Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.
I do concede that I am not a travel writer, so fluently articulating the essence of a place is not something that comes easily to me. This is a particular challenge when it comes to Tasmania, which seems to have almost too much to describe. I can say with great assurance, however, that it feels very little like the mainland of Australia we’d experienced so far. Sure, there’s the rugged coastline with crashing seas and desolate overland wilderness that you would expect from an island seemingly not far from Antarctica, but in reality, closer to the equator. But we also saw stunning beaches and jaw-dropping ancient forests that we never would have anticipated. The capital city of Hobart has a thriving cultural scene, but with a real laid-back feeling of ease and contentment I haven’t found in too many big cities. No ‘uppity’, self-righteous attitude here. So as our ten-day visit starts to wind down, I’ve actually forgotten that we’re still in Australia.
When we eventually made it to Hobart a couple of days after Christmas, we were warned that the Australian holiday (as in vacationing) season would be kicking into high gear and to expect big crowds to be joining us as we toured around. We were certainly greeted to a festive atmosphere as the nation’s attention turned to the inner harbor and Constitution Dock for the conclusion of the annual Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, considered to be the most demanding open-water racing competition in the world. Much to our good fortune, this coincided perfectly with our arrival.
One of the benefits of traveling with children is that you can use them as decoys for conversation starters with the locals. We were having dinner at Mures Seafood Restaurant right in the harbor, when a large group, consisting of mostly husky guys with matching windbreakers, sat down at a table next to ours. I suggested the kids ask one of them if they had participated in the race and if so, how they finished. Reluctantly, the boys did as they were told and as it turned out, were now talking to Mark Richards, the skipper of the winning boat Wild Oats. Seated beside him was the boat’s owner, Bob Oatly, who happens to also own Hamilton Island, the first stop in our month long stint in Australia. They were obviously impressed with the fact that we were traveling around the world for a year because the next morning as we were walking along the pier checking out all the yachts, the skipper waved us over and suggested we come on board Wild Oats for a look around, much to the envy of the large crowd gathered around to get a glimpse of the winning boat. The boys were later further impressed when they saw Mark, Bob and Wild Oats splattered all over the front pages of every major newspaper that day!
Visitors from mainland Australia and around the world cannot help but be reminded of Tasmania’s legendary past. Originally called Van Diemen’s Land, its name was changed to Tasmania in 1856 in an attempt to erase the stigma and horrendous reputation associated with the transportation of convicts from the United Kingdom. During our brief stay in Strahan, the newly restored epicenter of tourism along the rough and tumble west coast, we took a day trip cruise around Macquarie Harbour and up the Gordon River to the World Heritage Huon Pine Forests. The waters off Devil’s Gate were as fierce as advertised and the forests had trees that were hundreds of years old. But the most intriguing excursion of the day was a side-trip to a small bit of infamous piece of real estate known as Sarah Island. Our local guide explained how it was originally settled to isolate the colony’s worst convicts but eventually became a renowned shipyard thanks to the transformation of its hardened criminals into constructive ship building laborers. The kids were captivated by the stories of all the dastardly characters who inhabited the island, which made it almost compulsory that we see the production of The Ship That Never Was, a pantomime-style performance put on daily in Strahan by two local actors who recreate the story of the last ship ever built on the island and the convicts who stole it to escape to South America. The interactive and comical nature of the presentation made this an unexpected highlight, particularly for Tyler who was chosen to participate.
We were advised that no trip to Tasmania would be complete without a visit to the historic Port Arthur, used as a penal colony for secondary offenders and the most hardened of criminals. What makes Port Arthur such a draw for tourists, besides its proximity for day trips from Hobart, are the well preserved ruins and renovations to the key buildings such as the penitentiary, asylum and Model Prisons. The solitary confinement area was particularly eerie while the boys took special note of the fact that the youngest convict ever sent there was only nine years old and wasn’t shipped back to England until after having served a seven-year sentence! Even when the boys act up now, there’s no way I could ever suggest such a harsh consequence.
The highlight of Port Arthur for us was the lantern-lit Historic Ghost Tour of the grounds after dark. There were, of course, the obligatory stories of ghost sightings and unusual and unexplained occurrences. But what ultimately made this outing and so impressionable was the fact that all the stories we were told turned out to be true, much like all the wonderful things we had heard about Tasmania before we got there.
Photos: Rainer Jenss