Into the night gardens

Port Macquarie is a pretty seaside town by day but exploring its convict past after dark takes conviction, writes Lee Atkinson.

IT MIGHT look family friendly but don't be taken in by the pretty beaches, lush rainforest and winter warmth. Port Macquarie is a sunny place for shady people: lurking beneath the happy holiday facade is a seething hotbed of institutionalised brutality, murder and mayhem - or so I'm led to believe on a night-time walk around the seaside resort town.

Founded in 1821 as a place of punishment for the "worst of the worst" convict reoffenders (and a place to send "lunatics" and the disabled) when the convict settlement of Newcastle was no longer deemed remote and inescapable enough, Port Macquarie quickly earned a reputation for being "hell on Earth"; a place of vicious punishments, hard labour, vice and corruption.

Yet Port Macquarie has never worn its history well. Despite being one of the oldest and largest convict settlements in NSW, Port was not included in the 11 convict sites recently inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It's a town that likes to keep its dark past hidden, buried beneath shopping malls and conference centres. Unless you know where to look and for what, there's surprisingly little of Port Macquarie's convict past on show.

Until now. A new tour aims to shine the light on Port's underbelly. Port by Night is a 90-minute walking tour that brings to life the stories behind the town's remaining historic buildings and airs the tales and legends of Port Macquarie's seamier side.

The tours are run by Bruce Thompson, a former actor who led ghost tours of The Rocks in Sydney for five years before making a sea change to Port Macquarie. And while his Port by Night tour does include a few ghost stories - reports of things that go bump in the night and objects flying unexpectedly and inexplicably across the room in historic houses - the focus is more about what the settlement would have been like in the early days and the stories behind various convicts and free settlers who once lived here; the type of stories that you don't find in many history books.

The tour begins on the beautiful riverside Town Green, which Bruce happily informs us has always been a favourite spot to gather on sunny days. But, he says, 180 years ago it would have been more than the view that attracted families to the open space - it was most likely the location of the gallows in convict times and a good hanging was seen as entertainment. The stories become more gruesome as he tells us how the river beaches were once littered with body parts, the remains of convicts (or at least the bits the sharks didn't eat) washed overboard when ships foundered on the sand bar in the river mouth.

He regales us with tragic tales of the convicts - so violent was life here in the early days, he says, it drove at least one brother to murder his sister rather than see her become the sexual plaything of the guards. Some of the stories involve his own family: Bruce is descended from the First Fleet convict Joshua Peck, whom he thinks may well have ended up in Port Macquarie after being transported to Newcastle for 14 years for stealing government sheep in 1821. The tour takes in 10 historic or spooky sites around the town centre. We visit convict wells, one of the oldest convict-built churches in Australia (constructed from 365,000 convict-made bricks) and the original courthouse, built in 1869. At some stops, Bruce's lantern doubles as a nifty little projector and the ghostly images of the past that he beams on to the walls help bring the stories alive.

At one of the "haunted" sites, he shows a photo taken by a woman on one of his previous tours. It looks like a large colourful puff of smoke to me but Bruce is convinced he can clearly see marching soldiers and a child's coffin.

The tour culminates in a torch-lit tour of the historic burial ground at the entrance to town. Nearly 1500 soldiers, convicts and settlers were buried here. The oldest headstone dates to 1824 and residents include police magistrates, colonial architects and chaplains, journalists, bushrangers and even the lost love child of Napoleon Bonaparte (or so the legend goes). It's dark and creepy, the silhouettes of flying bats outlined against a perfect half-moon, the gnarled roots of massive fig trees reaching out to trip the unwary.

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We move from one mottled gravestone to another as Bruce relates the exploits of the interred; chilling accounts of grave robbing, sinister undertakers and being buried alive.

I'm not easily spooked but when he tells the story of how a spider dropped out of a tree and crawled down his back on a recent tour I'm eager to get back to the bright lights of town. Port Macquarie's dark side just got a little too dark for comfort.

Trip notes

Getting there

Port Macquarie is 385 kilometres north of Sydney. Virgin (virginaustralia.com) and Qantas (qantas.com) fly daily from Sydney; or it's about a five-hour drive. The Sydney-Brisbane XPT train stop for Port Macquarie is Wauchope.

Staying there

For water views, the Macquarie Waters Boutique Hotel, 1800 702 535, mwaters.com.au; or the Observatory, 1300 888 305, observatory.net.au.

Touring there

Port by Night Tours cost $24/$20 and run Thursday and Saturday at 6.30pm, April to September;, 8pm Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday October to March. 1300 303 155, 0412 217 060.

More information portmacquarieinfo.com.au.

The writer was the guest of Port by Night Tours.

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