Monday, March 2, 2009

Touring Tasmania’s Convict Past

The plane banked downward and we landed in Tasmania. We admired the sea, the rolling hills and Georgian architecture that have made Hobart one of the most photogenic cities in the world. The population is much smaller (about 200,000) and the pace more relaxed than in Sydney. Settled in 1804 on the banks of the Derwent River where it joins the ocean, Hobart has a rich history based on convicts and sailors. After settling in at Wrest Point, Australia’s first casino, we drove to Battery Point, an historic area of narrow streets and terraced cottages with lovely wrought-iron filigree. We stumbled onto the Shipwright’s Arms, an old pub with stained glass windows and many a story to tell of ancient mariners.
Next morning (Saturday) we jostled through a crowd of several thousand at the sun-dappled Salamanca Market, where handicrafts, food, coffee and artisans’ stalls stretched for over a kilometre beside historic warehouses. On the other side fishing and sail boats bobbed in the harbour.
Then we motored northward into a glaring, hot sun nervously keeping to the left on the fast (110 kph) two-lane-only main highway through a landscape of rolling dry hills covered with sparse pale-yellow grass and dotted with gum trees in drab olive colours. We pulled into the historic town of Ross, a charming place and a living memory of the convict days. The sandstone bridge, which is beautifully decorated with 186 carved figures was built by two convict stonemasons and a convict workgang. The two stonemasons were freed on completing the bridge in 1836. Bucolic elm-lined avenues lead past convict-constructed sandstone buildings. The main intersection has four unique old buildings tagged Temptation (Man O’Ross Hotel), Salvation (Catholic church), Recreation (Town Hall) and Damnation (former jail). A hiking path leads along an old stone wall to a lonely rise where tombstones from the mid 1800s stand out against the dry hills. We passed the Ross Female Factory, the sad site of a jail for convict women, then a solid sandstone church and a few fat sheep and we’re back at the car.
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