Australia On Steroids
At some point near the end of the last ice age—some 10,000 years ago—seas flooded the lowlands connecting what is now Tasmania to the Australian mainland creating the notorious Bass Strait, a legendary body of water among the world’s racing yachtsmen. Its location astride the “Roaring 40s” of the Southern Ocean makes it the highlight of the annual Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race. During a freakish storm in 1998 five yachts were sunk with the loss of six lives during that race. Only 44 of the 115 starters were able to limp into Hobart.
The inevitable isolation of Tasmania allowed for the development of physical characteristics distinct from any other region in the world, flora and fauna as unique as a science fiction fantasy, and tales of the human condition ranging from the sublime to the bizarre.
As a visitor to Hobart, you may face your most daunting challenge yet, simply because there are just too many choices for a one day visit. Some historical highlights might help you decide.
Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer upon whose “Sea” you have just traveled—was the first European to sight this island in 1642. The first settlement did not arrive until 1803 composed, in fine Australian tradition, mainly of convicts and their military guards. One of the world’s most notorious penal colonies was later established at Port Arthur.
Port Arthur is now Tasmania’s top tourist attraction but its history borders on the horrific. Its prison housed the hardest criminals Britain and Ireland could produce and, although it was conceived as a model prison where new theories of rehabilitation were tested, it had, by reputation, some of the harshest conditions existing anywhere on earth. Surrounded by shark-infested waters on three sides, it was sold as inescapable. Even so, one enterprising convict tried crossing its narrow land bridge disguised in a kangaroo hide. He failed to reckon on the half starved guards on duty who tried to shoot him for a meal.
It is said that the former prison is inhabited by ghosts and, indeed, a nighttime ghost tour is offered. Some of the ghosts may be those 35 victims of the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre—the worst mass murder in Australian history. Today’s bucolic fields speak to a gentler future.
Tasmanian Aboriginals had occupied the territory of the island for some 35,000 years, but their fate at the hands of a colonial power was the same sad story replayed among indigenous populations around the world. Those who managed to survive European diseases were eventually wiped out during an episode known as the Black Line when colonists formed a human chain across the island to corral the remaining aborigines and remove them to Flinders Island. As a result there is almost no native culture preserved in Tasmania. The same fate befell some of the unique species that once inhabited this wild island.
Tasmania was once home to a marsupial resembling a wild dog. It had distinctive striping across its back and was known colloquially as a Tasmanian Tiger. It had earlier existed on the mainland but lost out to the dingo. Farmers, bounty hunters and collectors for overseas museums appear to have finished the job in Tasmania as well although there are, to this day, unconfirmed sightings.
Seemingly headed for a similar fate is the Tasmanian Devil, another marsupial resembling a small dog. It has a decidedly unpleasant temperament accentuated by a screechy growl. Devils are scavengers living primarily on road kill. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have the reflexes to avoid becoming road kill themselves. Despite efforts to preserve the species, the combination of disease and highways has reduced their population by 80%.
The Fun Part
Australians have a well-deserved reputation for being almost obsessively active. If anything, Tasmanians may take that to another degree. Owing to the variety of physical environments close at hand, trekking, mountain biking, kayaking, surfing and other water sports are all on the daily menu. Most can be enjoyed on nearby Mt. Wellington, which provides a dramatic backdrop to Hobart. Any number of conveyances can get you to the top, and whether you descend by foot for an up close look at the wildlife, or by skateboard for an adrenal rush, you’ll have earned your share of the other great Aussie pastime—eating and drinking. A stroll through the nearby, lovingly-preserved town of Richmond, or historic Salamanca Place, hard by the port, will reveal eateries and drinkeries featuring locally brewed beers, locally grown wines, and locally caught seafood sure to form an indelible memory to punctuate your day in Hobart. Battery Point speaks to 19th-century elegance with its tiny cottages and sweeping mansions.