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Saturday, February 20, 2010

King Island Melody ~ 20 February 2010

Can you remember driving through the countryside on a balmy day, the heady sweetness of nature filling the air and the car almost finding its own way? Well, sailing between islands can sometimes be like that. But on the 12th of February it was not. Under menacing grey clouds, Banyandah made her way out of Coulcomb Bay, Three Hummock Island, happily leaving behind an army of marauding March Flies as she swung wide of her neighbour’s northern tip to miss a mass of white overfalls piling up there.

These islands off Tasmanian’s north-west tip are renowned for fierce conditions that are brought about by swift currents through the channels leading into Bass Strait. History recites a long requiem of ships lost on their rocky shores, and the grey morning typified the horror conditions that have taken so many human lives.

Clearing Hunter Island exposed us to the full strength of a south wind that was driving hard against a determined sea being pushed in the opposite direction by the sun and moon. Caught in the middle of this almighty tussle, Banyandah bashed her head into short heavy seas, under double reefed sail that saw her making fast ground towards King Island some forty miles away.

In 1798, when Bass and Flinders discovered Tasmania is an island instead of what was thought to be the most southern tip of Terra Australis, their discovery prompted many captains to risk these dangerous straits in order to shorten the time to the new colony at Sydney Cove. But what Bass and Flinders hadn’t seen is that the western entrance to Bass Straits is blocked by a very large obstruction. Situated halfway between the mainland and Tasmania’s north coast is a land 64 km long by 24 km wide with gently rolling flats rising to 213 metres at Mount Stanley.

It was sighted later that same year by Captain John Black, then claimed for Great Britain in 1802 to prevent the French from taking possession and named for Philip Gidley King, the third governor of New South Wales. Lying directly in the path of the Roaring Forties, the tourist pamphlets claim King Island is a land of long, empty beaches and clean, fresh air, offshore reefs, rocky coasts, dairy farms, lighthouses and shipwrecks. Its treacherous currents may have claimed hundreds of ships and far more than a thousand lives, today it’s more renowned for award-winning creamy cheeses, succulent beef produced on lush pastures, and the freshest seafood.

All that seemed on the far side of the moon as Banyandah yawed and pitched wildly in conditions so severe her faithful windvane could only steer like a drunken sailor three sheets to the wind. The low point of our voyage, my being doused by a sneaky wave as I ran aft to tinker with the vane, and then after an hour’s drying in the sun, Miss B being laid over so far her cockpit seat was flooded, drenching my bum yet again. By the time the smudge of King Island appeared, Jude and I were exhausted from clinging to our wild ship, and it was with the greatest relief when we surfed in past OMAGH (Oh My God) Reef to enter the tiny sanctuary called Grassy Harbour.

Immediately calm conditions surrounded us, as did a dozen moored vessels scattered off a noisy wharf while I directed Judith to a mooring closest the shore. Our mate Trevor, from the charter yacht Stormbreaker in Strahan, had already given us the goss on where to park, so it was only minutes between battling the high seas to sitting in the heart of Grassy Harbour with a sigh of relief, and wearing big smiles at our little achievements. There wasn’t much in sight, no buildings except two cargo sheds and a rather rough tin shack with “Boat Club” brushed above what must have been its entrance. But beyond, rising high above, was a black cliff face of blasted rock, the old mine face of
Scheelite (tungsten ore), mined sporadically since 1917.

Ashore next morning after a long solid sleep, immediately we met Pat walking her two white Silky Terriers. Well, actually Pat drove her car while the white terrors ran alongside, but after she’d stopped, she welcomed us enthusiastically to her isle of birth then gave us directions to the town located six kilometres up a steep road. Oh dear, she saw our dismay, and asked with a pert smile that made her white hair seem even brighter, “Did we want a ride?”

“Thanks, but we really need to stretch our sea legs.” So instead, she told us about the short cut through the abandon mine site.

The dirt track wound round the island’s fuel depot then ascended through bush heavily littered with roo poo. In fact a dozen times or more, furry marsupials bolted out in front, only to skid round and scamper back for the security of the bush. After a pleasant half-hour climb, we came out in front of Grassy’s supermarket with the gourmet butcher we’d read about next door and the community hall opposite. The only thing missing was a sign welcoming us to the Grassy community, population 100.
In days gone by, mainly during wars, this has been a thriving community of several thousands.

Scheelite is mainly used for hardening armament, and today, Chinese labour can mine what mineral is needed much cheaper than Aussie lads. So today, Grassy is just one notch up from a ghost town. Across the island on the west coast is the main town called Currie, where a few hundred more folk call home. All up, King Island boasts about twelve hundred souls, but at any one time, tourists can increase that number by half again.

Perusing the supermarket’s two lanes only took a few minutes but then we met Dimitri, the young lass in charge, who by the way hates her name. Learning that and hearing other gossip swallowed up another ten minutes, and then when we asked if King Island had a bus service, sweet, shy Dimitri offered us a ride to “town” on the following Monday morning. Waltzing in next door, we met John from northern Italy, who makes his own sausage and salami. Everything he showed us seemed enticing and cheap, like mince @ $5 kilo – not that Jude eats red meat. But the vacuum packed Prosciutto, Capocollo, and Salami looked so yummy, I started nudging my lady with the idea of taking a few with us for my lunches.

The township of Grassy was built by the mine company and when it closed in 1990, someone proposed bulldozing the housing into the open pit. Instead, an entrepreneurially local lad offered a pittance for the whole place, and after building his own power, water and sewage grids, sold the houses back to those who wanted to stay. Many have grand views over the mighty southern ocean – all have heaps of the freshest air, and a pretty laid back existence. Of course, everybody knows everyone’s business, and in our short walk round the community’s three streets, we soon bumped into Pat and her neighbour Nance, who promptly invited us in for tea.

If ever you want to know local history, have tea with Nance and Pat. Combined they have a hundred and sixty years of King Island life in their heads, and recited chapter and verse the entire life of the mine, farming, fishing, births and deaths, as well as extremes of weather, while at the same time kept pouring lovely cups of tea with a big plate of homemade vanilla fruit cake. Yum. Capped by a trip round their garden, which yielded a fistful of glossy silver-beet, well, that took care of our Saturday morning.

Deep in the night, rain started falling, gusting in off the sea. And although attached to a stout mooring, uneasiness stirred as early next morning the weekly container ship was due to dock. Now, Grassy Harbour is minute when it comes to docking a proper sized ship and stormy conditions would severely complicate turning the big vessel around. Adding extra spice, any muck-up would endanger our small ship, hence our uneasy sleep.

At first light I was in the cockpit, video camera at the ready, when through sheets of rain I watched the line boat go out. Then through the grey mist came the faint red and green navigational lights of this huge dull green thing that further darkened our already dim environment. In dress circle row, we watched an impressive ballet of moving this leviathan while each set of lines were stretched across to pull the monster into its spot. Then its gigantic rear doors lowered and our morning became a cacophony of machinery unloading the monster’s innards.

Just after noon, a rush of bodies going in and out of the “Boat Club” motivated us to don wet-weather gear and row in to met the locals. A cheery fire and warm hospitality soon had us feeling right at home, and after greeting all, Jude and I split to migrate to our male and female counterparts. Not sure what Jude’s side discussed, probably women’s island life and child education, but my side’s prime topic was beef; cost of cartage, vet charges, and occasionally a few words on fishing. I felt more like a fly on the wall until a tallish fellow stuck out his paw, and said, “I’m John, which boat’s yours?”

After pointing to our dark blue hull near the container ship’s stern, John remarked, “Oh, you’re just behind me. Mine’s the double ender.”

It was the one Jude and I had especially noticed because one side had “King Island” in fresh paint while the other side sported “New Haven Ct.” in faded lettering. From then on, John and I settled into an easy, rainy afternoon chat while he related the saga of buying his boat in Queensland then sailing it to King Island. It seems Serenity had numerous problems; the biggest, salt water getting into her engine oil. John had his theories, backed by other experts who said it was entering through the engine exhaust. But that didn’t gel with me; too much water I thought, which would have caused greater damage. So I offered to take a look. Meanwhile the ladies were getting along just famously, resulting in John’s wife Lyn offering the use of her car the following day.

Lyn does Yoga Monday mornings, and afterwards came to the harbour to pick us up. Her blue eyes sparkled and chestnut waves were aglow in the bright sunshine when she handed us an Island map then encouraged us to use the car all we wanted.

Our first stop was Currie where some books were due back at the library. Here in Tassie we’ve been borrowing from one library and returning them at the next port. Perfect for us. Currie has more than three streets; maybe six if we didn’t counted the small laneways. Cosy seems the best description. We whizzed through the two small supermarkets, but we weren’t shopping. Then grabbed a quick snack from the fabulous bakery across main street, and then priced wine and beer at the two pubs.

Everything is scenically deposited on a bold rocky coast dotted with green forest and surrounded by lush pastureland. But its harbour, being on the winter weather coast, seemed exposed, protected only by a rocky reef. The hill above it is dominated by a white steel light structure built fifty years after the island’s main lighthouse at Cape Wickham, because ships still got confused, colliding with King Island with disastrous results.

The wrecking of the Cataraqui in 1845 remains Australia’s worst civil and maritime disaster. Four hundred emigrants drowned after the ship struck rocks just south of Currie. More on that later, but first we’re off to King Island Dairy.

King Island has developed an enviable reputation as a maker of some of the world's finest dairy products. Their range includes several types of Cheddar, Brie, Camembert, Washed Rind, Triple Cream, Blue, Crème Fraiche, Pure Cream, Ricotta and Mascarpone. Phew! All milk for their products is sourced from King Island farmers whose cows are famous for their unique quality of milk. King Island is one of the few areas in Australia and indeed the world, where cows graze all year round. As a result, the milk is highly desirable for cheese production and consequently, the King Island Dairy is internationally recognised for its award winning, premium produce.

King Island Dairy's Fromagerie is open everyday for sampling these wonderful cheeses, so we drove out of Currie, past the cows and pastures responsible for its exceptional quality, until twenty kilometres along, we came to their factory. Yum, we’d made sure we were really hungry and weren’t disappointed. Mind, I think the sixty dollars of products we purchased easily paid for our glut of samples.

From there, looking at our watch and the island map, we had a hankering to see the island’s northern tip and the southern hemisphere’s tallest light structure. But on the way we pulled in at Yellow Rock Beach, another lonely coastal spot where the Shannon’s boiler still rests on the empty sand beach, with Christmas and New Year Islands just offshore a glorious background. Now there’s another harrowing story. But the worst of the shipwrecks occurred on some nasty looking black rocks we saw breaking just off King Island’s northern tip.

The Neva sailed from Cork, Ireland for Sydney on 8 January 1835, carrying 150 female convicts with their 33 children, plus 9 free women and their 22 children, with a crew of 26 under the command of Captain Benjamin Peck. The voyage was almost completely free of incident and illness. Only the death of a crewman, a convict and a free woman, plus one birth during the voyage, making the total complement 239 souls by the time the Australian coastline was reached. In fog, on 13 May 1835, the Neva crashed into reefs within cooee of King Island, horrendously ending 224 lives.

Authorities may have been unmoved by the death of convict women and children on the Neva, but after the Cataraqui lost 400 emigrants a decade later, the colonies combined to fund a giant light structure that could be seen for 20 miles. Interestingly, the contractor made a small fortune when they discovered excellent granite on the site and used it instead of imported stone specified in their contract.

King Island lighthouse keepers lived a Spartan life of constant watchfulness. And those at the Cape Wickham - tallest in the southern hemisphere - had to climb eleven flights of stairs, each with twenty steps, at the start of each shift! Keeper Col Cotter put it succinctly, "People seem to have romantic notions about lighthouse keepers, but I've found nothing romantic about it. It's a long way up that light at 2.00 a.m."

Late that day, as we pulled into “Orchard Farm,” from behind a line of pines, John and Lyn’s stylish house enfolded with commanding views over fairly large acreage, and upon entering, we found it filled with lovely timber features. John and Lyn’s friend David had arrived on the afternoon flight from the mainland, and straight away we discovered he’s from up our way at Dunoon, northern NSW. He and his wife had operated a trendy restaurant there for something like twenty years, but have recently retired. We soon learned that those three have known each other since their teaching days in Sunshine, Victoria. And further, that John and Lyn were childhood sweethearts, both born and raised in dear Sunshine.

Sundowners and nibbles with King Island cheese were soon devoured amidst chatter that ranged from how everyone met, to raising children in isolation, to fixing troublesome boats and to faraway places like the Galapagos and Machu Picchu. So no wonder when we thought it time to leave, they’d not let us go until wined and dined.

I sampled the island’s beef that night and I must say John’s beef is the tenderest, tastiest I’ve ever enjoyed. Here’s some info straight from John the producer. The cattle are strict vegetarians; they’re not fed any animal by-products. They graze all year-round on natural pastures that are free of Genetic Modifications and chemical residues. Grass fed beef has a superior flavour, is a super healthy alternative for those seeking the ultimate healthy lifestyle as it is very lean and contains high levels of nutrients such as vitamin B12, zinc, iron and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that actually reduce cholesterol and help protect against heart disease.

Next morning, the threesome paid a visit to our home and straight away Lyn’s eyes widened and brightened. You could see she loved our light airy interior. So, while she and Jude poked through storage cupboards and emergency stuff, I showed the boys how easily Banyandah’s rig works, following that with the other working bits like our simple steering, electrics and navigation systems; all illustrating our love for KISS (keep it simple stupid).

Jude served tea and cakes and we talked boats for another hour then migrated over to Serenity. What a difference. Serenity is a Westsail yacht, produced in the ‘70s in several sizes ranging from 33’ up to 45’ overall, I think. They’re all based on the same plan, traditional coach house on a double ended hull. That means the back end looks a bit like the front, except these craft came with a bowsprit. And while the pointy back end is thought to handle big breaking seas better than a flat transom design, you end up sacrificing a huge amount of space for a situation that may never be encountered. This is especially noticeable on the smaller Westsail like John’s 33 footer.

Going forward and stubbing my toe straight away had me wondering where the heck they’d store a reasonable sized dinghy. But I wasn’t about to put the dampers on John’s dream, even though he had whispered, asking for ideas that would encourage Lyn to take on the sailing life. Maybe I should have said something, but instead we got stuck into solving his problems, including the engine’s. Again I wasn’t impressed. It was either head down a tiny bunny hole or snaking in on my belly through the galley. And what I saw didn’t convince me the exhaust was the culprit, although my sailor’s eye immediately saw it wasn’t the best layout. But when John pumped out over a litre of what he claimed was saltwater from its sump, I knew something serious was awry. So I searched for an engine oil cooler, which could, if a seal had perished, dump that quantity of seawater into the sump. Alas, this engine didn’t have one. Another possible culprit was the water cooled exhaust manifold, but pulling that out was far more complex than fixing up the exhaust piping. So we focused on making that part of the system better, hoping that’d fix the problem.

Been saving something important to say, and that is The King islanders exhibited the very best traits of humanity. From Pat and Nance, we saw how folk in smaller communities tend to look after each other; and from John and Lyn we witnessed genuine hospitality. These traits are what separate humans from the other creatures, and maybe if they became more wide spread, while losing the dog eat dog mentality large cities propagate, then we might be able to cohabit peacefully with each other, and with the other creatures. Judith and I believe a reduced human population could bring that about. Living less stressful lives, polluting Earth less, with more space for all, including the wild creatures, would result in happier lives.

The ancient hunter-gatherer instincts still exist within most of us. Even city folk love to fish; and on an island like King with prolific wildlife, it’s an intrinsic part of life. So, when John suggested we toddle off to pop a few abalones at a property he owns on the west coast, Jude said she’d be in that, David raised his hand too. And when Lyn and I said we’d act as shore support, in next to no time we were in John’s Ute, raising a dust trail across the island, towing a trailer filled with rolls of hay for the cattle.

Once, huge forests of eucalypts, blackwoods, and tree ferns covered the island. But these were devastated by wild-fires, land clearing and milling; their place taken by rolling green pasture with pockets of paperbark and tea-tree. With no foxes or rabbits and a larder of excellent pasture, an amazing variety of native and introduce animals roam the island.

Being exposed to a farmer’s life brought the essentials of existence to the fore. We all must eat, and to do that food must be farmed, and this concentration of sustenance attracts and increases the numbers of wild creatures, which poses the dilemma of how to maintain the balance – cull, fence, poison. Then there are the weeds. All this ensured we had a lively discussion enroute. John didn’t need go out his way to show us the huge mobs of marsupials feeding on the island’s lush grass, nor did he side track to show us the stack of dead his neighbour had shot. John uses a higher, tighter mesh fencing that he says keeps the critters out the pastures. But, where they’re free to roam, we saw bare earth, the grass nearly gone.

From atop an open hilltop that was probably forested when created, facing infinity had our spirits soar. John needn’t have called his cows, they came running at the sight of the lucerne rolling out, but he did holler, simply to get them to associate his call with food, saying it’d make rounding them up much easier.
Across the grassy paddock, open blue sea in sight, down a slope to pools of aquamarine trimmed occasionally in white, we found a flat patch to put on wet suits and moments later John and Jude braved the icy waters. Her squeals weren’t from the chill up her spine, but the beauty undersea. John, the hunter, took little time to harvest a dozen beautiful black lip abalones well covered in pretty burgundy mosses. All exceeded legal size.

Earlier that same morning when having tea on Banyandah, a returning cray fisherman had come alongside in his tender. “Can’t market this one,” he had said with a twinkle as he plopped down on our deck a lobster minus its legs. Now, with the dozen abs, a feast was in the making.

Next morning, none too early after recovering from another lovely late night, Jude and I packed our rucksacks for an overnight walk to the island’s south coast. We needed to train for our second attempt to conquer Mount Sorell down near Macquarie Harbour and John had suggested a route the night before, indicating a shack he knew where the views and fishing were special. So, about noon, carrying full weight kits, we set off along the golden beach leading away from Grassy Harbour.

Walking in soft sand is heavy work. Even though flat, our legs soon knew they had a chore before them. Augmented by glorious views, we laboured several hours, raising a fair heavy sweat, until a loud cooee stopped us in our tracks. There on a rise stood John and David, coming from the opposite direction.

“Just thought we’d take a walk,” John commented when we met, then indicating the far point. “The Ute’s up there, a couple of litres of fresh water for your use in the back.” Now, how about that?

King Island’s wildlife, both native and exotic, sometimes surprised us - yes it was a ringneck pheasant we saw fly from a roadside hedge. And yes, that was a paddock of grazing American turkeys we passed. But the most pleasant surprise is the warm King Island welcome. Scarcely settled before 1900, in Grassy’s local store, in Currie’s supermarket, the friendly pub, on the streets, from everyone we passed on country roads we found caring hospitality.

Our trek was long and hard. And although the sky remained clouded, we browned then burned while glorying in unparalleled views of Nature’s kingdom. Flocks of golden headed gannets vied with sooty crested terns and brown mutton birds diving for school fish pooled within the turbulent waters. From hilltops, seeing rocks strewn near and offshore brought fresh images of tragic shipwrecks that had us promising to be extra careful when sailing from these shores. All up, we trudged an honest thirty-five clicks before taking up John’s offer of a lift back home. Surprisingly, when not very far from the lighthouse at Stokes Point, the island’s southern tip, our mobile phone made the connection.

I may have been keen to walk on another day, but then Judith reminded me that night would see a special dinner party at the Brewster’s to which we’d been invited. Returning to King Island that day was a special friend and fellow resident, another lass from Sunshine, Victoria, and David would be leaving the island on the next day’s flight.

I remember meeting Caroline, me still in dirty togs and smelling to high heaven. But being an island girl, she vivaciously grasped my hand then pulled me in for a welcoming hug and kiss. Decked in a gay floral skirt, Caroline could have slipped perfectly into Nimbin. Very Earth conscious, she was the Island’s tourist minister and owner of two art galleries.

All good things come to an end. A sad truism. But for us, the end arrived with the caressing hand of a warm north wind that brought a new beginning. North winds are rare round here, so when one’s forecast, those heading south had better grab it.

Early Saturday, we raised all sail then waved goodbye to no one in particular, except perhaps the little penguins diving off the harbour to go fishing. Maybe Pat and Nance spied us, looking down from Grassy, maybe John and Lyn from their lookout on the hill. Didn’t matter, we were biding adieu to King Island and wondering when we might come calling again. Then, with warmth and heaviness in our hearts, we faced ahead, to the blank sea waiting. Eager to be on to our next adventure.

Post script dateline 2 March 2010:
I spoke with John via the telephone and as tactfully as an old bull elephant from LA can, suggested the time and money involved might be better spent on a more modern craft. John's a grand fellow and appreciated my candor, and asked if I'd suggest some makes for him to peruse. I'll be glad to help. Be lovely to get these two out exploring Earth on the water.

1 comment:

  1. HI
    Jack and Judith
    I am enjoying your blog
    have fun in Tassie
    and good on the new baby
    Bruce Johnson