Despite being full, even the car park felt eerie, although I initially allowed that this might have been due to the wintery weather. All I really knew about Port Arthur is that it was a protected tourist site where a significant amount of people were killed during a massacre by a madman in the '90s. While this is true, it seems the Port Arthur Visitor Centre focuses - appropriately - on the site's original history as a convict settlement, now an 'open air museum' and Tasmania's top tourist attraction.
The Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, which runs the joint, knows its popularity, too: innocent tourists (like us) drive there specifically, only to be whacked with exorbitant ticket prices, the cheapest of which is the Bronze pass at $35.00 per adult. Though by the end of our visit I did feel it had been worth it, and I imagine there'd be a lot of upkeep costs involved. (There's also a night-time ghost tour available - now THAT would've been cool!)
When you first walk out of the clean, but rather bland Visitor Centre, you face some lovely, English-looking gardens:
And just down the path is a glimpse of convicty-looking building ruins:
We diverted, though, to the ferry terminal, as our 20-minute "Introductory Tour & Harbour Cruise" (included with the Bronze pass, thankfully) was about to leave.
The boat was heated (necessary that day, trust me - my housemate was going to skip it, if it hadn't been!) and comfortably seated everyone with seats to spare, allowing most passengers a window view. The boat staff, although friendly and attentive, seemed a little unprofessional. They were visibly surprised - almost excited - when one poor soul began suffering seasickness, and the tour host happily but unwittingly rushed through her speech with a lack of projection or conviction, her run-of-the-mill jokes bouncing emptily off the bewildered and unimpressed audience.
Nevertheless, the boat ride was a mild and pleasant introduction to Port Arthur (but then, I always like being around water) - especially after sitting in the car for the best part of two hours. The boat chugged out from Mason Cove, around the Isle of the Dead, into the choppy waters out past the heads, and back to the terminal. The tour host mainly talked about what it would have been like to have been based at Port Arthur as a convict (many of which were children) or as an official, amid myriad dodgy characters and with scarce resources at hand.
After docking, we took ourselves on a self-guided walking tour of the main buildings. The largest, though possibly the most decrepit, was the Penitentiary:
The most visibly interesting was the Commandment's Office, with beautifully variant shades of bricks in its remaining walls, and lovely views back over the cove:
The most official, the Guard Tower:
And the creepiest, the Catholic chapel at one end of the Penitentiary. As soon as I walked in here, I felt cold (and it was totally protected from wind). This was where I suddenly felt the force of Port Arthur's history - all those convicts who had passed through, worked, suffered, even tried to repent. There were definitely some sad and troubled souls stuck around here.
We also passed a couple of neatly preserved little cottages - Policemen's Quarters, I think:
And right at the back was the former Asylum, with an unimpressive coffee shop attached. Just next door was the Separate Prison, where some prisoners were housed in solitary confinement. I liked how the cells here were presented: some you could walk into, reconstructed authentically with hammocks, washbasins, and other basic necessities; others were closed off but you could peer through the door hatch to read about individuals' own fates; others still were, suggestively, closed off completely, encouraging the modern visitor's empathy for what it might have felt like, knowing there was a convict on the other side of that locked door - or even being one.
At each corner of the Separate Prison were triangular-shaped courtyards, used for stripping and washing incoming convicts, for keeping individuals separated, or for flogging.
By the end of our visit, I had pretty much forgotten about the massacre. I'm glad, actually: it seems almost inappropriate to focus on a modern tragedy at a place that already held so much tragic history. I felt humbled by this tiny pocket of the world, just one fraction of our national beginnings.
If you are considering going to Port Arthur, a few pointers:
- Wear shoes that can withstand slimy mud, and a warm jacket.
- Be prepared to ride on a boat for 20 minutes, and for doing a lot of walking.
- Read and look at everything. A lot of work has gone into the maintenance and set-up.
- Allow half a day.
- Take your own food and water if you can; it's expensive on-site!
- If you want to learn about the massacre -- Google it.