The wild world of Tasmania

The air in Tasmania is as crisp and fresh as anything you are ever likely to inhale. The southerly tip of South America is the last piece of land the air touches before it howls across the Southern Ocean, scoots under the Cape of Good Hope and blasts into Tasmania, an Australian island the size of West Virginia.

I wander the downtown streets of Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, a city of 195,000, which straddles the River Derwent and continues partway up the sides of the mountains surrounding it. Much of the activity in town centres on the river. Kayakers, sailors and walkers keep busy, while others, less inclined to exercise, relax at outdoor cafés, enjoying the fine morning. Tasmanians are compulsive sailors and have the highest boat ownership per capita in Australia. Hobart, because of its location, hosts many ships and supply vessels for Antarctic settlements 3,000 kilometres south.

While staying in Freycinet National Park, a dramatic peninsula on the east coast fronting Great Oyster Bay on the east and the Tasman Sea on the west, we set off with flashlights at night, looking for Tasmanian critters. It’s called spotlighting. In any other place, we≈#217;d probably be arrested, but as we shone our lights up into trees and thick shrub, a male voice rang out, “Come over here.” Thinking another flashlight person had found something, we rushed over to find a man who opened his car door and pulled out his wrapped-up coat. Setting it on the ground, he pulled the coat away, and two large unblinking eyes stared up into our flashlights. It was a huge frogmouth owl. The man rescued it after it had wandered drunkenly onto the road. As we discuss the options for saving it – left on the ground, it would fall prey to the ferocious Tasmanian devils – something floats by my right shoulder, and our frogmouth owl is gone.

The eerie presence of the past
While Tasmania conjures up images of wild and exotic landscapes, its spooky side is another draw. In Port Arthur, on the southeastern Tasman Peninsula, we stood in the middle of a roofless unsanctified church lit only by three candles and the stars in the black sky. A kookaburra’s haunting call interrupted our tour guide’s ghost story, the bird’s evil chuckle filling the night air and raising the hairs on the backs of our necks.

There are plenty of troubled spirits on the island. A parsonage is said to be the third most haunted building in Australia. As we gathered in the drawing room and our shadows crisscrossed the walls, our guide told us she refuses to visit this home by herself. “This is the only place where the spirit tries to bring harm to visitors,” she tells us. One man who slept here woke up feeling a cold hand across his neck and someone kneeling on his chest. 

Port Arthur was an infamous prison site known as “hell on earth” during the early years of the British colonization of Australia. One of the scarier sites is the separate cells where prisoners were isolated, responsible for keeping their quarters spotlessly clean, reading the Bible and reflecting upon their misdeeds. They exercised singly in walled yards, wore caps with masks to prevent contact with other prisoners and were kept silent. An asylum had to be built next door to contain some of the prisoners who suffered permanent mental insanity as the result of the “model” prison. When an inmate died, his dissected remains were placed in a rough casket and carried to the wharf. There, amid the jeers and curses of the boatmen, the coffin was placed in a boat and conveyed to the Isle of the Dead, a three-minute boat ride from the main prison, where convicts were buried in common graves with up to six bodies in each.