Tasmania: Maybe the Most Unforgettable Place Ever

It has history, beauty, wallabies, devils, prisons, cricket matches, museums, brewpubs …
Steven Siewert/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media/Getty

I used to think wallabies were merely cute. I’ve learned to fear their cunning.

One afternoon last year, my wife was sitting on the beach at the pristine Freycinet National Park in Tasmania, an island 150 miles off the southeastern tip of Australia, looking past the granite cliffs that surround Wineglass Bay and toward the Tasman Sea. I asked her to hold still so I could take pictures of her to send to our family. As she smiled and posed, over her shoulder I saw a wallaby—essentially a spaniel-size kangaroo—making its approach. It crept rather than hopped across the sand, its big doe-ish eyes and little T. rex–ish paws directed toward the lunch bag by her side. I faced a dilemma straight out of an Ethics of Journalism course: Do I let the story unfold, and keep the camera going? Or do I recognize the higher duty to intervene? When the wallaby got within one last step of making its grab, I decided the time had come to yell “Hey, get out of here!” The wallaby stared at me long enough to let me know it was not intimidated. Then, after a hard glance at my wife, it hopped 50 feet away—and started creeping toward us again.

I judge travel by the density of the memories it creates. The more distinctly I can recall the days, even the specific hours, of a journey, the more satisfied I am to have gone—even when, within reason, the memories are unpleasant or just bizarre, as with that wallaby. By the standard of sheer unforgettability, the five days my wife and I spent in Tasmania were as rewarding as any trip we have ever made—and fortunately, the recollections are mainly pleasant. A year later, I can clearly think of a dozen different chapters, among the vivid ones these:

The beautiful prison. If you don’t feel a chill when visiting a former or current prison complex, there is something wrong with you. Alcatraz, the Hanoi Hilton, even the Tower of London—these and other sites where human beings have been held, tortured, or killed leave most visitors subdued. Parts of the vast restored Port Arthur prison settlement, on a remote peninsula 60 miles southeast of Tasmania’s capital city of Hobart, are as chilling as any such place I’ve seen. In the early 1800s, this site, a four-month sea journey from England, was where the British Empire sent its most-hardened criminals. These included hardened boy criminals from urban pickpocket gangs, who on arrival were segregated in a children’s prison called Point Puer.

The five days we spent in Tasmania were as rewarding as any trip we have ever made.

Now you can visit the workhouse for these boys, and the nearby “Isle of the Dead” graveyard for the nearly 1,800 adults and children who perished at Port Arthur, and the horrifying “Separate Prison,” where for periods of weeks or months convicts were, as much as possible, denied the sight of another human being or the sound of a human voice, the better to reflect on their failings. (You can also look through the records of the large number of convicts who went mad.) Yet all of this is in a setting that rivals the loveliest Downton Abbey–style vision of English country splendor. Sandstone churches built by convicts, prim cottages for the prison’s supervisors and staff, careful plantings of hedgerows, roses, and the fruit and shade trees that would remind them of Surrey and the Cotswolds. The combination of coziness and routinized cruelty is both beautiful and appalling.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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