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.
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 fine old sandstone buildings, neat weatherboard houses and a church tower, with flowering 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 find 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.
‘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.’
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 floggings 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 flesh. The standard sentence of 100 lashes could see a prisoner’s back flayed 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.’
Beneath the civilised veneer, the efforts of the prison’s hard-labour gangs are still visible. Blocks of sandstone quarried by squads in leg irons form the walls of the grandly steepled church and the penitentiary, a crumbled edifice that once housed over 400 souls. Port Arthur’s sculpted open spaces were cleared out of virgin bushland by teams of prisoners felling giant eucalypts. ‘The historic site is now so pleasant that you could forget that such misery was experienced here,’ says Mel. ‘But it’s important, and I remind myself of that every day.’
Once described by Australian author Richard Flanagan as ‘the antipode of the Antipodes’, Tasmania is truly a world apart. It is a heart-shaped, green-covered rock alone at the bottom of the world, and its isolation and savage birth have created a place like nowhere else. Its oversized landscapes are starkly different from those of the Australian mainland, its scurrying creatures utterly unique, and the scars from its cruel and ragged past are always just below the surface.
Divided from the mainland by 150 miles of rough water, Tasmania dangles into the ‘Roaring Forties’, a system of westerly winds that whip inexorably around the Earth and stir up monstrous seas. It’s these extreme conditions that have gouged the southern coast of the Tasman Peninsula into extraordinary shapes. Around Stewarts Bay, the land forks southward into two great peninsulas, sharp-edged and sheer. To the west is Cape Raoul, a 20-minute drive from Port Arthur, where a dusty bush footpath winds from the main road up under a canopy of whispering gums.
Local photographer Pete Harmsen leads the way over boulders and fallen branches, his camera bag slung over his shoulder and a pair of heavy-duty gaiters strapped to his lower legs; ‘Just in case I meet a snake,’ he says.
Today it is bone-dry and hot enough to blister skin – perfect for snakes. The Tasmanian copperhead and tiger varieties are not only deadly but numerous in this environment of low brush and grasping ferns. I scour the path ahead with glances left and right, making my tread deliberately loud. At the crest of the hill, however, all thoughts of snakes desert me.
The land opens into a garden of wildflowers. Bursts of orange and purple dot a broad plateau, and dozens of white-budded shrubs bent to the ground by the relentless wind look like discarded bouquets. Beyond, the shape of Cape Raoul is revealed: a high slab of land that judders down in folds of rock to a knife-edged point where hundreds of volcanic dolerite columns reach straight out of the sea. It creates a jagged cockscomb of stone that looks at once ancient and alien.
From the cliff top, the land tips into a straight drop of hundreds of feet to the thrashing surf and rocks below, where the local residents – a gang of tawny fur seals – are slumped in piles, dozing in the sun. Pete is busy with his camera, jumping out onto vertiginous outcroppings like a gaiter-wearing mountain goat. He soon returns to take in the view and gestures to the east, where this peninsula’s brother, Cape Pillar, can be seen. There, the tallest sea cliffs in the southern hemisphere curve and rear up into cathedrals of dark rock, thrusting like great spears attempting to pierce the sky.
‘There’s a term that I use to describe this place,’ Pete says. ‘Brutal beauty. It’s absolutely spectacular – the views will knock your socks off – but there is always a real harshness to it.’
This isolated patch of nature is just a small corner of the wilderness that makes up much of Tasmania. A network of World Heritage and protected parks stretches from here in the Tasman Peninsula across the state, covering thousands of square miles with thick, primeval forest. In these untouched swathes arose a great mystery that has obsessed naturalists and trophy hunters for 80 years.
The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was a unique marsupial with a striped back and sharp teeth set in a frighteningly hyper-extending jaw. It looked like a cross between a large weasel and a black-eyed feral dog. This native ‘tiger’ once roamed Tasmania, but their fondness for the taste of sheep was not welcomed by the newly arrived European farmers, and a great slaughter began. In 1888, the government issued a bounty – £1 per carcass (roughly £100 in today’s money) – and, by 1936, the creature had been hunted to extinction.
The nearest thing Tasmania now has to a thylacine is a stuffed skin on display at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in the state’s diminutive capital, Hobart. It stands misshapen and moth-eaten in a large glass box, being slowly circled by visitors – a sad memorial for a species lost. Yet, against all expert opinion, some remain convinced that the creature lives on, hiding pluckily beyond human reach.
I meet Col Bailey at a coffee shop near his home town of New Norfolk, 20 miles west of Hobart. He is a 78-year-old former landscape gardener with eyes that sparkle under a pair of unruly eyebrows. Since 1967, Col has set off into the most dangerous and inaccessible parts of Tasmania to search for the thylacine. ‘They’re definitely out there,’ he says over a cup of steaming tea. ‘Don’t have a second thought about it, because I know it for a fact.’
The thylacine has taken on some of the mystique of Bigfoot or the Yeti, with sightings of varying degrees of spuriousness reported all over Tasmania. Expeditions by amateurs and scientific taskforces alike have scoured the landscape, leaving motion-triggered cameras dangling from trees across the state. New bounties have been offered for evidence of the creature – this time adding up to millions of Australian dollars – yet conclusive proof has never been captured.
Col says he missed his chance in 1995, when he met a Tasmanian tiger face to face. He was in the Unesco World Heritage-listed South West Wilderness area that crowds the horizon to the west of here – a huge old-growth forest of towering Huon pine and house-sized ferns, with areas so inaccessible as to be known as ‘no man’s land’ among locals. Col fought his way through the undergrowth of a remote valley – carefully doused in tea tree oil to mask his human scent – and heard something scampering among the ferns.
‘I thought it was a dog,’ he says. ‘Suddenly it stopped and looked at me with big, black eyes. Then I saw the stripes, and the penny dropped.’ He laughs, remembering the moment. ‘The old heart started pumping, I tell you.’ Unlike many who claim to have spotted a tiger, Col kept the encounter a secret for years, and even today refuses to reveal the exact site. ‘I won’t give away anything that could lead people to them,’ he says. ‘There can’t be many, and I want to protect those that are left.’
Before the arrival of farmers and their guns in the 19th century, the Derwent Valley was a rich hunting ground for the thylacines; their stocky, sinuous forms would have bounded across these plains. The region is now tamed into idyllic farmland, with sheep-nibbled pastures and orchards of peach and cherry trees, weatherboard farmhouses and startling fields of poppies. Tasmania is one of the world’s biggest centres for the legal production of morphine poppies, and huge stretches of their fluttering mauve petals line the roadway.
Driving north, the landscape opens out into plains stubbled with spiky sedge grass, rising into crumple-backed black mountains, and seeming to enclose the road with the overlapping reach of trees and ferns that mark the borders of a vast rainforest. This is the edge of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, a meeting point of heathlands, alpine forests and rock stretching 600 square miles.
At the centre of the park is Ronnie Creek, where no fewer than six tubby wombats are munching by the hillside. They tear at the grass with piggy grunts, paying no attention to the humans wandering delightedly among them. Other creatures are not so easy to spot, however. A walk takes me from the open moorland of pompom-topped button grass into a dripping forest run through with a creek. Every tree and branch is festooned with moss growing in lacy tissues or fat cushions, springy to the touch. It is quiet, but for the shush of flowing water.
A pademelon, a marsupial shaped like a delicate, plump-bottomed wallaby, hops into view and freezes, staring at me for a long moment before scurrying back out of view. The creature is right to be cautious – the forest is full of predators. There’s the white-spotted quoll, a baby-faced assassin with the button-bright eyes of a possum and a set of wicked-sharp teeth; and of course the island’s most famous inhabitant – not to mention the thylacine’s closest living relative – the Tasmanian devil.
It’s not hard to see why this creature has captured the imagination of the world. The small, stocky devil makes unearthly noises, starting with a low, menacing grumble and reaching high pitches of hysterical shrieking. Its life is roughly divided into eating (preferably roadkill) and fighting, which leaves adults typically scarred from nose to tail.
Two of the pugnacious creatures hiss and bray at each other in their open enclosure at the nearby Devils at Cradle sanctuary – a project attempting to replenish the species’ dwindling numbers.
Chris Coupland is a keeper who has worked with devils for more than a decade. ‘They’re tough, that’s for sure,’ he says. ‘Just look at their combativeness, or how they will travel up to 30 miles for food. But, mostly, they have to be tough just to survive here.’
Chris points toward the rocky crests of the nearby mountain range, explaining how the western flank of Tasmania is battered by extreme weather. The winds that travel across from South America meet their first obstacle here at Cradle Mountain, forcing the wet air upward and causing torrential downpours. Surges of cold from the Antarctic create blizzards and even what locals refer to as ‘thundersnow’ – snowfalls accompanied by violent lightning displays. Across the year, temperatures pinball between –15°C and 45°C. It’s a tough gig for the devils. ‘The wear and tear on their bodies that’s caused by this place is extraordinary,’ says Chris. ‘They have to be environmentally bulletproof.’
It’s late in the day when I make my way to the foot of Cradle Mountain, its jagged peak doubled in the surface of Dove Lake. The landscape is dotted with yellow, white and purple wildflowers. Beyond, a carpet of green brush gives way to forests of eucalypt, pine and sassafras, where – who knows – perhaps a stray thylacine might just survive. The wind is starting to pick up, rustling the heathery banks and lifting the wings of a wedge-tailed eagle that’s performing lazy circles above.
There is a period of calm as the sun dips and the shadows creep slowly across the land. But it is savagely broken. The eagle suddenly dives. It disappears into the brush and takes off again almost instantly with audible beats of its massive wings, something small and furry lolling from its beak. Clouds are beginning to mass on the western horizon; it looks like a storm is coming in.
This article appeared in the May 2016 edition of Lonely Planet Traveller Magazine. Christa Larwood travelled to Tasmania with support from Tourism Australia (tourism.australia.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.