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Under Downunder - Tasmania, Prisons and Panoramas

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

SoPacificThe view from 1,500 feet above Tasmania’s Freycinet National Park is jaw-dropping. Intricately carved mountains and huge rock masses erupt out of the Tasmanian Sea. Water swirls around them and crashes against their rocks. The sea slithers to the shores of sandy bays, leaving a layer of white foam in its wake.

Australia’s sparsely populated, mountainous, southern island state is best known for its stunning panoramas, historic prisons, friendly people and of course, the Tasmanian devil. (Actually, these endangered creatures are not that fearsome.) The real Tasmanian devils were the eighteenth-century commandants of the island’s many penal colonies.

By touring any or all of the Convict Trail’s 11 penal sites, visitors can learn about the harsh prison life that men, women and even children - age seven and up - suffered. Punishment was ruthless. For example, a prisoner could land in solitary confinement for insolence.

Richmond, about 15 miles from Hobart, is home to the oldest gaol (pronounced jail) in Australia. One of its famous inmates was Ikey Solomon. He was the prototype for Fagan in Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Today, Richmond is a quiet, artsy town brimming with galleries and boutiques. Eighteenth-century buildings have been restored. Each one has a story, which is posted outside each structure. “What makes us unique is that nothing has changed in this town since it began,” says Gerald Webb, who is part of a ten-artist co-op we visited.

Unlike Richmond, Port Arthur has no galleries. Its 90 acres, located about 37 miles from Hobart, is the most evocative prison site on the island. Admission ($33) includes a 40-minute tour, a twenty-minute boat excursion and access to 30 buildings. From 1833 to 1877, this “hell on earth” housed prisoners (including children) convicted of perpetual crimes. Escape was impossible, because it was surrounded by water. Based on the ideas of British social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, reform included punishment, education and religion. The prison library had 13,300 books, many of them Bibles. Usual punishments were lashes with the cat of nine tails. Solitary confinement and darkness at the Separate Prison caused many convicts to go insane. Ironically, this building became a dance hall in the 1930s and was said to have the “best damn dance floor around.”

Sarah Island prison (1825) preceded Port Arthur. Located in a rainforest on the west coast, conditions and punishments were harsh. “It was liberty or death for convicts,” says guide, Alessandro Frousaul. Those that did escape forged “convict routes.” Many “routes” are today’s roads.

Sarah Island is accessible on Strahan’s Gordon River Cruise which also includes the scenic Tasmanian Wilderness, a World Heritage Site. What makes this tour fun is that the guide is actually an actor. On Sarah Island, he picks out people from the group to act the part of different prison characters like Dr. Garrett, the dipsomaniac everyone hated, and William Sylvester, the streaker.

Island Beauty
The island is not totally about penitentiaries. On the north end of the island alongside the Tamar River is the charming town of Launceston. Launceston’s Pepper’s Seaport Hotel is a good value, well situated plus has top-notch accommodations and service (www.peppers.com.au/seaport).

On an autumn day, Cataract Gorge is the place to be. Ride the world’s longest chairlift (1,011 feet) for an all-encompassing view of the South Esk River’s suspension bridge, cataracts and hiking trails and the rainbow of fall colors. Another way to enjoy the fall foliage is to explore the Tamar Valley Wine Route and sample some of the tasty Pinot Noirs and Pinot Gris’ of the region’s 23 mom and pop vineyards.

Bordering the Tasmanian Sea is the crown jewel of Tasmania - Wineglass Bay. As it gets farther from shore, the rounded bay narrows like the stem of a wineglass. Tasmania’s most iconic image is located in Freycinet National Park. The park itself is a fine-tuned collection of wilderness, rocks, beaches, mountains, hiking trails and sunsets that will knock your socks off. Freycinet Lodge (www.freycinetlodge.com.au) sits in its wilderness. It isn’t unusual for a curious wallaby to greet you at your cabin door.

It seems like everyone does 45-minute trek to view Wineglass Bay. The path weaves upward, with lots of stone steps and to a panoramic view of Cole Bay and its harbor. The curvy trail continues and finally rounds a bend. Looking like an inverted wineglass, the turquoise-colored bay unfurls. A slither of sand borders the water.

Visitors to Australia often bypass Tasmania. That’s a shame. They miss friendly people spectacular scenery, good wine and intriguing history. Visit www.discovertasmania.com

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