Tasmania! We are anchored in the bay off Port Arthur, Tasmania. Port Arthur was developed as a penal colony. The historical park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we made land is a day’s visit in and of itself, but Boris and I are headed to a reserve to see the endangered Tasmanian Devils.
Originally part of the same landmass as Australia, the island separated about 10,000 years ago. Tasmania is now a state of Australia. While the port appeared lush and green and we experienced rain and cold, Tasmania is suffering from a crippling drought. The drought is so severe that cattle and sheep farmers are beginning to sell off or butcher their stock because of a lack of water and food.
Boris didn’t bring a jacket and was really cold. I was in long sleeves, pants, and a thin jacket and was still a bit chilled. The temperature has probably dropped more than 40 degrees since our day in Melbourne. The dock is only suitable for small boats, so we are tendering in from the ship.
It was too lovely a setting for a penal colony. The beautiful brick building, now in ruins, was originally a mill but was converted when water and manual labor was unable to power the equipment. It coincided with the transfer of English prisoners overseas. Over a 50-year period, England transferred over 160,000 prisoners to Australia. 75,000 of those went to Tasmania. England also transferred another 60,000 to the colonies now known as the United States, ending only with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.
Attempting to curb crime, the Crown enacted harsher penalties-like the death penalty for stealing a rabbit. But when people are hungry, they will take the risk and the prisons filled to beyond capacity. The transfer of prisoners had additional advantages beyond alleviating overcrowding and getting rid of a certain element of society. Once a prisoner had served his/her sentence they were not returned to England but rather helped to colonize the area. Having a large population of prisoners in the area was also a deterrent to other countries coming in to take over the land.
Conditions in the prison were very harsh and supply ships with food and other items often didn’t make it in time for some of the prisoners. Male prisoners outnumbered female 16 to 1. When released, these males often kidnapped the Aboriginal females, adult and children. Prisoners and Colonists severely outnumbered the only 7,000 Aboriginals on the island. Poor relations resulted in the Black War that almost completely wiped out the Aboriginal population. It was effectively genocide with only 300 Aboriginals left when fighting ended. There was an attempt to move all the native people by a human chain to the peninsula where Port Arthur is located, but the natives knew the land and by the time they arrived only two were left, the rest dead or hidden.
We walked through the historical park that was the penal colony to reach our buses. Located on an isthmus, it was a prison without walls. There is a wonderful visitor’s center and well worth a day or half day’s visit.
Our buses drove through the tree-filled, hilly countryside. The village of Port Arthur is no more than a general store, but swells with the summer tourists many of who bring in campers and stay several days. One of the attractions that has developed is the UnZoo, our destination.
Jon Coe, an American zoo designer, developed the concept. Fences were removed from what was an animal reserve with cages. There is now free movement of the animals within the area, with a few exceptions. After a nice introduction at the entrance, people headed off but I surveyed the first display and was rewarded when first one and then two Tasmanian devils appeared. They are nocturnal animals, but the feeding schedule at the UnZoo has trained them to be awake during the day. Tassie devils look like a small dog or very large rat; they are dark in color with white bands. If you weren’t watching them feed, you would think them very cute.
The Tasmanian devil has fallen victim to a terminal facial cancer, highly contagious, and passed by biting. Given the way they eat, transmission is frequent. 90% of the wild Tasmanian devil population has been wiped out by this illness. Fortunately, it has never reached the peninsula where Port Arthur is located. Later in the day we are scheduled to see a feeding.
After passing the outdoor “theater” where the bird show will be located at the end of our visit, we encountered pademelons, small wallabies. They got relatively close to us, but moved very quickly when they wanted away from you. The next area found us amidst a mob of kangaroos. These are forester kangaroos, a relative of the Eastern grays we saw near Melbourne. The foresters are much smaller than the grays. As it was a cool day, the kangaroos were all out in the open and very friendly. If you want to pet them, you rub under their chin rather than along their backs.
I was thrilled when I realized that some of the mothers had joeys that were old enough to peak out of the pouch. One decided that he would just ride with his head out surveying the world. One was nursing and all you could see was his legs and tail hanging outside the pouch. We also met a joey that had only recently left the pouch and still stayed close to mom to nurse and learn. It was hard to leave this area, but we were going to pass through again at feeding time.
Leaving the open grassland, I passed through the forest where a skittish wallaby moved quickly when he saw me. We were on our way to the waterfront. You could really see the effects of the drought here. It was still a beautiful area, but the birds had moved much farther out to capture the water. I decided to go back to the kangaroos.
At feeding time, both Boris and I fed the kangaroos. There was plenty of feed for everyone and wallabies and geese were also happy to partake. This would be a wonderful experience for children, but all the adults in our group were having a ball. One of the guests on our ship was in a wheelchair and the set-up also allowed her to feed the kangaroos; she was thrilled. The joy on her adult daughters’ faces as they watched their mom feed the animals warmed my heart. The Unzoo is fun for all.
After the kangaroo feeding, we were led to the Tasmanian devil area where they simulated a feeding. When settlers heard the screeching sound the devils make when fighting for food coming from the forests at night, they thought the sound came from the devil. This is how the animal got its name. There was only one devil for the simulated feed-the trainer put a wallaby leg on a pole and chain. After creating resistance, she attached it to a hook and got out of the contained area while the tassie devil ate. The Tasmanian devil’s jaw is the strongest relative to its size. It left nothing, eating meat, fur, and bone. After finishing its food, it returned to its cute, happy state. Eek.
On that happy note, we returned to the bird theater for the performance featuring a young trainer Colin (18 going on 30 as the owner described him) and native birds. A beautiful Galah, like the one I had seen in the wild outside Melourne, led off the show pulling down the welcome banner. The show featured many unique birds native to this area. One I had never seen was the tawny frogmouth. We saw both a male and female; both those on property were injured and couldn’t fly. They blended in so well with the surroundings, most of us didn’t know the male bird had been there the whole time when he was brought out to the group.
After the Unzoo we boarded our buses again for the drive back to the dock, passing lavender fields. The product has become quite popular and a strong export for Tasmania. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to tour the historical park. The ship is moving midday to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. We have an Azamazing Evening tonight featuring the Tasmania Police Pipe Band and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. I am hopeful for fireworks too. On to the capital…