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Unearthly, forest-clad Tasmania shows an unexpected side to Australia

Discover an Australian island where convicts were sent to be forgotten, huge cliffs mark the last frontier before Antarctica, and ancient forests wriggle with mysterious creatures
Cape Raoul was one of the frst sights to greet early 19th-century convicts being transported by ship to Tasmania

Wild at heart


THE SQUAWK OF A BLACK cockatoo rings out across the bay like the sound of an unoiled hinge. From the water’s edge, a velvet lawn stretches up a hill dotted with fne old sandstone buildings, neat weatherboard houses and a church tower, with fowering gardens and long avenues of oaks set against a backdrop of rustling gum trees. Known as Port Arthur, this small settlement is located in the southeastern corner of Australia’s island state; on a sunny day like today, it’s hard to imagine that this was once one of the most feared places in the British Empire.

For much of the 19th century, the name Van Diemen’s Land – as Tasmania was then known – was whispered in dread among those most likely to fnd themselves on the wrong side of the pitiless Victorian justice system. Seemingly as close to the edge of the map as it’s possible to go, Van Diemen’s Land was a perfect oubliette, a blessedly distant home for British society’s least wanted. Creaking wooden ships were loaded with convicts, from murderers to the pettiest of thieves, and sent from Mother England on a perilous six-month journey across the ocean. Until the scheme was abandoned in 1853, over 70,000 criminals had been sent here, and the island’s most notorious prison was located by this calm harbour.

Port Arthur guide, Mel Andrewartha.

‘It’s a beautiful location for a prison, and even some of the convicts acknowledged that at the time,’ says Port Arthur guide, Mel Andrewartha. She wanders across the neat lawn, hair sparkling bronze in the sun. ‘But it was feared for a reason. It was a famously brutal place, just by the nature of the treatment that was handed out.’

Port Arthur’s penitentiary, built in 1843, could hold 480 convicts.

The gravelled yard by the foreshore, that is today disturbed only by the crunch of visitors’ shoes, was once a site of bloody discipline. Public foggings were delivered via cat o’ nine tails – a scourge with nine whip-ends, each knotted with a leaden weight to more effectively tear at the fesh. The standard sentence of 100 lashes could see a prisoner’s back fayed to the bone. Afterward, guards would apply a dousing of salt water in an excruciating attempt to disinfect the wounds. ‘It’s hard to conceive that anyone could survive it,’ Mel says with a shake of her head, ‘but they did.’

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