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.

The suffering devils. The roads through Tasmania’s mountains and glades are scenic and twisting, and shockingly littered with roadkill. Rabbits, wombats, Australian “possums” (marsupials that look like oversize ground squirrels), even wallabies and a kangaroo—we saw these and other battered corpses practically every mile we drove. We never ran over anything ourselves, but that was because we drove only by day: Tasmania’s dimly lit country roads and slow-moving nocturnal fauna account for the carnage.

Some of the animals on the road were black, with a white stripe across the chest, and an appearance combining aspects of a dog’s, a large rat’s, and a small boar’s. These were the famous Tasmanian devils, whose main peril now comes not from cars but from an odd, infectious form of cancer, which one devil transmits to another when biting it in the face. This happens so frequently, and the disease is so deadly, that an “insurance population” of cancer-free devils has been established in protected sanctuaries, in case efforts fail to control the disease. We visited a sanctuary near Port Arthur and watched baby devils hiss.

The preserved past. Through the pastoral central plateau north of Hobart, you can drive back into what feels like the 1950s, or earlier: slow-paced general stores, antiquated wool-sorting centers, entire villages clustering around the green to watch a cricket match.

The jarring future. Tasmania’s most celebrated attraction now is MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, outside Hobart. Everyone in the antipodes knows its titillating backstory: David Walsh, a bad-boy millionaire who made his fortune with computerized systems to beat the odds at casinos and on horse races and other gambling schemes, created a museum designed to outrage. You turn one way and see Roman or Egyptian antiquities; you turn the other and see a piece of kitsch, or an endless row of porcelain casts of genitalia. The major shock of visiting the museum is that nothing is labeled, forcing visitors to realize how much of our response depends on cues about what is “art” or “serious.” We fell back on the crutch of an iPod audio guide that senses your location in the museum and tells you what you are looking at.

The burnished present. The good-life food-and-wine culture of Sydney and Melbourne, in “mainland” Australia, makes most American cities seem inelegant. Hobart is its own, smaller refinement on that model—a Napa, or a Portland, Maine. We spent our last night there at the Squires Bounty brewpub in the Salamanca dining district, listening to a band from Guam in Hawaiian shirts do convincing covers of Beach Boys songs.

In fact, there is just one thing I can’t remember about Tasmania: why we left after only five days.