Aussies love an underdog: maybe because 840 convict ships that arrived in the 80 years following the First Fleet were brimming with them.
We’ve all accepted that the convicts shipped in were basically guilty of misdemeanours: they were poor people who couldn’t catch a break or were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They must have been worse for wear after a three-month trip, packed in like sardines alongside cows, sheep, horses and pigs. The conditions were beyond dire.
It’s a sombre and fascinating history, and there’s no better way to immerse yourself than to visit and sleep in the places the convicts had built – where the convict souls themselves had camped and slept.
Captain Cook might have taken a selfie at Kurnell, across the bay from Botany, had he access to a phone in 1788. It was surely a selfie moment when he first set foot on Australian soil. Sure, he didn’t stay long before he split for Sydney Cove, but as claims-to-fame go, Kurnell’s got a good one.
You can learn more about their stopover and first encounters with the Goorawal People and Gweagal People at the Kurnell Visitor Centre. Once you’re clued-in, you can set off on two great walks through Kamay Botany Bay National Park. A soundscape of Aboriginal language and laughing children plays as you move up the Burrawang walk towards Captain Cook’s Landing Place, and as you take the Banks-Solander track along the coast, you’ll find the very first plants found by Cook’s botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander in 1770.
Fort Denison, Sydney Harbour
Founded in 1788, before institutionalised prisons were built in Australia, Fort Denison was used to banish convicts to solitary confinement (after the first person starved to death, the island became known colloquially as Pinchgut, an old nautical term for when food is scarce). The fort itself wasn’t built till 1857 after convicts flattened the island and quarried its sandstone to build Bennelong Point. It became a military base and was equipped with a cannon, which it fired daily for almost 40 years, briefly stopping during WWII. To this day, you can see (and hear!) it go off every day at 1pm.
For a fancier type of explosion, you can max-out your credit card on a New Year’s Eve ticket: Fort Denison is now known for its epic views and posh feeds on the party night of the year. Failing that, it’s worth checking out the tidal gauge room, museum, gunpowder store and winding staircase of its Martello tower any time of year.
Q Station, Manly
Have you been waiting for the scary stuff? Quarantine Station (or Q Station) was introduced in 1818 to deal with an incoming sea crew riddled with smallpox, but bizarrely it remained in operation until the early 1980s. In that time it saw around 580 ships detained and more than 500 people die of bubonic plague, Spanish flu, typhus and smallpox. The hospital, fumigation chambers and shower blocks have been preserved and make for a chilling tour, and you can read the engravings commemorating the poor souls who never made it past quarantine. To that end, there are ghost tours with various classifications from ‘kid-friendly’ to ‘extreme’, which involves working with paranormal investigators and ends with an overnight stay. Be brave or go home.
Goat Island, Sydney Harbour
In the 1830s, a chain-gang colony was housed in tiny, dismal accommodation on Goat Island, located west of the bridge near Balmain. Convicts worked to quarry the island’s sandstone, which would be used to build Circular Quay, as well as the Queen’s Magazine for storing gunpowder, since the island was to become a military base. Grisly relics of Goat Island’s brutal origins remain, including ‘Anderson’s Seat’, a chair carved out of stone by Charles Anderson, who was sentenced to be tied to the rock for two years. (Unbelievably, he survived.)
Bradleys Head, Mosman
Paranoia set in among early Sydneysiders when four American warships arrived undetected in Sydney Harbour in 1839. They set the convicts to work on a battery at Bradley’s Head, now next to Taronga Zoo, but that didn’t allay their fears, so they added a circular parapet for extra protection. And the military relics don’t stop there: the mast of the first HMAS Sydney, defence ditches dug out in the late 19th century and the leftovers of earlier forts, mean this is a hot-spot for military history buffs.
Old Great North Road, Wisemans Ferry
The Old Great North Road was built by convicts, mostly those doing time for secondary crimes, who managed to build some pretty impressive stonework that leads north through rugged upper Hawkesbury bushland towards Hunter Valley. The 43km road travels via the ascent at Devines Hill, by Hangman’s Rock (where overseers would watch the men at work) and past Dharug and Yengo national parks, so takes in some stunning views across the Hawkesbury River and other valleys. Look out for graffiti carved by some of the more gutsy chain-gangers plus plaques of historical information. If theatre’s your thing, Convict Footprints is a play acted around you and on the road itself. It shows several weekends in May and October each year. You can also download the Convict Road app and learn about the hardships of convicts who constructed the road.
It can take up to three days to complete the full hike from Wisemans Ferry to Mogo Creek campground and it also makes for a cracking mountain bike ride (bar the dismount-or-die ascent of Finchs Line). For a shorter version, follow the original ascent of the road from Wisemans to Finchs and combine with a walk up Devines Hill for a 9km loop.
Talk of convicts used to be taboo. Now, with the help of UNESCO, convictism represents a social and cultural legacy, the real story of which it would be worth you knowing about, if for no other reason than to respond to the smug Pom’s banter with an educated and hopefully witty retort.