In the 1830s the colonial government of Van Diemen’s Land chose the Tasman Peninsula as the location for a major penal settlement because the area was isolated yet easy to get to. Today this is still part of the region’s charm.
Only about 75 km from Hobart, the Tasman Peninsula makes for an easy day trip or a weekend getaway. To get here from Hobart, you can take a boat cruise or your can simply drive along the A3, also known as the Tasman Highway, to Sorrell and then take the A6, the Arthur Highway, southeast. Along the way you’ll pass through Dunalley along Blackman Bay, where in 1642 the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman landed, becoming the first European to visit Tasmania. From Dunalley the Arthur Highway will take you across the Forestier Peninsula to Eaglehawk Neck on the isthmus that marks the beginning of the Tasman Peninsula. The road continues on to the Port Arthur Historic Site.
The original inhabitants of the Tasman Peninsula were the Pydairrerme. However, at the end of the 1820s there was a plan to move most of Tasmania’s Aborigines to the area. As settlers moved inland, clashes with the indigenous population escalated and in 1830, Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur organised the Black Line, with the idea that the settlers would drive the Oyster Bay and Big River tribes south to the Tasman Peninsula. This campaign was a complete failure and the plan was soon abandoned.
At the same time, Lieutenant-Governor Arthur also had the idea of starting a penal settlement on the Tasman Peninsula. He first proposed this plan in 1827 and reasoned that the area was a natural penitentiary because it was remote but easy to reach by ship. Furthermore, the peninsula was rich in natural resources, including timber and coal.
In 1830 a small timber station was built at Port Arthur. The penal settlement itself opened three years later. To prevent convicts from escaping across the isthmus at the northern end of the peninsula, a line of guards with dogs was stationed at Eaglehawk Neck. You can still visit the Officer Quarters Historic Site and the Convict Dog Line here. At Point Puer on the eastern side of Carnarvon Bay a penitentiary for boys was established within four years.
The 1840s saw the establishment of several probation stations across the peninsula. Among the ones still standing are the Cascades Convict Probation Station at Koonya, the Wedge Bay Probation Station at Nubeena, the Impression Bay Convict Probation Station at Premaydena, the Saltwater River Convict Probation Station at Saltwater River and the Norfolk Bay Convict Station and Jetty at Taranna. The idea was to put the convicts to work and turn the penal settlement into an industrial complex. One of the Australian Convict Sites that is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List is the Coal Mines Historic Site near Saltwater River. This was the first operational mine in Tasmania and was notorious for the harsh conditions here.
By 1877 the convict system had fallen out of favour and the Port Arthur penal settlement was closed down. Today this site, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of Tassie’s most popular tourist attractions. There are various tours of the Tasman Peninsula that focus on the area’s convict past, including one to the Isle of the Dead across Carnarvon Bay from Port Arthur. This was the penal settlement’s graveyard and about 1,000 people, ranging from soldiers to convicts, are buried here. After the convict era, small towns grew at the sites of the former probation stations and the Tasman Peninsula became a productive fruit-farming region.
Of course the history of the Tasman Peninsula goes back much further than the arrival of humans here. The coastal scenery is spectacular, with dramatic rock formations that are millions of years old. At Eaglehawk Neck, for instance, you’ll find the Devil’s Kitchen, the Tasman Arch, the Blow Hole and a rare formation known as the Tessellated Pavement. Cape Pillar is home to some of the world’s highest sea cliffs while rock climbers flock to formations like the Totem Pole at Cape Hauy.
Much of the Tasman Peninsula is covered by nature reserves and the Tasman National Park, making the area a paradise for nature lovers. Pademelons, wallabies, wombats, pettongs, bandicoots and potoroos are just some of the animals you may see here. You may even spot Tasmanian devils in the wild but a surefire way to see Tassie’s most famous animal is to visit the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park in Taranna.
Offshore, you may be able to spot whales, dolphins and seals. Boat cruises are a great way to see the coastline and to try and catch a fish or two. There are some fantastic surf spots too. If you prefer solid ground, you’ll find a wide variety of bushwalks for every level of fitness. A new addition is the Three Capes Track, which is set to open in November 2015. This multi-day hiking route will stretch from Port Arthur to Fortescue Bay, taking in Cape Raoul, Cape Pillar and Cape Hauy along the way.
Because so many of the best natural attractions on the Tasman Peninsula lie within the Tasman Peninsula National Park, it’s best to get a Parks Pass before you visit. You can buy your Parks Pass online or on the Spirit of Tasmania ferry. Alternatively, get it from a National Parks Visitor Centre like the one at Seven Mile Beach, a Tasmanian Travel Information Centre like the ones in Hobart and Port Arthur or at a Service Tasmania shop like the ones in Hobart or Sorell.