Tasmania is the only Australian island state and covers a (relatively) small 67, 800 sq. km (26, 178 sq. mi.) Back in the 1800s, when Australia was considered a prison destination as opposed to a real colony, Tasmania was the penal colony for the penal colony: NSW convicts were sent to Tasmania. Until 1856, the island was known as Van Diemen’s Land; at first the Europeans did not know Tasmania was an island. To begin the process of making the colony less frightening, the island was named Tasmania (after Abel Tasman who first sighted it in 1642 and, ironically, gave it the scary name Van Dieman’s land in the first place).
When you travel to Tasmania, don’t forget to explore the Aboriginal past. The Aboriginal story of Tasmania is possibly the saddest of all the disturbing stories in Australian history. The Tasmanian Aboriginals developed on Tasmania for 10,000 years, separately from their relations on the mainland. They developed a sharing and peaceful hunter-gatherer culture. However, once European settlement began conflict started and within a 35 year period, 183 settlers and 4000 Aboriginals were dead. Truganini was the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aboriginal and died in 1876. Fortunately a surviving Aboriginal group came out of the Furneaux group of islands. The Tasmanian Aboriginal story inspired the Australian pop band Midnight Oil to write:
There’s a road train going nowhere
Roads are cut, lines are down
We’ll be staying at the Roma bar
Till that monsoon passes on
The backbone of this country’s broken
The land is cracked and the land is sore
Farmers are hanging on by their fingertips
We cursed and stumbled across that shore
I hear much support for the monarchy
I hear the Union Jack’s to remain,
I see Namatjira in custody
I see Truganini’s in chains
And the world won’t stand still
Blue collar work it don’t get you nowhere
You just go round and round in debt
Somebody’s got you on that treadmill, mate
And I hope you’re not beaten yet
I hear much support for the monarchy
I see the Union Jack in flames, let it burn
I see Namatjira with dignity
I see Truganini’s in chains
Ironically, the Tasmanian political system has had a history of Green Party involvement and has been instrumental in pushing environmental issues locally and abroad.
Your trip to Tasmania is likely to start with the capital, Hobart.
The Australian National Trust has classified many (60+) buildings in Hobart as heritage buildings. Key buildings to check out are:
- Parliament House on Murray St.
- Penitentiary Chapel & Criminal Courts
- Salamanca Place, sandstone warehouses that have been gentrified into galleries and restaurants
- Runnymede, on Bay Road New Town, which is a colonial residence Theatre Royal on Campbell Street
- St. George’s Anglican Church in the Battery, famous for its tower. The church was built between 1836-38 with the tower added in 1847. It is regarded as the finest Greek Revival Church in Australia.
Hobart has many museums of which these are three:
- Maritime Museum of Tasmania
- Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery
- Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens
Hobart’s nearby Mt. Wellington, at 1270 m (3800 ft.), is a popular walk/climb: it is 13 km (8 mi.) of walking trails to the top. But the view is worth it!
At this point, if your assumptions about Australia’s weather is “always hot”, you will be wrong about Tasmania. It is quite far south and is cooler than the mainland and subject to abrupt weather changes. Make sure, especially when bushwalking, to read the local recommendations and be prepared for variable weather.
This sparsely populated island is home to the private Bligh Museum of Pacific Exploration, which chronicles the exploration in the South Pacific. Named after that Captain Bligh, the museum was constructed in 1954 (on Bligh’s 200th birthday) with about 26,000 hand made bricks brought from the convict kiln at Variety Bay. On display are historical maps, paintings and other artefacts. Also on South Bruny is its 1836 lighthouse, the second oldest in Australia.
Tasman Peninsula and Port Arthur
Port Arthur was the penal colony where prisoners who committed crimes on the colony were sent. The connection to the mainland (Eaglehawk Neck) was only 100 m (300 ft) wide. Guard dogs were a deterrent and over 12,000 convicts served time at Port Arthur between 1837 and 1877. It is the best preserved penal colony in Australia with over 20,000 visitors annually. Tales of cruelty abound with prisoners living under threat of the lash and treatment leading to insanity. Escape was rare and many stayed their entire life and were then buried in mass graves on the Isle of the Dead.
Early settlers, like many English people abroad, made efforts to turn their new home into the English countryside. This effect remains today. Examples of the small towns are:
Bothwell, with about 400 people is on the banks of the Clyde River. Many of Bothwell’s buildings date from the early 1800s; about 50 have been classified and/or registered by the National Trust.
Campbell Town is a major sheep farming town, with convict built buildings such as St. Luke’s Church of England.
Ross is famous for the Ross Bridge. Built by convicts in 1836, the bridge has 186 fine carvings, which were so good the convict stonemason Daniel Herbert earned a pardon.
Tasmanian East Coast
The east coast of Tasmania a.k.a. “Tasmania’s Suncoast” is known not only for its weather, but also for the national parks of Maria Island and Freycinet. Maria Island was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1971. Freycinet National Park, near Coles Bay, is known for wildflowers, including orchids, as well as wildlife.
The two largest towns are St. Helens and Bicheno.
St. Helens is a fishing port with a large fleet. North of St. Helens is Mount William National Park, which features a Forester Kangaroo drive. Careful when driving – most roads are unpaved.
Bicheno, another fishing port, has many tourist activities, including scuba diving; the Freycinet Vineyard and Coombend Estate wineries; and the grave of Waubedebar, a Tasmainain Aboriginal heroine. (She rescued her European husband and his companion when their boat was destroyed in a storm.)
Derby is famous for it Tin Mine Centre, which is a mine museum covering its history from 1874.
Launceston is the largest city in the region and its major geographic feature is Cataract Gorge, which is a wildlife preserver and is only a 10-minute walk from the centre of town. The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery is the largest Australian museum and art gallery not located in a capital city. Its collection highlights Australian colonial art, Tasmanian history and natural sciences. The museum includes a Chinese Temple and Planetarium.
About an hour from Launceston is Devonport, which is the terminal for the Spirit of Tasmania, a vehicle ferry running to and from Victoria. Near Devonport, The Mersey Bluff Lighthouse (1889) stands at the mouth of the Mersey River. It is unusual as the lighthouse has a distinct vertical red strip.
This part of the island is the home to many of the World Heritage national parks, including Walls of Jerusalem National Park, Cradle Mountains-Lake St. Clair National Park, Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, Southwest National Park, and Hartz Mountains National Park.
Queenstown, with only about 3500 people, is the largest town in western Tasmania. The Mt. Lyell mine has sustained Queenstown since the late 1800s. The hills around Queenstown were stripped of timber for fuel. Unsurprisingly, rain eroded the soil exposing purple and gold rock. These denuded mountains are an incredible sight from the highway as you enter Queenstown and, in the evening, provides amazing photos.
If heading to Australia, don’t forget about Tasmania. Its unique history and geography will amaze you.