To believe, or not to believe? In search of ghosts from Australia’s convict past, Flora King spends an unusual evening with Paranormal Pete in the Blue Mountains.

There was a thump as her flashlight fell to the ground. I turned to see her raise two trembling hands to her face in perfect horror. With gaping mouth and wide, white eyes she stood staring across the tombstones towards the edge of the cemetery, transfixed by something in the shadows. At first the word she spoke was barely audible. “Mary?” she breathed.

Then, after a moment or two, she said it again – “Mary!” – and before long she was howling the name over and over into the night, piercing the damp, earthy air with her feral wail.

Suddenly she lurched forward, deranged in the moonlight, beckoning with flailing arms. “Mary! Mary! I can see you! Come to me! Please come to me Mary!”

At that point, somebody sniggered.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught my boyfriend smirking, and I knew it was game over. Unable to suppress it any longer, I let out a loud, involuntary snort of laughter.

Pete affably informed us that since first opening its doors in 1868 the hotel had twice burned down, once been a convalescence home for returning WWII soldiers, once a psychiatric nursing home in the ‘60s and was now “absolutely chockers” with ghosts.

“Mary!” she howled once more, oblivious, clutching her throat like a woman possessed before falling dramatically in a heap. As her wailing ceased and she lay whimpering in a tangle of waterproof clothing, I resisted the urge to applaud. This was terrific; I’d been hoping there would be a psychic in the group, but hadn’t bargained on being witness to such a stellar performance. Instead, I let the snorts subside and resolved, in the spirit of the evening, to get back to my ghost hunting.

What do YOU believe?

Phantoms, spectres, ghosts and ghouls; you either believe in them, or you don’t. I fall into the latter category, and had booked myself on to Paranormal Pete’s ghost tour of the Blue Mountains not because I wanted to commune with “Mary” or her pals on the other side, but because I’m game for a laugh, and thought the name alone – “Paranormal Pete” – promised just that. So, come 7pm on a wet Saturday night, my boyfriend and I found ourselves in the back of Pete’s minivan, knocking knees with our five fellow ghost-hunters, clutching electromagnetic field sensors, listening to horror movie soundtracks on the tape deck and hurtling along the Western Highway from Katoomba towards Mount Victoria.

I’d pictured Pete as a subdued and mysterious figure with a long white beard and raspy voice. As it turned out, he was chatty and round-faced and, dressed in a luminous yellow jacket with reflector strips and a VB beanie, about as un-paranormal as you could get.

The Victoria and Albert guesthouse in Mt Victoria was our first destination, which markets itself as “superb heritage accommodation” on the leaflet but is the sort of place you can easily imagine being scared to death in. As we stood in one of its dim hallways, Pete affably informed us that since first opening its doors in 1868 the hotel had twice burned down, once been a convalescence home for returning WWII soldiers, once a psychiatric nursing home in the ‘60s and was now “absolutely chockers” with ghosts.

Lucky paying guests not only have their dinner interrupted nightly by Pete and his gang, but have a choice between staying in the luxurious ex-autopsy room or morgue with the sub-zero temperatures, paranormal activities – and a laundry room-cum-solitary-confinement-hole-for-the-insane thrown in as the real deal clincher. (Remind me to come back here for my honeymoon.)

We didn’t encounter any of the resident ghosts, unsurprisingly, although our EMF sensors did flicker at about the same time as Pete’s mobile phone went off.

Next stop: a cemetery

After an all-inclusive feast of a cheese toastie and can of coke in the macabre dining room, we bundled back in the minibus and made for the deserted Hartley Cemetery. Enroute we crossed Victoria Pass and the bridge where Caroline Collitts was murdered by a violent ex-boyfriend in 1842, and which she apparently haunts to this day by appearing on the road in sombre clothes and a mass of dark hair, clinging to the back of vehicles as they cross, earning herself the title of “Lady in Black”. This was more like it.

“She frightens the life out of the truckies, folks. Some have swung right off the road here and never made it,” said Pete, a little too brightly. When I looked out the window to see black skid marks criss-crossing the grey tarmac, I must admit – I shivered slightly.

Even I, the paranormal cynic, must admit that these next two stops on the agenda had me gripped.

The Hartley Cemetery was way out in the bush and, silent and isolated as it was with decrepit 19th Century tombstones illuminated by a low moon in a stormy cloud-strewn sky, managed almost to be spooky. The unexplained and perfectly stacked little piles of stones and fur cones on the base of children’s graves unnerved even me. If it hadn’t been for the constant sound of Pete’s sunny, explanatory voice and the way the reflectors on his jacket lit up like the Blitz every time he moved in the torchlight, I might have felt a little scared. But then the psychic blew the mood with her “Mary’s” and I was reduced to my snorting. Who the hell was Mary anyway? She kept stonily silent after her episode and chose never to enlighten us.

At this point in the night, however, Pete stepped things up a notch.

A bleak and brutal history

Even I, the paranormal cynic, must admit that these next two stops on the agenda had me gripped. It was past 11 o’clock when we arrived in the “ghost” village of Hartley, a perfectly preserved colonial settlement that was abandoned when by-passed in the building of the mountain railway in the 1830s. The rain had by now stopped but had been replaced by an icy, stinging wind, so we were relieved when Pete took out a set of ancient looking keys and unlocked the heavy wooden doors to the Courthouse.

Inside it was as black as coal and smelt of mildew. In the pale flickering beams of our torchlight, we sought out the dark corners and dusty recesses of the building; the old clerk’s room with his ghostly stained portrait above the mantle, the police quarter with rusted leg irons hanging from hooks and a flogging block lurking against the wall, and the courtroom itself, with frantic nail marks grooved deeply into the wooden stand, legacy of the accused – including the murderer of teenager Caroline Collitts, who had sat there anxiously awaiting their fate.

The scrawl that for some reason disturbed me the most, set away from the others and high up on the wall, simply read: Life.

I felt uncomfortable in the Courthouse, to say the least. The air was thick with its bleak and brutal history. But it was nothing compared to the oppressive heaviness I felt when Pete bundled us into the jailhouse. The psychic refused to go in at all. “Bad things have happened here!” she exclaimed, backing hastily out of the doorway. It was a small room, perhaps three metres to a side, with low ceiling and one tiny barred window, which Pete said in its day had held up to 30 convicts as they awaited trial or hanging.

The thick timber walls were covered in the scrawlings of its prisoners. One carving read “John, 1829”. Another read “TS Miller, Informer, Hangman Dog”. Yet another just “TS Miller was . . .” beside a picture of the gallows. Pete explained that Miller had indeed been an informer, who had infiltrated groups of escaped convicts by posing as one of their kind, before turning them in to the red coats for money. I shuddered to think why the last carving had been left unfinished. But the scrawl that for some reason disturbed me the most, set away from the others and high up on the wall, simply read: Life.

Pete then suggested we turn off our torches for a moment, be silent and feel for any presences. As we stood shoulder to shoulder in the black, squalid hole, hearing only the sounds of our breathing, I suddenly felt all the hairs on my body stand up and goosebumps break out on the back of my neck. It wasn’t the thought of ghosts that had unsettled me – not the kind that go bump in the night anyway – but the sense of a darker, more desolate time. Whatever had happened there, whoever had lain there or died there previously, still hung in the air like a fog.

Sensors tingling

The last stop on the tour was the site of an old convict stockade between Mt Victoria and Mt York. As we drove back along Victoria Pass, Pete told us about the convict era and how the roads had been built using convict labour after Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson first crossed the mountains in 1813. I pictured the chain gangs of underweight, underfed men, hacking through the freezing winters at the ground on which we were now driving, the thousands of mistreated felons who had toiled, and died, for the colony.

As I stood by these graves, the EFM sensor in my hand started flickering madly. It threw me.

Pete pointed out a wide, smooth slab of rock at the edge of the road overlooking a cliff, where desperate prisoners had jumped to their deaths, and another spot said to be haunted by four convicts who had been left out there overnight by their guards, and found the next morning, desperately huddled together, stiff, all dead from exposure.

The site of the old stockade was on high ground, and a freezing wind whipped through the trees. In a clearing in the bush were the deep “wells”, into which unruly convicts had been lowered on ropes for the night, and beside them a solemn area of unmarked graves where the dead were buried in shallow ground and without ceremony.

As I stood by these graves, the EFM sensor in my hand started flickering madly. It threw me. I shoved it deep in my pocket where I couldn’t see it and headed hastily back to the bus. I was glad to find Pete, dear Pete, waiting patiently in the driver’s seat, reflectors glowing, VB beanie pulled down over his pink ears, ready to drive his gang of ghost-hunters back to Katoomba and their warm, centrally heated hotels.

On came the engine and the horror movie soundtrack, and soon we were knocking knees again and hurtling back the way we’d come. The psychic broke in to a bar of chocolate and chatted to her husband on the mobile about whose turn it was to do the Sunday shopping, evidently feeling as relieved as I was to be back in the snug warmth of the bus.

Pete, on the other hand, was uncharacteristically quiet, keeping his focus on the road, perhaps thinking of those ill-fated truckies who’d driven the Pass before him. I too was quiet, thinking not so much about the truckies, but about how cold it must have been for the poor convicts who’d lain in the bottom of those wells, and about the undeniable ghost that is the past.

Blue Mountains Paranormal Activity Details:

Blue Mountains Mystery, Scenic & Ghost Tours. Pick-up is from your accom in the Blue Mountains, Katoomba Railway Station or other locations by arrangement. Paranormal Pete’s Ghost Tours are on Friday & Saturday nights or when required, from 7pm for 4-5hrs. Min numbers: 4 people. Light supper included. $70, (02) 4751 2622, 0418 416 403, mysterytours@bigpond.com, www.bluemountainsmysterytours.com.au

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