17 October, 2016

Ghost hunting at Port Arthur

There’s perhaps no place more haunted in Tasmania or indeed on the mainland than Port Arthur. Its preserved Gothic structures and immaculately landscaped gardens conceal a history that is fearsome to comprehend. By day, the World Heritage-listed grounds draw tourists in their droves, but it’s at night that the site comes to unnerving life, revealing itself through whispered tales and shadows cast by flickering lamplight.
Port Arthur
Port Arthur remains a physical chronicle of a dramatic part of Australia's history (Tourism Tasmania & Poon Wai Nang)

A brief history

From 1833 to 1877, Port Arthur—named after George Arthur, the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land at the time—served as a penal colony for convicted British criminals. The settlement, located on the Tasman Peninsula, was connected to the mainland via Eaglehawk Neck, a 30m-wide strip of land allegedly fenced and guarded by soldiers, man traps and half-starved dogs. If that wasn’t enough of a deterrent, the rough waters surrounding the peninsula were rumoured to be shark-infested.

Port Arthur
Conditions behind bars were harsh and unforgiving (Tourism Tasmania & Rob Burnett)

Despite pioneering a new, enlightened treatment of imprisonment—that of psychological, rather than corporal, punishment—Port Arthur was still in reality as harsh and unforgiving as any penal settlement. Some tales suggest that prisoners committed murder (an offence punishable by death) just to escape the desolation of life at the camp. The Isle of the Dead, a cemetery adjacent to Port Arthur, was the destination for all who died inside the prison camps. A total of 1646 graves are recorded to exist there, a stark reminder of the brutality of the institution.

Port Arthur graves
Graves on the grisly Isle of the Dead (Tourism Tasmania & Kathryn Leahy)

The prison closed in 1877 and much of the property was put up for auction. Lingering tales of prisoners and ghost sightings lay like an ever-present mist upon the grounds and ensured enduring interest in the site. Many saw the potential for a booming tourism industry. It wasn’t until the 1970s that funding was received to preserve the site due to its historical significance. Today, Port Arthur is Tasmania’s top tourist destination.

Port Arthur's picturesque landscape
Port Arthur's picturesque landscape belies the grim events that took place here (Tourism Tasmania & Rob Burnett)

The experience

Port Arthur Historic Site offers visitors a range of tours and activities. A Site Entry pass provides daytime admission for two consecutive days (Adult $37, Child $17) but you’ll want to stick around come nightfall for an experience that will likely stay with you for years to come.

Port Arthur night shot
As darkness sets in, another side of Port Arthur emerges (Tourism Tasmania & Poon Wai Nang)

Each evening at 6:00pm and 8:00pm, black-cloaked figures round up the brave souls remaining and lead them on a 90-minute tour through the darkened grounds, illuminating the way with the soft glow of lanterns and spine-tingling tales of the paranormal presence at Port Arthur. The guides’ rich storytelling reveal bizarre occurrences during Port Arthur's history, baffling and alarming convicts, free settlers, soldiers and today's visitors alike.

Port Arthur Ghost Tour
Ghost Tour outside The Church (Tourism Tasmania & Simon Birch)

The 90-minute tour covers a distance of two kilometres, 30 per cent of which is wheelchair accessible. The tours depart every evening except Christmas night, are not cancelled for rain (for safety reasons, umbrellas are not permitted) and are not suitable for young children. Bring along a warm jacket, comfortable walking shoes—and steady nerves.

Paranormal Investigation Experience
Adding another level of suspense to the nighttime visit, the Paranormal Investigation Experience has proved immensely popular (Tourism Tasmania Jonathan Wherrett)

For those looking to crank things up a notch, Port Arthur offers something else equally terrifying and unique—the adults-only Paranormal Investigation Experience. With ghost hunting equipment at your disposal—not to mention a degree of rational skepticism and perhaps a racing heart—you’ll conduct your own paranormal investigations throughout various buildings at the Port Arthur Historic Site. Each guided tour is limited to just 12 people and the investigation experience lasts approximately three hours, starting at 7:00pm in winter and 9:00pm in summer.


Information included in this blog is correct at the time of publishing. Please contact individual operators for further information.

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