A Window Into a Harsh Chapter in Sydney's Past

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

SYDNEY -- Wandering through the grounds of Q Station on a summery day, enjoying views of the sun sparkling on Sydney Harbor, it is difficult to imagine this was once a place of fear and pain.

The 36 hectares, or 89 acres, that spill down to the shoreline were the site of the North Head Quarantine Station for 150 years. And while it played a vital role in protecting Australian residents from contagious disease, the stories of those who were quarantined tell of a sometimes horrific experience.

Since 2006, the site and its 65 buildings have been leased to the Mawland Group, a Sydney tourism company that rebranded it Q Station and spent 20 million Australian dollars, or $20.7 million, on refurbishment. It now operates hotel, restaurant, conference and event facilities there and gives public tours.

The Quarantine Station Story tour starts at the same waterfront jetty where ships once landed with passengers who had endured grueling journeys to reach Australia's shores, only to be suspected of carrying disease like smallpox or typhoid.

As Martin Bennett, a tour guide, explained, passengers and crew members would be brought ashore and divided into three groups: the sick; contacts, or those not ill but likely to have been exposed; and the healthy.

The first stopping point for all three groups was a small drab room, barely large enough to hold the 40 or so travelers who would be squeezed in. The room then would be filled with zinc sulfate gas, thought to assist in removing fluid -- and possible infection -- from the lungs.

Then they were taken to shower blocks and forced to stand under a spray that included 10 percent carbolic acid, taking off the top layer of their skin.

"It was sheep dip for humans," Mr. Bennett said wryly, asking his audience to imagine their screams and the fear and anxiety of those waiting their turn for the showers.

While the arrivals were being treated, their belongings were put inside large autoclaves and steamed at 115 degrees Celsius (239 Fahrenheit) for 20 minutes.

All travelers, even the healthy, would be kept an average of 40 days before being cleared to enter Sydney. Not everyone endured a difficult stay. The quarters for first-class passengers had a smoking room for the men, ladies sewing room and a tennis court. Off the first-class dining room is a shaded veranda with glimpses of the harbor through the trees.

The sick were treated at an onsite hospital -- the tour includes a visit to a ward, which has some of the original beds and items like an old nurse's uniform and posters along with sea breezes and spectacular harbor views.

There were 572 deaths recorded during the station's history; the bodies were buried at three cemeteries on the site. "There were never any outbreaks of disease within the quarantine station and no outbreaks from the quarantine station into Sydney," Mr. Bennett said.

Sylvie Hyatt, one of the visitors on the tour, said, "Those who were poorly and might have spread disease were perhaps the ones who didn't make it."

Ms. Hyatt and her husband, Alan, who have a strong interest in Australian history, traveled more than two hours from their home in Megalong Valley in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales to spend the weekend at Q Station and take the two-hour historic tour.

"It really brings home some of the black periods of Australian history," Mr. Hyatt said. "The treatment was brutal, but then it was a brutal era."

The station is said to be one of the most haunted sites in Australia, and "ghost tours" are also offered, tailored to adults and families and including overnight stays.

The Hyatts had taken the two-and-a-half hour adult tour, a nighttime walk that includes the site's history but focuses on the horrifying experiences of some of the individuals who were interned.

Their stories also are told in the 1,500 inscriptions that the interned left on sandstone rock faces, slate drain covers and building walls around the site. While some are quite simple, with just initials and a date, others feature more extravagant designs or contain great detail about a ship's crew members and passengers.

There is a certain irony in the location chosen for the quarantine station. When English settlers arrived in Australia in 1788, the area was where they first made contact with the Aboriginal population. The smallpox that came with the new arrivals soon decimated the local tribes and they abandoned the area, leaving an isolated harborside location that -- with its sheltered anchorage and natural springs to provide water -- would prove ideal for quarantine purposes.

But it was not until 1828, when the governor at the time, Ralph Darling, lost a son to whooping cough, that the decision to establish a quarantine station was made.

The station generally reached its maximum capacity of 1,200 between 1910 and 1950. Later, the need for a marine-oriented station declined sharply as air travel increased.

When the station was closed in 1984, the site was incorporated into Sydney Harbor National Park. But the state-run National Parks and Wildlife Service did not have the budget to maintain the location, and it was leased for development.

Mr. Hyatt said he was impressed with the way the commercial arrangement maintained the site's history while creating a business. "It's amazing they've restored it so nicely and kept it properly," he said.

Visitors are allowed at any time; there is a small museum near the wharf, and some information signs are posted around the grounds.

The Quarantine Station Story tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays; the adult fee is 35 dollars. A 45-minute Wharf Wander, which also focuses on the site's history, is offered daily. The adult Ghost Tour is scheduled Wednesday through Sunday; the fee is 49 dollars.

The property has a steep slope, and visitors are warned sternly on the Q Station Web site (www.qstation.com.au) that anyone wearing sandals or flip-flops will not be allowed on tours.

​GETTING THERE

Visitors can get to Q Station by public ferry or water taxi, bus or car. Motorists should use North Head Scenic Drive, in the Manly section of Sydney. There is a parking lot at the site.

The Manly Ferry or Manly Fast Ferry to Manly Wharf is available from Sydney's central business district. The 135 bus operates between Manly Wharf and Q Station (www.131500.com). Regular shuttle buses transport visitors between the station's reception point and the Wharf Precinct, where tours begin.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here