NEW ERA: Today’s Q Station at Sydney’s North Head is a place you may never want to leave ... unlike guests in its former life as a quarantine station.
NEW ERA: Today’s Q Station at Sydney’s North Head is a place you may never want to leave ... unlike guests in its former life as a quarantine station. Shirley Sinclair

Q Station reveals a dark past

THIS place is so serene. Clear blue waters. A barnacled timber wharf. Rhythmic ripples kissing the shoreline.

Not another soul in sight.

How could such a tranquil spot have such a tragic past?

A shiver runs through me as I remember a similar thought while visiting Tasmania's Port Arthur - another dot on the map etched forever in Australia's history for all the wrong reasons.

What must thousands of people have thought as they lined the decks of migrant ships, straining to catch a glimpse of Spring Cove, with its pretty bay, and the sandstone cliffs and rocky shoreline of a dominant headland.

With suitcase in hand as they set foot for the first time on the sandy beach, they could never imagine this paradise would be so uncivilised. Or, worse still, such a living hell.

While they were no longer cooped up in the hot, sweaty, rat-infested, disease-ridden quarters of their ship, they would be segregated from other settlers in the fledgling colony of Sydney.

They probably also would be separated from loved ones, depending on their sex and health, and from other passengers according to berth class. The inscriptions in cliffs and overhangs from passengers and crew aboard the Chinese, Dutch, French, Arabic, Japanese and English ships that have come before them would hold little comfort in this strange land.

But while this "graffiti" would one day leave its own mark on history, it did represent a strong if silent resilience: these people had survived the voyage out, and they weren't going to let this place break them.

If passengers were fortunate enough to survive whatever contagion had engulfed their ship on the journey out, they still would need to endure the quarantine procedures and very basic living conditions - often in tents or accommodation worse than jail for weeks or months at a time - before being let loose on the world Down Under.

Or, they may be taken immediately to "Sick Ground" - to the hospital, high on the hill, ruling over the wharf precinct. A place from which they may never return.

Suddenly, the whirr of a Black Hawk helicopter on manoeuvres in the bay stirs me from my journey back in time and once again allows me to enjoy the tranquility of Quarantine Beach, 2010, with its quaint, freshly painted buildings dotting the hillside to my right, and ferries, sailboats and yachts heading to Manly to my left.

So much has changed here in just a few short years.

Captain Hunter and Lieutenant Bradley first set foot on North Head on January 29, 1788 - three days after the First Fleet arrived in Port Jackson, but the area was only designated as a quarantine station in February 1833 as the first line of defence in minimising the risk of importing diseases to the fledgling colony.

North Head became Australia's largest, most important and most utilised facility of its type.

At least 580 vessels and more than 13,000 people are recorded as being quarantined there between 1837 (including the final convict transportation in 1840) and its closure with the advent of mass air travel in 1984 (the last ship quarantined there was the smallpox-suspected Sakaki Maru in 1973). For about 600 of those, the station's three cemeteries are their final resting places.

The passengers' experience of the quarantine station depended on the disease they were quarantined for, the number of people quarantined, their morale and the condition of the station at the time. As a result, guests described the facility along a spectrum from "a terrible place" to "endless play".

In the 1920s and '30s, with the decline in maritime quarantine, workers and their families not only had time on their hands but even their "guests" took up more social pursuits such as beach picnics and organised games.

The largest and most intact facility of its type in Australia has now been listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register and the National Heritage List.

And the area entered a new era in 2008 when the first guests were welcomed overnight following the restoration and refurbishment of the site by the Mawland Group.

The result has become the 36-hectare Q Station.

And for perhaps the first time in the former quarantine station's history, a stay here is not being forced on to people, through no fault of their own.

Many of the former 65 quarantine buildings over 30ha have been transformed into a range of stylish five-star accommodation, plus the Boilerhouse Harbourside Restaurant, Engine Room Lounge, and Luggage Store Visitor Centre.

Australian and international visitors can enjoy soaking up some of Sydney Harbour's most majestic views and bushland ambience in comfort and under much more convivial circumstances.

Our room 48 in Passenger Building No.10 is in the former first-class passenger precinct and lives up to its history of luxury with creature comforts including a big cosy queen-size bed, double sofa bed, well-equipped ensuite (although about 22 of the 73 suites have a private external bathroom), fan lights, and plasma TVs in the lounge and bedroom, as well as a coffee table setting on the veranda from which to simply read a book, chat or gaze out over the water - far from the madding crowd.

Even the former "men's smoking room" has become a very comfortable guest lounge with plenty of occasional furniture and lounges to promote conversation, plus a dining table and fireplace by which to read the newspapers.

The lounge has 24-hour tea and coffee facilities for a cuppa before turning in, computer and printer with internet access to catch up with loved ones or check in to the office, and even a vending machine for a quick snack while enjoying views from the veranda.

Much of the furniture throughout the rooms and suites is part of the moveable collection from original 1960s refurbishments - helping visitors feel like they are part of the rich tapestry of history.

But if the walls could talk, what would they say?

Visitors can only imagine what stories and family histories lie behind the 1500 or so inscriptions ranging from initials to partial ships' manifests to ships' insignia measuring up to a metre in diameter they may find on-site.

The inscriptions are especially prolific near the recreation ground of Old Man's Hat, where internees could escape the station for a while, gaze out to sea, recall past lives and contemplate their future.

Unlike in days past, the number of guests on-site holidaying or participating in conferences at Q Station may be outnumbered by the wildlife.

Among the creatures calling Q Station home are the elusive long-nosed bandicoot, a multitude of rabbits, cheeky kookaburras, ringtail and brushtail possums, the short-beaked echidna, the diamond python, the Eastern Water Dragon and even Little Penguins.

National Parks and Wildlife restricts the number of persons on site, including staff, to 400 at any one time to protect the area, which is part of the Sydney Harbour National Park.

Guests receive a warm welcome and country-like hospitality during their stay, and are usually keen to learn more about the area's chequered history that may coincide with their own family tales, go for leisurely strolls down to the wharf or over the headland, and take advantage of the bustling coastal vibe at nearby Manly.

Daytrippers are even willing to be scared out of their wits as they visit key buildings in the quarantine station's history such as the well-preserved hospital and mortuary or cemeteries, and hear gruesome and tragic tales on the various night ghost tours.

Unlike those in whose footsteps they walk, visitors no doubt will feel like they never want to leave.

What would the vulnerable and pessimistic Chinese immigrant, who painstakingly made his detailed inscription in rock near the wharf, make of today's Q Station - a vast cry from the one he warned others they would never visit for pleasure.

I'm sure he'd have to concede the journey back in time is definitely worth the trip.

The writer was a guest of Q Station.


1 North Head Scenic Drive, Manly.

Phone (02) 9466 1500

Q Station is offering garden-view ensuite rooms from only $175 per couple per night including full buffet breakfast for two.

Managed by Mirvac Hotels & Resorts, Q Station is also an ideal holiday destination for families, offering a great range of activities for kids as well as family-friendly accommodation in a stunning setting.

Priced from $240 for one night, the property's Family Fun* package includes accommodation for two adults and two children in a garden view room, full buffet breakfast, a family pass to Manly's Oceanworld and a free inhouse movie. Kids can also eat free when dining with their parents in Q Station's Boilerhouse Restaurant.

For information and bookings, phone Q Station on 9466 1551 or visit Accommodation packages are subject to availability, conditions apply.

* Children must be aged 12 years and younger. Based on a family room for two adults and two children with external private bathroom.

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