Imagine being sent to the other side of the world as a prisoner, to a remote island with nothing but ocean between it and Antarctica. Imagine windy, rainy and erratic weather conditions most of the year as you spend each day in the back-breaking work of building a colony. Imagine moving the bodies of those who die to another island just offshore – you call it the “Isle of the Dead”. Imagine you finish serving your prison sentence but are too old to return home to England. You die in the penal colony and join the others on the Isle of the Dead.
Welcome to Port Arthur, Tasmania.
Sound intriguing? It certainly does to me. If you have a few days in Hobart, a day trip to Port Arthur is an incredible experience, especially if, like me, you have a fascination with the darker side of history.
The penal colony and Port Arthur Penitentiary were established in 1830 as a place where English authorities sent repeat offenders from England for imprisonment and reform. As you may already know, England colonized Australia primarily with inmates and the military who guarded them. Tasmania, in particular, was a harsh place to send the prisoners, situated seemingly at the end of the world with cold and windy weather.
By 1840, more than 2000 people lived here. Though no new prisoners arrived after 1853, ex-convicts who had served their time stayed. Going back home was too far a trip, and nothing was left for them there anyway. Port Arthur became a welfare camp, housing those too sick or old to go anywhere else. During this time a separate prison opened as a “lunatic asylum” with the goal of mental reform, treating the patients with kindness, and providing a clean and calm environment. However, patients were still required to complete prisoners’ work alongside one another; their disturbing behavior, allegedly, shattered any hope of a calm environment.
More recently, Port Arthur sadly became the location of Australia’s biggest mass shooting in 1996. Thirty-five people died. Immediately after, Australia passed strict gun control laws and have not had any mass shootings since.
There are many interesting places you can stop and visit along the way to Port Arthur. Below is our itinerary, which will help you make the most of the trip without being over-packed or rushed.
You will need a rental car, or you can go on a guided day tour like this one offered via Viator’s website. This same tour is also available using Chase Ultimate Rewards for 7,000 points.
Tim and I both have the Chase Ultimate Rewards Sapphire Reserve Card. It has a larger annual fee ($450 per year), but it comes with $300 cash back on travel purchases and access to airport lounges around the world (which typically range from $20-50 per visit without a pass). If you apply and are approved, you can earn 50,000 bonus points. That is the equivalent of about seven tours to Port Arthur. Note: I will also receive a small commission in points if you apply and are approved. Learn more here.
The Tessellated Pavement is an area of rocky shoreline where the magic of water erosion and salt has left straight lines crossing the rock forming perfect-looking rectangular engravings. The lines are so exact, they look man-made.
This is a fun place to take photos – you’ve got the ocean, the unique geology of the place, and few enough other tourists to enjoy it for a bit. I especially love the reflections against the smooth squares of the ground.
Eagle Hawk Neck
This is your first stop pertaining to the penal colony history. The neck is a thin strip of land that connects the Tasman Peninsula. The spot is home to a fascinating history. On the southern end was the Penitentiary, and towards the north, freedom. To guard against would-be escapees, this strip of land was monitored by soldiers and vicious dogs who were kept hungry and trained to attack. The only other escape route was a precarious sea journey, so not very many people succeeded in escaping the prison.
While here you can visit one of the buildings that served as guards’ quarters and a short loop path indicating where the dog line was.
When visiting Port Arthur, your ticket includes a guided introductory tour of the main grounds as well as a harbor cruise. If you also buy a ticket to either the Isle of the Dead or Point Puer, this harbor cruise will drop you off on whichever of the two islands you’re visiting with a guide who will take you around and tell you about the interesting history. You cannot visit either without a guide.
Because of the timing when we arrived, our harbor cruise and tour of the Isle of the Dead cemetery were before our grounds tour. The harbor cruise itself is pretty dry, and honestly unless you’re doing one of the island tours I would probably skip it and spend more time exploring the grounds. The Isle of the Dead, though, was very interesting. It’s a small island and the whole thing is a cemetery where prisoners, soldiers and their families were buried.
We didn’t visit Point Puer, but did see it during the cruise. This was the site of a boys’ prison, for young men between 14-17. The intent was to keep them separated from the bad influences of the older men in the main prison, in hopes of reforming them and teaching them a trade so they can reenter society productively.
Back on the mainland, Tim and I joined our introductory tour and then explored the grounds a bit on our own. The most interesting building to me was the solitary confinement prison, where even the church pews inside were divided in such a way that inmates could file into their spots without ever seeing each other. The ruins of the church and the neighboring (and haunted) parsonage were also fascinating. The grounds are huge and you are welcome to explore almost everything. You can easily spend hours here- and we did. They even offer evening ghost tours.
Port Arthur was one of the most interesting places we visited in Tasmania. Its history is dark and sometimes sad, but admittedly this is a big reason why the visit is so compelling.
What’s one of the eeriest or darkest places you’ve visited in your travels? Would you recommend it to others?
Read More: Our 3-week Tasmania Road Trip