A Visitor's Report by Rowan Smith
As poet Robert Frost said, we have found a “road less travelled” again for a wonderful vacation. A short aeroplane flight on a small Piper Chieftain, one hour from Melbourne, took us three hundred kilometres south to King Island, Tasmania. King Island is a beautiful parallel universe a short distance from Australia’s second biggest city that might as well be a million miles away in time and space. We spent a restful six days there: meeting the locals; driving; bushwalking and sampling the wonderful local produce. There was plenty to do and no hustle and bustle.
Where can you go these days where you don't have to lock your car and house. NO CRIME! The locals even leave their keys in the ignition of their cars. The whole of King Island has only two under-employed Tasmanian policemen.
King Island is a great secret. It is an island about the area of Singapore, but with a permanent population of less than two thousand souls. Because of its relative isolation, King Island receives less than ten thousand tourist a year (compared with two and a half million in Queensland). The cost of travelling to both places is about the same.
The island is in the middle of Bass Strait at its western end, between the Australian mainland and Tasmania. This has given it its unique geography and history.
The rugged west coast is dominated by the Roaring Forties winds and some of the most challenging ocean in the world.
At the northern point is the one hundred and fifty year Point Wickham lighthouse, the tallest in the southern hemisphere, to protect shipping.
The picturesque main settlement of a few hundred people, Currie, is in a sheltered harbour on the west coast. Currie has a pub; a few shops, industries and restaurants and is the administrative centre for King Island.
The east coast is much more sheltered, with long beaches, such as the Nine Mile Beach and a couple of State Parks. The little settlement on this coast is Naracoopa, which lies on a sweeping bay and has guest houses, restaurants, a jetty and a few houses. A highlight of our stay at Naracoopa was a magnificent meal of local produce at the sumptuous Rock Glen Restaurant. Our host, Heidi, helped make it one of the highlights of our stay on King Island.
In the south there is the dramatic Point Stokes, jutting into the turmoil of the Southern Ocean. Nearby is the little settlement of Grassy and the deep-water container port of Grassy Harbour that services the island from Tasmania.
The island itself is a pastoral idyll. Sleek Angus and Hereford beef cattle and assorted dairy breeds wander the fields. Wild pheasants, peacocks and turkeys wander the paddocks and roads, safe with the absence of foxes (and rabbits) on the island. King Island produces some of the world’s best produce. King Island cheese and dairy products command boutique prices on the mainland and internationally. King Island pasture-fed beef is truly superlative.
There are more wallabies than cars on the island! Wallabies are in overpopulation on the island and you have to drive very defensively to avoid them. We drove our hire-car to the Naracoopa Holiday Units where we stayed for our six days. This was comfortable, delightful setting run by a couple of friendly and helpful King Islanders: Rhonda and John and their friendly old border collie dog Mojo. Long and peaceful walks and beachcombing were tonics to our busy lives. On the Nine Mile Beach produced rare magnificent paper nautilus shells could be found.
King Island's topography and ecology are of interest. The island is fairly flat and peaty (maybe they should have a whisky distillery!). The island's trees are dominated by beautiful melaleucas (tea trees) which replaced the eucalyptus that grew in earlier times. The large blackwoods and other gum trees had been clear felled by early settles and the wood, exported to the mainland. A couple of large bushfires finished the job. Today some stands of the original eucalyptus remain and recover, but tea tree remains the dominant species. The look of the bush is therefore quite different to the mainland and unique.
The natural wonders of the island are hard to resist. The west coast has high cliff walks such as to Copper Head and Seal Rocks, with stunning views of coastal gorges. Fairy (Little) penguins and Mutton Birds (short-tailed shearwaters) nest on the shore. The island is a bird-watcher’s paradise. Other natural highlights include pristine bush-walks with sights such as an ancient calcified forest.
Our ramblings produced delights such as found the Grassy Butchers Shop, where the Italian-Australian proprietor combined European culinary skills to local ingredients. He had been on the island for some twenty-seven years creating wonderful wallaby pies and smallgoods. Grassy is in a dramatic location, set high above an old abandoned Scheelite Mine. Scheelite is used in the production of tungsten steel, and the locals are hopeful about the promise that the mine will soon re-open.
Another important industry on King Island is an unusual but lucrative one. The gathering of bull kelp is licensed to families who brave the fickle weather in places like Stokes Point to winch long tendrils of the kelp on their trucks and trailers. The cargo of kelp is then taken to Currie for processing and export to, of all place, Scotland. King Island is one of the world’s three main exporters of kelp which is a valuable commodity used in pharmaceuticals, stock food and as food additives. Other interesting products are made such as kelp chutney. The kelp gatherers are real characters with interesting stories. On a very cold day, one kelp gatherer suggested that it was really “shorts weather”. He told me that he had recently sold a A$100,000 professional fishing licence to take up kelp gathering. His tandem axle trailer carried about six wet tonnes of kelp which dried to approximately one dry tonne. This was worth roughly $450-00. In a good week he could make A$2,000-00. Not bad, but hard work!
As we moseyed along we discovered more and more about the island’s rich history. A few Aboriginal middens have apparently been discovered pre-dating the end of the last ice age (circa 15,000 BP) when the island was connected to Tasmania and the mainland by a land bridge. Incredibly human occupation seemed to have ceased for unknown reasons after that time.
So the island remained unoccupied until the Nineteenth Century. Scores of shipwrecks blighted the coastline of King Island from that time. They make poignant tales indeed. One of the earliest was the convict ship Neva in 1835, which wrecked near Cape Wickham. Over two hundred young female convicts from the poor areas of Cork in Ireland apparently let up a collective wail when the ship struck the fatal reef where they perished. The captain saved himself at the expense of his human cargo and was later exonerated in the inquiry.
Many ships were lost by tragic accident and mistakes with navigation. Immigrant and clipper ships travelled The Great Circle Route to the Australian colonies. Under sail for four or five months from Southampton or Glasgow the ships’ masters had to dead reckon their positions on the world’s longest sea route. The shortest distance to Melbourne and other Australian ports was not a straight line, but rather a great arc that carried ships far south towards Antarctica. This was actually mathematically shorter because of the curvature of the earth. Unfortunately the route necessitated an oblique entrance to Bass Strait and the Australian ports from the south west and narrower passages through the Bass Strait Island.
In the mid Nineteenth Century the Cape Otway lighthouse was built on the Victorian coastline of the mainland as an aid to this hazardous navigation. Later the Cape Wickham Lighthouse was constructed on the northern tip of King Island. This led to even more poignant tragedies when mariners confused the two lighthouses.
Such was the sad fate of the immigrant ship, the Cataraqui in 1845. After months at sea, the Captain of the vessel announced that the Cape Otway Lighthouse had been sighted and the ship would arrive in the port of Melbourne the next day. He invited the 190 excited young children on board to promenade on deck in their “stepping out cloths” that they would wear on arrival.. Within hours these poor children would be all dead. The Captain of the Cataraqui has mistaken the Cape Wickham Light for the Otway Light and was to navigate his ship onto the rocks of King Island.
The wreck of the Cataraqui was Australia’s greatest peace-time maritime disaster. Three hundred and ninety-nine souls perished with only nine survivors who had to walk the trackless bush of the entire length of the then uninhabited island to Point Wickham guided by an itinerant hunter. When the bodies were recovered, over two hundred were buried in a mass grave near the wreck.
Permanent settlement really only began on King Island from the 1860s, but today’s success and prosperity on the island is ample testament to the fortitude of these early pioneers.
These and other stories are preserved in Currie’s little folk museum, run by volunteers, housed in the old lighthouse building. The museum has many interesting accounts of the early history and characters of the island, replete with little known gems such as the story of the Parer family. The Parers ran the pub in Currie yet produced to King Islanders who made it big on the world stage. One was a famous aviator in the London to Australia air race after World War 1. Damien Parer was even more famous as a fearless wartime photographer. He won an American Academy Award for his documentary of the New Guinea Campaign: “Kokoda Frontline”, and was killed in action on Guadalcanal filming the landings for the Americans.
And so after a remarkable six days, we said our farewells and boarded the little plane back to reality and the “rat race”. Our consolation for our holiday being over was the ten kilograms of wonderful King Island produce that was stuffed in our luggage dangerously putting us close to our weight limit for the plane..
Next time, how about Flinders Island on the other side of Bass Strait for a few days of escape? Sounds good to me!