Thursday, 26 January 2012

Fremantle Prison Tunnel Tour

I'm really enjoying having Maurice here to visit us while I'm on student exchange.  Maurice and I both enjoy tourist activities, and do various tours with enthusiasm and gusto, whereas Jim only tolerates them. 

Yesterday Maurice and I went on the Tunnels Tour at Fremantle Prison.  We travelled down by ferry.  This took about 75 minutes and gave us the chance to see all the expensive properties along the Swan River frontage.  When we got to Fremantle, you get a different view of the harbour - the sheer size of the cranes and dockside equipment. 

We arrived at the prison about 1pm, and the heat was overwhelming.  I think the temperature reached 42 degrees in Perth, although it seemed a little better in Fremantle because of the sea breeze. 

Fremantle prison gates

Maurice and I got kitted up for the Tunnels Tour.  We had paper overalls, and rubber wellingtons (just what you want in the heat!).  We were given a hard hat and headlamp.  And as a government requirement, a lifejacket.  We started by descending 3 vertical ladders.  We were clipped on with a harness.  I looked down, and thought, "oh good, climbing down, not up.  We'll probably come out at a lower level".  The chamber at the top of the shaft was oppressively hot and I was relieved to get down to the ambient temperature of 27 degrees at the bottom.  Sweat was pouring off me. 

The tour goes down the tunnels dug underneath the prison by the inmates, which provided a water source to supply Fremantle.  Basically, the boreholes were drying up, underlying salt water was starting to rise into the borehole supply, and even worse, local cesspits were starting to filter through the rock and contaminate with typhoid and dysentry.  So the authorities decided to tunnel into the higher lying land around the prison, in order to capture the rainwater filtering through from high ground. 

The tunnel environment would have been dreadful for manual mining.  The limestone is a comparatively recent, therefore soft, rock which formed a lot of dust when dug out with a pickaxe.  The whaleoil lamps gave inadequate light with a rancid smell.  Ventilation was poor.  The prisoners were high security, violent people.  Some parts of the tunnels were only about a metre high so you had to walk bent over.  The guide switched off the tour lights and it was absolutely pitch black in there.  Not an environment I'd want to be in, even with clean air and good ventilation, which was more than the prisoners experienced.  The prisoners worked in shackles at all times and usually worked barefoot on rough hewn floors and often in contaminated water. 

We moved on to the slightly deeper end of the tunnels where small boats were provided which took two people at a time.  Maurice and I followed the tour guide, paddling along the tunnels which demonstrated the extent of them.  The water was about 3 feet deep, and we were told "if you fall in, just stand up.  You won't drown".  The water was clean and could be drunk with no health hazard, as it is rain water that continues to filter in from the surrounding limestone.  We turned several corners, and it was easier to grab the wooden pillars either side to turn the corner, than to paddle around a sharp bend. 

We returned to the starting point of the boat tour, and I discovered that we now had to climb up the 3 vertical ladders.  By this stage I was hot, sweaty and tired.  I clambered up the ladder with a sense of triumph mixed with dismay as I realised how the temperature escalated as we ascended.  We had some photos taken at the top, but my camera flash failed, so I need to wait until Maurice emails his pictures to me, before I upload them.

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