My Great Tasmanian Getaway Part 4: The Ghosts of Port Arthur

Dear Audy,

After time forced our holiday to come to an end, my Prince and I headed to the suburb north of Hobart where his job was. He went back to work and I proceeded to hang out around the hire house, like a boss. I read books, watched Supernatural (current addiction and fitting, because it means that I now know everything there is to know about ghosts), went for occasional strolls around the neighbourhood and played The Walking Dead game on my iPad. It was kind of nice to be stuck in a different house for a change, this one had a much better view than the one that I live in!

We did have one more holidaying adventure in us though, Sunday found us heading down to Port Arthur for a little check-it-out and a ghost tour.

Port Arthur Historical Site

Port Arthur Historical Site

My first ghost tour. I was pretty pumped.

A ghost tour probably sounds a bit morbid if you are only aware that Port Arthur was the site of the horrific shooting massacre that shocked Australia in 1996. No, I wasn’t searching for those unfortunate souls. I was searching for the older souls that died there in the 1800s when the site was a convict prison and colony.

It’s totally appropriate to search for those ghosts, they’re really old. Or something. I don’t know, actually. I don’t know when it becomes appropriate to be fascinated by horrific things that happened to real people. I mean, it’s not out of disrespect to anybody’s suffering, it’s just that the fact that such awful things ever happened at all is deeply disturbing and interesting and I think we’re supposed to learn from them. Or something.

Moral questioning aside, Port Arthur is a fascinating place. Some of our ancestors did some pretty terrible things there. Not mine though, as far as I know, my own ancestors spent history doing terrible things in Italy and France.

Port Arthur was where they would send the really bad criminals, you know, the ones who did worse stuff than steal food for their starving families, or who stole more stuff than that other guy. Convicts who had the gall to reoffend after having already been shipped to Australia for their original crimes were considered super bad and many of them ended up at Port Arthur too.

Port Arthur Guard Tower

Port Arthur Guard Tower

Today's birds think the prison is actually a really cool place to live.

Today’s birds think the prison is actually a really cool place to live.

Port Arthur is located on the tip of an almost island (only a thin strip of land called a “neck” connects the almost island to the next piece of Tasmania) and the landscape there would have been pretty rough back in those days. Steep hills, thick bush and a bunch of scary little critters that would never have been seen before by convicts from the streets of England and Ireland, including those critters that people saw fit to name devils.

The name is understandable, Tasmanian devils are pretty creepy. I mean, they do eat dead people, after all. Come to think of it, cows probably think humans are pretty creepy too. I tend to think that humans are a bit creepy sometimes and I’m not even a cow. I guess that “creepy” is relative. Maybe we were too harsh when naming Tasmanian devils after all…

Most of the Port Arthur historical site has suffered fires at times. Some of it has been rebuilt and then burned down again and then the people gave up, which is fair enough. You can’t stop mother nature. The ruins don’t look much like how it would have looked when it was a functioning colony, however there are enough standing ruins to paint a pretty vivid picture. There are also some actual pictures mounted around the place, which are helpful for those lacking in imagination and those who just want to see whether or not they are good at guessing.

It's a pretty bay and not a bad view for a living Hell.

It’s a pretty bay and not a bad view for a living Hell.

The Separate Prison is probably the most disturbing building on the site. That was where people decided that psychological punishment would be way more effective than physical punishment and they were just not all that far away from wrong on that. Prisoners being kept there were not allowed to communicate with anybody, in any way, at all. All they could do was their allotted work and the rest of their time was for thinking long and hard about what they did that landed them there. It was a very extreme time out, indeed. Even the church pews were individually enclosed, just to make sure the prisoners couldn’t get face time with the guy next to them and bond over church stuff.

The chapel inside the Separate Prison.

The chapel inside the Separate Prison.

I’d never previously spent much time thinking out what life must have been like at Port Arthur, I was far too lazy to have ever read that copy of For The Term of His Natural Life that school gave me as a prize for something academically awesome that I did once. It’s not like I never tried, I just got bored. I was 14 and history was less interesting then. Maybe now I will read it, but no promises…it’s a long and longwinded book.

My reading failures aside, the previously never considered thing that struck me was that convicts weren’t the only people who lived where convicts lived. Guards and official type people had to be there too and those people had families. Wives and children that needed to be protected and educated, maybe they even had pets. I can’t confirm that, I never did learn whether or not there were pets at Port Arthur. I hope for their sakes that there were. Dogs are the best.

20130506 Port Arthur Private Residence

Back to the topic at hand: Ghosts. Not only did regular, non-convict people live at Port Arthur but a fair chunk of them died there too. It was those people that I learnt a little something about during the evening Ghost Tour.

I should probably mention that I don’t really believe in ghosts, but jeez, I would love to because wheeeee, exciting! I am even one of those people who has a pretty terrifying ouija board story from when I was a kid, but still…no. I enjoy letting that one go unexplained (Hi David, my ghost, if you’re still out there).

Most ghost stories seem to involve a live human sensing something weird and then stories about a dead human filling in the blanks. I believe that energy is an amazing thing and that some things change energy and that those things and changes aren’t always in the realm of our comprehension. I believe that there are plenty of unexplainable things that happen in this universe we inhabit, but I just don’t think that one of the explanations is likely to be conscious ghosts. Why? Because their existence is illogical. A dead brain can’t, you know, remember things. You need synapses for that.

Also, because being a ghost sounds like the worst fate ever.

I mean, somebody lives a really cruel and harsh life and then they die and then they are just stuck hanging around on Earth? That sounds worse than Catholic Hell. You should totally be able to get away from stupid Earthly problems when you die, I think that’s the point of dying. When society changes the rules on what is acceptable behaviour, does that change who gets to just be dead and who is stuck being a ghost forever? Because forever is a really long time to be punished for something that seemed like a biggie 200 years ago but that you would just get a fine for today. What about the ghosts that were simply victims of murder or unfortunate accidents? An incorporeal eternity is a really big punishment for just getting killed.

Our ghost tour guide was super convincing though, he really made me want to see one! Especially the ghost of the reverend who allegedly tried to choke a construction worker in his old house, long after his death. I wanted to meet that ghost, he sounded exciting. My Prince pointed out that being choked by invisible hands would be terrifying, but I am so brave that I had to shrug and say “That guy didn’t get dead, he just got a bit hurt and scared.” In all honesty, it sounded way more thrilling than terrifying. I’d be all: “I’m getting choked and there’s nothing there?! WTF? This is the best horror movie ever!”

The ghost tour that we were taken on lead us through the church and parsonage, past the children’s infirmary (kid ghosts are the creepiest) and into a surgeon’s basement. A surgeon who may or may not have been doing strange experiments in there. Most of the stories told were about previous supernatural sightings, which I guess makes sense, although I was more expecting to be regaled with stories of horrific deaths rather than stories of strange lights in photographs. Whatever, it was all good fun.

We ended up at the Separate Prison, where the guide shared his own story of a ghostly encounter with a tiny man that simply could not have existed in current reality. I was pretty jealous to say the least, I really wanted to meet a ghost by that point, it’s easy to get swept up in the magic of it all when you’re wandering around ruins in the dark. I’m quite certain that if I had a job telling ghost stories every night, then I’d end up fully believing in them too.

20130506 Port Arthur Ghost Tour Lantern

Port Arthur is too big of a place to visit all the ghosts in one evening. Sadly, we only had one evening to spend there but I’d love to go back there one day and take the tour through the old cell block, commandant’s house and court house, I have a feeling that the convict ghosts will be even more exciting than the reverend and the floating kids.

I’d also like to take some of the daytime tours of the site in general. I could only handle a couple of hours of exploration all in all because of my dodgy CRPS legs. It’d be nice to stay nearby and soak up the history of Port Arthur over a couple of visits.

As we were not staying nearby at all, my Prince and I got to play Dodge the Wildlife on the windy road back to the mainland. We narrowly missed wallabies, possums, an incredibly slow pademelon and most excitingly, a devil. It ran right across in front of us and was quite large by devil standards. I enjoyed this sighting immensely, it basically made up for the lack of ghosts earlier.

And that, my friends, is the conclusion to my great Tasmanian getaway. As holidays go, this one was one of the awesomest. The rest of my time was spent much like the first paragraph in this post. We went for a very pretty drive up the east coast of Tassie on the way home (I flew home out of Launceston), but that adventure was mostly just super pretty for my eyes and not really an interesting story.

Being home again has been a bit rough. Aside from the physical recovery needed after all of that adventuring, coming back to reality after an escape always kind of sucks. I’m trying to hang on to the holiday fun, however lovely memories never actually manage to solve the regular shit that has to be dealt with. I’ve been a bit unstable, but the plan is to try and work through that with some writing…

Missed the earlier parts of my story? Catch up here:
My Great Tasmanian Getaway: Part 1
My Great Tasmanian Getaway Part 2: The South
My Great Tasmanian Getaway Part 3: Bruny Island

Love & Poltergeists,

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  • 4 thoughts on “My Great Tasmanian Getaway Part 4: The Ghosts of Port Arthur

    1. Carly Findlay

      I went to Port Arthur in 2006. I tidied a bit of the penal colony history at primary and high school, but what moved me the most was Port Arthur’s most recent tragedy – the 2006 massacre. The memorial is haunting.

      I am glad you had a holiday – you deserve it :)

      1. Hayley Cafarella Post author

        Thank you! I didn’t actually see any sort of memorial when I was there, which I was surprised about! It’s possibly still there and I didn’t come across it in my limited exploring, had to save most of my leg power so that I could get through the evening tour. It’s always so awful when one insane or twisted person can cause so much tragedy, really blows my mind.

    2. Jackie Birch

      Loved reading about your holiday, I am heading to the Gold Coast in about 9 weeks time, 2 weeks of hopefully fun and laughter, which has been sadly lacking lately :)

    3. Brenna

      Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog
      and wanted to say that I’ve truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing
      to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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