Most of us take lots of photos on holidays, usually far too many. But sometimes, just put the bloody camera away and have a little respect.
Port Arthur near Hobart, Tasmania, is a wonderous place – the historic site of a penal colony established in 1830 then used for hardcore repeat offenders shipped down from Sydney and elsewhere around Australia. It’s seen much suffering and hardship, for convicts and new settlers alike, not least for those housed in the infamous solitary confinement cells, deprived of all sensory experiences for days or weeks at a time.
Port Arthur also suffered a modern day tragedy in 1996 when 35 people were killed, mown down by a madman with a semi-automatic gun, here and in the nearby area. It was the event that sparked the PM of the day into action to enact a nationwide gun buy-back, of automatic and semi automatic weapons to attempt to prevent something like this again. It was costly, the debate was fierce, and it wasn’t popular with everyone, but it made us address the question of gun ownership and eradicated hundreds of thousands of guns which had no place being where they were. The common Australian view that ordinary people have no need of death machines in their kitchen cupboards was confirmed. Although we now have gun control laws among the strictest in the world, the recent Sydney siege has reignited debate about the issue.
Nearly 20 years later at Port Arthur the wounds are still raw, the staff don’t like to talk about it and the name of the perpetrator is not spoken aloud. In fact, written material requests you don’t ask about it. At the end of the day I visited the memorial garden, tucked away subtly behind a meandering low hedge and dirt path, to pay my respects. Almost immediately I felt the sadness, almost palpable, and tears appeared for people I didn’t know.
The burnt out stone shell of the original cafe still stands, empty but overflowing. A large, still reflection pond, scattered with coins tossed by those perhaps wishing for a saner world, provides a focus. The light drizzle of the day seemed appropriate. And there are words to catch in your throat, if you could read them out loud.
Death has taken its toll
Some pain knows no release
But the knowledge of brave compassion
Shines like a pool of peace.
May we who come to this garden cherish life for the sake of those who died.
Cherish compassion for the sake of those who gave aid.
Cherish peace for the sake of those in pain.
It’s tragic, but it’s beautifully done.
But turn around and there, with her arms draped jovially around the cross bearing the names of the lost, is a tourist, grinning broadly for her camera-bearing companion to record her presence. Yes, grinning. I wonder what they will think about when they look back at that smiling face in the photo when they get home?
I had to leave then. I didn’t take any photos of the memorial garden.