9 Australian Road Trip: Tasmania - Demon's Land

Ghostly ferry

The Spirit moves us to Tasmania
The Spirit moves us to Tasmania
Around the map of Tasmania
Around the map of Tasmania

Dark Hearts and Purple Harbours

Tasmania is an island the size of Ireland, tucked underneath the world’s biggest island. Its size, rugged terrain, isolation and small population leave it open to the sort of jokes and disparaging comments usually applied to Kentucky hillbillies. Yet Tassie’s claims to fame are considerable. It is the second oldest white settlement in Australia; it contains one of the world’s great wilderness areas; is home to some of the most ancient animal species alive and it possesses the most sublime scenery.

But what really strikes me about Tasmania is its 'Black Heart'. There is a tangible sense of something dark here. Not amongst its friendly people or its very livable, vibrant capital, but in a deeper sense - both historically and spiritually. The idea that bad events can leave an indelible stain on a place is debatable, but I really sense it here, in this mysterious island outpost at the bottom of Oz.

To understand the ruthless and exploitative nature of white European colonialism look no further than Tasmania. It has witnessed the genocide of its native people, the man-made extinction of some of its most unique native animals, (notably the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger) and it has endured the near destruction of its forests and landscape for their material wealth.

It is the original home of some of the most fearsome penal colonies in the British Empire and was the scene of one the worst peacetime mass murders in the modern western world. Because of this, and despite its velvet green pastures, white sandy beaches and turquoise sea, its majestic forests, towering mountains and temperate climate, it has the power to send a chill up your spine at every turn. In the mists that hang in the valleys, on the jagged mountaintops or over the broad black-water bays, there is a dark spirit in this land that speaks of mankind’s inhumanity to his fellow man and to his environment.

Fortunately there is redemption too. The reconciliation with the descendants of the original native people has finally taken place and in the many National Parks there are direct references to the stewardship that this lost race has over the island. The 'green battles' of the seventies, where environmentalists fought against the power companies, the logging industry and the State Government to save the Franklin and Gordon rivers put Tasmania at the forefront of the world’s environmental movement for a time.

And the “Convict Stain” that inhibited much of Australian society up until the mid 20th century has been embraced, and exploited by the tourist industry.

To me, Tasmania feels more European than anywhere else in Australia. In particular, the comparison with Ireland is closer than in just area. The green, grassy hills of the north remind me of the land around Waterford, the mountains are like those of County Kerry, the rugged coastline is Donegal, and that dark, brutal history is reflected in the famines and violence that has wracked the Emerald isle. Maybe I am stretching the comparison, but I sense it nevertheless.

Map of Tasmania

A markerTasmania -
Tasmania, Australia
[get directions]

Tasmania - a spectacularly rugged and beautiful island at the bottom of the world with a recent human history that is both dark and violent.

Long road to Tomahawk
Long road to Tomahawk

On the road...

We travel around for ten days, experiencing all kinds of weather and getting ourselves into places we sometimes think we won’t get out of. We cover long, lonely miles over winding mountain roads, through thick forests, past abandoned mining towns and down dusty gravel tracks. We seek out places with evocative names such as Dismal Swamp and The Edge of the World and we almost run over a Tasmanian devil.

We visit the infamous penal settlement at Sarah Island, floating like a spectre on the dark purple waters of vast Macquarie Harbour. The water of the harbour is truly purple, stained by the dye of button grass that has leeched through the soil and into the two mighty rivers that flow into it.

The Franklin and Gordon Rivers are legendary places in the history of Tasmania, and Australia. They are part of one of the world’s great wilderness areas, and synonymous with the battle between conservation and exploitation of natural resources. Just the names, Franklin River and Gordon River, send shivers down my spine when I think of the strange history tied up with them - escaped convicts turned cannibal through hopeless desperation, lost tribes of aboriginals, conservationists and confrontations. It is the stuff of legends, and I feel over-awed being here.

We pass through the desolate, strip-mined lunar landscape of Queenstown and camp amongst haunted gum trees in the distant shadow of jagged Cradle Mountain.

Hobart is reminiscent of an alternative, Old Sydney Town, with a huge harbour and a historic dockland of sandstone Georgian warehouses. Mount Wellington looms above the city. The road up to the top is hair-raising but the views are sublime, the air frigid, and you can almost hear mournful requims echoing off the awesome rock formations they call the Organ Pipes.

The remains of Port Arthur Penal Settlement are arguably Australia’s most famous ruins. It is a haunting Gothic prison complex, beautifully constructed out of golden sandstone - used, abused and finally abandoned as a Bad Place, until resurrected as a tourist destination. But Port Arthur has been unable to shake its dark ghosts. The ‘Event’ that occurred there in 1996 is not to be mentioned on the site, out of respect for both the victims and the survivors, many of whom still work there; but the sad remains of the Broken Arrow Café have been preserved as a poignant monument to the many victims of the massacre.

The Darkness of Tasmania is not my invention. There really is something about this island...

Another good Novel about Tassie and it's colonial past

Further Reading...

"The Fatal Shore" by Robert Hughes is a fascinating and visceral account of the foundation of Australia, the convict settlement. The chapters devoted to Tasmanian history influenced my first impressions of the place and clarifyied the experience for me.

"Gould's Book of Fish" by Richard Flanagan is a seminal novel set primarily on the remote prison colony of Sarah Island at Macquarie Harbour.



Spirit of Tasmania

Gothic church at Penguin
Gothic church at Penguin
An ironic collection of Gollys in Stanley.
An ironic collection of Gollys in Stanley.
The 'Dead Centre' of Stanley, with Norfolk Island Pines
The 'Dead Centre' of Stanley, with Norfolk Island Pines
Big Doorway to nowhere in Dismal Swamp
Big Doorway to nowhere in Dismal Swamp
The bridge over the Arthur River, North West Coast
The bridge over the Arthur River, North West Coast
This way to The Edge of the World
This way to The Edge of the World
Ghostly docks on Macquarie Harbour
Ghostly docks on Macquarie Harbour
Skeleton ship
Skeleton ship
The chilled, purple waters of Macquarie Harbour.
The chilled, purple waters of Macquarie Harbour.
Sarah Island
Sarah Island
An anecdote about Hanging
An anecdote about Hanging
iron Blow Mine at Queenstown
iron Blow Mine at Queenstown
Olde World idyll at Richmond
Olde World idyll at Richmond
Reconcilliation
Reconcilliation
The Organ Pipes on Mt Wellington. Hobart
The Organ Pipes on Mt Wellington. Hobart
Golden sandstone, Iron bars. Port Arthur
Golden sandstone, Iron bars. Port Arthur
Gothic Church at Port Arthur
Gothic Church at Port Arthur
Ghostly Trees near Cradle Mountain
Ghostly Trees near Cradle Mountain

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Comments 6 comments

Catherine R profile image

Catherine R 7 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

Nice hub. I was about to do one on Tasmania myself so was just checking to see what was out there. I won't bother now as you have done an excellent job!


saltymick profile image

saltymick 7 years ago Author

Thanks for the positive comments Catherine, but please write your hub, there's always room for another point of view.


Tasmania Accommodation 5 years ago

Tasmania is truly a special place. It has to be one of the best places to do a roadtrip in Australia. When I was there I had the pleasure of doing a white water rafting trip on the Franklin river - fyi one of the only wild rivers left in the world. Not for the faint hearted but truly incredible.

The other great thing is the camping. You can generally camp for free around the state. Towns make it clear whether they permit camping or not. If they do there's usually a village green complete with bathroom facilities and bbqs that are very clean. me and my girlfriend were there for 10 days and we must have camped 8 of those days.

Next time we go we plan to do the overland track through Cradle Mountain. This time around we only sampled Lake St Clair and Cradle Mountain seperately but doing the full on hike would be a memorable experience.

Tasmania really is spoilt for natural beauty and Hobart and Launceston, the two major centres - although pretty small - are pretty cool to hang out in for a few days.

Great hub by the way. In my opinion Tasmania should be visited a lot more. I'm not sure if it has risen above hiddem gem status for international visitors just yet.

Thanks for letting me have a little wax lyrical on one of my favourite places.

Dave


saltymick profile image

saltymick 5 years ago Author

You're right Dave, Tassie is a beautiful place - I reckon it easily gets Hidden Gem Status because not only does it have cracking scenery and untouched wilderness, lovely beaches and a very cool capital city, but it has this deep, dark historical resonance that harks back to the foundation of Australia and beyond. Thanks for adding to my Hub.


Tassie Devil profile image

Tassie Devil 5 years ago

Hi there...found your hub as I was looking for some information on the Spirit of Tasmania. I'm a born and bred Tasmanian. I really enjoyed your hub, and beautiful photos.

Beautifully written and set out. Would love to see your views on the East Coast too. (My favourite holiday spot!)I live at New Norfolk....aprox. 30 k's North West of Hobart. Well done.


saltymick profile image

saltymick 5 years ago Author

Thanks for reading my Hub Tassie Devil. I wrote a bit about the East Coast of Tassie in the next hub - Number 10 - Tasmanian Tomahawk.... you may find it of interest. Also, we stopped for lunch in New Norfolk on our trip (mainly because we live in old Norfolk in the UK!) Can't remember the name of the restaurant but we signed our names (Mick and Sheila) on the wall, along with hundreds of other travellers - look us up if you have the time.

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