Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tasmania in Four Days: Part 2

We were glad to put Orford and the East Coast Resort behind us as we made our way to Port Arthur, a historic penal colony way down in the southeast of Tasmania, on the Tasman Peninsula.

Sharon, who was the master planner for the trip, had a couple stops scheduled for us along the way. Shortly after crossing a narrow strip of land onto the Tasman Peninsula, we made a slight detour through Doo Town, a tiny village overlooking the water (as most towns do in Tasmania), to see two geological formations: the Tasman Arch and Devil's Kitchen.
The Tasman Arch was, a very long time ago, a giant sea cave. Eventually, part of the roof collapsed, creating a huge arch. You can walk onto the arch and get a great view of the southern end of the Tasman Peninsula. Near the Tasman Arch is another site called the Devil's Kitchen and we hiked the short distance to it.
Tasman Arch

"So this is the devil's personal kitchen?" someone joked on the way.
"Hope he cooks us breakfast," Sharon quipped.
"Deviled eggs, of course," said Alex.

Like the arch, this was also once a sea cave but the entire roof caved in, so that now it's a long, deep rectangular-shaped gorge cutting into the sea cliffs. Nothing about it suggested "kitchen" or "devil" in my mind so I think someone named it just to add a sense of drama and attract visitors. We took it all in for a few minutes and then headed back to the car, which was by now a light shade of dust from our travels.
Looking down towards one end of the Devil's Kitchen. Yep, I didn't see it either...

Another thirty minutes down the road, we stopped at  the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Centre, which had been recommended to us.

The Centre had somehow photographed a devil in a moment of cuteness and used that as the face of their advertising. Sharon couldn’t wait to see one up close and personal. Moments of cuteness are few and far between with these animals, however. About the size of a large house cat, they look like overgrown rodents. Their hips seem too low for their shoulders, so they don't run so much as lurch. They are awkward looking creatures.
The cuddly Tasmanian Devil.

Sadly, they are facing extinction due to a mouth cancer transmitted when they bite each other (which is all the time). They get particularly violent around mating season. The males fight viciously for the right to mate, and the victor then assaults the female to make her submit.

The Centre had roughly 30 Devils spread across a collection of natural enclosures. Eventually they'll be released into the wild. We happened to luck upon a feeding, which happens very inconsistently -- Devils are scavengers, so to replicate the conditions they'd face in the wild, sometimes they aren't fed for days.

The keeper came to the enclosure with a bucket of indiscernible animal chunks. The Devils, knowing what was coming, stood on a rock and began growling. This isn't a growl like a bear or dog or lion; it's almost whispery in a way. Early settlers thought the sound was the devil talking, which is where the animals got their name.

When a chunk of animal was thrown into the enclosure, the quickest Devil picked it up and took off running. The other two sharing the enclosure took after him. They ran in circles around a mound over and over and over. One lagged so far behind that if he had just stopped and turned around, the leader would have run right into him. These aren't smart creatures, apparently. The keeper threw in a couple more chunks to make sure they all got a share and didn't destroy each other over one piece.

Neighboring the Devils was a yard full of kangaroos that had been brought here for various reasons and were all now thoroughly docile. You could walk right up to them and give them a scratch between the ears or a stroke on the back. Even a female who had a young joey residing in her pouch didn't seem alarmed at having humans nearby.
Sharon giving a 'roo a check scratch.

It's probably time this dude moved out of the pouch.

We ignored the collection of birds since we're not really bird people, washed our hands, and headed, finally, to Port Arthur.

Australia started out, at least for Europeans, as a penal colony. Britain decided it needed to shore up its presence in this part of the world and had a growing criminal population, so what better way to build infrastructure and harvest resources than with convict labor? Thus began the practice of shipping convicts to Australia. Britain's innocuous sounding name for this policy of involuntary emigration was "Transportation".

While many convicts sent here were hardened criminals, some were young boys who had simply been caught stealing bread. In Victorian times, you were considered in the eyes of the law to be fully accountable for your actions at the age of seven, and could even be put to death at the age of eight.

Until recently, the whole convict thing was a black mark on Australia and families were ashamed to have a convict in their ancestry. Now it's desirable to have one in the family history; it's the closest Australia has to royalty.

Port Arthur was by no means one of the earliest penal colonies in Australia; built in 1830, it came 42 years after the first one was established. It  was one of several sites created specially for the repeat offenders in Australia: after you were sent to some other penal settlement, if you still exhibited criminal habits you were then sent to places like Port Arthur.
View of the main dormitory for prisoners.

It was built as the latest experiment in criminal rehabilitation (a quest we're still pursuing to this day). In this model, which was in vogue in Britain, criminals would be organized into various groups based on their crimes and the type of labor they would perform. Skilled convicts, such as bakers, tailors, and blacksmiths, got better jobs than unskilled convicts. Petty criminals also got assigned better jobs than those who'd committed more serious crimes. The idea was that convicts would be rehabbed through physical work, and the system was structured to allow them to rise through the ranks, as it were, and get special privileges -- all with a goal of making them see that they could enjoy a good life if only they behaved and followed the law. In fact, many convicts were released and became pillars of their communities using skills they learned.

But this was without a doubt a hard place. One man had broke his clavicle working in the mill and the doctor decided his whole arm had to come off. The medical team allegedly cut through the shoulder with a whale-bone saw (with no anesthesic, of course) and then cauterized the opening with a red hot cooking pan. The man was put back on the workforce after three days.

In the 1850s a new model on the best way to straighten out criminals was exported from England to Tasmania. This model focused on keeping prisoners in solitary confinement. Only in this manner, prison reformers decided, could sinful men truly have the opportunity to reflect on their ways and find salvation in God and a path of righteousness.
View down the hallway in the Solitary Confinement building.

A new wing to implement this model was constructed. Men placed here were completely segregated from all human contact. This was done so thoroughly that even orders from guards were communicated using bells, not spoken. When these prisoners were allowed outside for their 1 hour a day of exercise, they had to wear hoods.

Really, as we know now, solitary confinement makes men crazy, and it wasn't long after this building came into existence that an insane asylum was erected next door.

Nowadays it's hard to believe this was a place of sorrow and hardship. The site is centered around a flat area next to a natural harbor. Gentle hills slope down to this point; on one side the sandstone ruins of the prisoner dormitories stand; on the other there are large houses (large for the day, anyways) with well-tended gardens that once housed the soldiers, reverend, doctor, and other free people who spent part of their careers at Port Arthur. The park staff have been working to recreate a large garden as it existed over 150 years ago.
View of the civilian grounds.

The doctor's house.

The old church, which was gutted by a fire.

Vandalism from 1933.

After wandering around for a while we decided we'd seen enough of the place. We left Port Arthur and drove back up the Tasman Peninsula and then southwest over to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania and its largest city. "Largest" doesn't necessarily mean "large", however. With a population of just 200,000 Hobart is still smaller than Wollongong, a satellite city of Sydney. But after driving through mostly empty landscapes, it seemed downright overbuilt.

We checked into a standard city hotel and were relieved to see other people staying there. It looked like we might just survive the trip. We got ourselves cleaned up and went out to explore the city. My initial take of a bustling city was mistaken: the streets were for the most part empty. We walked down the few blocks to the harbor, which was full of fishing boats, then headed over to the "hip" neighborhood, Salamanca, known for its Saturday market, restaurants, and bars. It's basically one street near the water with charming old buildings. We strolled along scoping out a bar to sit at and quickly ran out of sidewalk -- Salamanca isn't very big.
Hobart: this is as exciting as it gets.

We went to a James Squire pub and did flights of their beers (or paddles, as they called them, since the glasses came in short, modified paddles). Afterwards we went to Smolt for dinner; this was a restaurant recommended to us by some friends of friends in Sydney. We all splurged on a nice meal, but the overall impression was that it wasn't worth the money. We grabbed a drink afterwards and then crashed back at the hotel.

Sunday was our last day in Tasmania. We had planned on going to the top of Mt. Wellington, a mountain that casts its shadow over Hobart, and then continuing on to MONA, the Museum of Old & New Art. We'd been running ragged each day of the trip, though, and decided to end on a leisurely note, so ditched Mt. Wellington from the plan.

For brunch, our hotel recommended another hotel, the Henry Jones Art Hotel. This was a former jam factory that had since been turned into a cool art hotel that received several architecture and design awards. I had tried to book our stay in Hobart here but it was sold out. They had multiple restaurants in the complex and we picked one. The service was ridiculously slow. After only 16 hours or so, I was already bored with Hobart.

We then hopped in the car and drove to MONA, a museum opened in early 2011. MONA is exists thanks to David Walsh, a native of Hobart and college dropout who used his knowledge of mathematics to win millions of dollars gambling. Since earning his fortune, he's spent an estimated $100 million collecting various pieces of art and decided to erect a temple to hold it all, which, he confessed in an interview, had destroyed all of his wealth and actually put him in debt. It's an impressive structure from the outside: built into a hill, it overlooks the harbor and hosts its own winery, a number of restaurants, and several penthouses that can be rented out by guests.

To start your tour of the museum's works, you go down several levels after entering and then work your way up. None of the art is labeled. Instead, you are provided with what must be the coolest museum gadget ever: a modified iPod Touch with a custom app. With the touch of a button, it determines where you're located in the museum and displays the art in your vicinity. You just click on the ones you want to learn about.

Each work had four types of information. One button showed you the basics of who created the piece, and when, and using what materials. There was one called "Art Wank", which displayed the oftentimes obtuse description of the meaning of the art piece and why it was unique and how the artist thought it represented the world and all the fluff that normally just makes me roll my eyes, so I thought the button was titled appropriately; one called "Thoughts", which had random comments from the artist and the founder; and one that let you express your opinion.

This last option provided comic relief. If you liked something, it might say something like "74% of visitors shared your worldly good taste" and if you disliked something, it might say "3,820 other people were also simple-minded jerks".

As the name of the museum implies, there is both old and new art to be found. An Egyptian sarcophagus sits near a bloated Porsche called the "Fat Car"; Greek pottery is surrounded by modern paintings. One enormous work of art entitled "Snake" was in storage for 40 years and takes up the entire wall of a large room; Walsh's purchase of this piece was the impetus for building the museum since it required so much space.

There were several machines that actually replicate the process of creating human waste. As in #2. Yeah, machines that make #2. It reeked. Is that really art, I found myself wondering at several points. And that's exactly what Walsh wants: to be the anti-standard art museum; he wants to make people think and expects to offend. In one interview he even said he expected -- and hoped -- that people would deface some of the pieces. He has a secret apartment built into the museum, with a clear floor in spots so he can gaze into the largest room.
The poop machine.
Fat Porsche.
Something old...
The giant piece of art that was the impetus for the museum.

We exited with a couple of hours to kill before heading to the airport. At 33 degrees Celsius (about 92 Fahrenheit), this was one of the hottest days in Tasmania in recent history and made it too hot to wander around outside. We grabbed a table on the terrace of a very slick wine bar on site and ordered up some drinks and snacks.

Finally, it was time to head to the Hobart International Airport. This airport had 4 gates, and I suspect that's two more than they need. It was a tiny place, and I couldn't imagine having to spend much time there. Luckily, Sharon and I didn't. Unluckily, Alex and Michelle had about 4 hours to kill. We'd be home in Sydney before they even took off. Overall, it was a great trip and we had a lot of fun.

Next trip: the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

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