Incarcerated in Fremantle
It’s been close to 16 years since I headed off on my first solo adventure, and over that time I’ve stayed in a myriad of accommodation, often hostels, across 6 continents. Many of these places are a blur: forgotten blandness that served no more purpose than to give me a pillow to lay my head on at night. Then there are those that have stuck in my mind, either because of the premises itself or because of a strong memory that it is attached to it. Whilst looking around for a place to stay in Fremantle in Western Australia, I decided to make use of my YHA membership and stay in the hostel that was attached to Fremantle Prison. The hostel itself has been converted from the former Women’s Prison, and as such, the dorm rooms are old cells, and the social areas the old exercise yards.
From the train station near the Swan river, it was a bit of a slog through Fremantle’s streets to get there. I checked in and walked straight round to the prison to inquire about their tour options and decided to splash out and get the all-tour pass. With 4 different tour options offering a variety of styles, these are the only way to access the prison beyond the entrance courtyard. First up would be the torchlight tour that night. The prison ‘guard’ recommended I visit Old Shanghai for dinner, what was effectively a large shed containing a selection of Asian eateries. Whilst my food choice was disappointing, it was a great atmosphere, the place packed full of families and friends enjoying a weekday get-together. Thoroughly satiated, it was time to head back up the hill for my tour.
Built in the 19th century by the convicts it would contain, it remained open as a working prison until 1991, although its condition during those later years of use brought some controversy. It later achieved heritage status, and is now open to the public. My evening tour was to be conducted completely by torchlight, and so followed tales of some of the interesting characters that graced its cells, and warnings about the ghosts that have been seen wandering. Even the former Women’s prison where I was staying is reported to have one. We wandered through a couple of the cell blocks, the kitchen and exercise yards, and round to the hangman’s gallows. In the darkness, this was a rather uncomfortable place to visit, although I guess that’s the point. Afterwards, I found a convict board at the hostel, and did my very best impression of an inbound prisoner.
With the 4-tour pass valid for 12 months, I was told most people spread the visits out, but the next morning I was booked to spend the day at the prison completing the other 3 tours. I seemed to amuse a few of the staff there. The morning tour was at a civil hour and so I was able to escape to the main street of Fremantle to get a coffee and muffin from a couple of the area’s recommended eateries. Back at the prison, I was 1 of only 3 people that had signed up to do the Tunnels tour: kitting up and descending into the depths below the prison. After a safety briefing and donning up in protective clothing, a harness and a life jacket, we were ready to go, heading down in pairs down the 20m drop via 3 sets of vertical ladders. The immediate section of the tunnel system was dry and we wandered through, crouching where necessary. When we reached the lower sections which are flooded, we each boarded a little boat to paddle our way through the labyrinth. The tunnels were built by convicts, and I could only imagine how miserable it must have been to work down there day after day. We weren’t able to go into some sections as the air was deemed unsafe, and at one point, our guide told us to turn our flashlights off and navigate in the pitch black. It was difficult not to feel unnerved, trying not to bash into the boat in front whilst not being left behind, following a voice to make sure you took the right turn and grabbing onto the limestone walls to feel your way through the darkness. With the lights turned back on, we passed a cockroach running up the beam, and eventually we headed back to where we’d started, and began our paired ascent back to the surface.
We got taken up to the guard tower at the back of the prison which came with its own ghost story and then we were done. After lunch in the prison cafe, I joined the lunchtime Doing Time tour with the same guide I had had the night before. We covered a mix of sections that I’d seen in the dark the night before, and new sections I hadn’t been to yet. We were told about life in the prison and what it would have been like to be a prisoner during the various times throughout its years of use. Finally, immediately after finishing, I found myself to be the solo person on the Great Escapes tour, which being an introvert was a little on the awkward side for me, but my guide regaled me with stories about some of the exceptionally crazy attempts that had been made by convicts desperate to escape. The vast majority failed but it was fascinating listening to what incarceration had driven these people to attempt. This last tour took me into a section of the prison that no other tour had, and by the end of it, I could confidently say I’d covered a large percentage of Fremantle Prison.
After changing clothes due to the heat of the day, I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the main streets of Fremantle, zig-zagging back and forth to see what I came across. There are some pretty buildings dotted around the place and I followed a trail of these round to Bathers Beach on the western coast. Even on a weekday, there was quite a crowd here, and as the sun set over the Indian Ocean, there was a choice of vantage points to watch it from. Sunsets and sunrises are so regularly missed during my day to day life. In fact, if it wasn’t for travelling, I could probably go a whole year without seeing a single sunrise, and only seeing sunsets at the weekend. But when I’m on holiday, or abroad somewhere new, they take on a whole new significance for me, and I had seen so many of them on my great Australian Adventure.
Once in darkness, I was lucky to get a table at the very popular Little Creatures Brewery. My view whilst I ate was overlooking a replica Tall Ship which was moored up right next to the brewery. With an outdoor deck and a children’s sand pit on site, there was a nice vibe to the place. Heading back to the hostel afterwards, a large Ferris wheel lit up the nearby park, and I took an indirect route back to visit the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlour that I had spotted during the day. Finally reaching my hostel, I noted the lack of ghosts, and settled in for a sleep ahead of another early start. But my reward for this early rise was what turned out to be my favourite place in my brief foray into Western Australia.