The Million Dollar Views of Trial Bay Gaol

Trial bay Gaol

South West Rocks is roughly halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, if you’re traveling by sea. Today its gorgeous beaches and lighthouse make it a popular holiday destination for families, but in the late 1800s it was better known for its public works prison, Trial Bay Gaol.

Arakoon jail
I feel like such a prat saying ‘gaol’ but that’s technically what it’s called.

In its first iteration as a public works prison in 1878, prisoners were employed to build a breakwall of 150 meters in length. Rough seas over the years caused much of their work to wash away, and after a decade they had managed a measly 22 meters of breakwall. The project – and prison – was abandoned in 1903.

Trial bay Beach
Trial Bay itself – named for a shipwreck, not the gaol.

It opened again as an internment camp during World War I to hold Germans suspected of espionage and other crimes. Most of these men were falsely accused, their only connection to Germany being their passports. It was the elite members of society who were sent to Trial Bay, where they established a small village of 500.

Trial bay prison walls
Is it weird that I find this pretty?

The inmates developed a sports and arts scene; there was a baker, carpenter, and even a newspaper. On the surface it sounds like a sweet deal for a prisoner, until you realize that many of the men were innocent and had been taken away from their families during a time of war.

The first thing I noticed when entering the prison was not the historical ruins of the Gaol but this excellent and informative sign:

Kangaroo warning sign
That…is an enormous kangaroo.

I then made a beeline for the watchtower so I could soak up the views.

Trial Bay views
Million dollar views and free rent = priceless. Except for that false imprisonment thing.

As I circled through the grounds, I spotted them: the aggressive kangaroos.

baby kangaroo

The rabid kangaroos had chosen the old bathhouse as their hangout. When Jared found me, I was relaxing in the empty concrete bath, enjoying my proximity to imminent danger.

Prison Bathhouse
Now that’s a framer.

“Did you see the cells?” Jared asked.

I hadn’t, completely forgetting about the middle of the prison as soon as I saw the wildlife. Turns out the non-furry parts of the gaol were also interesting.

Trial bay prison barracks
The barracks.

We toured the tiny two-room museum on the way out, and agreed that the $10 entry fee was well worth it for what we’d gotten. Him: a glimpse into history. Me: more kangaroos and an empty bath.

On the way out of town we followed the signs to the Smoky Cape Lighthouse. In 1770 Captain James Cook spotted smoke rising from a mountain and bestowed upon the cape the best name he could think of; never mind that the land wasn’t his to name or claim.

Lighthouse NSW
Move over Shakespeare, Captain Cook is in town and he brought his way with words.

The walk up to the lighthouse caught me off guard. It was so beautiful, and I didn’t even have to try to spot the whales. They were everywhere. It was like that pop-up gopher game at Showbiz (you know what I’m talking about, Indiana) except no one was trying to whack the whales.

Smoky Cape Arakoon
GAH. So beautiful.

We must have seen twenty humpbacks, breaching and slapping their tail flukes. I had to tear myself away, knowing that we needed to get back to the farm before dark. This was only possible after I’d taken 473 mostly terrible photos of the whales.

Irrefutable proof of at least three whales.

It’s not lost on me how strange it was to roam through an old prison, camera in hand, yet walk away with stronger memories of kangaroos and whales than of people’s hardships. Perspectives are funny that way; it’s so easy to overlook the ugly reality of history when it doesn’t affect us directly, isn’t it?

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  1. I’m really enjoying your posts, Lauren! I agree the prison yard area was beautiful and I think because there were no actual pictures (evidence) hanging of the prisoners actually living there, maybe it was easier to not think about that. Also, I’m glad kangaroos still impress you. 🙂 I feel like, eventually, they must be like deer to a Hoosier.

    1. Thanks Court! I think I will always be amazed by kangaroos, but you’re right, to the Aussies they’re like deer to us. I still announce it out loud whenever I spot kangaroos or wallabies, I can’t help it!

  2. This spectacular beach has two grassy headlands to picnic on, a sandy beach to sunbake and sheltered cove to swim in. It is patrolled on weekends and during holiday season.

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