Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ghost Tour on the Tasman Peninsula

In the days of Charles Dickens, the jails in Great Britian were overstuffed with convicts locked away for crimes ranging from idleness to assault, from petty theft to murder. So many men had gone through the British penal system that there was no more space in the jails to house all the prisoners.

The British sailed these convicts halfway across the world to an obscure island in the middle of nowhere known as Australia. These convicts became Australia’s first settlers.
But Australia, which stretches the width of Pennsylvania to California, was too large a space to keep prisoners under control, so the British searched for an even more obscure location, a place harder to escape from.

Their quest landed them in Tasmania, a small island that today is a 9-hour boat ride south of Melbourne.

The British corralled the prisoners to a thin peninsula, known as the Tasman Peninsula, at the bottom of Tasmania. The peninsula is connected to the mainland only by the thinnest neck of land, across which the British chained a line of snarling dogs. Here is where hundreds of convicts were forced to do backbreaking hard labor of constructing houses, churches, even building their own prison cells. The result is Port Arthur, a town built by convicts, for convicts.

We headed into Port Arthur and discovered a walled-up fortress surrounding the entire old town. “This is incredible,” I thought, imagining prisoners staring longingly at the wall, dreaming of getting out, not knowing that even if they escaped these walls, they’d discover two large bodies of water and guard dogs chained across the peninsular neck of land. “Wow, how intense,” I thought. “How do you wall off an entire town?” It reminded me of the Old City of Jerusalem, the only other town I’ve seen that’s 100 percent walled away.

Yet this wall, we discovered, was the one thing not built by convicts. It was built in the last couple of decades to force tourists to pay entry fees.

Surrounding the wall were half a dozen large tour buses, a gift shop, a tall desk selling entrance tickets and tour packages, and a restaurant called Felons with the tagline: “Not eating here? Now THAT’S criminal.” What was once a penal colony had morphed into a veritable tourist zoo.

While this normally would cause us to immediately turn around and retreat into some wilderness area, we decided to stay and follow the advice of some locals we had met camping, who strongly recommended Port Arthur’s ghost tour. The ghost tour was a reasonably cheap option in which, among other things, you’d visit the scenes of centuries-old murders.

Murders were ubiquitous in those days. Convicts, desperate to escape their life of hard labor, wanted to escape into death, but they believed that committing suicide would sentence them to eternity in hell. But after carefully studying Christian doctrine, they found a “murder-suicide” loophole. They’d murder a fellow prisoner and be hung for their crimes, but just before the hanging, they’d get the opportunity to visit a priest and ask for forgiveness for their murderous sin, thereby absolving themselves so they could enter heaven.

We spent a night on the ghost tour, camped by the ocean at the edge of the peninsula for two nights, and hiked along the shoreline overlooking the towering cliffs. After about 4 days on Tasman Peninsula, we decided to leave and head to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania.

We’re driving down the road, past a Tasmanian Devil sanctuary, when I see a sign announcing ‘Chocolate Factory – Free Tastings. Open.’

“Pull over!,” I demand at once, visions of Willy Wonka running through my head.
We entered a room filled with the tools used to build this peninsula. Several tree-cutting saws, with handles designed to be pulled by two men, lay strewn on the floor. A crank-handle telephone hung on a wall post. Rusty steel blades that looked to me like finger-slicers were propped against a back wall. Two large windows in the wall showed woman in white lab coats mixing and moulding batches of chocolate in the next room.

I wandered toward the front, where a tray of chocolates were laid out, representing every flavor imaginable … Cherry brandy chocolate, licorice chocolate, orange ginger chocolate, strawberry chocolate, rum and raisin chocolate, as well as classic flavors like hazelnut, mint and white.

A rotund woman with reddish hair, standing behind the chocolate tray, asks if we’ve been on the Port Arthur tour.

“Just the ghost tour,” I tell her, “which was heaps of fun. I normally don’t take tours; waste of money if you ask me. I like going at my own pace. But their tour of haunted places and strange sightings was quite fun.”

“Ah, but you must take a tour to know the stories of what you’re looking at.” She had a lecturing tone in her voice which caused me to keep quiet. “Otherwise you’d think they were just buildings and not know anything about them.”

Her voice softened a little, and a faraway gleam developed in her eyes. She was silent for a moment.

“When we were kids we play on those buildings all the time,” she finally said. “That was before they built big walls around it and started charging admission. That was before anyone ever came down to this peninsula to see our convict heritage. No one in those days talked about it, you know. We were all descendants of convicts, all us kids, playing in the old jails that used to house them, but we never once thought about it.”

She shrugged. “Never knew most of that stuff, really. Then some history buffs started coming down here to check it out, and the next thing you know, people are coming in by the thousands to see the old solitary confinement cells.”

She shrugged again and held out a piece of chocolate with a set of tongs. “Good for business, though.”