Looking for devils and bandits on Tasmania’s Convict Trail

Posted on 23 October 2013

The Convict Trail is one of many overland heritage and wilderness touring routes across Tasmania. Leaving Hobart behind, we crossed over the famous Tasman bridge over the Derwent River, over the long causeway to Sorell and then up the east coast. We were headed for the Tasman Peninsula to visit Port Arthur, a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the most infamous penal colonies in Australia in the 1800s.

To get there we crossed a narrow isthmus called Eaglehawk Neck – known as the dogline where a row of 18 vicious dogs on land and on sea platforms guarded against any convict escape. A monument with a fierce bronze dog on a chain stands there. We had lunch in the asylum – and I’m glad to say the food has improved since the 1800s!

When we arrived at Port Arthur we were given a playing card with our convict identity – and followed our own convict trail through the prison system. We did a walking tour of many of the cluster of thirty or so sandstone heritage buildings set in this natural penitentiary, the solitary, grim silent cells of the special prison, the asylum, the officer’s quarters and the churches, parsonages and shipwrights stations.

Between 1830 and 1877, 12 500 convicts passed through what the convicts called “hell on earth” – sent to Van Diemen’s Land for committing crimes on the Australian mainland – and as Irish political prisoners. We did a boat tour out to the atmospheric isle of the dead and to Point Puer Boys Prison, the first purpose built juvenile prison in the British empire – where hundreds of boys from 9 – 17 years old were incarcerated for crimes of stealing food and clothes. This sad place reminded me of Alcatraz, Robben Island, Ushuaia (Patagonia) and other historic prisons I’ve visited.

Tasmanians speak openly about their convict heritage today. What was once seen as a skeleton in the family closet is now worn as a badge of pride. One of the sixth generation Tasmanians I met estimated that around 70% of islanders are descended from a. convict ancestor. At Port Arthur you can look up your convict past on an ancestry website in the old asylum – I found two Howe’s there, including the notorious bush ranger Michael Howe, the Ned Kelly of Tasmania! Coincidentally my boet’s name is Michael but that’s as far as any family ties go – but you never know.

Bruce Hull, our excellent guide from Premier Travel Tasmania, one of the top travel operators on the island, said, “Up until recently a convict ancestry was seen as a stain … It would be seen as a badge of honour today … part of the growth of national pride. I’m descended from convicts myself, from Adam Pennicott who stole a sheep!” Ex cons used to work as guides at Port Arthur. Of course convicts were often transported from 19th century England for very minor crimes for stealing bread, food and clothes.

One of the best ways to see the ragged coastline of the nearby Tasman peninsula is by boat with Tasman Island Cruises – run by Robert Pennicott. A winner of many Tasmanian awards for excellence in sustainable tourism, Pennicott Wilderness Journeys take you on a cruise to see the amazing geological formations – the eroded blowholes, limestone stacks called totem pole, candlestick and the devil’s kitchen cavern.

The amazing basalt and limestone formations of Cape Pillar reminded me of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland – down to the ancient tessellated pavements. Its worth popping into Dootown too – where every fishing shack is wittily named Love me Doo, Doo Write, Doo Me, Doo little …! The Tasmanians have a quirky sense of humour. I spotted a sign at a bridge which quipped, “Wye River – cos its bigger than a creek!”

I drove 200 kilometres up the coastal road from Hobart to Coles Bay. Maria Island, a national park connected by ferry from Triabunna is well worth a stopover. You can sleep over in the old penitentiary – and do some amazing hikes to see the wildlife! The Tasmanian devil, the most ferocious marsupial carnivore – and icon of the island – are being relocated here to breed in isolation from the facial tumour endangering its survival.

I headed further up the east coast to the gateway to Freycinet, Tasmania’s oldest national park – a whole peninsula (say like Cape Point) with crystal blue beaches, day walks and amazing wildlife and granite landscapes. I had wallabies and possums on my doorstep at my cabin at Freycinet Lodge – and had to drive very slowly to make sure I didn’t collect more wildlife to the Tasmanian devil depicted on my number plate.

I did a day hiking trail to wineglass bay – which whetted an appetite for a mussel and oyster tasting at Freycinet Marine Farm with oyster farmer Giles Fisher. I also did dinner at Saffire, one of the top luxury lodges in Australia (A$2000 – or R20 000 for the night) – and a mere A$200 (R2000) for the degustation menu where I enjoyed the cuisine of Hugh Whitehouse one of Tasmania’s top chefs. He’s renowned for his pepperberry coated Flinders wild wallaby – Cape Grim beef, local black lip abalone and Wessex saddleback pork. I had to walk it all off on another trail up Mt Amos!

En route back to Hobart I spent the day exploring Coal Valley, one of five wine routes around Tasmania, which is famous for its cool climate wines, especially sparkling wine, pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling. Located thirty minutes north of Hobart, this boutique gourmet route takes you past the barilla bay oyster farm, the wicked cheese company – home of Australia’s champion brie – and to wine tastings at Pooley, Frogmore Creek, Puddleduck (where they have fifty ducks with names like Gregory Peck and corgies named after Fawlty Towers) and Meadowbank.

Richmond village is the quaint winelands village at the heart of Coal Valley – a 1820s heritage showpiece of a typical convict settlement with its old sandstone gaol, styone bridge, courthouse, buildings and guesthouses. I’d highly recommend a boutique wine tour with David Jones, who specialises in day tours of the Coal Valley – to visit the cheesery, wineries and village of Richmond. A highlight was a tasting of all nine whiskies made in Tasmania by Julie Crane who runs The Tasting House – a wonderful village deli and whisky bar in Richmond.

The renaissance of Tasmanian whisky was pioneered by the Lark Distillery in the early 1990s when they made the first commercial Tassie whisky in over 150 years since the bad old convict days of 1839. To do this, Bill Lark had to get the Distillery Act of 1901 amended – as the Governor Sir John Franklin had banned whisky making for “the betterment of the fledgling colony!” I did a tasting with Bill Lark at his waterfront whisky bar in one of Hobart’s delightful old sandstone buildings. His Tasmanian whiskies have won awards all over the world – made from local Franklin malted barley (named after the prohibitionist governor!), peat and spring water.

Maria Island is rated #17 and Saffire Freycinet is rated #22 in the 100 Incredible Travel Secrets of Australia, a prestigious annual checklist published by Australian Traveller in Apr 2013.

* Graham Howe attended the Australian Tourism Exchange (ATE 2013) as a guest of Qantas and Tourism Australia. To find out more about tourist attractions in Australia – see www.australia.com, www.pennicottjourneys.com.au, www.discovertasmania.com and www.boutiquewinetourstas.com.au.

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