get... what you see on the last slide. It’s a fraction of the effect of seeing it in person, but it was fun to try.

Tasman VII

12 October 2019 · Travel