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Summer at Port Arthur 1953

The coastline of Tasmania is pretty ragged. To my father and uncles and their friends this coast was a clear invitation to go fishing in the summer holidays. To me the beaches were naturally an invitation to swim – and then the intricacies, cliffs and crenellations were an opportunity to imagine, to enter into fantasies and romances. The scariest things for me were the blowholes where the sea roars and boils up into a deep hollow in the rocks and sucks small children and dogs and blissfully unsuspecting honeymoon couples to their doom. There are sad stone monuments carved with the names of the dead, rising in poignant testimony to lives lost to the waves, speaking in mute warning on sunny, carefree afternoons.

Father, mother, uncle, aunt, six kids, car, ute, boat, trailer, caravan, tents. It was in the early fifties, just after Christmas, and we trailed down the east coast of Tasmania until we finally reached Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula where we set up camp for two weeks. I must have been about thirteen. There was a broad grassy piece of flat open land that went from the sea to the ruins of the old convict settlement, and that’s where we camped. We had it all to ourselves. The idea of ‘tourism’ in Tasmania then was fairly new. There were primitive showers and toilets nearby, but that was it, really. As far as I know nobody asked us what we were doing, or cared. We built a fireplace for cooking.

  On New Year’s Eve we had fireworks. The gold-grey ruins of the shells of Victorian prison buildings loomed in the background, a great miserable threat with gaps and crumbling hollows and rusty bars. The wild waters of the jagged coast surged before us. But on the grass between the two extremes, where our gipsy caravan had settled, we feasted, and then screamed as we sent up rockets and showers, whirled Catherine wheels and hurled squibs. We cast wild and devilish shadows as we leapt about in the light of our bonfire.

  The locations of our summer holidays were governed by where it was good to fish, and this time the history of the Tasman Peninsula was an added extra. For me the past became the focus of my days. With my cousin Loris I explored the land and the ruins. I had brought with me a creepy old book called Shadow Over Tasmania and we referred to it for information on things we found, or thought we found. We would take lunch and disappear for the day, walking for miles and climbing all over the forlorn and eerie walls of the old derelict prison buildings. We had sketch books and box brownie cameras and took pictures of each other staring mournfully through grim barred windows. I should point out that we thought this was holiday fun. It was also thrilling because it was quite dangerous, since much of the structure was unstable. We ignored danger signs and crawled down into spaces in the jumble and decay of brick and stone. I have memories of broken walls of lovely old red bricks. With the reflection of a knowing adult I now see that we could easily have been injured, could have become lost. At some point there was a kind of ticket-seller who let us into a cell and locked us up in the total dark and silence of solitary confinement. We would never try that again. 

We roamed over a wide area. Sometimes my father drove us out to a place such as the tessellated pavements and left us there, picking us up later. I learnt the word ‘tessellated’ and I thought it was beautiful. The natural pavement of stones lies like big blocks of wet chocolate between the cliff and the sea. We found lost bits of the primitive railway line that was used in the nineteenth century to transport stones for building, the power driving the wooden cars being not horses but humans.

The eeriest place was the golden church that stood on the hill, its tower resembling – or so I thought – a romantic little Norman castle. It had no roof, and trees and blackberries grew inside it. We believed it had never been consecrated because a murder had happened there. This possibly is not true. The church had been burnt, hollowed out by fire, as had the hospital and the penitentiary. There was a terrible narrative of fire, a kind of purging of all the other dark and hideous narratives that hung in the air, lay in the soil, seeped into my imagination. It was so easy to people the desolate landscape with brutal drunken jailers and starving abject prisoners.

Our fathers went out nearly every day in the boat, and different combinations of kids went with them. We got very sunburnt and had to apply a horrible combination of vinegar and castor oil to our skin after the event. Why not just the oil? I don’t know. What we mostly caught on our fishing trips were barracuda which the women cooked for dinner. Loris and I talked the men into taking us to the Isle of the Dead where the graves of members of the prison hierarchy were marked, and the graves of the prisoners were not. We stood in awed horror on the cliff at the peninsular of Point Puer where convicted boys used to jump to their deaths.

At night we played cards. Sometimes in the hot late afternoon we played cricket on our vast green ground, the ball and our voices, I think I recall, echoing in the empty quiet of the place. I was conscious always of the presence of the ruins which were infested with blackberries, and conscious also of the growling menace of the sea.  

You can see that I lapped all this up with a joyful teenage lust, fascination and greed. And, to continue the narrative of greed, I have a recollection of jugs of local cream and bowls of fragrant local strawberries. And honey. We had Christmas cake and cold plum pudding and tins of ham and sweet biscuits.

In an old public building there was a bright octagonal room with a beautiful dance floor. We believed this building had been a lunatic asylum. One Saturday night there was a dance. I wore the only dress I had brought which was green linen with little squares of orange and white scattered across the fabric. It had a white collar with green embroidery. I realize that my old dresses are often quite vivid in my memory. I had white sandals. Pride of Erin , Barn Dance, Tangoette. A woman in a dark sparkly dress played the piano. Who were the people who came to the dance? I don’t really know, but I met a terrifically attractive red-haired boy from Hobart . He wanted us to go for a walk to the blow hole together. In the spooky dark. It was really tempting, but I was so frightened of the blowhole I said no, and the boy disappeared. I imagine I was also frightened of the boy.  

I think I was right about the blowhole. Wrong about the boy?  

THE END

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