House of horrors

“We could have spent two days,” friends told us about the Port Arthur Historic Site. And so we staged ourselves on the Tasman peninsula a day before the original plan so we could maximize our time at one of Australia’s World Heritage sites. There are actually eleven locations that comprise the UNESCO designation of Australia’s convict history and five of them are in Tasmania, with Port Arthur being the largest.

Walking through the perfectly groomed and maintained grounds today it’s hard to imagine the brutal treatment that thousands of convicts were subjected to for the twenty years the station operated.

The entry fee included a guided walking tour of the convict areas, after which we could explore the rest of the settlement on our own, plus a harbor cruise to see the dockyard, the boy’s prison and the Isle of the Dead, where both convicts and free people were interred.

Our guide was young and enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and far more accustomed to the capricious Tassie weather than the tourists in our group. Our changeable conditions continued, bright sun, light rain, gusty wind, seemingly in five-minute increments. I was happy to have my laugh-at-the-weather Kiwi jacket and Jack was sporting a new waterproof jacket he picked up on our second day on the island.

The guide introduced the site with a historical overview and took pains to dispel the myth that most convicts were guilty only of stealing a piece of bread to feed their hungry families. The men sent to Port Arthur, he said, were hardened criminals, repeat offenders from all of Australia’s colonies.

This is also the site of another incident, a more recent one, our guide told us, adding that if we wanted to talk about it he preferred we ask him personally rather than other staff members, as many of them still have “connections” to the event. I was initially puzzled by this, but within seconds it dawned on me.

I knew the story in broad strokes: Australia suffered one mass shooting and reacted within a short period of time to make significant changes to their gun laws and haven’t had another mass shooting since. I had confirmed the facts in the past year to bolster an online political argument and at this moment the bell began to ring. Port Arthur, the location of the shooting. This Port Arthur. Here.

I don’t know if anyone else spoke to the guide about the shooting. I know I didn’t. But as we continued our tour the new knowledge of where we are, both in regards to the shooting and the events of the convict period, opened a deep well in my brain.

We were guided through and around the convict areas and learned about the theory of English prison reformer Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy, along with other contemporaries, proposed to remake prisons into penitentiaries. Instead of just locking up criminals they should be penitent and reformed, in Bentham’s ideas through “discipline and punishment, religious and moral instruction, classification and separation, and training and education.”

Similar ideas were taking hold around the world during this period. In the city of my birth, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the radical new Eastern State Penitentiary was built in 1829 with the same “reform rather than punishment” goal. I have an ancestor who did seven years at Eastern State. Don’t ask.

As our guide described life at Port Arthur, the story veered dizzingly from brutality — punishments of 200 lashes with a cat o’ nine tails — to benevolence — free health care after the whipping! I don’t know whether the patter was written to whitewash or downplay the cruelty or not, or maybe just to make it family friendly, but it was starting to remind me of guides I heard as a child touring slave plantations in the South, about how the owners “took care of” their slaves, providing food and clothing and honest work. I was cringing.

Jack reminded me that it was a cruel time, and told me how much worse it was at sea but still, I was having a visceral reaction to the thought of human beings treating other humans with such cruelty. I imagined the resident flogger whipping a convict to near death, then walking up the hill by dinner time to say grace at the table and tuck into a nice roast and jacket potatoes with his family.

After the introductory walkabout we made our way to the waterfront for a harbor tour. Almost as soon as we were aboard the vessel the sky opened up and dumped a few minutes of pea-sized hail. Could Tassie weather be worse than New Zealand? Maybe. The hail turned into rain and we passengers had to rely on the photos displayed on the TV monitors to see what the tour guide was describing, as the view out the windows was distorted.

By the end of the boat tour we were cold and hungry and headed toward the visitors center for a bite to eat. As we walked the path toward the back entrance a placard caught my eye.

It marked the entrance to the memorial for the shooting in 1996. “I’m going in,” I told Jack, and he made an about face to follow me. Within ten feet of entering the wooded pathway, I was overwhelmed with sadness and burst into tears. Thirty-five people died that day, most of them at this very spot, the location of the previous cafe and gift shop, now demolished but the ruined frame preserved as part of the memorial. I have felt this kind of sorrow before, for example at Gettysburg, where the peaceful beauty of the rolling farmland can’t erase the memory that thousands of mostly young men died a horrible, senseless, lonely death.

But my sadness in Port Arthur came not just for the victims of the deranged shooter, but for my country. When Australians learned of this incident they were horrified and sickened and the leadership sought ways to lessen the likelihood of it ever happening again. Within months they legislated a multipronged approach to reducing gun violence. The American NRA fought hard against it — they represent gun manufacturers who stood to lose revenue from the new laws — but wiser heads prevailed and the tighter restrictions on gun ownership have had the desired effect. Australia has not had a mass shooting since Port Arthur.

In my country there is a mass shooting nearly every other day, in theatres, shopping centers, offices and most tragically, schools. Rather than feeling horror and outrage, Americans shrug and call it Tuesday. “There’s nothing we can do,” they say. “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” they say. “If you take the guns away from the good guys, only bad guys will have guns,” they say. All of these arguments were bandied about by the NRA and others during the debate over Australia’s gun legislation and in the end all of them failed to pass muster. Australians value life without the fear of gun violence more than they value the freedom to amass an arsenal of deadly weapons. And no one with a good reason is prevented from owning a gun.

We stayed in the memorial for the Port Arthur victims feeling the pain the families and friends of the victims live with until the cold and damp sent us reluctantly back to shelter. Upstairs the café was crowded and noisy.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “We can come back later.” As we drove up through the multilevel car park out of the valley and back onto the main road, I felt the anguish lift, leaving me drained but still sad.

If anyone doubts that a nation as diverse in political, cultural and ideological thought as America can come together to make changes for the benefit of all, let them come to Australia and see what humanity and concern for their fellow citizens can do.

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Good timing

We’d already decided to write off Maria Island, just off the coast of Triabunna, due to the all day nature of having to take a ferry, the many long hikes, no café or ice cream, not to mention the expense. Somewhere in our travels we ran into someone who said, “You’ve just got to go to Maria.” We’re finding Tassie to be tricky to plan anyway, so even a bad plan is better than wandering around aimlessly. Our ace activity planner jumped into action and soon had something feasible worked out. Once again the kind lady at the information office fine tuned our schedule and said you can change the ferry tickets on the fly so no worries.

Soon rain beat an insistent tattoo on our windows as the sky closed in and we were glad to be on a closed-in boat. With a cross swell running out in the Tasman Sea, even in these benign conditions periodic wave slaps jolted the large boat just to remind you where you are, and you travel here only at the indulgence of Neptune. It’s the nature of rain at sea that it comes in bands and by the time we pulled into Darlington Bay, it had stopped.

Everyone on the ferry spread out along the many disparate paths and we found ourselves stepping carefully, dodging an amazing quantity of poo. Whose? I don’t want to think about it. Spare, desolate, spooky, any place where a great deal of bad juju happened always gives me the creeps and this place has it in spades. Evidence of whaling was found on the beaches and topping a rolling hill we ran into a wombat busily grazing, who by all rights should have been asleep.

This island is part of the UNESCO heritage listing for Australia’s Convict History and was definitely not for convicts with privileges but was reserved for what they called convict probation whose focus was on “punishment and reform through hard labor, religious instruction, and education.”

Evidence of hard labor wasn’t hard to find and just past the grassy landing strip doing duty as a kangaroo spa we found the fossil cliffs where convicts were tasked with cutting huge blocks of lime rock for concrete until somebody, probably one of the convicts tired of cutting huge blocks of lime, noticed that the high lime content was due to an amazing quantity of fossilized marine life contained within.

I fancied the longer loop return hike passing through the interior of the island and a large reservoir built by the convicts. By this point the pricey bicycle rental was sounding like a good deal.

Past the engine house, brick and lime kilns we stopped to eat our picnic lunch at the penitentiary and were soon on our way with the most ambitious hike of the day, all the way to the painted cliffs which could only be seen at low tide and for a change we seem to have gotten the timing of the tide right.

The weather started to get serious and we knew we still had a long drive ahead so when Marce suggested maybe we could make an earlier ferry we focused on speed rather than style. Just as I began to no longer care whether we made the early ferry or not we could see it coming into Darlington Bay. After more than eight miles, good timing again.

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Looking eastward

We covered a lot of territory over the last few days and we took a day off, just driving the Freycinet peninsula and doing short walks to overlooks and protected areas. The weather continued to be iffy, sunny one minute, spritzy the next, and generally gusty on the shoreline. We were grateful it wasn’t the heavy relentless downpour we experienced on our trip to New Zealand’s South Island, but still, a sky with fewer clouds and clearer vistas would have been welcome.

At one car park a couple of bold and friendly wallabies visited a camper van where the travelers were eating lunch. No dummies, these little guys, and even though I didn’t have anything to offer they still let me pet them.

The big thing to do here is the hike to Wineglass Bay overlook, but we agreed that a four hour hike was not in the cards for us today and instead took the easy routes. According to my Fitbit we still clocked a couple of miles and 40 floors of climbing, albeit at a leisurely pace. Given the conditions I don’t think the view from higher elevations would have been very good.

Our last stop of the day, as the rain began in earnest, was the “Spiky Bridge” built by convicts in 1843 of fieldstone using no mortar. No one is quite sure why it’s topped with the vertical spikes but it certainly prevents loitering on the walls.

By late afternoon we were in a downpour and Jack drove us safely down the coast to Triabunna where we had a decision to make.

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Dancing in the Dark

We never miss an opportunity to see penguins, but it’s a tricky business, this penguin watching business. They don’t always show up, kind of like the swim-with-whales excursion tours. No guarantees. So when the penguin folks off Diamond Island in Bicheno gave us a show time of 9:15 pm we were more than a little surprised. How do they manage that? We know several cruisers who have hardly seen any. We’ve been lucky enough to see a few of the little blue or fairy penguins from our boat.

We followed instructions and lined up at the penguin bus shelter at the appointed time and sure enough the bus pulled up and we piled in with 12 other penguin loving souls. The ride was short while the sun set, leaving us stumbling around in the dark. There was a kind of orientation by a well-meaning but unintelligible young Asian woman whose instructions, as near as I could make out, were basically to not do anything. Her yellow-beam flashlight would be the only light permissible. Nicely developed pathways were marked with the occasional solar garden path light, allowing just enough light to see some of the garden we were walking through. Burrows were scattered over the area, some were above ground boxes and some were below. Several had those chubby Baby-Huey like chicks anxiously waiting for their meal.

The flock started with about 45 penguins but the Park Service found it to be unsustainable with the losses due to cats and dogs. Capitalism to the rescue! After teaming up with private ownership they constructed a refuge for the penguins and now support about 600. I believe them. I’d have to say that it smells like 6000, and every night at dusk about 50-100 wobble up the beach to feed the chicks. I guess there’s a few slackers among them, just like anywhere.

It turns out that you’re supposed to hold still with your feet spread apart and if they should so desire, just let the Little Blue cuties walk through or around you. In a little bit of Asian humor I think she said sometimes they give you a little peck or even a little surprise. Cheeky.

Our guide played the only permissible light source over the outside rocks where all the Little Blue Penguins were lined up…just thinking about it. They were very shy and I’m pretty sure at first they just sent in three of the least popular. After they made it waddling up the beach to pass by us, the rest came in dribs and drabs. They quickly dispersed into their borrows to feed their huge and seemingly ungrateful lazy chicks.

They don’t trust their guests to know how to turn off their flash so with no photography allowed the kind penguin folks emailed some of their photos so you’d have something to look at. Even though these are not our photos, they are exactly what we saw.

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Take me to the beach

After an overnight in Launceston we drove east toward the coast across a landscape that reminded both of us of our home state of Pennsylvania, with rolling hills, farmland, mountains, gorges, forests and, sadly, a lot of roadkill. On some roads there was something dead in the middle of the road every couple of hundred meters. We got good at identifying the carcasses using our guidebook of Australian wildlife, mostly by the ears and tails, the only body parts that were recognizable.

All day, and for most of the days ahead, we drove on unsealed roads about 60% of the time, most often newly scraped and watered, but sometimes deeply rutted and washboarded. No worries, though. We are the Schulzes, and it’s a rental.

Like many places we’ve been, the geology interested us as much as the flora and fauna, and we are definitely interested in seeing the most iconic of Tasmanian wildlife, the devil. We’re on the lookout!

Nothing gives me more pleasure than foraging, and we stopped for about 45 minutes along the roadside to take advantage of these ripe blackberries. We ate our fill and collected enough for our morning cereal, too. Just another way that Tasmania reminds us of Pennsylvania.

By the time we reached the sea a front was passing through and the wind was blowing a near gale, the perfect summer temperature started to drop and the Tasman Sea showed its true colors. These fishing boats were bucking wildly on their moorings and I almost felt seasick watching the sickening motion.

We’re overnighting in Bicheno to see penguins, and spent the late afternoon on the rocky shoreline until the wind chased us to shelter.

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To market again and beyond

Hobart is a beautiful city, much larger than I pictured it and in the most perfect harbor setting. We didn’t plan to spend much time here, though, because there’s a lot of territory to cover in Tasmania and we’ve only budgeted a week to do it. Naturally I wasn’t going to miss the weekly Salamanca market. It’s huge and varied, with the usual fresh produce and specialty food vendors, along with very high quality arts and crafts.

There were also at least a dozen buskers, ranging in age from polished elder statesmen to tiny tots. They were all terrific. I don’t know who books the musical talent but kudos for the depth of talent and variety of styles Hobart offers up.

Jack is perpetually on the lookout for additions to his t-shirt and cap collection. I usually refrain from buying myself anything but I did succumb to the charm of this gentleman and bought a blackwood rolling pin to replace the plain pine dowel Jack made for me that I’ve been using since we moved aboard.

Honey bees and bee product vendors are ubiquitous in Australia; our friends Alex and Diana even have a hive in their pocket city garden, not so much for the honey but to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. But who knew Tasmania has truffles? There was quite the crowd around that booth.

As always, I could have stayed at the market all day, but we tore ourselves away and drove north out of the city toward one of Tasmania’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Tasmanian Wilderness area. It’s a network of national parks covering almost a quarter of Tasmania’s land area and preserves a glacial landscape and one of the last remaining temperate rain forests. You could spend a lifetime exploring the remote areas of cliffs and gorges and forests, but we only had time to nip at the edges and hiked to Russell Falls. We didn’t realize at the time that our warm, clear weather was a gift.

The roads through the Wilderness are the kind of twisty mountain passes that Jack loves to drive and that reveal breathtaking vistas with every turn, but they also mean you can’t cover much territory in a day. We reluctantly left the mountains and turned our sights toward the east coast and headed to Launceston as a staging area for the coming days. On the way we saw a couple of echidnas shuffling across the road, and finally got to photograph one who wasn’t as fast as the others in disappearing into the roadside bush.

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MONA love

Our first full day in Hobart was dedicated to the must-visit world class Museum of Old and New Art, MONA. (Official site here.) We could have spent days there. The collection includes a few antiquities but most of the gallery space is dedicated to large contemporary pieces and installations. It is the largest privately owned museum in Australia.

The building itself is intriguing. From the outside you see a low, unimposing structure, but once inside you feel as if you’ve descended into a gigantic ancient tomb. It’s beautiful, and cavernous.

Some of the works were installed in vast gallery spaces, some were created in situ.

As much as we appreciate contemporary conceptual art, we were both even more drawn to the depth and variety of the collection on display in a subsection of the building called The Museum of Everything.

From the MONA website:

The Museum of Everything is a travelling institution, which opened in London in 2009. Its purpose is to advocate for the visibility of art that falls outside the confines of the art world proper; the work of ordinary people, working far (literally or otherwise) from the cultural metropolis.

I’m always drawn to people who live to create — I married two musicians, after all. I love artists like Alexander Calder and Andy Goldsworthy, who can’t help but make art out of whatever happens to be at hand. I especially appreciate craft, whether passed down through generations or invented.

Many of the works in this iteration of the Museum of Everything moved me beyond their beauty, or uniqueness or ingenuity. And that brings me to the genius of the MONA experience. There are no placards identifying the art. Instead, you are given an iPod Touch running custom software, and headphones. When you want to know about a work you touch a logo, a big O, and the device knows where you are and what you’re looking at. You get a description of the work, you can read a review of the work from a respected journal, if available, and sometimes listen to an interview with the artist. You can add your response to the work by tapping either + or x, only recording it for yourself. It’s the perfect way to appreciate the art, because there’s no visual barrier between you and the work — you don’t have to lean in to a small card identifying the artist, title, medium and date — but you can get that info from whatever position or distance you prefer, as your own curiosity dictates.

In one gallery a display of metal assemblages caught my attention and reminded me of one of my favorite contemporary artists, Toby Atticus Fraley, who started out making whimsical “robots” out of old Electrolux vacuum cleaners, Thermos jugs or other iconic 50s household items. But these objects before me were crude, rusted parts like shovel blades or can lids, perforated with large holes and festooned with strips of leather or heavy cloth. I was so transfixed that I forgot to take a photo. Finally I tapped the O on my device and learned they were made by a blind man born in the 1920s in Tennessee and they functioned as scarecrows. The strips would have fluttered in the wind, and the metal parts would have creaked and groaned on their mounts. As a collection the shapes and textures were beautiful. As objects created out of necessity by someone with no visual notion of what constitutes art they were profound.

Many of the works in The Museum of Everything were like that for me, life-affirming reminders that when people have a passion to communicate and something to say or a need to fill, creativity will find a way.

I wish I had taken more photos but I didn’t. Suffice it to say that the collection confirmed that for me, art in everyday life, art in the way we live, art in ordinary objects, art as a raw expression of the human condition, is the art I want to live with.

When we eventually emerged from the catacombs of the museum we joined the other visitors lounging on the lawn listening to a band playing New Orleans jazz. It was a pretty good way to spend a day in Tasmania.

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Bring the Funk

Great googlie mooglie, what is that racket? I decided I could risk opening just one eyeball. The room is still dark. Don’t think we’re being robbed. Marce is still asleep. There it is again. It sounds like a claxion horn but no one could want me up in the middle of the night so it must be some kind of mistake. That’s when it hits me. We need to get to Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne for our flight to Tasmania and as usual we’re saving a few pesos by taking the red-eye. On top of everything else, there may have been a few errors in back-timing, so it’s all hands on deck, without a moment to lose for the Escapees.

It’s a hike to the Transportation Center in the best of times but lugging all our gear for a nineteen day trip through a large thoroughly dark city…well, let’s just say I’m glad I’m still asleep.

I don’t know how security is out there in the world these days but here in OZ it’s thorough but at least you don’t have to undress. I don’t think I could face that at this hour. Now, dear Escapees, as we sipped our first coffee of the morning, normally this is when we start to remember all the stuff we forgot to remember. First was our little one cup on-the-road coffee maker. That’s going to hurt, but otherwise we’re looking good. To a sailor, air travel is a marvel of painful efficiency. It takes roughly an hour and a half to travel 375 miles but you have to do it in an upholstered torture rack better suited for leg-less children.


The cloud cover broke as soon as we raised the Tasmanian coast, revealing checkered fields of green and gold and finally the massive beautiful bay into Hobart. Normally we would hit the ground running but this time we were left cooling our heels at Hobart’s cute little Airport for an hour and a half, waiting for Eurocar to wash one for us. “It’ll be right as apples by 11:30.” Really?

Finally they finished our car and we decided to head directly for the circuitous road up to Mt. Wellington which I knew would be predictably hard on Marce who does not like riding next to a precipice without guard rails, preferring instead concrete Jersey Barriers that she cannot see over or at least Armco. The lookout did not disappoint which made up for all of the must-we-dice-with-death comments on the way up.

On the way back down we stopped at a quaint cafe that played 1970’s funk sung by Aussie cover artists, some were so good that it was difficult to distinguish from the original. It took 45 minutes to unwind ourselves back down the mountain and find our motel. So it’s pizza and tennis on the tube for us tonight. Our nightlife maybe getting a little dull these days but I’m thrilled that for a couple of days at least this is home.

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Recovery Day

We had every intention of packing in some tourist sites while we were in Melbourne, you know, museums and stuff, but after a long day and late night at the AusOpen, we slept in later than usual and spent the day instead repeating the enjoyable amble through the laneways that we did last year with Alex and Diana. We did a little big-city shopping and bought a new pair of sports and bird-watching binoculars to replace our beloved Leicas that succumbed to the marine environment, and I bought a decorative pillow cover that spoke to me last time we were here but that I refrained from buying because my default position is Self-Denying Tightwad. Aw, loosen up, I told myself. We’re on vacation. (I’ll pay for this later. Literally.)

It’s been years since we’ve been in a place where we can follow our favorite sports on TV, let alone live, so we were just as happy to spend the day walking around then retiring to our room in the evening with takeout food and watching whole tennis matches on TV in air-conditioned comfort. It may not seem like a vacation to most of you, but for cruising boat dwellers, it’s heaven.

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Searching for Mr. Good tennis 

It would be hard not to be excited about being back in Melbourne. After all, it’s an artsy but funky town with the Australian Open Tennis circus setting up shop and we’ll be sleeping in the same bed for three nights in a row. Last year while shuffling with the crowd out of Melbourne’s Formula 1 racetrack Marce said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to to do a day at the Australian Open next year?” And here we are, tickets in hand, fabulous boxed lunches from Melbourne’s incredible Queen Victoria Market, and a map of the free tram line.

With tennis it’s strictly a “pays your money, takes your chances” proposition. After all the injuries who knows who will show up for the quarterfinal match Tuesday night? However, being the experienced grand slam tennis buffs that we Escapees are, we came armed with a day pass which gives us access to everything but the big time Rod Laver Court where we think, with a little luck, we will be watching Rafa this evening.

I admit it took a little while to orient ourselves using the little free map which didn’t seem to match reality, at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Let’s just say there were a lot of lost souls wandering around and most of them, like us, were looking for the mysterious #18 practice court where in just under an hour RF, yes Mr. Federer to you, will be practicing! Close up. Just, you know, shagging balls, close up.

Oh my lord, Escapees, how many miles, I mean kilometers, we hiked in the afternoon Aussie sun. When asked, the typical Aussie bloke would say, “No worries, mate. It’s just ten minutes over there.” Well we weren’t born yesterday and we know that ten minutes Aussie is a half hour for us. But we never found over there over there.

In our travels back and forth across the tennis center we started to notice a lot of people were clinging to seat cushions advertising a bank. Oh my god, Marce, free swag! So we added scoring the free blue and white cushions to the mysterious #18 practice court. Every person we asked said, “No worries, mate, she’s right over there, ten minutes and she’s yours.” Well, we are the Schulzes and grand quests are in our DNA. Did you know this place is so big it even has a kiddie park with a its own zip line? After extricating ourselves from the sticky cotton candy crew — of course they don’t call it that — I sat down in total frustration. Roger must have already started by now and the cushion pushin Sheilas were as elusive as practice court #18.

Wait a minute. There’s a huge crowd over there. “Where?” says Marce. Over there under the bridge, not ten minutes away. Pardon me, might I ask where did you get those cushions? Over by the front gate! As I started to hobble over I saw a small blue sign which read Court #18. And there he was, RF himself. Just shagging balls. You know, as you do.

We watched several stars past and present, Johnny Mac, Martina, Berdych. We lazed on lawn chairs by the fountain, ate some Haagan Das, watched a women’s doubles match, a boy’s match, bought a tee shirt.

We found our seats for the evening session up in section Nosebleed right next to the stairs that looked more like a ladder than stairs, for the main event. Rafa was Rafa but to our eyes he seemed a step slow and by the fifth set he had to withdraw with a torn muscle near the hip. Tough to watch.

We saw some great tennis and to end a perfect day we got totally lost in the dark on the way out and had to talk our way back into the park to carefully retrace our way back to our original entry gate and the tram home.

Two slams down, two to go.

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