Descriptive Exercise: Port Arthur

I did promise that I would write up my descriptive exercise and why I chose to write about that particular place in my last post. Forgive me though, I have just been away for the last week in Brisbane.

We were asked to write about a place we had been and try and describe the place. The catch – we weren’t to use pure description and we had to still alude to a story and try and make the piece emotive.

I wrote about Port Arthur. Those of you not Australian may not have any idea what Port Arthur is about. Port Arthur is, essentially, where we began as a country and it has a horrible, miserable, bloody and violent history. It began life as a penal colony, a dumping ground for the overflowing British jails. It’s located on the lower end of Tasmania, which is that little extra bit floating around in the sea at the arse end of the country. It was abandoned in the late 1800’s and eventually became quite a popular tourist attraction. Then in 1996, Martin Bryant shot dead 35 people and wounded a further 21 in the worst mass murder in Australian history.  I was 13 and remember it vividly, as I would always read the papers, watch the news and steal my grandmother’s magazines because I was a nosy little brat.

My husband and I went to Port Arthur in 2009. It was a very confusing sort of place, primarily because it really was one of the most beautiful places I’d seen. The bay, the mountains, the way the arch of the shelled out church perfectly framed a giant tree, the red bricks against the green grass and most strangly, the rainbow over the Isle of the Dead. The Isle of the Dead, by the way, is exactly what it sounds like – a little island a few hundred metres off the bay where they buried the dead, convicts and criminals in unmarked graves, nice proper burials for the guards and higher ups.  My parents went in 1982 and I remember mum telling me how much the place creeped her out. I found it really hard to be creeped out because it was such a fascinating place and so picturesque it was hard to remember that really terrible things had happened here. I felt that way pretty much the whole time, at least until we got to the massacre site and memorial. I wondered whether I felt the evil in that place more than anywhere else because it had happened in my lifetime, I had followed the news and the stories and so maybe I felt more connected because of that.

Here are some of the pictures that I took, so you can see what I’m on about:

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And here is the piece I wrote:

My mother warned me about coming here, that simply being here and seeing the place for myself would be enough to feel the ghosts of the past, that I would be overwhelmed with emotion.

The wind whipped past me, sending my hair flying in different directions. The wind was certainly cold enough to be spectres flying by and as it pushed the low wispy clouds over the dark green mountains it only added to the spooky vibe. Glancing around, the crumbling red bricks of the derelict and ruined buildings stood out in stark, yet beautiful, contrast against the lush green grass, bordered by a thick forest of broad strong limbed trees. If I didn’t know any better, I would have believed this place could have been a paradise. In the distance, I could hear the faint sound of birds and leaves rustling in the wind, but otherwise it was deathly silent.

The previous night’s rain had thoroughly soaked the ground and blanked the sky with an oppressive grey cloud. My feet squelched in the muddy grass as I walked toward the broken building. The roof had long since been destroyed, the whole building gutted in a fire hundreds of years ago, scorch marks barely visible beneath layers of mildew, moss and decay. Inside, the remains of the cells show little resemblance to what they must have once been, although judging from the small spaces between the old, disintegrating bricks it would have barely been enough room to stretch, probably not even that. The windows were heavily barred and devoid of glass. In such cramped and uncomfortable quarters without any protection from the crisp, biting air, it must have been a distinctly unpleasant place to wallow.  The rotting bricks, slimy with wet mildew and smelling of old musty things do nothing but reinforce the feeling I get of wallowing, stagnating, in an existence filled with despair, until eventually succumbing to insanity.  Standing here where it all began, it was almost easy to see how my family had become what they had.

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