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.
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.
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.
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:
I then made a beeline for the watchtower so I could soak up the views.
As I circled through the grounds, I spotted them: the aggressive kangaroos.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?