October 28: What a great weekend! Tasmania is a rugged island, steeped in convict history and breathtaking in its wild beauty. I made the most of my few days there and can’t wait to go back!
Found in 1642 by the once powerful seafaring Dutch, van Deimans land (now Tasmania, after Dutch explorer Abel Tasman) was settled by the first fleet of sailors and convicts to arrive in 1803 in present-day Hobart. Now Tasmania has around 500,000 inhabitants, most of whom live in Hobart, using the same wharfs, streets, and buildings built by convicts and used by the early settlers. According to one of my tour bus drivers, the main industries are tourism and forestry, though there is a large zinc mine nearby. I was a great tourist – saw a few Tasmanian Devils and cruised on the Tasman Sea – and I also bought some souvenirs made from Huon pine. I didn’t see any zinc, though, unless it is in the coins that I freely spent.
Saturday morning: Salamanca Market is a must-see on Saturday mornings. Started in 1972, the market brings together people selling food, crafts, and lots and lots of soap made with lavender, goats’ milk, and/or olive oil. Food stalls sold everything from west to east, poffertjes (yum!) to spring rolls. I was in my heritage element – I had a weisswurst for breakfast and an oliebollen for a snack.
Saturday afternoon: Who can visit Tasmania without seeing Tasmanian Devils? I took a ride to Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, a facility dedicated to rehabilitating wild animals that have been hit by cars, maimed by domestic animals, or caught in traps. It currently houses six devils, three wombats, four koalas (not native to Tasmania), and a whole lot of birds and kangaroos. My favorite animals were the Tassie Devils and the wombats! (Okay, and the koalas, this time with a baby!)
The story of the Tasmanian Devils is actually quite sad. Numbering over 300,000 just a few years ago, their numbers are down to around 50,000 and many people think the animals won’t be around after 2020. Ironically, this decrease in population isn’t due to habitat destruction or purposeful eradication but rather to a contagious facial tumor disease that is passed by bacteria through their saliva. Now wholly protected, the Tasmania Devil is embraced by the people of Tasmania as a unique link to their island state.
The wombats also got my attention! I had seen one at Koala Park, but this is the first time I saw that they can be very gentle, allowing people to hold and pet them. These animals can travel up to 40 km/hour (25 mph) for about 90 seconds (!), pretty fast considering they can weigh between 20 and 35 kg (44 – 77 lb). A unique adaptation of the wombat is its bony hindplate. If a predator tries to attack from behind, it can get knocked out by the plate! Or get its head crushed by the wombat’s strong hind legs. Our guide kept tapping on the plate and Morris didn’t flich at all! Wombats are protected under Australian law, and habitat destruction is affecting their populations; the northern Hairy Nose Wombat is threatened with extinction. However, because wombats are quite popular with the public, there are several organizations that care for them, so perhaps the remaining species will survive over time.
We ended the day in Richmond, another town with a convict connection. The Richmond Gaol is the oldest intact prison in Australia (from 1825), and for $7 AUD you can take a look inside. I didn’t. I did, however, take a picture by the oldest bridge in Australia, built by convict labour between 1823 and 1825.
Saturday night: I had a nice fish dinner at Mure’s with two ladies from Adelaide, then made my way back to my hotel. I noticed a crowd of people walking to the theater, so at the last minute, I bought a ticket to see “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum“, and Theatre Royal, the oldest theater in Australia. It was built in 1834 and the first show ran in 1837. A fire in 1984 destroyed a lot of historical pieces, but the interior is still beautiful and the acoustics are better than The Wharton Center in East Lansing, IMO.
Sunday morning: I was up nice and early on Sunday morning to start a tour of the Tasmanian Penninsula, which included a cruise on the Tasman Sea and a visit to Port Arthur, the best-preserved prison left in Tasmania. I booked the cruise with Pennicott Wildnerness Journeys and most of the tour was quite good. Our bus driver was pretty quiet but did point out some interesting sites along the way. For example, when we left Hobart and drove through Eaglehawk Neck, he told us that a line of dogs would keep convicts from escaping this part of the penninsula. There is now a statue of a dog chained to a post to honor that bit of history.
After a stop for morning tea, we arrived at the departure point for the cruise and I was quite surprised to learn that I had to don a windsuit. Apparently, it’s quite cold and wet on the Tasman Sea!
We loaded onto the yellow boats and soon were on the Tasman Sea, cruising along the southern coast of Tasmania and viewing its sites: the Tasman Arch, the Totem Pole, Tasman Island and its lone white lighthouse, Storm Bay, Cathedral Rock, and lots of wildlife (including a whale!)
Sunday afternoon: Whew!! A fun morning and I was ready for lunch. I was dropped off at Port Arthur, not because I was a repeat offender but because I wanted to learn about its history. Convicts began arriving in Hobart in 1803, but it soon became apparent that not all of them could be reformed and so the ship-building facility at Port Arthur was turned into a prison (1840s) and remained so until the last convict was shipped out in 1877. Port Arthur is considered the best-preserved of the penal facilities, even though it suffered two bushfires in the late 1890s.
Monday: I wandered around Hobart before my talk at the university, had a yummy chai tea at Pilgrim Coffee (one reviewer wrote that its “hipster vibe is off the charts!”), and spent about an hour at the Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery, which has a really nice exhibit about Tasmania’s connection to Antarctica. At a distance of about 2000 miles, Tasmania shares a lot of geological characteristics with Antarctica, namely its dolerite rock (black volcanic rock), which is not found at all in Australia. While I was in Hobart, the first of several scientific cruises to Antarctica left for the season. Australia is also currently celebrating the 100th anniversary of Douglas Mawson‘s historic expedition to Antarctica.
My talk at the uni went well, but I got caught in the rain on the walk back to my hotel. No worries, though! I warmed up with a nice dinner and wine at Cargo. My flight left the next day at 6:30 am, so I took the night to wind down after an exciting few days in Tasmania. Of course, with an entire island left to explore, I plan to return. Who wants to join me??
Video overview, including fantastic footage of the mutton birds! (about 4.5 minutes long)
Video: Tasmanian Devils at play
Information about mutton birds
Information about the collapse of the Tasman Bridge in 1975
Information about the Separate Prison
Information about painted utility boxes
Thanks to Sam Lorkin at Escape Travel for coordinating the logistics of this trip.