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Sydney: Ghost hunting

The lantern creaks as I raised it higher to illuminate the small clearing deep in the woods. It’s taken 15 creepy minutes along narrowing forest trails to reach this spot, where even the brightly shining full moon can’t be seen through the dense canopy above.

Sydney: Ghost hunting

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The evening has already taken an eerie turn and the sight before me does little to calm my nerves. There, overgrown with tangled, long grass and unruly shrubs, is a small, lone grave. The mossy headstone reveals it belongs to a boy named Isaac who passed away in 1878. “He was only six years old,” whispers my guide, Martin. “He contracted scarlet fever but he wasn’t the only one. Countless died here.”

Just a few miles away, beyond the trees and across the water, is the pounding heart of Sydney but this is a part of the city few see or even know about.

Mass migration in the 19th century brought nasty new diseases to Australia. Boats arrived laden with passengers who’d contracted all manner of infectious ailments, so a quarantine station was established on a headland near Manly in the 1830s.

It’s since been reinvented as Q Station, a hotel where fearless guests stay in renovated timber cabins that were once occupied by stricken first-class passengers during their mandatory 40-day stay. Many, struck down with smallpox, never checked out; legend has it the complex is haunted.

“They say spirits remain in places that have seen extreme suffering and trauma — and that certainly happened here,” says Martin as we begin our ghost tour ahead of my overnight stay. I remain skeptical, playing down what goes bump in the night and immediately dismissing the ‘spooky’ original boiler room as just a dark chamber filled with old machinery and clanking pipework.

It isn’t until we reach the old shower block that things became decidedly sinister. Martin unlocks the heavy wooden doors to reveal a long aisle lined with white-tiled cubicles that vanish into the darkness. It was here that people were doused with carbolic acid to burn away the top layer of their skin in a bid to kill infections.

We step inside. Martin powers ahead until he’s out of sight and I can only hear his distant footsteps growing fainter. I hang back, taking small and reluctant steps. Suddenly, and quite noticeably, the temperature drops. A frosty chill sweeps over my body — a tell-tell sign, according to Martin, of a spirit’s presence. I don’t stick around, rushing back outside to wait for Martin.

At the top of the hill stands the deathly quiet mortuary and creepy hospital wing — still full of the original iron beds. I wander around the darkened wards with my lantern, creating long shadows against the old walls. “Some people experience a sudden prick in here. We think it’s matron stabbing them with a syringe,” says Martin, unhelpfully.

And so to Isaac’s grave. “I don’t normally bring people here,” says Martin. “But I don’t want Isaac to think he’s been forgotten.”

I stand quietly among the rustling trees as Martin rummages in his pocket and retrieves a small meter used to detect electromagnetic fields — essential kit for all ghost hunters. He places it near the headstone and waits.

A minute or so passes yet the dial remains still. Then, a faint flicker. And another. Within seconds, the dial is moving fast, swinging back and forth furiously and omitting a loud scratchy noise. Martin looks at me tellingly. Theatrics? The real deal? Who knows, but I’m not too proud to admit I sleep with the lights on that night.